donderdag 2 februari 2017

Crucial background : Nambo, Ronnie, and Gaby

In the recent days in January 2017, as I write this, three veteran Jamaican musicians and singers have deceased: Nambo Robinson, a veteran trombonist and horn player, playing on several reggae albums and songs since especially the later 1970s (Black Uhuru, Mighty Diamonds, Bob Marley a.o.), member (backing vocals as well as rhythm guitar) of the Gladiators Gallimore Sutherland, and member (backing vocals) of a.o. the Itals, and artist in his own right, Ronnie Davis.

To a degree, you might see these three as “at the background”, whereas other reggae artists in the extensive Jamaican music scene are more at the forefront, as figureheads. Ronnie Davis recorded under his own name too (as composer and lead singer), but besides that, “background” is not really appropriate. Making music is a joint effort, also harmony vocals, in which each contribution adds to the whole. In that sense they are crucial to the whole “vibe” the songs bring across, and with that the specific voices or playing styles become relevant.

Furthermore, the trombone (that Nambo plays) is not an easy instrument to play, chord and note-wise, as a musician once told me. Instead of “pushing” or “plucking” to get specific notes, you have to “slide”. Not per se a “less natural” movement for humans (than e.g. how you play a guitar), but requiring practice. Likewise, schooled singers often argue that backing vocalists should ideally be better singers in a more technical, musical way, tighter at least. A lead singer can be allowed more idiosyncratic playfulness, even seemingly off-key, but adding “personality” to a song. Backing singers should however be tighter in a musical sense. In that sense, Nambo, as well as Gallimore Sutherland and Ronnie Davis had to be skilled in more than one way. They could not improvise too much, safe incidentally, but had to be mostly “tight” and steady as musicians or backing singers.

I myself have enjoyed much songs during my life of the Itals and the Gladiators, mostly with Gallimore Sutherland (Gladiators) and Ronnie Davis (the Itals), adding to the songs’ feel. I also heard and enjoyed several songs with Nambo Robinson as trombonist (Black Uhuru’s ‘Bull In the Pen’ for instance, but also on several albums of Burning Spear, Wailing Souls, Culture, Pablo Moses, Bob Marley a.o.). Luckily I have seen Nambo live, at the reggae festival Sundance near Eindhoven, in the South of the Netherlands, in 2014, accompanying several artists (older and newer). Maybe also at concerts I saw before of bands like Culture, or of Luciano or others.

Ronnie Davis has a quite distinctive, “wailing” voice, and he sometimes took the lead on some Itals’ songs, but his backing vocals were equally distinctive, if more subtly “hidden” in the mix. The same applies to Gallimore “Gaby” Sutherland, who in the Gladiators complemented Albert Griffiths’ “sharp”, and Clinton Fearon’s “high”, somewhat froggy voice. All crucial in the end-result, and how I lived and heard the songs. That is sometimes forgotten, as the attention is often drawn by the lead singer, and “general” harmony vocals (call-and-response being a common singing style in reggae, as an African heritage). Sutherland’s “rhythm guitar” is comparably structural, but not very spectacular. Rhythm guitarists in reggae must keep the pace and rhythm “tight” on the 2nd and 4th count (of 4/4), at least as much as possible, with only little room for sonic variations. Yet crucial in the musical structure.

All three of these musicians were active a long time in the Jamaican music scene, starting around the later 1960s. When they died in January 2017, they were all in their sixties, which is not old as a dying age (at least according to modern, Western standards). Ronnie Davis died after a massive stroke at the age of 66. Strokes (or brain hemorrhages) occur all over the world, especially when people get older, but tend to affect poor people relatively more. Strokes are not welfare-augmented as some types of heart diseases, quite the contrary. In the US – to illustrate - studies show that strokes are most common among poor African-Americans in the Southern states, less among other groups and social classes. Massive, often fatal strokes occur among poor African-Americans more often and at relatively younger ages than among other groups (like Whites). They tend to be poverty-related diseases.

Sadly, also the “premature” death of Gallimore Sutherland, was due – according to statements of his loved ones - because he lacked the financial means to combat the disease he had been struggling with for some years. As a sad fact, poor people die relatively younger, and are susceptible to more diseases, apart from certain “welfare diseases” (too much food e.g.). Jamaica is of course a poor country, and music not necessarily a way to easy wealth, even if the Jamaican music industry is extensive and globally known. Not even lead singers (with international fans) always reaped all benefits of their songs, let alone session musicians or backing vocalist. Many musicians remained poor, or were lucky to get by.

