Don Drummond: Music Was His Occupation (Revisited)

Drummond115177495619620710-300x224

Check out this elevator pitch: Impoverished youth becomes a mostly self-taught musician. This reticent, eccentric musical genius scraps together an existence in an environment where squalor, violence and indifference are the default settings. A latent mental illness that may or may not be schizophrenia becomes increasingly manifest. Musician alienates potential allies and tends to squander some rare opportunities. Ultimately, he finds love with an adored and talented dancer, only to be accused of murdering her, with a knife. Musician, imprisoned and in despair, dies in a mental asylum, aged 35.

Sounds like the makings of a good movie, yes?

It could be. Maybe it should be. Bonus: it has the added import of being a true story. It is the story of Don Drummond’s life. Perhaps the name of the film would need to be “Who Was Don Drummond?”

So, who is Don Drummond?

He is recognized as one of the five best trombonists to ever play the instrument. Needless to say, most folks couldn’t name, or care less, whom the other four happen to be. The tragedy of his too-short life involves how little support and recognition he received in his lifetime. Already a niche figure in an increasingly forgotten genre (ska), the very real possibility that he could become a footnote or trivia question is unconscionable.

dd

Enter Heather Augustyn, who has already demonstrated her expertise with the book Ska: An Oral History. Here, she sets out to pay tribute to and tell the story of a man many consider one of the most important and influential trombonists of any time, in any category.

As a cursory glance at the bibliography and/or index suggests, this book strives to be a definitive account and it succeeds. In truth, unless you are an obsessive fan (of Drummond, or ska), this might prove to be too much of a good thing. Augustyn cuts no corners and deserves praise for the exhaustive detail she provides. Using archival records, photos and dozens of interviews, she gives as good a sense of Drummond’s life and times as we are likely to ever get.

The tension that makes the book intriguing and, at times frustrating (and therefore, necessary) is how little anyone seems to have known or understood Drummond. A quiet boy born into abject poverty in Kingston, Jamaica, Drummond found salvation via music. Augustyn recounts Drummond’s time at the Alpha Boys School and the good fortune he had through his association with Sister Ignatius, who is described as “guide, teacher, mentor, (and) mother.” Ignatius emerges as the unsung hero who invested her time and indefatigable energy to countless young lads who otherwise might have been forgettable, and forgotten.

Once it becomes obvious Drummond possesses an uncanny talent, he becomes a sought after player. In 1956 jazz singer Sarah Vaughan visited the island and, after hearing Drummond play, claimed he was likely one of the five best trombonists in the world. Dave Brubeck allegedly stopped in mid-performance, astonished at Drummond’s improvisatory skills. Before long he became a regular at the legendary Studio One studios, working alongside Coxsone Dodd. Eventually he linked up with sax player and bandleader Tommy McCook, and the Skatalites went on to become the most respected band in Jamaica.

The future could, and maybe would have been limitless, but Drummond was plagued by chronic mental illness. While never properly (or at least adequately) diagnosed, theories range from major depression to schizophrenia. Even at his most productive, Drummond was a reserved, quiet figure; he lived for music and that functioned as solace and obsession. He inherited a reputation for being difficult to work with, not above sulking during studio sessions, but he was so revered for his ability all of these quirks were tolerated.

The theory that Augustyn explores is whether or not more recognition would have led to increased opportunity and, inevitably, money that could have made things different—and better. As such, his poverty and an increasing alienation left him less able to function. The money these musicians were cheated out of as a matter of course resurfaces as a very familiar, very disconcerting theme, and despite the minor miracles Coxsone Dodd helped create in Studio One, his dealings with the musicians leave much to lament. Even as the Skatalites earned accolades, Drummond seemed incapable of enjoying the success, or much of anything.

The other major event in his life occurs when he links up with the popular and beautiful Marguerita Mahfood, “rumba queen”. For some time they exist happily, and she seems to provide the support and love missing from Drummond’s life. Unfortunately, his mental difficulties never abate, and possibly (though not definitively) as a result of excessive marijuana intake, Drummond descends into a darker place. On the evening of 1 January 1965, neighbors hear a commotion followed by screams. When the police show up, Margarita is dead, having been stabbed multiple times in the chest. Drummond is arrested, tried, and sent to a mental asylum, where he would die before the end of the decade.

Anyone who wants to understand what Drummond was about is advised to listen to his music. Anyone who, understandably, hears that music and wants to gain a deeper appreciation of the man that made it, and the forces that made him, is advised to pick up this book. There are dozens of accolades offered from a variety of musicians and critics, and their consensus speaks volumes. To get a better understanding, on both musical and human levels, how Drummond came to master such a beautiful melancholy in his playing, Augustyn does considerable work to illustrate the ways his environment worked against him, and in some ironic ways, ensured that he developed the sensitive, mercurial sensibility that took his musicianship to another level, even as it ultimately contributed to his downfall.

