Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Harmonica In Jamaican Music

The first harmonicas were originally manufactured and sold in Vienna Austria in the early 1820's... but going back that far and covering its history that concisely would take me about a week to even get up to speed about the topic I want to discuss here, so let's fast forward 100 years to the 1920's to make a little easier on ourselves.
The initial harmonica recordings were intended as "race records" for black audiences in the southern United States. Early records featured the harmonica either solo, paired with guitar or as a part of a jug band; who performed a combination of Appalachian, early Memphis blues (before it was officially recognized as the blues) and ragtime. But at this stage in its development the "mouth organ" was still considered to be a novelty.

Of course when the harmonica sprouted wheels and took to the road, migrating alongside the country blues from the Delta and headed to various northern cities in the U.S., it began to take on a life of its own. Musicians like Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter and Slim Harpo just to name a few, emerged as true giants of the "harp" and it would be impossible to argue that their contributions weren't crucial in creating the techniques and skills that produced the distinctive sounds that will forever be synonymous with the blues itself.
The harmonica remained a popular instrument in blues throughout the 40's, 50's and even into the 60's, with players like Paul Butterfield, even though the electric guitar was coming to prominence and quickly replacing the mouth harp's role in blues. Concurrently the harmonica even gained a place of prominence in the folk movement, with artists like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan and cross-over blues influenced rock groups like the Rolling Stones and Canned Heat.

But here's where we go South, on the globe that is, with the little harmonica history lesson...what preceded its emigration to Jamaica is not known. Little is written about the harmonica in Jamaican music so if I get anything wrong factually, let me know... in most cases I'm just going with a couple reference sources and my ear alone.

The harmonica was used often in rural acoustic mento alongside the main components banjo, guitar, saxophone, bamboo clarinet, rumba box and percussion. Since I'm nothing more than an virtually uninformed fan of mento music I'll defer to Michael Garnice's excellent Mento Music website for his observation of harmonica's place in mento...

"It seems to be a rule that if a mento song features harmonica, it would be a fantastically upbeat recording."

It seems interesting to note that while the harmonica was being used for upbeat quick tempo songs in Jamaica, in the U.S. it had shifted from being exclusive to records intended for a small single race specific audience into a genre whose subject matter obviously required a slower, sadder, moodier style. This quick tempo trend in Jamaican music lasted well into Jamaica's independence in 1963 and merged into the new sound of ska that took the island by storm that year and for quite a few years after. The harmonica was used in early ska to power the rhythm, punctuate the uptempo riffs and to occasionally provide a jamming solo. This was the one era in Jamaican music that the mouth harp would almost sound commonplace, so it would be far too easy to pick 15 ska tunes and call it a day. Believe it or not I'm not taking the easy way out... not today at least. Read on...
As ska transformed itself into rocksteady the harp was still used sparingly but as the tempo slowed, so did the playing. When reggae emerged, the harmonica was being used to add a bluesy touch to an occasional roots era recording... not all but most; the spirited playing in Toots & The Maytals "Reggae Got Soul" would definitely shoot holes in that assumption. Oddly enough the instrument had in fact somehow connected with its blues counterpart in American music and, in my opinion, was used with fairly great success.

So in order to avoid losing anyone else who might have made it this far, I'll get to the music. When I put together this mix I dug up a bunch of songs, 15 to be exact, that featured harmonica and strung them together in the mix in no particular chronological order. You'll hear ska, some rocksteady, some Studio One and of course some roots era reggae. In the track listing I've researched, as well as I could with the lack of printed information, about who is actually playing the harmonica on the featured tracks. Unfortunately many of the players names have been lost to history or just not included on the back of album covers or inside liner notes.

After the introductory riff from Sonny Boy Williamson's "Mighty Long Time," just to set the proper mood, we kick things off inna Jamaican style with one of my all-time favorite uses of harmonica regardless of genre. The song is called "Some Like It Dread," from Big Youth's Dreadlocks Dread album on the Virgin label and it features the uncredited harp playing of someone who might be none other than Jimmy Becker - Becker performed for quite a few names in the late 70's early 80's period including Big Youth, Black Uhuru, Prince Alla, Gregory Isaacs and Dennis Brown. No matter if it is Becker playing on this, or someone else, the harmonica adds a new dimension to the entire album that makes it one that never seems to grows old!

Next up in the mix is Keith Hudson and whether you love his singing style or hate it, we're focusing on the bluesy harmonica riff courtesy of William Brown, that runs throughout the track "Like I'm Dying." This track is taken from Hudson's 1975 album Torch Of Freedom on the Mamba label and the harp makes this sound more like blues with a bass line and not just another roots reggae song.

