The gifted musician Cedric ‘Im’ Brooks was an individualist who brought a unique vision to reggae music.
Though chiefly known as a virtuoso saxophonist, Brooks was also a talented arranger whose approach yielded some of the most complex and challenging works of the roots reggae era of the 1970s. He was also an intense spiritualist with an individual interpretation of Rastafari, another reggae magus who pursued ethereal connections in an effort to link spiritual devotion with musical expression. Meeting this quietly contemplative yet forceful man in person, it was easy to understand why he named his band the Mystics during a time when most other Jamaican groups were concentrating on love ballads and dance tunes.
Cedric Brooks was born in 1943 in the west Kingston slum of Denham Town, which borders onto the more famous Trench Town. He was raised in the same household as the noted trumpeter, Baba Brooks, and the dwelling was owned by a Salvation Army major, so both church music and secular songs were rehearsed at the space throughout his youth.
At the age of eight he was sent by to the Alpha Boy’s School, the infamous Catholic charitable home for wayward or abandoned youth, which had a strong element of musical instruction for selected students thanks to the resident jazz-mad nun and erstwhile sound system selector, Sister Mary Ignatius Davies. Brooks started on piano and clarinet at Alpha, benefiting from the tutelage of bandmasters Ruben Delgado and Charles Clarke, as well as the great Lennie Hibbert, who would later cut excellent vibraphone albums at Studio One. Training was rigorous at Alpha and young Cedric showed strong musical aptitude.
Brooks can be considered a true pioneer of ‘world music’
After Alpha, Brooks joined the Jamaica Military Band on clarinet. In 1961, while still a teenager, he travelled with the Jamaican Military Band to perform in distant Newfoundland in Canada, and by the time of the trip he’d already found his way into the Vagabonds, which swiftly became one of the most popular nightclub and hotel acts of the day. He switched to tenor saxophone while in this group, finally finding his way to the instrument on which he would truly excel, though at this point, he was still mostly playing popular foreign cover tunes in a live setting. Brooks cut a few debut recordings with the Vagabonds at this time, including the fast-paced instrumental single ‘Hula Twist,’ which he composed and led.
In 1964, after connecting with Canadian manager Roger Smith, the Vagabonds moved to London, but Brooks stayed behind to enjoy tenures in all of Jamaica’s leading live jazz acts. He was initially playing with Sonny Bradshaw’s big band, as well as Kes Chin and the Souvenirs, but then joined the Granville Williams Orchestra on baritone sax, rubbing shoulders in that group with fellow saxophonists Roland Alphonso and Tommy McCook, as well as guitarist Ernest Ranglin.
Brooks then spent a year in the house band at Montego Bay’s Club 35 with keyboardist Leslie Butler and guitarist Headley Jones, before briefly joining Cecil Lloyd’s group at the Playboy Club in Oracabessa, only to leave shortly thereafter for the Bahamas in Carlos Malcolm’s Afro-Jamaican Rhythms. Brooks subsequently backed Jamaican lounge music specialist Teddy Greaves at a hotel in Freeport, and played for a time at Peanuts Taylor’s club in Nassau, but soon tired of performing for tourists.
Thinking of Brooks’ mindset in the ‘60s, he can be considered a true pioneer of ‘world music’. In addition to jazz players from the black American avant-garde such as John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders, Brooks was highly inspired by an early compilation of Ethiopian music he encountered at this time, which opened his mind to the possibility of non-Western melodies, chord structures and time signatures.
A major artistic and personal turning point came with his move to Philadelphia in 1968, where he enrolled at the esteemed Combs College of Music. Meeting saxophonist Sonny Rollins, avant-garde vocalist Leon Thomas, and perhaps most importantly, members of Sun Ra’s outer-worldly Arkestra, expanded Brooks’ musical and philosophical horizons, and he subsequently sought to draw the two spheres together to express an unorthodox spiritual philosophy which drew from an awareness of a denigrated African heritage.