For every year that passes in our increasingly digital world, we are inexorably one year farther away from the archaic analog reality. Among other things, this means we put more distance between the future and a past that has no chance to keep up, much less compete in an information overload present. Augustyn is to be celebrated for doing the old-fashioned, painstaking dirty work of research and reporting in the service of her subject. One comes away from this book with a clearer sense of who Don Drummond is and why he matters. Most of all, her work serves as a reminder that we owe it to our fragile geniuses to celebrate and commemorate their achievements with the dignity and respect they richly deserve.

http://www.popmatters.com/review/179348-don-drummond-heather-augustyn/

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Don Drummond: Music Was His Occupation

Drummond115177495619620710

Check out this elevator pitch: Impoverished youth becomes a mostly self-taught musician. This reticent, eccentric musical genius scraps together an existence in an environment where squalor, violence and indifference are the default settings. A latent mental illness that may or may not be schizophrenia becomes increasingly manifest. Musician alienates potential allies and tends to squander some rare opportunities. Ultimately, he finds love with an adored and talented dancer, only to be accused of murdering her, with a knife. Musician, imprisoned and in despair, dies in a mental asylum, aged 35.

Sounds like the makings of a good movie, yes?

It could be. Maybe it should be. Bonus: it has the added import of being a true story. It is the story of Don Drummond’s life. Perhaps the name of the film would need to be “Who Was Don Drummond?”

So, who is Don Drummond?

He is recognized as one of the five best trombonists to ever play the instrument. Needless to say, most folks couldn’t name, or care less, whom the other four happen to be. The tragedy of his too-short life involves how little support and recognition he received in his lifetime. Already a niche figure in an increasingly forgotten genre (ska), the very real possibility that he could become a footnote or trivia question is unconscionable.

dd

Enter Heather Augustyn, who has already demonstrated her expertise with the book Ska: An Oral History. Here, she sets out to pay tribute to and tell the story of a man many consider one of the most important and influential trombonists of any time, in any category.

As a cursory glance at the bibliography and/or index suggests, this book strives to be a definitive account and it succeeds. In truth, unless you are an obsessive fan (of Drummond, or ska), this might prove to be too much of a good thing. Augustyn cuts no corners and deserves praise for the exhaustive detail she provides. Using archival records, photos and dozens of interviews, she gives as good a sense of Drummond’s life and times as we are likely to ever get.

The tension that makes the book intriguing and, at times frustrating (and therefore, necessary) is how little anyone seems to have known or understood Drummond. A quiet boy born into abject poverty in Kingston, Jamaica, Drummond found salvation via music. Augustyn recounts Drummond’s time at the Alpha Boys School and the good fortune he had through his association with Sister Ignatius, who is described as “guide, teacher, mentor, (and) mother.” Ignatius emerges as the unsung hero who invested her time and indefatigable energy to countless young lads who otherwise might have been forgettable, and forgotten.

Once it becomes obvious Drummond possesses an uncanny talent, he becomes a sought after player. In 1956 jazz singer Sarah Vaughan visited the island and, after hearing Drummond play, claimed he was likely one of the five best trombonists in the world. Dave Brubeck allegedly stopped in mid-performance, astonished at Drummond’s improvisatory skills. Before long he became a regular at the legendary Studio One studios, working alongside Coxsone Dodd. Eventually he linked up with sax player and bandleader Tommy McCook, and the Skatalites went on to become the most respected band in Jamaica.

The future could, and maybe would have been limitless, but Drummond was plagued by chronic mental illness. While never properly (or at least adequately) diagnosed, theories range from major depression to schizophrenia. Even at his most productive, Drummond was a reserved, quiet figure; he lived for music and that functioned as solace and obsession. He inherited a reputation for being difficult to work with, not above sulking during studio sessions, but he was so revered for his ability all of these quirks were tolerated.

The theory that Augustyn explores is whether or not more recognition would have led to increased opportunity and, inevitably, money that could have made things different—and better. As such, his poverty and an increasing alienation left him less able to function. The money these musicians were cheated out of as a matter of course resurfaces as a very familiar, very disconcerting theme, and despite the minor miracles Coxsone Dodd helped create in Studio One, his dealings with the musicians leave much to lament. Even as the Skatalites earned accolades, Drummond seemed incapable of enjoying the success, or much of anything.

