Rhythm roundup (May/June 2006)

Classics from Jamaica’s Alpha Boys’ School, “Scratch” Perry, and the Mighty Sparrow, and reggae riddems far afield

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  • Illustration by Jason Jarvis
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Boys in the band

Alpha Boys’ School: Music in EducationVarious artists (Trojan Records)

This compilation is a unique record of one of the most influential institutions in Anglophone Caribbean music, as well as a remarkable insight into the foundations of Caribbean jazz, ska, and early reggae. Unlike the Hispanic sub-region, the English Caribbean has no conservatories, and until recently most of the musical education on offer has been provided by police and military bands (which taught discipline, sight reading, and theory, but militated against both the African and Indian impulse to improvisation and polyrhythm, essential aspects of any Creole music). Established in Kingston in1880 for orphans and underprivileged children and run by the Sisters of Mercy since 1890, the Alpha Boys’ School offered, and still does, vocational training courses including music.

Many early bandmasters came to the school direct from the island’s military band, but it was civilian and past pupil Vincent Tulloch who inaugurated the era of big band music from 1927 to 1946, and a flow of gifted musicians who graduated to orchestras and jazz bands like those of Eric Dean, Sonny Bradshaw, and Carlos Morris. Reggae recording pioneer “Coxsone” Dodd was to recruit virtually the complete horn section of the Skatalites from Alpha.

This compilation culls tracks from some of Alpha’s more distinguished alumni, including Joe Harriott, Don Drummond, Dizzy Reece, Tommy McCook, Lennie Hibbert, Rico Rodriguez, Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, Eddie “Tan Tan” Thornton, and Cedric Brooks. It’s worth having just for the classic slow ska shuffle of Don Drummond’s “Eastern Standard Time”, a fabulous cut from the Caribbean’s maddest, baddest trombonist, but there’s plenty more.

The first four tracks are pure jazz, from the swing of Bertie King’s “Blue Lou” to the ice cool of Joe Harriott, Dizzy Reece, and Wilton “Bogey” Gyanair. Ska then takes over, with the standout “Dirty Dozen” track from Vin “Don Drummond Junior” Gordon, animated by bobbing bass and slurred bone. Alpha bandmaster and vibes player Lennie Hibbert’s “Pure Soul” introduces early rocksteady, as does Johnny Osbourne’s “The Warrior”. Rico Rodriguez lays down the skanking “Rainbow into the Rio Mino” — all driving bass and urgent bone — while Harold McNair’s “The Hipster” is an impressive flute improv on the opening section of jazz standard “Take Five”. Fittingly, the album concludes with the school band’s “Onward and Upward We Go”, delivered with suitable military precision.

From Scratch

Dubstrumentals Lee Perry (Trojan Records)

For another take on Jamaican musical genius — which, as the suicide of Don “The Bone” Drummond illustrates, sometimes strays across the border into pure madness — here’s a three-album re-release of rare recordings from the craziest and arguably most gifted Jamaican ever to sit at a studio control desk: the original “Upsetter” himself, Lee “Scratch” Perry.

All three albums were recorded in the mid-1970s in Perry’s infamous Black Ark Studio, which he’d built in his back garden and which would later go up in flames (I like to think this is the first instance of musical spontaneous combustion — the music was so hot, it burnt the Ark). The first album, The Mighty Upsetter: Kung Fu Meets the Dragon, is a sequence of instrumentals rather than pure dub, inspired by the kung fu craze and given a haunting hint of the Orient by Augustus Pablo’s sparse melodica playing. Return of the Wax, album two, plunges into the depths of drum and bass, which would later spawn a British genre. Musical Bones, the third album, reintroduces us to Alpha alumnus and trombonist Vin Gordon and a set of dub jazz which has been under wraps for too long. If you’re in need of a surreal aural vacation, this is it.


Early Birdie

First Flight – Mighty Sparrow (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings)

First Flight takes us back to the days of postwar Port of Spain, “the world of badjohns, robust men, razor-men, saga boys, whabeens, jagabats, and prostitutes fallen on hard times.” Consequently, this selection of Sparrow’s earliest calypsos (dating from 1957 to 1959), with its apparent celebration of violence and misogyny, won’t appeal to PC listeners. Those, however, who enjoy “rhythm and rhyme”, irreverent, bawdy, and scandalous humour, quickfire wit, and the ability to craft a song from any subject or occasion, will be suitably entertained.

The album captures the intimacy of the calypso tent and Sparrow’s audience rapport. The selection (contextualised in the excellent liner notes by leading calypso historian Gordon Rohlehr) covers the range of Sparrow’s repertoire: from the local social and political commentary of “No Doctor No” to the global topicality of “Russian Satellite”; from the macho bravado of “Gunslingers” to the frustration of the cuckolded husband in “Sailor Man”; from the cleverly constructed narratives of “Mango Vert” and “Dear Sparrow” to absurdity in “Harry in the Piggery”, hilarity in “Stella” and misogyny in “Jean Marabunta”. The big band, swing-style musical arrangements, with their Caribbean phrasing, are a perfect foil for Birdie’s suave delivery. You can’t help but admire a singer who rhymes “understand” with “calypsonian”, who teases us with the double entendre of “the woman give him something to eat, it sticky but it tasting sweet”, and is brave enough to ridicule a governor’s lechery.


