February 26, 2013

I’m currently writing an article on the legacy of King Tubby, dub creator, and the man who invented the remix, contrary to what Puff might claim. The process has led me down a wormhole of research into Jamaican culture and history. The names that filter into the American interpretation of reggae rarely go beyond the usual suspects: Marley, Scratch Perry, Toots Maytal, Jimmy Cliff — maybe Desmond Dekker or Jackie Mittoo if you’re inclined towards digging a bit deeper. Men like Don Drummond, the trombonist, musicial arranger and chief songwriter for the Skatalites, usually only exist as esoteric names in 500 page chronicles, essential in the continuum but rarely remembered the way they’d want to: through their music.

What’s surprised me most about my research is the close link between American jazz to the birth of reggae. In addition to early rhythm and blues, early dancehall sound systems blared Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and an array of rarer cuts often lost to the history.The connection is explicit in this tribute to Don Drummond, originally dubbed on a cassette in 1969, shortly after the forgotten legend died in the Belle Vue asylum in Kingston. There are interviews embedded in this tape from Prince Buster and Coxsone Dodd, including one quote from the latter that captures why Drummond was the greatest: his trombone riffs capture a feeling of sadness like few have ever managed.

Drummond was the one with the vision, who transformed the heavily American indebted sounds of Kingston into a uniquely Jamaican music. He was schooled at the Alpha Boys School, an institution for juvenile delinquents run by strict nuns, a place so rigid but musical it seems like something out of the Blues Brothers. Drummond applied the rigorous musical education to the Skatalites, drawing up all sorts of intricate charts but never losing the improvised passion required to play inherently emotional music. He was also a fiercely black nationalist and Rasta and a possible schizophrenic, who was so angered by economic and class inequities that he would occasionally (allegedly) spit in the face of white people when he passed them. He guided his band through the birth of ska until New Year’s Day, when for reasons unknown, he murdered his wife, the dancer and singer, Margarita. He turned himself into police and spent the final four years of his life in the madhouse, where he died at just 37. The official cause of death was “Natural Causes,” but skepticism reigned that it was heart failure caused by malnutrition or improper medication. Others speculated that it was a government conspiracy or gangster retribution for the murder of his wife.

Either way, the music remains melancholic funk, spectral horns and upbeat rhythms. It sounds like shadows on the sun. Shouts to Steady Bloggin for unearthing this old radio recording. Silence for the rest.

Stream:

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