The other major event in his life occurs when he links up with the popular and beautiful Marguerita Mahfood, “rumba queen”. For some time they exist happily, and she seems to provide the support and love missing from Drummond’s life. Unfortunately, his mental difficulties never abate, and possibly (though not definitively) as a result of excessive marijuana intake, Drummond descends into a darker place. On the evening of 1 January 1965, neighbors hear a commotion followed by screams. When the police show up, Margarita is dead, having been stabbed multiple times in the chest. Drummond is arrested, tried, and sent to a mental asylum, where he would die before the end of the decade.

Anyone who wants to understand what Drummond was about is advised to listen to his music. Anyone who, understandably, hears that music and wants to gain a deeper appreciation of the man that made it, and the forces that made him, is advised to pick up this book. There are dozens of accolades offered from a variety of musicians and critics, and their consensus speaks volumes. To get a better understanding, on both musical and human levels, how Drummond came to master such a beautiful melancholy in his playing, Augustyn does considerable work to illustrate the ways his environment worked against him, and in some ironic ways, ensured that he developed the sensitive, mercurial sensibility that took his musicianship to another level, even as it ultimately contributed to his downfall.

For every year that passes in our increasingly digital world, we are inexorably one year farther away from the archaic analog reality. Among other things, this means we put more distance between the future and a past that has no chance to keep up, much less compete in an information overload present. Augustyn is to be celebrated for doing the old-fashioned, painstaking dirty work of research and reporting in the service of her subject. One comes away from this book with a clearer sense of who Don Drummond is and why he matters. Most of all, her work serves as a reminder that we owe it to our fragile geniuses to celebrate and commemorate their achievements with the dignity and respect they richly deserve.

http://www.popmatters.com/review/179348-don-drummond-heather-augustyn/

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Bob Marley: 68 Years and Going Strong

Bob Marley was born February 6, 1945, which means he would be turning 68 today.

A few years back I chose what I consider five reggae albums that are lesser known, but crucial for any self-respecting music fan’s collection. (The first entry of a five part series begins HERE.)

No Marley albums were chosen, partly because if anyone has a single reggae album, odds are it is a Bob Marley album (and big odds are that it’s Legend which, while crucial, only skims the very deep and dread waters).

Nevertheless, in one of the pieces here, I offer some thoughts on Marley and his import, on reggae in particular and music in general:

Big misconception about reggae music: it’s all happy, at the beach, drinking music. Biggest misconception about reggae music: it all sounds the same. Even Bob Marley (and it is both respectful and required to at least mention the great man’s name in any consequential discussion or reggae) had markedly different styles he embraced throughout his career, as his sound evolved from straightforward ska and rocksteady in the ‘60s to the full-fledged rastaman vibration everyone has heard on the radio—or at Happy Hour. Indeed, Marley serves as the most obvious case study for the distinctive sounds reggae has produced: anyone unfamiliar with songs not included on Legend, but curious to explore what else is out there, are encouraged to start with the crucial transition albums from the early ‘70s. You cannot go wrong with African Herbsman, the culmination of his brief but bountiful collaboration with Lee “Scratch” Perry. Or to appreciate the incomparable harmonizing of the original Wailers (Marley along with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer), Catch A Fire and Burnin’ are indispensable cornerstones of any halfway serious reggae collection. And, above all, if it’s possible to single out one work that encapsulates Marley’s genius, Natty Dread is the alpha and the omega: not only is this his masterpiece, this one holds it own with any album, in any genre.

There are certain artists who are so beloved, so ubiquitous, that they are effectively–and ironically–taken for granted. Marley’s better known songs are so known and so satisfying they might make people fail to realize he created vital music for two full decades. Bob Marley is without dispute one of the seminal artistic figures of the 20th Century. More, he remains every bit as significant and essential today as he did yesterday. He will survive tomorrow and live long after we are all gone. Marely idureth for iver. Peace.

Today they say that we are free,
Only to be chained in poverty.
Good God, I think it’s illiteracy;
It’s only a machine that makes money.

Here is the great man at the height of his glorious powers, live in ’75.

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Five Reggae Albums You Cannot Live Without: Part Five

Party Music for the Apocalypse: Mikey Dread’s Beyond World War III

If Mikey Dread (Michael Campbell) had never decided to pick up the microphone and sing, his status would be secure in reggae history. His groundbreaking weekly show on Jamaican radio, the ingeniously entitled Dread at the Controls not only made him a celebrity, but it brought Jamaican music to the masses, making hometown heroes out of otherwise obscure acts. Notably, many music fans have heard Mikey Dread even if they own zero reggae albums. As the ‘70’s came to a close, two things were difficult to deny: reggae’s golden era was over, and The Clash were, as many people acknowledged, the only band that mattered. Of course, The Clash’s kitchen-sink approach (which reached its apotheosis—for better or worse still a ceaseless debate amongst fans—on their fourth album Sandinista!) included the embrace of reggae, initially evidenced in their cover of Junior Murvin’s classic “Police and Thieves” from their first album. It made all the sense in the world for Mikey Dread to enter their world, which he did when he became the opening act on their tour. Shortly after, they hit the studio and collaborated on the single “Bankrobber”. Mikey Dread’s fingerprints (and vocals) were all over the aforementioned Sandinista! and at this point, it’s fair to conclude that his street-cred, both in reggae and rock circles, was beyond reproof.

