Augustus Pablo was a master instrumentalist who made a lasting contribution to Jamaican music both through his own work and through the development of younger artists signed to his Rockers International label. He developed the distinctive “Far East” sound by combining the melodica and sinuous, hypnotic, minor-key melodies. In addition, Pablo created, through collaboration with dub stylist King Tubby, what many believe to be the greatest dub album of all time, King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown.
Augustus Pablo was born Horace Swaby on June 21, 1954, in St. Andrews, Jamaica, and was raised in Kingston’s middle-class Havendale district. His frequent bouts of ill health forced him to leave Kingston College (a high school). He concentrated instead on his musical skills, learning to play piano, organ, xylo-phone, and clarinet. While still in school, Swaby became acquainted with members of the Chin family, who were prominent on the Jamaican musical scene.
A friend introduced Swaby to the melodica (a harmonica with keyboard), which is used to teach music in Jamaican schools. When he entered Herman Chin-Loy’s record shop with the instrument one day, Chin-Loy, a record producer, asked him to play it. This was the start of Swaby’s recording career. He cut “Iggy Iggy,” on the Aquarius label under the name Augustus Pablo, which Chin-Loy often used for instrumentals. This cut marks the first time the melodica was treated as a serious instrument and the exotic sound soon caught on, becoming an integral part of the reggae sound. Swaby, now known as Augustus Pablo, became much in demand as a studio musician, joining the house band at Randy’s Studio 17, one of Kingston’s top studios. He also did session work with producers such as Lee Perry, contributing keyboards to early Wailers’ recordings.
Pablo moved from Chin-Loy to former Kingston classmate Clive Chin as producer and in 1972, at the age of 18, releasing the single “Java” on Chin’s Impact label. This proved to be Pablo’s first hit and gave a hint of what he would call the “Far East” sound, described by Jon Pareles in the New York Times as “haunting, minor-key tunes with sparse lines for melodica … floating above deep bass lines and echoing keyboards.” This sound was further developed in Pablo’s next instrumental single “East of the River Nile,” on which Pablo’s alternating melodica and organ solos were laid down on top of a jagged rhythm.
In 1972 after some disagreement over financial and artistic matters, Pablo established his own label, Rocker’s International, named after his brother Garth’s Rockers sound system, which he had operated since the late 1960s. His first releases were a mix of new versions of old songs and original compositions. Pablo’s long-play debut was This is Augustus Pablo, a collection of instrumentals released in 1974 in which he played a number of keyboard instruments, including his signature melodica. Pablo also remained much in demand as a session musician and continued to work with Jamaica’s leading producers throughout the 1970s. It was his work with an engineer, King Tubby, however, that would produce one of the period’s most notable achievements.
At the end of the 1960s, Osbourne Ruddock, also known as King Tubby, pioneered the creation of dub, in which popular songs’ backing tracks were treated with simple studio effects to create new versions—a precursor of the club remix in dance music. Tubby, a sound engineer and disc cutter, did not produce the records, but worked from master tapes brought to him to make entirely new creations. Tubby experimented with the sound, introducing distortion and delays, flange, echo, drop-out, and reverb. As Marc Wiedenbaum, writing in Pulse!, explained, “Dub’s emphasis on reverberation carves out imaginary spaces for contemplation—and casual partying. The result is an odd form of spiritual music: one that is indebted to technology, however primitive.”
Pablo’s instrumental tracks, with their spare lines, “empty spaces,” and rudimentary “riddims,” provided a canvas on which Tubby could add his dub stylings. Their 1976 collaboration King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown proved to be a monumental event. Lloyd Bradley, in his book This is Reggae Music: The Story of Jamaica’s Music, describes this album as “a subtle, strikingly orchestral album, with the shimmering melodic depths of Pablo’s production and the cocky, high-
Born Horace Swaby on June 21, 1954, in St. Andrews, Jamaica; died on May 18, 1999, in Kingston, Jamaica.