As a tribute, I think it would be nice to honour these three musicians/singers and their decades-long work on Jamaican songs. They certainly helped me to enjoy many reggae songs. In the remainder of this post I would like to analyse this, and in what specific ways they contributed. As a tribute to them specifically, but also a bit a tribute to all “backing” musicians and singers, and their often underestimated roles in music.

BACKING

I myself play and jam with other musicians, often playing several percussion instruments, as other people sing. A bit less frequent, I also sing. I mean, I can relate from practice. In this post, I would therefore pay tribute to the “steady” musicians. I guess you can call me a musician, and primarily a percussionist. I studied bongos and congas with an experienced teacher, and had lessons with teachers in some other instruments too (talking drum, djembe). Further, I am self-taught regarding several other percussion instruments.

The thing with percussion – an aspect I like of it actually – is that it is one of the “freer” instruments, regarding their roles in musical pieces. It is – often - a flexibly applicable “sauce” or “seasoning” adding in an improvised way to add spice to songs/music. Just like you decide to add more thyme or cinnamon next time to your pasta or rice sauce, or perhaps oregano, ginger, or pepper this time: that’s how percussion operates more or less in several genres of music. . This is especially so, when there is usually a trap drummer too (as in funk, soul, reggae, pop). Conga-driven genres like salsa, rumba, or son require more fixed patterns (that I also studied for a time), though also with varying percussive space. Most other instruments cannot improvise so much: they have to be tight, adapt to the chords, carry the rhythm and chord structure, with some – but not too much – room for deviation and creativity. That is not “boring” or uncreative, it is necessary as “carrying” the song and bringing its strength across: a firm base. Important roles, requiring a disciplined and tight outset, that “free spirits” (common personality types among some singers, producers, and some percussionists) might not automatically have affinity with.

I noticed it myself when I tried to drum (as trap drummer, on a drum kit) more, copying basic reggae one-drop and rockers rhythms. Groovy and enjoyable, but mostly tight and fixed throughout the song. Not too much polyrhythmic playfulness – around the basic rhythm – as percussion allows, and I was accustomed too.

Horns and trombones are allowed playfulness, but to a degree. Rhythm guitars even less. . Backing vocals are structured as well: it is the lead singer who “plays” more around the “responses” of the choir/backing vocals (also an African musical retention, found in all Black music in the Americas). Yet, the harmony vocals make groups like the Itals, the Gladiators, the Mighty Diamonds, Israel Vibration, the Abyssinians and Culture extra interesting, showing how harmony vocals have a good and developed tradition in Roots Reggae. Lead singers are certainly interesting and often good singers too, but they do not bring the song across on their own.

NAMBO ROBINSON

Nambo died at the age of 67 of a heart attack, also in January 2017.

Nambo Robinson was mainly a session musician, playing mostly trombone and horn, but on many albums and songs, of many different artists, including “names” like Burning Spear, Culture, the Mighty Diamonds, Black Uhuru, Pablo Moses, while he also worked with Sly & Robbie.

Interestingly, he began with the Nyahbinghi-focussed group the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. I have played nyabinghi drums (funde) with a trombonist by the way (Serbian musician Hornsman Coyote). However, in a much later stage, – late 1990s – Nambo converted to Islam, as I heard in an interview of Mutabaruka with fellow-hornsman Dean Fraser, in the radio show Stepping Razor of the 26th of January 2017. Fraser also pointed out that Nambo was a very spiritual person, who – incidentally – did not smoke weed or drink. In that radio show, Mutabaruka also rightly pointed at the fact that “live” session musicians like Nambo have become rarer nowadays, with all the digital “replacements” of actual instruments, increased also in Jamaican music.

Nambo played trombone (or: horn) on some of my favourite albums: the Wailing Souls’ Fire House Rock (1980), the Mighty Diamonds’ Deeper Roots (1979) notably, but on many others I found great as well (Pablo Moses’ A Song to name but one).

The horn contributions on the Wailing Souls’ Fire House Rock are quite important for the feel of several of its songs, with great effect. These include the title track, Bandits Taking Over, Act of Affection, and A Fool Will Fall, while other songs have less or no horns, and more a bass & drum focus. The horn contributions are tight and quite rhythmical – often playing groovy counter-patterns - , although also with minor-key, nice effect on the great song A Fool Will Fall, contrasting the lively horns on for instance the title track. Very varied and skilled overall. Dean Fraser plays sax on this same album.

The Mighty Diamonds’ album Deeper Roots, another favourite of mine, has also Nambo playing. Interesting how this album, recorded at Channel One in 1979, seemed to have made different production choices when compared to Fire House Rock: the horn contributions are softer, more buried in the mix, whereas on the Wailing Souls’ album it came more to the fore on songs. Yet, on beautiful songs like Blackman of the Deeper Roots album, the horns certainly are crucial to the overall experience. The contrasting heavy bass with the dreamy horns on a song like Blackman are simply musically brilliant. Only on a song like 4000 Years the horns are more prominent. Even non-musicians or horn players can probably hear here that specifically a trombone is used in this song, along with other horns, due to the specific, audible trombone pattern.