When Brooks returned to Jamaica in 1970, his head was bald and he wore a prominent beard, visible trappings of his Philadelphian transformation. He began recording at Studio One, making an instant impact in the chilling horn fanfare that frames Burning Spear’s landmark single, ‘Door Peep’. Teaming with trumpeter David Madden as Im & David (the ‘Im’ referencing his adoption of the Rastafari faith in an abbreviated form of Halie Selassie’s ‘Imperial Majesty’ appellation), Brooks recorded a handful of intense instrumentals at Studio One, with ‘Money Maker’ causing the greatest impact, followed by the popular ‘Candid Eye’ and other more challenging creations.
Grounation was a wild, no-holds-barred expression of Rastafari consciousness and free jazz
Determined to start an Afrocentric group that would explore Jamaica’s rich musical traditions more overtly, Brooks then formed the Mystics with Madden and a handful of other players that were not particularly known at the time, including Lloyd ‘Gitsy’ Willis (who passed through the Upsetters, and who would later play with Sly and Robbie, among others), the upright bassist and poet Joe Rugglus, plus drummer Danny Mowatt and a singer called Chuku, aiming to push the boundaries of reggae by incorporating elements of free-form jazz.
In April 1971 the group gave a collaborative performance with Count Ossie’s Rastafarian drum troupe, and the end result was a fusion of the two entities, known as the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari (though Madden and several other members then broke away to form Zap Pow, displeased by the move towards non-standard forms of spirituality). Hugely influential in Jamaica and the broader Caribbean, the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari toured Guyana, Trinidad, Canada and the USA in 1972, and later performed during the official state visits of African leaders to Jamaica, including Mozambique’s Samora Machel. Their debut album, the incredibly raw three-LP set, Grounation, was unlike anything that had preceded it, being a wild, no-holds-barred expression of Rastafari consciousness and free jazz, inspired by the African motherland. Brooks played a prominent role in the creation of the album, and in nearly all of their subsequent releases.
In 1973, Brooks began running musical workshops at the University of the West Indies’ Mona campus, and soon formed a new group called the Divine Light, which was closely connected to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and modelled somewhat on Sun Ra’s Arkestra, with Fela Kuti and Hugh Masakela among the other prominent musical influences. In addition to their grounding at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church on Maxfield Avenue, the group performed regularly at the uptown Turntable club, as well as at Brooks’ home, and their debut album, From Mento to Reggae to Third World Music, explored the evolution of the island’s traditional folk forms as they moved into ska, rocksteady and reggae, serving as a recorded parallel to the popular lectures Brooks gave in this era at the Institute of Jamaica in downtown Kingston.
The group was renamed Light of Saba in 1974, using an alternate appellation for Ethiopia, and the self-titled album that was soon issued took the form of a complex stew of instrumental reggae jazz with African rhythmic underpinnings. The following year the group toured Cuba at the request of Fidel Castro, and Brooks was prominently featured on the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari’s wonderful second album, Tales of Mozambique, being responsible as well for its musical arrangements.
The following year saw the issue of The Light of Saba’s In Reggae, another superb set, and although less grand in structure, Brooks’ 1977 Studio One solo album, Im Flash Forward, was also excellent, highlighting the emotive power of the melodies he blew over classic Studio One rhythms; One Essence was another tremendous set to surface that same year.
Like many of his peers, Brooks also moonlighted as a session player for much of his career, which is why he was present on classic roots reggae albums such as the Abyssinnians’ Arise, Ernest Ranglin’s Ranglin Roots, Beres Hammond’s Soul Reggae, Junior Delgado’s Taste of the Young Heart, Culture’s Cumbolo, Rico Rodriguez’s That Man Is Forward, and Rita Marley’s Who Feels It Knows It. But Brooks did more than simply play on records like these. He took a far more active role at such sessions, greatly influencing the overall result.
By the time Light of Saba’s Sabebe album was released in 1979, Brooks had formed United Africa, a huge conglomerate of over 30 members, their sole album a masterpiece of Afrocentric big band reggae jazz. Brooks also appeared prominently on another MRR album, the mysterious One Truth, which may have been cut significantly earlier. Following his subsequent relocation to New York, his musical output inevitably slowed, though this is partly because he spent long periods in Ethiopia, studying spiritual matters and becoming acquainted with the music and culture of the country.