Taking a trip across the Atlantic to England for the next tune we've got Barbados born Dennis "Blackbeard" Bovell and a song called "Shi-cago" taken from his compilation CD called Decibel - More Cuts And Dubs (1976-1983) available on the Pressure Sounds label. Aside from working alongside reggae legend Linton Kwesi Johnson for close to 30 years he has also produced a variety of other genres of music which may explain his incorporation of varied elements in his reggae/dub work. The harmonica on this track is most likely provided by accomplished jazzman Julio Finn who also does the work on LKJ's "Street 66" which appears later in this mix. Aside from playing the harmonica, Finn has written a book about black European poetry called "Voices Of Negritude" and also one about blues music called "The Bluesman: The Musical Heritage Of Black Men And Women In America." Nonetheless this is a smooth track which reviewers have described as having a "sunny day feel" and I would agree but... my biased ears are always unintentionally looking for something a little more meaningful beneath the surface whenever the harp is involved.

Next up we've got a nice example of the use of harmonica in ska. This one is called "I Go" by Prince Buster and an uncredited female singer which comes from the album called Fly Flying Ska originally released on the Bluebeat label in 1964. I would say judging from Buster's history and lack of concise credits on this album it might be a safe to assume that harp is courtesy of Charles "Charly" Organaire. Organaire, who came to age in musically at the famed Alpha Boys School performed with countless ska acts such as The Skatalites, Derrick Morgan, Bobby Aitken, The Wailers, etc. and recorded for Coxsone, Beverley's and Duke Reid just to name a few.

The fifth song in the mix, featuring the confirmed harmonica of Jimmy Becker, is the track "There Is Fire" from Black Uhuru's 1980 album Sensimilla released on the Island label. Rhythm courtesy of Sly & Robbie and a nice bluesy accompaniment this makes for a good taste of Black Uhuru at its finest.

Bob Marley & The Wailers are next with the track "Talkin' Blues" from the 1974 Natty Dread album. Bluesy harmonica on this song are courtesy of American born Lee Jaffe who was a true renaissance man - a performance artist, a film maker, a photographer and a harmonica player. He met Bob Marley in New York in 1973 and for the next three years traveled and toured with the then upcoming band, photographically documenting ever move they made and eventually recording with the band. Jaffe eventually parted ways with the Wailers in 1975 due to the negative influence of the Wailers manager Don Taylor, but speaking about him could be a post all to itself so I won't go there. "Talkin' Blues" is one of my current favorite Marley tunes and it has a lot to owe to the definite blues influence not only in the title itself but in the almost melancholy tone of Jaffe's low-key style.

Next up, with a little rocksteady groove, are the Supersonics and the track "Rocking Soul" from the 1996 Heartbeat compilation CD called Run Rhythm Run: Instrumental Scorchers From Treasure Isle. Again there is no definitive credit for who performed the prevalent wailing harmonica throughout but my guess would probably be Charley Organaire since he did spend considerable time recording with Duke Reid.

The late harmonica great Roy Richards (1941-2007) follows it up with the song "Another Thing" from the Soul Jazz Studio One Funk CD. Aside from blowing a mean mouth organ, Richards was an accomplished singer and drummer and unfortunately passed away 3 days ago on May 28th! His influence and soulful playing helped create the ska sound in the early 60's and his skill is evident in this track. A great song and of course a timeless Studio One production that makes for some smooth listening! I'm saddened to hear of his passing...

Linton Kwesi Johnson alongside Dennis Bovell and Julio Finn with the classic "Street 66" taken from LKJ's 1980 album Bass Culture released on Island Records. I absolutely love this song - such a deep moody rhythm accentuated with the wail of Finn's bluesy riffs masterfully woven throughout the strong visual lyrics - fantastic reggae harmonica at its best! For example...
The room was dark
Dusk howling softly 6 o'clock
Charcoal light
The fine sight
Was moving black
The sound was music mellow steady flow
And man son mind just mystic red, green, red, green
Your scene...

It just calls for some harmonica! If you've never "Street 66" before you're in for a some amazing vibes. I get strong vibes every time I listen to this one!

Up next is an artist who went by the name of D. Tony Lee. He was in fact Donald Antonio Lee, brother of producer extraordinaire Bunny Lee and former store manager for Bunny's WIRL Studios. Tony Lee produced a couple tracks in 1968-69 and this one is called, "Regay Time" and comes from a 2001 compilation CD called Do The Reggay, The Early Reggae Singles on the Westside label. Tony provided the harmonica solos as well as the vocals for this lively tune and it provides a nice sampling of reggae in its infancy.

