A beginner’s guide to Augustus Pablo
The visionary reggae musician Augustus Pablo was part of a small group of creative souls whose approach to recorded sound indelibly changed the shape of Jamaican popular music, and the repercussions of his ingenuity have echoed far beyond his native land.
Although best known for his mastery of the melodica, easily being the world’s premier exponent of that peculiar instrument, his musical skill was not limited to merely conquering the hand-held child’s toy. Indeed, Pablo was a pioneering record producer in his own right, as well as a renowned session keyboardist. His uniquely spirited instrumentals, most of which took inspiration directly from his profound belief in Rastafari, took reggae music to a higher plateau, and the mournful quality of Pablo’s ‘Far East’ sound resulted in some of the most striking moments of the roots reggae era.
In addition to helping solidify the reggae genre at the start of the 1970s, Augustus Pablo was a key figure of dub artistry, since his early collaborations with King Tubby are exemplary, and his experimental collaboration with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry raised the dub instrumental to another level. Pablo was also an early champion of the drum machine and often experimented with computer-generated rhythms in his later works, somehow always infusing his creations with an undercurrent of organic synergy informed by the pulsating rhythms of Africa.
He was born Horace Swaby in 1954, the son of a prominent lawyer of part-Indian extraction. At the prestigious Kingston College, his classmates included talented musicians such as drummer Sparrow Martin (a later Studio One stalwart and current bandleader at the Alpha Boys School), along with keyboardist and trumpeter Ralph Holding and a trombonist called ‘Poco’, with whom Horace began jamming at school. But his greatest role model in music was Jackie Mittoo, the legendary keyboardist and arranger that had such a prominent role at Studio One during the early years of the Jamaican music industry. And although the future Pablo was raised in an uptown, mixed-race environment, he later forged his strongest affinity with the black disenfranchised of the Rastafari movement, typically found in Kingston’s most peripheral spaces.
In 1968, as the new reggae style took Jamaica by storm, young Horace was anxious to begin recording. Undeterred when an audition with the Wailers band came to nothing, he continued to nurture his musical ambition by familiarising himself with a number of different keyboard instruments. His musical aptitude asserted itself strongly in these teen years, particularly after physical difficulties resulted in long absences from school, first when a peer seriously injured his eye, and later when he contracted pneumonia. Continued ill health saw him eventually removed from Kingston College for good.
Expected to support himself, though he was still living at home, he began holding neighbourhood dances with the small sound system he established with his brother in the late 1960s, as a means to raise a bit of income. They called the sound ‘Rockers,’ and the name itself would eventually come to signify roots reggae at its most authentic.
The Swaby brothers often bought their records at Herman Chin-Loy’s Aquarius record shop in Half Way Tree, a commercial district that marks a boundary line between uptown and downtown Kingston, and as the 60s gave way to the 70s, Herman began venturing into record production himself, which is how Horace became a professional musician. In 1968-69, reggae was a fast-paced dance music led by aggressive organ riffs and the harsh chopping of brash rhythm guitars, but a handful of insightful producers were slowing the beat in the early 1970s, seeking greater textural depth through experimentation with other instruments. When Horace Swaby came into Herman’s shop one fateful day in 1971 with a melodica he had borrowed from a school friend, the producer was curious enough about the instrument to bring Swaby into the studio. He thus launched the career of a highly talented individual with a unique take on instrumental sound whose work would bring great changes to the reggae form, ultimately resulting in the music’s broader international exposure. Chin-Loy had been using the name Augustus Pablo for instrumental work by Glen Adams, but Horace Swaby wound up with the moniker after Adams migrated to New York. Another step in the right direction came via his old school friend, Clive Chin, who cut the debut Augustus Pablo album in 1972.
