Category: reggae


There was a strain of reggae/Jamaican music that first came out in the early 70’s that myself and some of my  friends affectionately call Big Belly Brownman Rumbar Reggae.

When we were kids it was the type of reggae that would get good play on the radio as well as being very palatable for uptown social gatherings. It however really found its natural home in jukeboxes in the bars where copious quantities of rum were being consumed. It is the type of music that made some big seriousfaced gentlemen allow themselves  to do some little skanking. Something that they would never do to the more grassroots sounding reggae of the day.

It was a particular type of production that was bass heavy but with more chord changes than the hardcore dub reggae  sound that was running the 70’s. The horn arrangements were  more sophisticated and more dominant in the mix than the non-brownman reggae. As a child it seemed to me that the horns and bass facilitated for a kind of  dance move that was easy for non-dancers to do after a few Q’s of  White Rum. It was great music then, but age has actually given me a whole new appreciation of the humour, themes and overall production that went into these tracks.

So without futher ado, for Jamaica 50, here are my 10 favourite Big Belly Brownman Rumbar Reggae tracks in no special order. Please feel free to comment and let me know your favourites of the genre.

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In 1972 Chris Blackwell had taken a gamble on an renegade rasta band out of Jamaica called The Wailers. Thus far it had paid off.  He had given band member Bob Marley  10,000 pounds and after a couple of months had gotten back master tapes of great material . When he heard it and did the math, he realized that unlike many of the typical Jamaican acts he had done business with prior, these men spent every penny on the material that they submitted to him.

He also realized  that they could potentially break out of the rut which typically befell reggae music in the UK.  Reggae was a singles market.  Successful acts and albums were a rarity. Popular singles could work well in the  Jamaican immigrant community and possibly crossover into some of the UK youth subcultures ie. Mods and Skinheads. The hit singles would move a decent number of 7inches and when grouped together they could move some compilation albums. The artists would do the UK chitlin circuit of sorts and make some decent money. However Blackwell saw that The Wailers, especially Bob, were possibly the fledgling genre’s best chance of becoming a real contender in the global music marketplace.

Blackwell put together a team to overdub and polish the album into a rock and roll grade classic. He recruited Muscle Shoals session guitarist Wayne Perkins, Robbie Shakespeare to replay bass on some tracks, Rabbit Bundrick on keyboards and organs and a slew of other musicians from Jamaica, the UK and USA. He A&Red the hell out of the project.

The original cover art for the first 20,000 albums was a Zippo lighter and done with the same attention to design as the big budget rock albums of the day. The album was called Catch A Fire.

He organized a UK tour that comprised mostly universities and smaller clubs. Everything was lining up the right way but the real kickoff for The Wailers, Blackwell and reggae music came perhaps because of  one appearance.  While in London in 1973, The Wailers were booked on The Old Grey Whistle Test. This BBC2  television music program was different from Top Of The Pops or any of the more chart based shows. It was a relatively new program but had the reputation of showcasing the real deal.  Grey Whistle was about artists doing  their work in a no-frills, intimate space. Devoid of pomp and theatrics this was where  you saw premier album oriented rock artists. Bob, Peter, Bunny and the rest of the Wailers performed two songs in their first ever UK television appearance. The rest is pretty much history.

In our 50th year, it would be good to look back at some of the methods, ethics, personalities and strategies that worked to turn us into musical powerhouse at one point. Perhaps there are a few lessons to be learnt.

Enjoy.

 

 

On the afternoon of October 14 1983, the course of reggae music was changed in the most unfortunate way. While  in a car on Grants Pen Road with an 18yr old aspiring reggae artist called Delroy Jr. Reid seated beside him, one of the brightest talents and true prodigies in Jamaican music was gunned down and killed.

His name was Hugh Mundell.