With this experience, and bubbling with confidence, he returned to the studio to work on Beyond World War III. All of the albums in this series have featured vocal trios, and one duo, who represent the highest level of harmonizing skills. Finally, here is a record that features one singer—but not one voice. Mikey Dread, the dub master, multi-tracks himself to create a constant chorus that manages to sound fresh and clean. Unlike the glorious murkiness of Lee “Scratch” Perry’s productions, Dread’s sound is crystalline and unencumbered. Each sound from every instrument, each word (sung, chanted, spoken) is precise and perfect. And that voice! Regrettably, Mikey Dread rarely gets mentioned in discussions of great reggae singers, at least in part because he’s appropriately celebrated for his production skills. Allow me to make a case that his name should enter that conversation, with the most convincing testimonial being Beyond World War III.

This is one of the true lost classics. No, that’s not accurate. It’s more accurate to remember that it was never considered a classic in the first place, so it’s not a matter of it being lost so much as never having been found. And that is unacceptable. Words won’t be minced here: this is an outright masterpiece, as close to sublime in its way as any of the other albums discussed so far. Importantly, like the other albums, this one can, and should, easily appeal to casual fans of reggae music. Indeed, like the others, this one truly is recommended to anyone who listens to music, period.

The style here is heavy dub, with Dread (who, again, already had plenty of experience perfecting mash-ups of reggae hits) applying his considerable production acumen to his own songs. The mood is mostly upbeat, at times festive (“Break Down The Walls”) and at times jovial (“The Jumping Master” which features Dread giving approbatory shout-outs to his bandmates and his young apprentice, Scientist, and even name-dropping original “jumping master” Spiderman). The ebullient “Rocker’s Delight” dates back to the Sandinista! sessions, and the spoken word title track anticipates the concerns about nuclear confrontation that dominated the next decade. The most arresting, and timeless track is “Mental Slavery”, which catalogs some of the societal inhumanity that was about to fester in the ‘80s—and beyond:

How can we survive in times like these
When prices rise and wages freeze?

Sound familiar? Mikey was around to see things get worse, and the more things remain the same, the more compelling his message becomes. He left us, way too soon, this past year. His legacy is not in dispute, but his legend is still underappreciated. Beyond World War III is his greatest gift, and it’s one that keeps giving.

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Five Reggae Albums You Cannot Live Without: Part Four

Walking the Streets of Glory: Israel Vibration’s The Same Song

The cardinal rule for any serious appraisal of art involves a necessity to separate all discussion of the artist from the artifact. Mostly this is essential because so many unsavory characters have managed to create amazing art despite—or because of—their self absorption and nastiness. Monomania is sometimes obligatory, as we have seen from masters ranging from Tolstoy to Miles Davis. In short, it seldom sheds meaningful insight on a famous (or infamous) work to stand either on a pedestal or in the trenches, attempting to offer up easy (or difficult) analysis.

The list of artists known as assholes—or worse—to their friends or enemies is not short, but it’s a mistaken assumption that only difficult people create works that last. On the other hand, the list of genuinely decent human beings who have managed to make meaningful art is short but sweet: John Coltrane, Curtis Mayfield and Eric Dolphy come immediately to mind. However, hagiography rarely augments an individual’s oeuvre; in fact, it usually besmirches it. The only thing excessive praise and inappropriate criticism share is that they almost always say more about the commentator than the art being commented upon. The proponents of either extreme usually betray religious leanings that render their insights instantly dated and ultimately irrelevant (postmodern literary criticism and political correctness have been the more popular—and culpable—cults of the critical arena in recent decades).

And yet. All of that being said, sometimes it is impossible to ignore the life and the way(s) it influenced an artist’s development. With one group in particular, it is not only impossible, but negligent to make no mention of their exceptional trajectory from obscure and impoverished kids to adored legends of reggae music. Make no mistake, Israel Vibration’s debut, The Same Song is an indispensable classic, and would be loved—and discussed—if no biographical information on the artists was available. Nevertheless, the blissful sense of wonderment these songs provide accrue additional layers of meaning, and import, when the lives and circumstances of the young men who created them are considered. Long story shortened: Jamaica endured a polio epidemic in the latter years of the 1950s. Three of the boys disabled by the disease, Lascelle Bulgin, Albert Craig and Cecil Spence, met at a rehabilitation facility in Kingston. They bonded over the love of music and a dedication to Rastafarianism (legend has it that once they grew out their dreadlocks they were summarily evicted from the Mona Heights Centre).

