It was the unlikeliest source imaginable, you'd have thought, to be an introduction to the dub music of Kingston Jamaica, but Black Market Clash by the Clash was where I first heard that bass heavy, mixed down, slowed down groove. In those days of two-sided LP records, side one of album contained some reggae covers and original tunes by the Clash, while side two was more of the same, but also included a dub version of the song "Armageddon Time."
London, England had a large ex-patriot Jamaican community, which by the time the seventies and punk rolled around was into its second generation. Kids grew up with the accent of Kingston, Jamaica on their lips, but the grey rain of England as their environment. It was also an increasingly hostile environment for people of colour in those days with police harassment and skin-head beatings common. Punks, like The Clash, took up fight against racism and formed groups like Rock Against Racism as an attempt to help. Bands like the English Beat and The Specials with their mixed race memberships and ska music, which combined pop sensibilities and reggae back beats, were political messages in their own right.
Mystifying words like "Rockers" and "Rude Boy" made their way across the Atlantic Ocean in the lyrics of songs by these bands, while dubbed versions of Clash and English Beat songs were released on extended play (EPs) twelve inch vinyl singles. It was vaguely understood that this music had something to do with reggae and Jamaica, but since it didn't sound like anything Bob Marley or Peter Tosh were doing at the time, most people I knew weren't quite sure what to make of it. It was known that the Clash had recorded some tracks on their Sandinista triple album in Kingston, Jamaica, but aside from that we didn't know anything about this dub stuff that was so popular in England.
The name Augustus Pablo wouldn't have meant a damn thing to anybody I knew. Black Uhuru were as adventurous as most people got when it came to listening to reggae, and I doubt there were many people aware that there was any other music coming out of Jamaica at the time. Yet it was in the early '70s when this extraordinary man began recording, first as a performer, then as a composer and producer. It was his collaborations with King Tubby, the man credited with inventing dub music, in 1976, King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown and 1977, East Of The River Nile, that are credited with popularizing dub music in England and providing the early inspiration for hip-hop and rap in the United States.
As he never sought after commercial success, and very rarely toured, Pablo never received the recognition that some of his more famous countrymen accrued. Now, nearly 10 years after his death of a rare nerve disorder, that might just change with the release of The Mystic World Of Augustus Pablo: The Rockers Story, a four CD and single DVD box set by his American distributor, Shanachie Entertainment Group.
The first three CDs of the set are an exhaustive retrospective of his career with samples from the three decades of his output as a producer, composer, and performer. The fourth CD features cuts that were previously unreleased and tracks that had been released on labels other than his own from his early days as a performer. The DVD contains footage from two concerts in Japan in 1986 and 1988, and some taken of Augustus during the filming of a documentary about the band Soul Syndicate called Word, Sound, and Power
The first thing you notice when listening to an Augustus Pablo song is that the lead instrument isn't one you can quite recognize. It sounds sort of like an accordion, or maybe a harmonica, but it turns out to be a melodica. Usually considered a children's toy, a melodica is a small keyboard with a mouthpiece at one end through which the player blows while shaping the notes with the keys. This almost whisper of sound floats over top the heavy, slow, bottom end of the "rockers" sound, giving it an ethereal quality more reminiscent of the East than anything that ever came out of Africa or Jamaica.
Augustus is credited with creating the trademark rockers' sound, the slow and heavy reggae sound that we've all become familiar with now but was only coming into common usage in the early '70s. The name "rockers" was taken from the name he had given his sound system (DJ set up) and latter his record label. It was a sound that seemed more in keeping with the Rastafari ethos of living as natural a life as possible as the rhythm takes on the characteristics of a pulse – a measure of the world's natural movement.
One of the great things about this collection of music is that it allows you the opportunity to trace Augustus Pablo's evolution as a composer and producer as we follow his career from his early work in the seventies with people like Leroy Sibbles of The Heptones on disc one updating an earlier rocksteady hit, "Love Won't Come Easy" over a rocker rhythm track. The first disc also includes "King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown," the track that really popularized the music in England, some early dub collaborations between King Tubby and Pablo, and songs by Pablo produced singers Hugh Mundell and Jr. Delgado. You can hear the formation of the elements that will characterize Pablo's work over the course of his career; deep rhythms and soaring melodies that have an element of sadness and an air of the mystical coursing through them.
Even with the advent of new technology, and Pablo wasn't hesitant about using computer generated beats later in his career, the qualities of mixing bright melody lines with heavy bottom end persisted in his compositions. It could be a vocal line of remarkable soulfulness, the haunting sounds of his melodica, a keyboard or a guitar, but the melody would always sound as if it was billowing upwards, suspended on a cushion of air created by the power of the beats pulsing under it.
With advances in recording technology his dubbing techniques of course became more sophisticated as the years progressed allowing him to shape the original material even more. The technology also allowed him to experiment with percussion as is shown on track eleven on disc three of this set, "Drums For The King." Here he's integrated a traditional akete percussion group with a digital rhythm track to produce a sound that combines the best elements of both worlds. Pablo's use of digital tracks and computer generated music never sound like he's using the technology because it's a convenience. It's more like they are another musical instrument that he can play in his quest to make the music speak more eloquently.
A 20-page booklet included with the box set includes two nicely written overviews of Augustus Palbo the man and the musician. I get the impression that he knew that he was not going to be here for a long time; he was born in 1953 and died in 1999, so he poured his heart and soul into his music – whether he was performing, composing, or producing. The three clips that are included of him performing and being interviewed on the DVD show a very slim, almost ascetic, man of amazing intensity.
He stands at the microphone, reed thin, with his entire being focused on the music he's creating by blowing into his melodica. The thousands of people in the festival audience may as well not exist for all the attention he pays them. Even in the less formal setting of the segments filmed for the documentary this intensity of focus comes through. There is no such thing as casual music, you either strive to do it as well as possible each time you play or you don't do it all.
For those of you like me who hadn't been introduced to Augustus Pablo before, or had maybe only vaguely heard of him, The Mystic World Of Augustus Pablo: The Rockers Story will be a revelation. It will introduce you to the man who played a great role in shaping the sound of modern reggae and whose music, whether they know it or not, provided the genesis for hip hop and rap performers today. Even more importantly it will introduce you to his music – music that will change the way you think and feel about reggae.