The patterns seem again quite rhythmical, sometimes reminiscent of what you can do with percussion: “answering” through semi-rhythmic patterns. I only don’t know if the trombone player, Nambo Robinson in this case, could create his own patterns, and was thus one of the creative artists of the songs, or that he just played what others said he should. I think it’s a combination of both, with some ideas by Nambo himself.

I discuss just these two albums, else it would be too much (some other great albums with Nambo playing, not mentioned yet: Peter Tosh’s Mama Africa, Gregory Isaacs’ Soon Forward, and Bushman’s Signs). These two (and several other albums) were quite important for my enduring love of reggae, so in that sense Nambo contributed to that. This shows the importance of background musicians.

RONNIE DAVIS

Davis started - as several other Jamaican artists – in the Rocksteady era around 1966, with the vocal groups the Westmorlites, where he already worked with other future members of his later band, the Itals. The Westmorlites refers to Westmoreland, the parish in Western Jamaica, where Davis (and the other Itals came from). This is in the less mountainous western country side in Jamaica. (The eastern part of Jamaica is more mountainous). After this, in 1968, Davis joined another Rocksteady group, the Tennors. Thus, former Westmorlites and Tennors members ended up in the Rastafari-inspired group the Itals by the 1970s.

The Itals are representative of what some authors on reggae call “country-style” harmony vocals. “Country” not referring to the genre, but obviously to the Jamaican rural origins. Culture and the Gladiators are also seen as part of that style, characterized by – among other things – quite “raw” call-and-response singing, and a “folksy” feel to their music. I like that style as well, and I also liked the Itals.

Ronnie Davis sang harmony on Itals’ albums I liked, occasionally taking the lead vocals. He wrote and sang Living In The Ghetto for the Itals, and co-wrote Give Me Power, thus alternating Keith Porter, the main songwriter and lead singer of the Itals. His background vocals nonetheless contributed to the whole. That whole I enjoyed.

On the Cool & Dread album (1988) of the Itals, Ronnie Davis wrote and sang two songs, Material Competition and Peace And Love. Both type of songs that were quite typical of his songwriting, also as a solo artist. Seemingly underwhelming, but with an emotional, soulful delivery, and catchy melodic parts.

In a later stage, he went solo as Ronnie Davis and the Idren. And I got to know several songs of him. Jah Jah Jehovia I liked, and several others. He has a quite characteristic “wailing” singing voice – a bit “droning”, somewhat different from Itals’ lead singer Keith Porter, whose voice is “sharper” or “brighter” somehow. Comparing In A Dis Ya Time (the biggest Itals’ hit, sang by Porter), and Davis’ Living In the Ghetto is enough to notice that. Davis’ voice went especially well – in my opinion - with his minor-key, “rootical” songs on conscious themes, such as Jah Jah Jehovia, Beware of Evil Men, or Run Come. A bit less with some of his love songs (some were still good) or cover versions, though these were still fine songs, overall. He also had songs with intriguing lyrics, like I Created A World Of My Own.

Most songs of Ronnie Davis I heard I liked, though a few of his cover versions seemed unnecessary to me (done too much, or not really fitting his voice). Yet, overall I can conclude that he was a great, talented singer and songwriter, with several good and varied songs on his name.

GALLIMORE SUTHERLAND

Gallimore Sutherland, known as “Gaby”, sang harmony vocals and was rhythm guitar player (occasionally other guitar too) in the band the Gladiators. In fact, the Gladiators were one of the few bands in Jamaica that combined this: singing, songwriting and playing an instrument, as some Western pop bands, like the Beatles did and do. Players of instruments and singers tend to be more often separate in the Jamaican music industry, although many singers know how to play instruments (e.g. guitar, helping their songwriting), though not often record that along with their singing. The Gladiators are an exception.

The reason for this being rare, relates to Reggae’s background: it originated among poor Jamaicans in ghetto areas. Many aspiring singers lived there, but few had money to actually buy instruments, let alone take lessons, as common in middle-class circles. Instrument players needed some funds, so mostly came from other parts of Kingston or Jamaica, that were less impoverished. They joined forces in the studios, that’s how it often went, although the Gladiators broke that pattern in their case.