Eventually they formed a vocal trio and, calling themselves Israel Vibration, began singing for change on various street corners throughout the city of Kingston. They were rescued from performing (and living) on the streets by the Twelve Tribes of Israel, who helped fund the recording of their first album. After more than five years of struggling, sharing and singing, their vision, and sound, was fully formed when they entered the studio. The results, quite simply, are staggering. The title track is, like the Mighty Diamonds’ “Right Time”, an opening salvo that also serves as a powerful—and empowering—statement of purpose: young men who had faced little other than hardship and discrimination, wise beyond their years, crafting an open letter of acceptance, unity and inevitability.

They tackle similar issues as the other landmark albums already discussed (this being roots reggae, the themes and sounds are not dissimilar), but where the Mighty Diamonds and Culture confront injustice and preach peace with, respectively, heavy doses of soul-influence and celebratory abandon, Israel Vibration balance the two styles with their own unique groove. On the more upbeat songs, like “Why Worry” and especially the ebullient “Walk the Streets of Glory”, the voices are appropriately buoyant; on the more topical, defiant songs, like “Weep & Mourn” and “Ball of Fire”, the pace—and the voices—are languid, even solemn. This manages to be powerfully elegant (or elegantly powerful) music, and it’s in part due to the unforced, easily-invoked vulnerability in these voices, but mostly it involves the very notion of underdogs speaking out for the underdog—without pity and with the gentle perseverance of faith. These last two songs describe the plights of the have-nots and the pitiful apathy of the powerful on par with the best efforts of Bob Marley and Burning Spear. And yet, even when the subject matter is deadly serious, there is a ceaseless air of celebration and joy that makes all the sense in the world: the people making this music are, when all was said and done, happily aware of how lucky they were simply to be alive.

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Five Reggae Albums You Cannot Live Without: Part Three

This is the reggae album for people who do not know, or claim not to like, reggae music.

Go and Seek Your Rights: The Mighty Diamonds’ Right Time

Big misconception about reggae music: it’s all happy, at the beach, drinking music. Biggest misconception about reggae music: it all sounds the same. Even Bob Marley (and it is both respectful and required to at least mention the great man’s name in any consequential discussion or reggae) had markedly different styles he embraced throughout his career, as his sound evolved from straightforward ska and rocksteady in the ‘60s to the full-fledged rastaman vibration everyone has heard on the radio—or at Happy Hour. Indeed, Marley serves as the most obvious case study for the distinctive sounds reggae has produced: anyone unfamiliar with songs not included on Legend, but curious to explore what else is out there, are encouraged to start with the crucial transition albums from the early ‘70s. You cannot go wrong with African Herbsman, the culmination of his brief but bountiful collaboration with Lee “Scratch” Perry. Or to appreciate the incomparable harmonizing of the original Wailers (Marley along with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer), Catch A Fire and Burnin’ are indispensable cornerstones of any halfway serious reggae collection. And, above all, if it’s possible to single out one work that encapsulates Marley’s genius, Natty Dread is the Alpha and the Omega: not only is this his masterpiece, this one holds it own with any album, in any genre.

Okay. Even for those who are not sufficiently intrigued by the notion of a deeper dive into reggae’s abundant waters, there are more than a handful of sure things right on the surface. Enter the Mighty Diamonds and their first—and best—album, Right Time from 1976. Like the Wailers, the Mighty Diamonds are a harmonizing trio (with a killer backing band), and these three men, Donald “Tabby” Shaw, Fitzroy “Bunny” Simpson and Lloyd “Judge” Ferguson, created songs that stand tall alongside the very best reggae. Right Time manages to combine several styles and merge them in a seamless, practically flawless whole. This, to be certain, is roots reggae, yet at times it sounds like the most accessible soul music, closer to Motown than Trenchtown.