Although Pablo continued to cut material for different producers, he began producing his own work that same year, turning the Rockers label into a serious concern by 1974. A series of exemplary albums followed, featuring both Pablo’s own work and material cut with associates such as Junior Delgado, Earl 16, Delroy Williams, Tetrack and Yami Bolo, and even though Pablo never warmed to the dancehall style, his post-digital recordings maintained high standards. What follows are 10 of Augustus Pablo’s most outstanding releases: choice nuggets from a generally exceptional career.
‘East Of The River Nile’
(Aquarius/Big Shot 7”, 1971)
Pablo’s debut session for producer and record vendor Herman Chin-Loy yielded ‘East of the River Nile,’ an atmospheric slice of reggae jazz which contrasted a galloping, off-kilter rhythm with a particularly spirited melodica line that conjured images of ancient African civilizations. Though Chin-Loy had purchased the bare-bones Upsetters rhythm track from Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, it was Pablo’s overdubbed minor-key melody that gave the song the mysterious and meditative air that made it so popular.
‘East of the River Nile’ ultimately marked a turning point for the reggae instrumental by launching the plastic melodica as a viable lead instrument, and pointed towards the greater prominence of dub through the mixing enhancements of its B-side; it also revealed the depth of feeling Pablo was capable of spontaneously imparting through an oddball implement normally used to teach schoolkids the rudiments of music.
Augustus Pablo/Chosen Few
(Impact 7”, 1971)
Awarded ‘best instrumental’ in Jamaica in 1972, ‘Java’ was a landmark of instrumental reggae. Producer Clive Chin had put together the rhythm track of the song for a romantic ballad called ‘Young Love’ written by lesser-known singer Douglas Boothe, but when Boothe failed to muster a plausible take, Chin voiced a few choice interjections onto the rhythm with harmony group the Chosen Few, inspired by the Impressions’ Eastern-themed film score track ‘East Of Java.’
Pablo’s outstanding lead melodica line is entirely mesmerising, and its minor-key melody has helped it retain widespread and enduring appeal throughout the years, leading to various adaptations both in Jamaica and overseas. The debut album This Is Augustus Pablo was framed around ‘Java’ too, with nary a weak track in earshot.
(Hot Stuff 7”, 1972)
Pablo made his first forays into record production in 1972, channelling product onto the Hot Stuff label, which later morphed into Rockers. Session work for various producers helped with the financing of his own productions, which were already striking different from that of his peers. ‘Cassava Piece’ is one of the best of the early batch to surface, and its irresistible rhythm would be returned to several times later, most notably for Jacob Miller’s ‘Baby I Love You So’ as well as its awesome dub version, ‘King Tubby Meets The Rockers Uptown’ (though the rhythm was significantly restricted by the time that single surfaced). ‘Cassava Piece’ is the sound of Pablo finding his way in the world, both as a solo instrumentalist and a record producer.
‘Who Say Jah No Dread’
(Rockers International 7”, 1975)
Rotund tenor Jacob Miller is best known as lead vocalist with Inner Circle, the uptown club act that made a huge impact in Jamaica, leading to major label contracts overseas and eventual flirtation with pop, rock and disco. Miller himself had ghetto grounding, and Augustus Pablo drew out his most authentic roots side on the work they did together during the mid-1970s. ‘Who Say Jah No Dread’ is a stunning statement of Rastafari defiance, Miller decrying the growing commercialisation of the movement atop one of Pablo’s most striking rhythms, its stop-start nature nicely contrasted by pounding drum rolls, leering trombone lines, and throbbing bass (check the dub flipside to get the fullness of its uncommon rhythmic underpinning).
‘Africa Must Be Free By 1983’
(Rockers International 7”, 1977)
Augustus Pablo met Hugh Mundell through fellow singer Earl 16, who was trying to help him navigate the treacherous waters of the Jamaican music industry. Mundell was essentially another middle class kid who had gravitated to Rastafari, and he’d been trying to break into the music scene by hanging around Kingston recording studios such as Joe Gibbs’.