Riddems from foreign

Bob’s Bar: Urban Tribe (Musikproduktion)

Who’d have thought a rhythm born in the steamy tropical heat of the Caribbean would inspire a splendid CD recorded in one of the coldest cities on the planet and dedicated to a beach bar on an island in the sun half a world away from either? Or that the bar in question would itself be dedicated to the man who made that rhythm a global phenomenon?

Bob’s Bar is the first CD by Urban Tribe, a new reggae band from the land of Abba and Ikea: Sweden. It’s an auspicious debut by any yardstick — and the story behind it is almost as compelling as the feast of roots reggae in it.

Bob’s Bar, an internationally known reggae hangout on Thailand’s Kamala Beach, festooned with Bob Marley posters and pictures and owned by Surin “Bob” Sikapain, was a home away from home for the multi-talented Swedish musician Adam Atterby, the driving force behind Urban Tribe. Atterby composed the CD’s title track while he was in Thailand in February 2004, and recorded it with his newly formed eleven-piece reggae band as soon as he returned home to a sub-zero Stockholm. He kept on composing, and, before the year was out, the eleven songs on Bob’s Bar had all been laid down. He even got to take the rough mix to Thailand late in 2004, and to listen to Bob’s Bar in Bob’s Bar.

Atterby was back home in Stockholm and still working on the CD when a deadly tsunami hit south-east Asia on Christmas Eve of 2004 — killing tens of thousands and destroying Bob’s Bar and much of Kamala Beach. Says Atterby: “We sat dumbfounded and watched the terrible reports coming from the TV — I simply couldn’t believe it. All the phone lines were down and we couldn’t get in touch with Bob or any of our other Thai friends, and it wasn’t until the day after that, finally, Bob gave me a call to let us know he was alright, although there wasn’t much left of the bar or, for that matter, the rest of Kamala.

”Atterby quickly decided that twenty per cent of the sales of the Bob’s Bar CD would go to help Sikapain rebuild — and was delighted when he returned to Kamala recently, for the first time since the tsunami, and discovered that the money Urban Tribe is raising had helped resurrect the popular hangout.
It’s the kind of thing the Bob (Marley, that is) would have done. So, come to think of it, is Urban Tribe’s CD. It’s strictly mid-tempo, lilting, roots reggae, eminently danceable and laced with some biting social commentary — many of the most pointed barbs aimed at George W. Bush in tracks like “Fool With a Gun” and “Bump Dem”. As for the title track, “Bob’s Bar”, it’s about as catchy as reggae can get without being too cute and cuddly.

A scorching horn section, rock-solid riddems, Atterby’s distinctive lead vocals — he sounds as though he could have been born and raised in the Caribbean, not Sweden — and some classic toasting from Trinidad’s Bamma B round out a highly palatable roots reggae CD.I suspect Bob would approve.(PS: Bob’s Bar isn’t yet in mainstream distribution. But it can be obtained online via www.urbantribe.nu or www.ReggaeCD.com)

Garry Steckles

Live at Stubb’s –  Matisyahu (Sony)

Some of the headlines that have been written recently about one of the hottest new voices in reggae music:

“Reggae Goes Kosher”“Goyim Get Ready”“Jews For Jah”
“Kosher toasting”
“Melding Marley and Matzo”
“Yo! Or is it Oy?”
“Conscious and Kosher”

Is the reggae world ready for Matisyahu, a Pennsylvania-born New Yorker who makes his stage appearances in full Hasidic garb and who lives his life according to the discipline and structure of Judaism?

Clearly it is. These headlines, and dozens more along the same lines, have appeared in some seriously influential publications, among them the New York Times, the Montreal Gazette, the Boston Globe, Time, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Jerusalem Post, Billboard, Variety, the Village Voice, the New Yorker, and GQ. And after couple of spins through his hot-selling CD, Live at Stubb’s, it’s easy to see why there’s a palpable buzz about reggae-rapper Matthew “Matisyahu” Miller.

For one thing, he’s different. And not just in appearance. In a reggae world increasingly dominated by performers who seem — at least to my jaded eyes and ears — to be cloned, both in how they look and how they sound, Matisyahu commands attention. He has a sound that’s all his own. He’s been blessed with a voice that’s strong, clear, and, when he wants it to be, almost spacy and ethereal, and he’s allied it to a band that manages to forge a highly individual sound without departing too dramatically from reggae’s core rhythmic structures. A wailing, spine-tingling rock guitar, for example, is just one of its musical signatures — discreetly used, I hasten to add. A throbbing, insistent bass that insinuates rather than overwhelms is another.

From the opening, ominous, rumbling bass of “Sea to Sea” through the mid-tempo “Lord Raise Me Up” to the breakneck chant on the CD’s finale, “Close My Eyes”, the twelve tracks of Live At Stubb’s leave you wanting to hear more of Matisyahu.