The group’s allegiance to Rastafarianism is skillfully articulated in the socially conscious lyrics, but the ten tracks on Right Time tackle romantic turmoil, violent crime, and redemption—sometimes all in one song. The title track, equally an ominous call to arms as well as a rallying cry against the system, sets an immediate tone that predicts chaos while promising resolve, pre-dating Culture’s epochal Two Sevens Clash by a year. The brilliance of the songs that follow must be heard to be believed, and it’s difficult to imagine how singing and song craft this tight, spiritual, and emotionally rich could fail to convince. The next two songs, “Why Me Black Brother Why?” and “Shame and Pride” constitute a one-two punch that manages to invoke Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Otis Redding: Gaye’s authentic words, Smokey’s silken voice, and Redding’s gut-rending fervor. If the world was right side up, all of these songs would be standards, familiar to anyone who listens to the soul legends mentioned above. The album’s highlight may be the resplendent anthem “I Need a Roof”—-a rather uncomplicated piece of poetry that invokes Marcus Garvey and Jesus Christ with its (obvious) insistence that without shelter there can be no peace, and without justice there can be no love. Listen: even writing about this record, albeit while offering the highest possible praise, inexorably mutes the message. That message is conveyed with voices that must be heard so that the music can make sense. Go seek it out.

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Five Reggae Albums You Cannot Live Without (Part Two)


Part Two: Make a Joyful Noise Unto JAH: Culture’s International Herb

Culture is immortal for their 1977 tour de force, Two Sevens Clash, one of a handful of albums that can justifiably be uttered in the same sentence as Heart of the Congos. Unlike the Congos, however, Culture continued to make important records after the summer of ’77, and were still going strong when bandleader Joseph Hill abruptly died—while on tour—in 2006.

Anyone in the know already knows two things: no self-respecting fan of music can tolerate the absence of Two Sevens Clash from their collections, and Joseph Hill’s voice is enough to make even the most recalcitrant atheist at least contemplate the possibility of a higher power. A single line from any Culture song makes it abundantly, wonderfully apparent that Joseph Hill was put on this earth, above all other things, to sing.

Fans can—and do—argue over what the second-most essential Culture album is, and most votes would probably be split between Baldhead Bridge (1978) or Cumbolo (1979), both of which are entirely worthy of consideration. But, for me, the closest they ever came to Two Sevens Clash is 1979’s International Herb. This release is endorsed and derided for a simple and silly reason: it’s blatant title (and if that wasn’t sufficiently provocative, the cover, featuring the group blazing spliffs in front of a huge, healthy marijuana plant, leaves little to the imagination).

And that is an appropriate enough segue to discuss—in perfunctory fashion—the dilemma of drugs and music. I mean dilemma in regards to certain types of music being automatically (and lazily—and in many instances, erroneously) associated with drugs. Or to put it more bluntly (pun, obviously, intended): music for which the utilization of mind-altering chemicals is imperative. This topic could, and should, be an entire discussion unto itself, but for the purposes of brevity let’s focus on the album at hand.

Clearly, the title track is an anthem for marijuana; it is also—and in this it is similar to the vast majority of reggae music—an endorsement for acceptance and understanding. In other words, this is post-‘60s hippie music that uptight politicians and the lemmings that follow them—the ones who most need to hear it—can easily assail as “drug music”. Aside from the myriad sociological reasons this obtusity epitomizes a typical myopia (and, in matters of appraising art, one that is not restricted to right-leaning reactionaries), it does the music a considerable disservice.

The reality of this music is quite simple: one need not be under the influence to appreciate it. Indeed, an argument might be made (and I’m about to make it) that it can be more fully enjoyed without the aid of any type of chemicals, be they smoked, snorted or swallowed. The sheer musicianship is so tight and first-rate that it is an insult (to the music, to the musicians) for one to even imply that any type of “full effect” can only be attained through the assistance of a substance. This, of course, does not apply solely to reggae music: so many great bands (Pink Floyd in particular leaps to mind) are denigrated and, in some ironic instances, lauded, for being ideal music to accompany an altered state of consciousness. How many times have you heard someone proclaim: if you aren’t high, you won’t be able to truly experience (insert album or artist here)? What a load of bollocks. That certain types of music do undoubtedly lend themselves to certain experiences is undeniable, but the best art is never so one dimensional or short-sighted. In fact, an alternate case can also be made that only an engaged and clear mind can fully fathom the depths and dedication of serious artistic expression. None of this is intended to demonize the harmless (or even the occasionally harmful) use of any type of intoxicants—that, again, is a very separate and sometimes serious matter. Again, the only issue here is the facile association (and/or promotion) of drugs and music, because on a purely aesthetic level it debases both the art and the artist.