Mundell was 21 years old when he died but left behind a legacy of at least 5 albums and numerous singles. He recorded as a singer under his given name and recorded many of his DJ style songs under the alias Jah Levi. He was born in 1962 into a firmly middle-class East Kingston family. His father was a  lawyer. At age 13, with the help of singer/musician Boris Gardner(who appears to have been a neighbour at some point) Mundell recorded his first song for producer Joe Gibbs. He was attending Ardenne High but was already firmly rooted in Rastafari, Pan Africanism,  Black Consciousness and non-violence. I can only assume that this unlikely progressive thought for a middle-class child was rooted in the availability of conscious literature and consistent exposure to news and issues in his household. I have never been able to speak to anyone close to Mundell to give me the full picture. Augustus Pablo was saddened when I brought up the topic and said we would speak another time. Pablo passed before we had the conversation. Jr Reid who was Mundell’s protege and in the car with him when he was slain is a friend of mine, but the subject still seems hard to broach. Whatever his inspiration, Ardenne student Hugh Mundell aka Jah Levi in 1978 at the age of 16 recorded what is arguably one of the greatest roots reggae albums ever made.

Africa Must Be Free By 1983 received a maximum 5 star rating from Rolling Stone Magazine. Mundell’s smooth wailing vocal innocence paired with Pablo’s supreme production plus a cast of  legendary musicians and engineers had created a classic.  The album is included in Tom Moon’s 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die.  And yes. The album is that good. With its dub mixes of all the songs, Africa Must Be Free kept my meds firm through many dark and difficult situations. I humbly suggest that if you are a lover of good  music you give the album a listen. In this our 50th year,  Mundell would have been 50 years old and could have potentially evolved into our next Marley.

Gone but not forgotten. Hugh Mundell.

 

                                                                                

I am not a beer drinker. If and when I do drink beer, Heineken is my preferred choice. But I,  like many Jamaicans grew up with a sense of pride knowing that we had our own real proper beer. Red Stripe was one hundred percent Jamaican. As a brand it spoke to everything that was cool about Jamaica. Fun, family, music, the beauty of our land and the personality of our people.  The ads that were run on JBC TV in the 70s and early 80’s made indelible marks on the psyches of myself and probably the entire post independence generation of the time.

Years later when I lived abroad I would stock my apartment with Red Stripe because if I had visitors I knew I would lose my yardman stripes if I didn’t have one to offer. Red Stripe was the realest calling card for a cool dude from a cool culture. When you are  in Babylon,  holding on to the aspects of your culture that embody your Jamaicaness become much more important than when you are home. I wore more Clarks in farrin, spoke more patois and even started to drink Red Stripe now and again.

Not anymore though. Red Stripe is currently seen as a has been beverage in the local market that has moved to stronger alcoholic pleasures. That happens. Tastes change. Products age out and  hopefully are nurtured and tweaked back into relevance.  What really sucks though is how badly Red Stripe has been marketed locally over the last decade or so.   An iconic Jamaican brand has pretty much been made into a laughingstock locally with a series of shabby ad campaigns which peaked with the highly touted and quickly cancelled “Bear” campaign.

 

My bredren Sandor spoke about it pretty much in detail in fairly polite terms in his blog.

 

They really did it with those. Really really rass up di ting .  Hopefully at some point some level of intelligence will take over the  local marketing and redeem a great great Jamaican brand.  Ironically, the overseas marketing of Red Stripe continues to be cool, quirky and well received.  Non-Jamaicans proving yet again that they understand our products and assets better than we ourselves do.

 

But what I have  located, as a tribute to our 50th year of independence is a reel of Red Stripe ads. It’s very long and spans over 4 decades.  I am sure you will see some classic ads that tell the tale of our special Jamaican lifestyle and reflect on how really and truly, Life is just for Living. 

 

 

 

This is a guest piece written by a good friend of mine @dalveyG .  It sums up a lot of the sentiments of those of us who know what Passa Passa really was about and were able to experience some of the nuances and personalities that make it one of the most interesting events in the history of Jamaica.

I miss Passa Passa.  Not the Passa Passa of the DVD fame, the one with the camera so much under girl’s skirts, it seemed like a tampon.  No, I miss Passa Passa, the social gathering.