Brooks recorded with Carlos Malcolm in Los Angeles in 1998, and also collaborated with the California-based Rhythm Doctors on a 2004 single, ‘Mad Dog’. A new album surfaced early in the new millennium too, A No Nut’n, which had some inspired melodies from Brooks, but the musical backing was largely lacklustre. Following the death of Roland Alphonso, Brooks also became a longstanding member of the reformed Skatalites, and toured widely with them before being hospitalised himself in 2010, suffering from diabetes, hypertension, and eventually pneumonia, which ultimately led to his death in May 2013.
Here are a baker’s dozen of Cedric Brooks’ most outstanding moments, each an example of the impact he brought to bear through his unusual playing style and incomparable arranging skills.
‘Hula Twist’ is something of a teaser. Even though Brooks was only 18 years old at its time of recording, the song already gives a sense that a Cedric Brooks composition is never going to be something ordinary or pedestrian, even with a jaunty little dance tune like this. Brooks’ time in the Vagabonds was a good grounding thanks to interaction with keen musicians such as pianist Herman Sang, one of the earliest keyboardists to record for future Studio One founder, Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd. ‘Hula Twist’ may not be particularly profound, but for the teenaged Brooks, it shows tremendous promise, with his individuality already intact.
Sound Dimension (Im & David)
An understated early effort from Im & David, ‘Money Maker’ is an instrumental re-casting of the Heptones’ great ‘Fatty Fatty’. It’s a good example of the pair’s keen matching as a duo, since the song begins and ends with them paralleling each other in dual chorus mode, but also allows each to lay down an expressive solo in the middle. The song was so popular that it inspired Clement Dodd to issue a Various Artists album of the same name, and the follow-up single, ‘Candid Eye’, cut on John Holt’s ‘A Love I Can Feel’, was equally pleasant. This kind of material is in stark contrast to songs like Burning Spear’s ‘Door Peep’, whose ominous quality was underscored by its Im & David horn fanfare, but the pleasant melodiousness of ‘Money Maker’ is no less enjoyable.
Sound Dimension (Im & David)
This stunning instrumental B-side is a taste of things to come, with the usual Im & David format of choral horn parts framing the beginnings and endings, but the evocative solos are far more forceful here, especially with Brooks’ unfettered opening sax blast. You can hear the free jazz element of his Philadelphia sojourn on ‘Mun-Dun-Gu’, and there’s a real underpinning of soul throughout the tune, with some subtle niyabinghi percussion adding a palpable African dimension.
Everything is coming together as the song unfolds and it’s easy to understand why Im & David were favourites of Coxsone in this crucial transitional phase, as roots reggae began to emerge as the predominant style in Jamaica. Overall, it’s a terrific example of Brooks’ evolving consciousness, as expressed through instrumental sound.
Mystic Revelation of Rastafari
(New Dimension/Ashanti, 1973)
The merging of Cedric Brooks’ Mystics with Count Ossie’s drum troupe had dramatic repercussions for Jamaican popular music during the early 1970s. Ossie’s African drumming formed the perfect grounding element for Brooks and his peers, and Brooks was naturally the most appropriate choice of musical arranger for the group, who’d been staging wild jazz jams in praise of the ‘Most High’ at Ossie’s base in the east Kingston hills since the late 1950s, which of course helped give birth to ska.
The album Grounation was recorded at the small New Dimension studio, established by jazz collector Arnold Wedderburn specifically for the project, and is a landmark as the first reggae triple-disc concept album. On ‘Mabrat’ (probably a misprint of the word ‘mabrak’, which is Amharic for thunder), you can hear the important contributions Brooks is making, both as instrumental player and a musical arranger; his sax takes the lead with a meandering melody that hearkens back to Jamaican folk songs, but now propelled in different directions through the niyabinghi backing of Ossie’s drummers, and the avant-garde jazz framing of the other horns.
‘400 Years’, ‘Ethiopian Serenade’, ‘Way Back Home’ and ‘Lumba’ (the latter an update of ‘Drum Song’) are other outstanding Brooks-driven moments from this true landmark release.