So, getting back to Culture and International Herb: what’s it all about, then? “Make a joyful noise unto Jah,” Hill sings in “The Land Where We Belong”, and that pretty well captures the M.O.—not only of this particular album, but Culture’s career. As is often the case, the thematic scope of so many reggae songs revolves around Rasta, and that means a heavy rotation of tributes to Jah, the righteousness of Upfull Living (to quote Augustus Pablo) and the solidarity of underdogs everywhere. What separates Culture’s treatment of these familiar concerns, aside from Hill’s inimitable voice and the typically top-tier musicianship of the backing band, is the conviction with which the material is conveyed. Hill is equal parts preacher and cheerleader: speaking tough truths about intolerance and injustice, but also encouraging (often exhorting) the downtrodden to rise up. Some of the song titles, “Too Long in Slavery”, “Ethiopians Waan Guh Home”, and “Rally Around Jahoviah’s Throne”, provide a glimpse into Hill’s heart and mind. This, for the most part, is very serious music about very serious matters. And yet, Hill can’t help but make just about all of it sound celebratory and life-affirming. If, quite understandably, you read the words “life-affirming” and reflexively start to gag, I understand. I also encourage you, if you’ve not already done so, to immediately improve the quality of your life by ensuring that Joseph Hill has a place in it.

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July 7: When The Two Sevens Clash (Revisited)

culture

July 7, 1977: When the two sevens clash.

You can, and should, appreciate Culture’s masterpiece all days of the year, but on July 7 you better recognize.

I wrote about Culture last summer for PopMatters when I did a feature on the Five Reggae Albums You Cannot Live Without.

Culture is immortal for their 1977 tour de force, Two Sevens Clash, one of a handful of albums that can justifiably be uttered in the same sentence as Heart of the Congos. Unlike the Congos, however, Culture continued to make important records after the summer of ’77, and were still going strong when bandleader Joseph Hill abruptly died—while on tour—in 2006.

Anyone in the know already knows two things: no self-respecting fan of music can tolerate the absence of Two Sevens Clash from their collections, and Joseph Hill’s voice is enough to make even the most recalcitrant atheist at least contemplate the possibility of a higher power. A single line from any Culture song makes it abundantly, wonderfully apparent that Joseph Hill was put on this earth, above all other things, to sing.

This is music you can party to but it’s also music you should rally around.

And when it comes to reggae, if one isn’t obliged to consider Bob Marley, one is often compelled to counter the misnomer that this music is lightweight, good-times fare. On the contrary, while even the best progressive music from the ’70s sometimes dressed itself up in self-indulgence and often suffocated in its own pretension as a result, the best roots reggae is deadly serious music made by top tier musicians. And the music deals with many of the so-called big issues that existed before people started making records.

The reality of this music is quite simple: one need not be under the influence to appreciate it. Indeed, an argument might be made (and I’m about to make it) that it can be more fully enjoyed without the aid of any type of chemicals, be they smoked, snorted or swallowed. The sheer musicianship is so tight and first-rate that it is an insult (to the music, to the musicians) for one to even imply that any type of “full effect” can only be attained through the assistance of a substance. This, of course, does not apply solely to reggae music: so many great bands (Pink Floyd in particular leaps to mind) are denigrated and, in some ironic instances, lauded, for being ideal music to accompany an altered state of consciousness. How many times have you heard someone proclaim: if you aren’t high, you won’t be able to truly experience (insert album or artist here)? What a load of bollocks. That certain types of music do undoubtedly lend themselves to certain experiences is undeniable, but the best art is never so one dimensional or short-sighted. In fact, an alternate case can also be made that only an engaged and clear mind can fully fathom the depths and dedication of serious artistic expression. None of this is intended to demonize the harmless (or even the occasionally harmful) use of any type of intoxicants—that, again, is a very separate and sometimes serious matter. Again, the only issue here is the facile association (and/or promotion) of drugs and music, because on a purely aesthetic level it debases both the art and the artist.

This, for the most part, is very serious music about very serious matters. And yet, Hill can’t help but make just about all of it sound celebratory and life-affirming. If, quite understandably, you read the words “life-affirming” and reflexively start to gag, I understand. I also encourage you, if you’ve not already done so, to immediately improve the quality of your life by ensuring that Joseph Hill has a place in it.

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Revisiting The Heart of the Congos

Great art knows no seasons. Nevertheless, some music is made for—or at least can be fully appreciated during—specific times of the year. Reggae music, which many people still believe means Bob Marley’s music, tends to get broken out only once the flip flops and hibachi grills come out of hibernation. And so, since summer can be considered in full swing with the holiday weekend coming up, the time is right to talk about reggae. Where to begin? How about with the best.

Released in 1977, Heart of the Congos is generally regarded as the greatest reggae album ever (certainly the best roots reggae album). It isn’t. It’s better. While it would be neither accurate nor fair to call this a one and done masterwork, it’s beyond dispute that the Congos never again came close to the heights they reached here. It’s okay, no one else has either.

