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Studio One Roots (SJRCD 056 - 2001)

The Cyclones With Count Ossie - Meditation
Cornell Campbell & The Brentford Rockers - Natty Don't Go
Freddy McGregor With The Sound Dimension - Africa Here I Come
Bunny & Skitter — Lumumbo
Willie Williams & The All Stars - Addis A Baba
L. Crosdale With Drummond Bago & The Rebel Group - Set Me Free
Leroy Wallace & The New Establishment - Far Beyond
Lennie Hibbert - More Creation
Alton Ellis & The Sound Dimension - Blackish White
Winston Jarrett & The Sound Dimension - Fear Not
Devon Russell - Drum Song
The Gaylads - Africa
Black Brothers & The New Establishment - School Children
Linton Cooper & The Brentford Disco Set - You'll Get Your Pay
Sound Dimension - Congo Rock
Zoot Simms - African Challenge

C.S. Dodd and Dread ... it sounds like they shouldn't be too far apart, yet this collection has been a long time coming.

Too long really. Given the inherent nature of Rastafari within Jamaican music and Coxsone Dodd's monumental contribution to that country's recording industry, it's a little short of preposterous that the two haven't come together like this before now. However it's been one of the most casual and common misconceptions of the whole history of reggae, that roots music really only happened in the 1970s when it was pushed forward on thunderous bass'n'drum remixes by the next wave of young, dreadlocked small studio owners. That the apparent establishment - men like Duke Reid, Coxsone Dodd and Prince Buster - belonged to another time and cultural space.

Half true. But while Buster's fierce sense of black Jamaican nationalism are as well known as his coaxing of Count Ossie and his drummers into a recording studio, not so much has been written about Coxsone Dodd's rootsman credentials. Yet for years the producer was about as close to the spirit of Rastafari as was possible without actually natting up. It's this understanding of how Rasta connected with Jamaica's sufferah class that made so much of Coxsone Dodd's output so special and informs these tunes, resulting in a deeply spiritual, decidedly unexpected compilation.

By the time Coxsone Dodd started recording, Rastafari had made a profound impact on both the island's music business and the population at large - by 1960 an estimated one in twenty-five black Jamaicans was Rasta, with many more sympathetic to the cause. At the tail end of colonialism, as economic and social conditions worsened for the lower ranks of the country's rigid class system, Rastafari with its code of black self-determination and racial pride was an increasingly attractive option.

Particularly to musicians, who, earning their living playing pure R&B and big band swing, saw in Kumina drumming and buru the tangible expression of Jamaicanness; also, the sheer scope offered by this music appealed to jazz instincts in most of them. Even before Prince Buster's Oh Carolina popularised Rasta drumming, spiritualised records were moving away from the solely biblical to make some blatantly dread statements. More than a few of these being Coxsone Dodd productions - like The Mellow Larks' Time To Pray, Owen Gray's Sinners Weep, Clancy Eccles' Freedom - and here Meditation and Bunny & Skitter's Lumumbo show how he made nyahbingi work on more than one level.

As a big jazz fan Coxsone Dodd was always looking to expand musical forms, and he would have seen the fabulous rhythmic possibilities Rasta music could bring to ska. Lennie Hibbert's More Creation and Devon Russell's Drum Song (if you do your best to concentrate on what's going on behind the vocal) are, alongside Count Ossie's Grounation album, fine examples of how jazz methodology and Rasta sensibilities could combine to create a genuinely unique Jamaican jazz form. Africa by The Gaylads and Willie Williams' Addis A Baba show how, under supervision such as Coxsone Dodd's, the ska idiom can be subtly shifted sideways into the House of Dread simply by playing about with accents and timing.

To his enormous credit Coxsone Dodd was as interested in the philosophy of  Rastafari as he was in merely having musical adventures. While never actually committing  to Rasta he was fascinated by how Garveyism and notions of black self-help coincided with the black power movement in the US, and he saw beyond class snobbery to how such a state of mind was needed among the island's dispossessed. As Studio One's location at 13 Brentford Road was close to the Ethiopian Federation's meeting place in St David's Lane - a Rasta gathering favoured by musicians - many musicians would arrive at work directly from a meeting, and reasoning sessions would carry on in the Brentford Road yard. It was a mark of Coxsone Dodd's enthusiasm for what Rasta was really all about that led him to sign Burning Spear as early as 1969 after an audition featuring a deeply spiritual, chant-like reading of Door Peeper. Here the tracks Far Beyond, You'll Get Your Pay and School Children are all testament to the producer's enthusiasm for Rasta philosophising (with a bit of a bonus from the latter as it does it through classic Jamaican three-part harmonising.

When Coxsone Dodd opened Studio One in 1963 - significantly, Jamaica's first black-owned recording facility - the idea that studio time and its cost were no longer of central concern to his recording process meant a far greater degree of experimentation and pursuit of perfection. He had his musicians on wages rather than paying them per side, another first for the Jamaican industry, thus, quite simply, he could afford to fool about with tunes until they were right, and to stockpile backing tracks waiting until exactly the right song idea turned up. This is why many of Coxsone Dodd's rhythms made such an impact back then and have survived into the present day to become the basis of so much dancehall reggae.

This measure of quality is perhaps best demonstrated in his roots output of the 1970s. Studio One turned out its share of straight roots reggae, and while, during that time, there was a saturation of the market in general that led to a disproportionate percentage of mediocrity, Studio One tended to stand head and shoulders above the pack. When such sublime music finds a singer of the appropriate calibre the results are fabulous: Cornell Campbell's Natty Don't Go, Freddie McGregor's Africa Here I Come and L. Crosdale's Set Me Free are pinnacles of roots reggae (and the dub of Africa Here I Come proves that while they'd never be as out-and-out tricksy as King Tubby or Errol T, Studio One's version excursions could swing and sway with the very best).

Of course one huge advantage of Coxsone Dodd owning his own premises manifests itself in the reason I've been given by several Studio One stalwarts as to why the label attracted so much talent right from the start. it wasn't to do with Coxsone Dodd's sound system status or distribution capabilities or payment methods, but the fact his was the only studio in town that would let them smoke weed on the premises. A situation that will not be unrelated to Studio One's Rastafarian empathy, and is vividly illustrated in the Alton Ellis track included here, Blackish White.

As I said at the beginning, it's been a very long wait for an album such as Studio One Roots, but that's because an album 'such as' simply wouldn't have done the job. This is a compilation that has pulled out all the stops to be able to get to Congo Rock from Lumumbo via More Creation, with a verve that would terrify most sound system selectors. And with a sense of selflessness - this isn't about proving how clever the compilers were, or about keeping certain tunes to themselves, or about private ownership of a reggae heritage, this is a matter of bringing the best music to the most people in the best way possible. And, finally, a set that so easily communicates such a love of its subject, has one purpose only and that is to be played. As often as possible.

This album is a credit to everyone in its conception and creation and a fitting tribute to one of the most important strands of Jamaica's greatest record-label. A legacy that is now yours to enjoy.

Lloyd Bradley
(author of Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King)

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