First single, “Iggy Iggy,” introduced melodica to reggae; was given name Augustus Pablo by producer Herman Chin-Loy, 1969; inaugurated “Far East” sound with single “East of the River Nile”; released first major Jamaican hit, “Java,” began own label, Rockers International, 1972; released debut This Is Augustus Pablo, 1974; released masterpiece, King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown, 1976; released instrumental collection, East of the River Nile, 1978; continued to release instrumental recordings and produce singles for Junior Delgado, Hugh Mundell, others, 1970s-1980s; released instrumental set, Blowing with the Wind, 1990.
stepping, high-end rhythms giving the mixer plenty to work with.” The title cut, a reworking of Jacob Miller’s “Baby, I Love You So,” anchored by Pablo’s distinctive melodica line, deep echo and delay effects, and “cutup” vocals, set new standards and greatly furthered both Pablo’s and Tubby’s reputations.
Pablo continued to press the limits and enrich the vocabulary of Jamaican music, both through his own recordings and his production of others. The latter were as distinctive as his playing, with sophisticated arrangements that helped launch the careers of a number of talented young musicians, including Jacob Miller, Junior Delgado, Dillinger, Hugh Mundell, and Tetrack. For Miller, he produced the hit singles “Keep On Knocking,” “Each One Teach One,” and “Who Say Jah No Dread”. Mundell’s debut, the classic “Africa Must Be Free by 1983,” recorded when he was still in his teens, had a powerful impact on the times, reflecting the growing politicization of reggae and a commitment to human rights. The Rockers International style proved unique, as Junior Delgado explained to Bradley in This is Reggae Music, “His Melodica give that bidibidip…bidibidip sound so high and quick, and he construct his riddims around that. He too was a very smart man and know he couldn’t just take normal riddims and tempo of everyday songs and slot his Melodica into that so him construct a style that will carry his instrument. He knew it was the only way to get it to sound good, and because of that his sound was always exclusive to Rockers International.”
Pablo continued to record instrumentals under his own name, including the long-play East of the River Nile recorded at Lee Perry’s fabled Black Ark studio. Released in 1978 it is, perhaps, his most compelling collection of nondub instrumentals with the exception of his debut, This is Augustus Pablo. Awash with synthesizer strings and melodica, it creates a vast aural landscape.
Political violence in Jamaica, in particular that centered on the 1980 election, and the advent of the more aggressive dancehall music that followed, was not conducive to Pablo’s laid-back style, although he did produce a number of successful singles for Junior Delgado, scoring a hit with “Ragamuffin Year” in 1986. His 1990 release of Blowing in the Wind helped restore his reputation as a creative force to be reckoned with. Pablo recorded into the 1990s, keeping apace of advances in digital technology and incorporating it into his own distinctive style. In ill health for much of his life, he gradually succumbed to myasthenia gravis, a degenerative nerve disease. Pablo died at University Hospital, Kingston, on May 18, 1999, at the age of 46.
This is Augustus Pablo, Heartbeat, 1974.
Ital Dub, Trojan/UK, 1975.
King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown (compilation), Shanachie, 1976.
Chanting Dub with the Help of the Father, Rockers International, 1978.
East of the River Nile, RAS, 1978.
Original Rockers, Rockers International, 1979.
Earth’s Rightful Ruler, Shanachie, 1982.
Rockers Meet King Tubby in a Fire House, Shanachie, 1982.
Rising Sun, Greensleeves/UK, 1986.
Rockers Comes East, Shanachie, 1987.
Blowing with the Wind, Greensleeves/UK, 1990.
Pablo Meets Mr. Bassie, Original Rockers Vol. 2 (compilation), Shanachie, 1991.
Authentic Golden Melodies, Rockers International, 1992.
Heartical Chant, Rockers International, 1992.
Pablo & Friends, RAS, 1992.
The Red Sea, Aquarius/Black Solidarity, 1998.
Bradley, Lloyd, This is Reggae Music: The Story of Jamaica’s Music, Grove Press, 2000.
Potash, Chris, editor, Reggae, Rasta, Revolution: Jamaican Music from Ska to Dub, Schirmer Books, 1997.
Toop, David, Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds, Serpent’s Tail, 1995.
New York Times, May 25, 1999.
Pulse!, September 1995.
“Augustus Pablo,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 28, 2002).
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