The ‘70s were, without question, the golden age of reggae, and aside from the ubiquitous (and, let’s face it, omnipotent) Bob Marley, no single figure loomed larger during this decade than Lee “Scratch” Perry. His own albums (as the Upsetter, with the Upsetters) are more than enough to secure his legacy, but it’s his work as the Dub Shepherd—producing everyone from a baby-faced Bob Marley to the mature Max Romeo—that seals the deal for his enshrinement. Although he had more immediate commercial and critical success with Party Time (The Heptones), War Ina Babylon (Max Romeo) and especially Police & Thieves (Junior Murvin), Heart of the Congos has come to be fully appreciated as his masterpiece—and the Rosetta Stone of roots reggae. While Perry’s patented production skills are in overdrive on everything he touched circa ‘76/’77, this is the one where everything went right.

(Sidenote: these 24-odd months are a veritable embarrassment of reggae riches, considering that the albums mentioned above, as well as Culture’s Two Sevens Clash and Right Time by the Mighty Diamonds, also dropped during this time. Not only was this a high-water mark for reggae, it’s always interesting—and instructive—to consider that this unsurpassed creativity was churning out of Jamaica while, stateside, prog rock sat, constipated on the sidelines as punk and disco duked it out on the dance floor.)

Heart of the Congos is a sufficiently suitable title, but this album could very plausibly have been called Back to the Future. It is an uncanny document that in every facet—lyrically, vocally, sonically—seems to be stretching into the past even as it strains toward the future. Where virtually any reggae album of this (or really, any) time has the expected—even obligatory—shout-outs to Jah and the invocations of Rastafarianism, Heart of the Congos dives even deeper into biblical texts and—crucially—the civilization that preceded Jamaica, and everything else in the west: Africa.

Send my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the world…

This line, from “Open up the Gate” crystallizes the powerful consciousness the Congos are tapping into here: in one line they capture the essence of both the Old Testament and Repatriation—from slaves to immigrants to artists. It is spoken (quoted) as the voice of God (literally), but more, the voice of memory, summarizing the story of our time on this planet.

Virtually any song could be singled out for analysis, but the second track, “Congoman” best represents the culmination of Perry’s—and the Congos’s—vision. This song, a timeline of history invoking “songs and psalms and voices”, is an effective, almost unsettling tapestry of deep cultural roots. This might be, if one were forced to choose, Perry’s ultimate achievement: listening to what he constructed in his (by today’s standards) primitive studio is breathtaking. This track (and the entire album) remains a living testament to the more natural, (if old-fashioned, and/or out of fashion) instinctive abilities of fingers, ears, brain and especially heart. Just as the most incredible effects can be manufactured with the click of a mouse in today’s movies, the technology certainly exists to embolden a million paint-by-number producers. In other words, what Perry did does not merely epitomize ingenuity from the oldest of schools, it stands apart as an honest, utterly human artifact.

“Congoman” brings all of Perry’s innovations into play: after an undulating beat unfolds with percussion, piano and bass setting a trance-like tone, all of a sudden an overdubbed refrain (heard repeatedly throughout the song) jars the moment: all sound ceases and it’s only the voices: “Out of Africa comes the Congoman”. It is at once eerie (or, Irie) and astonishing. With one masterstroke, Perry makes the composition future-proof: it is already deconstructed on the first go round: no mash-ups or remixes (then, now) are necessary, or even possible, since the first version is already reworked as a work in progress (and make no mistake: everyone with an MC or DJ before their name sprung forth from the tradition the mighty Upsetter originated). Perry takes what would have been a stirring, melodic and beautiful song and makes it richer, messier, more complicated, and inscrutably tantalizing: he transforms a masterpiece into a miracle. As the song unfolds it establishes the deepest of grooves (naturally, most of Perry’s regular posse is on hand here, including “Sly” Dunbar on drums, Ernest Ranglin on guitar and Boris Gardiner on bass), while Cedric Myton’s falsetto blends with Roy “Ashanti” Johnson’s tenor to cast their spell of longing and redemption. Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, providing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of the echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light—a higher place, deeply spiritual yet entirely human. It is unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.

We come with our culture to enlighten the world…

Any questions?

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Gregory Isaacs, Cool Ruler R.I.P.

A fond adieu to one of reggae music’s silken voices. Certainly not as known or celebrated as many of his peers, Isaacs has always been a reggae-lover’s reggae icon. Those in the know appreciate his understated charms and subtle mastery. Of the many artists we can –and should– say this about: Isaacs was meant to sing and make music, and we should be grateful to the forces of the universe (however fickle they might be, and however many other angelic voices they’ve not deemed fit to anoint) that the Cool Ruler was able to find his way onto record, and into our hearts.

Gregory Isaacs medley:

Night Nurse:

Mr. Cop:

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