I caught the Passa Passa bug right in the middle.  My first experience was an anniversary dance in 2004.  I was right on stage when the judging was taking place for the skimpiest outfit. The winner – a young woman with her jeans jumper cut so close, you could see her pubic hair.

But, that was not my Passa.  My Friend, Big Black Barry was genetically tied to Passa Passa, and in the summer of 2004, I was bored a lot.  That was not a good combination.  Most Wednesday nights, we would make our way down, round about 1 in the morning.   From 1am to 7am, you could find me leaning against the wall of Miles drug store on Spanish Town Rd.

Passa Passa was an interesting experience for me.  From my vantage point, against the wall, it was like a drama –  I watched as a multitude of relationships played out in front my eyes.

The Wannabe, Hype Artist…trying to get the DJ to play his CD, certain that if it got a forward at Passa, it would be a certain hit, locally and overseas.

The Thug Wannabe, making sure he passed in front of the light, the corner of his mouth approaching his ear, trying to seem to the world like the new tough kid on the block.

The real thugs, never seen in the lime light, but who could be found on the outskirts, their easy smiles belying their harsh realities.

The Video Vixens – fresh from Quad – certain that being caught on video and shown on Hype TV, or on DVD’s overseas would cement there position as the hottest thing ever to wear fur lined boots.

They all came to Tivoli.  There was a feeling of peace and security.  As long as your vehicle was parked out of the road, and not blocking anyone, and you observed the norms of decency and civility, you felt that all was well, and the party would continue until you left.

In a country with high rates of police shootings, murders and motor vehicle accidents, I was painfully aware of the fact that it was very likely that several of the persons there partying on any one night might not be there the next week. However, that did not stop you from living in the present.

Passa Passa was the place where I could led down my guard and be me.  Guinness  or Rum and Cranberry in hand, weed smoke blowing in the wind, Genius or Maestro on the mic, between 1 and 7 on a Thursday morning, all was well with the world.

Never once did I witness an incident. (Me, who had to run from House of Leo, during the Willy Haggart Period, ducked from bottles at multiple Stings, shootings at several dances).

Never once did I feel that my personal security, nor my property was in danger.  I was content to lean against the wall, and watch the world “over the wall” and “flowers a bloom”.

I never really knew the Passa Passa popularized by the DVDs.  Later, when I moved to live to another country, I realized the world only knew Passa Passa between the hours of 6 and 7, or as it is known, cratches morning.  So, I encountered a foreign version of Passa, where the focus was on girls taking their underwear off, and dry humping on asphalt.  Understandably, the culture rejected this, and the name of Passa Passa is forever tarnished in at least one country.

But, I woke up missing the Passa I knew.  Those days are probably gone, but I miss them, and I am the better for having had them.

Immortal Technique

I started buying records when I was around 8 years old.  Seven inch 45s were around 50 cents then, which worked out to be one week of saved lunch money if I ate nothing. So maybe once every month I would have saved enough to buy one record. This would have to be the record that I could play every day for a month straight because I didn’t have shit else to play. In other words it had to be a real monster tune. Arleen by General Echo was my third music purchase ever.

How do you explain Arleen?  How can you explain in real terms the impact of the Stalag Riddim which Echo rode? As a child I just knew it made me feel good. It was funny, I could dj along with it, I could dance and do my 8yr old badman skank to it. It sounded like what great Jamaican pop music should.

I guess decades later I can put it in perspective as being one of the most  perfect dancehall songs ever. Echo’s comedy, social commentary,pop culture references, wordplay, melody and flow turned this song into an anthem. Other dancehall songs had made noise before but never in the way Arleen did.                                                                                                                                                   The Stalag riddim with it’s almost ominous bassline became a monster that still to this day is unstoppable.  You felt Stalag. It massaged our souls in a way few riddims had done before. It made subwoofers work overtime and made any artist worth their salt get a hit.  I knew at age 8 that this was a special song.