Mundell’s voice was high and thin, but certainly powerful, and his lyrics informed by a Rastafari worldview giving him innate kinship with Pablo. The resultant ‘Africa Must Be Free By 1983’ single is a veritable anthem that demanded freedom for the continent and the entire black race, its international popularity leading to an excellent album of the same name, issued with a stunning dub counterpart (mixed by Prince Jammy at King Tubby’s studio).
‘Away With Your Fussing And Fighting’
(Rockers 12”, 1978)
Junior Delgado got his start in harmony group Time Unlimited, who recorded sparse work for Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Rupie Edwards in the mid-1970s. After Delgado went solo around 1975, he cut a few excellent singles with Perry and Niney the Observer, and later enjoyed a long and fruitful partnership with Dennis Brown.
‘Away With Your Fussing And Fighting’ captures the best of his gruff, booming voice, here lashing out directly against the pervasive negativity of the Babylonian way of life. This extended 12-inch single is also noteworthy for Hugh Mundell’s deejay toasting section, ‘Selassie I Veranda’ (credited to Jah Levi), while the flip-side has a superb instrumental take by Pablo as ‘King David’s Melody’, which segues into a fearsome dub portion at the end.
‘We Are One In The Spirit’
(Rockers 7”, 1978)
Not much has emerged about the identity of Sister Frica. She is known to have sung backing vocals on Ricky Grant’s Poverty People album, which suggests a New York connection, and she may or may not have been called Pat, the sole songwriter’s name credited on the original Jamaica issue of this release. In any case, this one-away track is a total killer, an ethereal slice of Rasta livity based on an old gospel tune, but here with Frica’s lilting voice placed atop a particularly thick slice of heavily phased Black Ark rhythm, peppered by plenty of Africa-inspired percussion.
(Mango 12”, 1986)
The unprecedented success of Wayne Smith’s Casio-driven ‘Sleng Teng’ hurtled Jamaica full-throttle into the digital age in 1985, but Augustus Pablo had been using drum machines several years prior to that; he began making increasingly frequent use of digital technology thereafter, but always on his own terms, as opposed to those of the marketplace.
‘Ragamuffin Year’ speaks to the process in its mutant electro beats and synth lines, with Delgado directly calling on Ronald Reagan and Pik Botha to get their acts together, asking the former to stop penalising Jamaica with punitive policies, and the latter to free Nelson Mandela. The extended dub portion reveals the backing rhythm to be more than just a dancehall conundrum, bearing the hallmarks of Pablo’s outsider sensibilities, with expressive conga drums amongst the metal machine sounds.
Blowing With The Wind
(Greensleeves/Shanachie/Message LP, 1990)
As dancehall progressed by leaps and bounds, the predominant sound in Jamaica during the late 1980s and early 1990s typically harnessed the barest of computer rhythms for backing, over which hardcore deejays would spit super-charged lyrics of gun violence or sexual prowess, or singers might graft an old rhythm and blues tune onto the harsh new beats. August Pablo bypassed such approaches entirely, staying true to his tradition of carving out sounds that were unique and different, crafting meditative message music his own way.
‘Blowing With The Wind’, the title track to a wonderful album that surfaced in different territories in 1990, shows that the master had lost none of his edge through the passing of time. Like the rest of the album, this song has a wonderful organic quality to it, Pablo’s psychedelic keyboards and uplifting melodica parts given a boost from guitarist Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith and plenty of Rasta percussion. The end result places it on par with his late-70s masterworks, facing ever forward, with no drop in quality at all.
Valley Of Jehosaphat
(Message/RAS LP, 1999)
During the 1990s, Pablo’s output seriously slowed as his health issues became more problematic. The album Valley Of Jehosaphat turned out to be his swansong, surfacing just as the great man succumbed to myasthenia gravis, the uncommon nerve disorder that has plagued him for so many years.
Like Blowing With The Wind, Valley Of Jehosaphat retained the organic quality that always marked his best work, the title track itself being perhaps the most prime example on the set. The song and album hold ample evidence that Augustus Pablo continually upheld his principles, maintaining a unique and unhurried approach to music production right to the very end.