Like the Itals, the Gladiators are characterized by a rural, raw, and folksy “country” style of roots reggae (harmony). I found this overall appealing, and liked the Gladiators’ works . Sutherland was one who seemed content with a supportive role as backing singer and rhythm guitar player. These musical roles in Reggae do not allow much improvisation, but rather a tight sense of “rhythm” and steadiness. Sutherland surely proved capable of that, thus contributing to the Gladiators sound and music, enjoyed by many reggae fans world wide. Again: not on the foreground, but crucial.

He recorded a song as lead singer, partly a cover, and apparently not very pretentious, again showing some more contentment with a “backing” musical role. Interesting to hear his solo voice, though.

While such roles may seem boring, being a “free spirit” is not always as rewarding as one might expect, as the history of Jamaican and other music shows. Expressive and creative singers, used to the spotlight, might lose focus on themselves in the process. Some become unstable mentally, addicted to drugs or alcohol.. Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Amy Winehouse are just some examples of famous and known singers/musicians who became unstable, and fled through addictions to hard drugs and alcohol. This phenomenon is not entirely unknown in Reggae, though less than in Western “Rock”. Lee Perry, but also Gregory Isaacs and Dennis Brown, were said to have “unstable” periods, using substances (like cocaine or strong drinks) not associated with Rastafari, that they were associated with publicly. I’m not saying that using those drugs and alcohol discredit them as being Rasta, that is too simplistic, but it is contradictory. It is I think caused by the “confusion of fame”, so to speak.

PHILOSOPHICALLY

This is psychologically and philosophically interesting. The “system”, what the Rastas call “Babylon”, is based on “fitting” flexible and internally diverse human beings into systematic structural “molds”, mainly for economic goals of people in high places. This is oppression, there is no way around it, and some call it even modern slavery.

Being too free a spirit mentally does not go well with that, and while music seems a “free”, creative world, the industry around it is still influenced by that money-based system and inherent inequalities. Being a professional musician requires, after all, a structured life and “agenda”, planning, accountancy and such. Not things one immediately feels attracted to when wanting to be a “creative artist”, expressing oneself freely as human through music. This industry can cause an imbalance and unease within a person, especially a so-called “free spirit”.

Well now, more technical (backing) musicians, content with keeping steady paces and chords, routinely doing/playing their required parts, with little demands of their creativity, can allow more that Zen-like state of contentment and ease in them. The lack of ambitious demands within themselves and by others puts their mind at ease. Their life seems less intense or inspiring, yet often fulfilling. They do not “create” so much, perhaps not even write great songs inspiring many people, as many Jamaican artists have done (like Dennis Brown, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Peter Tosh and many others). I think for that (writing great, moving songs with “soul”) you – cynically put – must have “lived”, or rather “suffered”: know about the highs and lows of life and human existence. That you can express in music, rendering great, soulful songs, with – not unimportant – credible lyrics.

Yet to eventually accomplish that, you need “stable” people around you too, stable musicians keeping the musical base steady and structured.

To differing degrees (they were partly creative too, of course), that was the important, underestimated role that musicians and (background) singers like Nambo, Ronnie Davis, and Gallimore Sutherland played in Jamaican music, thus contributing to its appeal and (international) popularity.

This shows that making good music provides a positive, promising alternative for life in the Western economic (Babylon) system. Instead of oppression and restriction of free spirits toward systematic, semi-forced economic/social roles, people choose what roles they want to take on: free spirits remain free, while others take on structural, steady roles, but because they want that, and want to contribute to something beautiful. Working really and genuinely together.. Ideally, at least.

TRADITION

Essentially, there is nothing new under the sun here. In arguably the oldest music in the world, drum and percussive music, there have always been drums with more steady pulses and patterns, combining with specific drums for variation and improvisation. In Africa this tradition has been known to be well-developed traditionally, being known as the most “percussive” continent. In some parts of Africa the higher pitched (or smaller) drums take on the improvising role, in other parts the lower-pitched, bigger (bass) drums. Sometimes more melodic or harmonic instruments have this role (balafon, kalimba, wind instruments, string instruments) This reflects of course in Afro-American music styles. The widely known Conga instrument developed as such in Cuba, based on Congo region African models (hence the name), with the smallest conga drum – known as “quinto” – improvizing more, whereas the medium one, the “conga”, as well as the biggest one, the “salidor”, keep more steady patterns.

Variation on this very same principle, however, translated also to electric instruments as Black music genres as Reggae, Funk, Soul, and others developed.

Also, call-and-response, the crucial principle in traditional sub-Saharan African music, widely spread on the continent, also reflects in several older and newer Afro-American music genres, including Reggae. This can be through instruments (counter or answering patterns) or through vocals (call-and-response literally).

Nambo Robinson, Ronnie Davis, and Gallimore Sutherland with their musical contributions therefore evidently stood in that African-inherited tradition.

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