We've got two in a row from Studio One next and as is the case with a lot of Sir Coxsone's plethora of productions, certain performers aren't given credit on the album sleeves or in the CD liner notes. The first Studio One track by the Soul Brothers is called "Hot & Cold" from the 1994 Heartbeat release called Mojo Rock Steady. Of course no one is credited with the harmonica work. The second Studio One track is by an artist by the name of Big Willie and the song is "College Rock" taken from an album on the Studio One label called Toughest - Studio One Dub and again it provides no definitive identification of who was manning the harp. Interestingly "College Rock" was revamped in the early 90's and became a popular riddim for Donovan Germain's Penthouse label, though minus the harmonica. Best guess who played the harp? Roy Richards(?)

Up next are Keith Hudson and the Chuckles with a tune called "Melody Maker Version 2 (Harmonica & Bongo Dub)" from the 2004 Trojan various artists CD set called The Hudson Affair. "Melody Maker..." is an instrumental version of "Like I'm Dying" and again most likely features William Brown again on harmonica.

Sugar Minott is up next with another Studio One production. This one is the 12" extended mix of "Oh Mr. D.C." and features some absolutely killer harmonica work... where you ask? You've got to wait until you get into the version before you get to hear it. A classic song, a nice solo and again, no definitive information on who did the work. Best guess is again Roy Richards (?)

The final track in the mix comes to us courtesy of Toots And The Maytals. The song is of course "Reggae Got Soul" and originally appeared on the 1976 Island release of the same name. A timeless song with harmonica riffs throughout by the man Chicago Steve. I really couldn't find any additional information about Chicago Steve but I'm actually to the point now that even if I did I wouldn't want to alliterate... this post has been a bear!

Hope you enjoy the history lesson... I've tried to be as factually accurate as possible and I know we started off strong at the top of the playlist and started to falter toward the end but... as always, if you find anything wrong or if you have plugs for any of the holes I couldn't fill, let me know and I'll be happy to make corrections.

How appropriate... I start off the summer with my semester-ending final term paper. I haven't written that much since college!

Please enjoy the...


Anonymous said...

far too much time on your hands, man !!
excellent posts once again.

jimmy said...

great information dealing with the harmonica in jamaican music.
by-the-way, thanks for the name check.
nuff respect,

Sácate un Disco said...

great blog hermano!
i'm just begun to explore what you have.
(my english is not too good)

i said...

now THAT is a blog post. nice work man, & i look forward to listening. thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Sorry about the question, but i found your site because im looking for a song of the movie Club Paradise, Jimmi cliff island in the sun

Do your have that song? i get to you becaus e you have a thread about this movie.
greetings from Chile

John AKA Reggaexx said...

Thanks to all for the feedback and positive comments - I'm glad everyone has been diggin' what I'm doing!

Anonymous said...

good info! I've been into reggae for awhile now, mostly Marle and Tosh, but since sattelite radio came out i've been exposed to much more. I had no idea the harmonica went back so far with reggae. You've inspired me to look into this deeper.
Bunny Wailer fan from Ithaca,ny

Anonymous said...

this post is so great...

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

thank you!!! i really enjoyed that... i was looking for "some like it dread" and arrived here, but loved hearing bob marley again too and toots, of course :o)! mr dc is another of my all time faves... but never heard the "version excursion"!!

Anonymous said...

That's a great piece of work! I ran across your blog looking for info on Chicago Steve. Currently I am creating a blog for my Impact 45 collection, and here Steve is also featured with a track;It's the flipside of Big Youth's "Natty No Jester", Called "Last of the Jestering". check it (still in construction) here:

Anonymous said...

i just came across this blog!
really great info!

i would love to get my ears in this "Harmonica Jamaican Style"

is there anyway you could bring this file back??

Kazzi said...

dude...definitely just borrowed a ton of your references and put them on my show...thank you soooo freaking much for having the passion and interest in harmonica and its influence on all genres of music.

Keep Harpin' - Dj Kamakazzi

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great post and the gift of a mix. I grew up in London in the early days of LKJ, which was a real treat. Now live in the US and play harmonica. It was great to have these two interests tied together.

Nolan said...

Thanks so much for this!

Anonymous said...

Hi mate.

Great post, really! I would really really like to get my hands on that mix but it would seem all the download links are broken! If there's any way that I could get my hands on that mix I would be stoked!

While realizing that I'm a bit 'late' I really just had to try!

Here's my e-mail in case you get this:
m.andersen8600 )at(

Anonymous said...

How about the Gladiators' Sweet So Till? The harmonica playing throughout is not the least of that album's charms.