Light of Saba
In the early 1970s, in addition to his work with the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, Cedric Brooks was also exploring different aspects of Jamaica’s musical heritage and the role of African drumming within it, and he did this at the helm of the Divine Light, which was heavily connected to the Kingston branch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Their debut album, From Mento to Reggae to Third World Music, began with interpretations of folk songs such as ‘Sly Mongoose’ and ‘Nobody’s Business’ and moved up to revisit Justin Hinds’ ‘Carry Go Bring Come’, the Wailers’ ‘Put It On’ and various Skatalites creations, as well as a loping take of the Abyssinnians’ ‘Satta Massa Ganna’. The group soon morphed into the Light of Saba, whose self-titled debut album, featured trombonist Nambo Robinson, guitarist David ‘Little D’ Trail, and bassist/vocalist Michael Ras Star, along with a number of drummers.
Of the eight songs that made up the original LP, ‘Sabasi’ is a driving piece of horn-led reggae jazz that draws African cadences into its guitar lines and drum parts. Nambo and Cedric trade evocative horn parts as highlife and Afrobeat rhythms chop and change underneath; ‘Words of Wisdom’, a tale of hypocrisy with an unusual musical structure, sung with conviction by Michael Ras Star, is also mightily compelling.
Mystic Revelation of Rastafari
‘Sam’s Intro’ (‘Nigerian Reggae’)
(Dynamic Sounds, 1975)
Mystic Revelation of Rastafari’s Tales of Mozambique showed considerable evolution from Grounation. Recorded at Dynamic Sounds (then one of the best-equipped facilities in the entire Caribbean), the album evidences a considerably higher level of fidelity than its predecessor, and this time the group unveiled a single-disc concept album, exploring the legacies of the Portuguese colonial escapade in south-east Africa.
The first song is titled ‘Sam’s Intro’, but I have always suspected this to be another mis-title, since the opening piece is a haunting instrumental led by Cedric Brooks’ emotive sax lines, followed immediately by ‘Tales of Mozambique’, which begins with a lengthy spoken intro by the group’s orator, Sam Clayton. In any case, the opening instrumental conveys a lot of feeling in a short space of time, with Brooks’ sax blowing out the pain, frustration and anguish that resulted from Vasco de Gama’s arrival in the region and the subsequent era of Portuguese colonisation, which saw local people forcibly shipped overseas as slaves. The repeated refrain that opens and closes the song somehow sums up what the album is all about, and once again highlights Brooks’ crucial role in the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari during the 1970s.
Light of Saba
(Total Sounds, 1976)
The Light of Saba’s second album, In Reggae, was also recorded at Harry J with Sylvan Morris, but given a final mix-down by Errol Thompson at Joe Gibbs, giving the set more of a three-dimensional quality than their self-titled debut. Cedric Brooks, Nambo Robinson and Michael Ras Star are again to the fore, and there are moments of African elements that crop up along the way, but jazz reigns supreme.
‘Rebirth’ starts with a shouted exhortation on the need to be ‘born again’, before the horns take up their places in unison; a lilting flute melody pulls the tune into unexpected directions, and forms a good foil to Nambo’s deeper trombone lines. Brooks subsequently left Light of Saba, which continued under the direction of the singer and academic Eleanor Wint, the group then led by guitarist/bassist/vocalist Philip White, Dean Fraser, and Calvin Cameron.
‘Give Rasta Glory’
(Studio One, 1977)
Brooks’ first proper solo album, Im Flash Forward, is a thoroughly delightful affair. Recorded at Studio One with Sylvan Morris, there are some fine instrumental interpretations of the works of others, such as a sax cut of Freddy McKay’s ‘Picture On The Wall’ and an inspired adaptation of Junior Byles’ ‘Beat Down Babylon’, but mostly the album sees Brooks blowing hugely expressive original sax pieces over unfamiliar rhythms.