“Papa Riley sen mi dung a riva side fi go hear dem sing/ Disa rubadub hard/Di people love it so/An Jah Jah know it haffi reach numba one”

Winston “Fiya” Riley was its producer.

I knew Riley. I met him around nine years after that childhood purchase. His nephew Sherman and I lived on the same street in a scheme called Hughenden. I knew Sherman had some family in the music ting that he would hang out with on Saturdays but I never knew or drew the connection. By this time Riley’s Technique’s label had had countless hits and was battling neck and neck with King Jammys to be the most influential producer of the 80’s. One day, with my interest in music growing, I went downtown to Techniques Records on Chauncery Lane to see what the was going on.

I met Riley that day. He was a serious man, with a raspy hoarse voice. He wasn’t inna no skin up or smiling ting, Fiya was all about music business. His shop then wasn’t more than 10ft by 10ft which was stocked sky high of mostly 45s, some albums, some cosmetic products, and maybe a clothes iron and possibly some panties for sale as well.  His modus operandi in business as I later learnt was to try to control all aspects of his business in a grass roots way that would never leave him out of the loop. He produced the records, he pressed them, he wholesaled them to other stores as well as retailing them in his store.

He took boxes upon boxes of his records to the UK and the US and took the train with them all over to the ethnic record shops in Brooklyn, Brixton, Bronx, London and anywhere else he could. He would buy American music on the way back down to sell in his shop in Jamaica.  Fiya was always always on the grind.

Throughout the years as I got involved with music, he and I did business together. I was happy when I realized that miserable grumpy Riley actually respected and liked me. He looked out for me. In a business of snakes, Riley played fair. He was a hard negotiator but always held up his end of the deal. He was willing to give advice and opinions freely. He would cuss you to your face and happily buy you a drink afterwards. Fiya was the real fucking deal. He understood patience, hardwork and persistence in a way that I wish I could. Sherman said it best to me once. He said that,”Fiya doan believe it real if him neva haffi work fi it.”  It’s an old school work ethic that is pretty much lost on my generation and all the ones subsequent.

Over the last few years Riley was working to expand his Orange Street located Technique’s Record shop into a full studio and Jamaica’s first reggae museum.  He was doing it the only way he knew, brick by brick, one piece of equipment at a time and without any real assistance from anyone. He loved Jamaican music and to his last healthy day he was still on the grind. Still planning to record songs and still believing that our music had a special power that could make people around the world move. I never doubted what Winston Riley said. He had been there and done that while being involved with Jamaican music from its inception to its current stage.  He had number one records in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and in 2002 with Tony Rebel and Suade. No other producer in Jamaican history has that pedigree. And he was still on the grind.

Winston Riley died lastnight. He had been shot last November and never regained consciousness. Words can’t really express how I feel now about Jamaica, its treatment of its icons and what our music and society has evolved into.

RIP Fiya. Condolences to Kurt, Donahue, Sherman and the rest of his family.

This is a small snapshot of some of the music that made Winston Riley a legend:

At age 16 Riley formed The Techniques with two other school friends. They were inspired by the American Doo Wop and Soul groups of the era. They recorded a bunch of tunes for Studio One and then moved into the rocksteady era with Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle label. This is one of my favourites from that period.

Riley left The Techniques and started producing for himself under the Technique label. He recorded many of the major acts of the 60’s and eventually hit number one in the UK with Dave and Ansell Collins. The name of the song was Double Barrel. It is arguably the first rap song to top an international chart. The year was 1971

His next hit was the actual Stalag 17 riddim done by Ansell Collins. It was named after a popular movie of the day that was shown on JBC TV. It was a straight instrumental originally.

In the 80’s Riley worked with many new artists and became one of the go to producers. His songs helped define the music that we call Dancehall.

Singers had a special place in Riley’s production machine. As a singer himself he would always take chances on new and unknown talent. These were some of his classics.

Thank you again Mr. Riley. Your work will live way longer than any of us.

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