The opening ‘Glory To Sound’ kicks things off on an optimistic note, but ‘Give Rasta Glory’ is probably the most outstanding track on the set. The song makes clear just how much feeling Brooks can impart from his tenor sax, and the way he blows over this chugging rhythm, based on stop-start organ chords and driving niyabinghi percussion, reminds that he is able to excel with even the most minimal of backing. Note that the original issue of this album has a different mix from all subsequent issues, which heightens the spatial quality of its stereophonic form.
(High Note, 1977)
Brooks’ One Essence album was recorded at Treasure Isle with Errol Brown for producer Sonia Pottinger. Along with the usual slew of drummers, Brooks was now working with guitarist Lennox Gordon, fellow saxophonist Dean Fraser, and trombonist Calvin Cameron. The result was yet another thoroughly excellent LP that placed Brooks’ inspired jazz melodies and arrangements atop a niyabinghi bedrock, with just enough reggae in the rhythm to remind us that Jamaica is the locale.
‘Africa Calling’ is one of the album’s highlights, with Brooks’ melancholic melody allowing space for complementary lines from Gordon; ‘Blackness of Darkness’ from the same LP is another driving stew of reggae jazz.
Cedric ‘Im’ Brooks
United Africa was probably Cedric Brooks’ most ambitious project. Recorded at Aquarius with over 30 different musicians and about nine vocalists, the end result is an astounding album of deep roots reggae, given the big band treatment. The back cover photo, which shows Brooks clad in a white robe, blowing his sax from the top of a large tree, signals that we are heading towards psychedelic territory, and the whole shebang is one awesome piece of music.
Among the many great musicians featured on the disc, we get Ernest Ranglin and Lennox Gordon on guitar, Harold Butler on piano and his brother Leslie on organ, David Madden on trumpet, Nelson Miller on drums and a young Beres Hammond on percussion (as well as Dean Fraser on sax and Calvin Cameron on trombone). These players were all top-of-the-line musicians and they admirably rose to the challenge posed by Brooks’ complicated compositions and arrangements.
The whole album is riveting, and tracks like ‘Silent Force’ are as complex as they are agreeable, yet the most dramatic moment is probably provided in the opening take of the Abyssinians’ ‘Satta Masa Ganna’, now transformed into a multi-layered majestic cacophony, laden with edgy tension—seven minutes of musical bliss, with a killer solo from Brooks mid-way through. This is ‘Satta’ as never heard before or since, stretching the very limits of the reggae form.
Cedric Brooks and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari
‘Song For South Africa’
The album One Truth is something of a mystery. It was issued in limited form on vinyl (allegedly circa 1980) and later reissued on CD, but with no information about where and when the tracks were recorded, though judging by the audience clapping between tracks, it must have been a live concert somewhere.
There are some niyabinghi interpretations of ska tracks such as ‘Occupation’ and ‘Rock Fort Rock’, as well as yet another take of ‘Satta’, but the one I like best is ‘Song For South Africa’, which really gets under your skin, despite the messiness of the playing and the generally lo-fi audio setting. Not necessarily a crucial release, but still worth pursuing.
Sugar Minott and Cedric Brooks
‘Nuh Know It Like We’
(Hit Bound, 1985)
Though Cedric Brooks became less active after leaving Jamaica for New York, he continued to record sporadically, especially for Clement Dodd, who had also switched Kingston for Brooklyn. ‘Nuh Know It Like We’ was cut for Joseph Hoo-Kim of Channel One, who had also decamped to the NYC area. Though the song is not a particularly outstanding effort for either Minott or Brooks, it’s still highly enjoyable and Brooks’ dubby horn version, which begins miday, is a true bonus for fans of his work.
The Rhythm Doctors (featuring Cedric Brooks)
In later years, Cedric Brooks reunited with Carlos Malcolm in Los Angeles, and toured widely with the Skatalites. His globetrotting days put him into the orbit of a southern California band called the Rhythm Doctors (members of which would also be part of the Aggrolites), and the single ‘Mad Dog’ showed it was a good pairing, with Brooks providing a suitably soaring sax riff over the spongy, heavily-phased retro rhythm. Like pretty much everything the man ever recorded, this late effort is definitely worth investigating.