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Splash and Ripple from Green Island:
The Musical Legacy of Don Drummond
Part II of II.

by Joseph CARNEY
Paintings by Clinton Hutton

 For Part I>

Tommy McCook and The Skatalites announce:
"Nuclear Weapon" on the dance floor.

Don Drummond has waged the battle for the "inner space" race.

Don Drummond looked out into the dancing audience from his perch on the stage. He felt the vibrations slam back towards him. His trombone blared line after line. This was Freedom! This was Energy! The earlier roots of Jamaican music (stemming from Mento) had now morphed into amplified, electric ska - onomatopoeia for the beat surrendered. BA-Ba-Da-Ba-DA-Ba-DA-da!!! - Ska! Ska! Ska! Ska! He stood and swayed, and rocked and played, alongside the rest of the Skatalites (who had been formed as the backing super group of Kingston.) as the crowds erupted. With the opening of local recording resources in 1959, Kingston had become the Nashville (maybe Memphis, or Motown Detroit) of the Caribbean. Like their American counterparts Booker T and the MGs, The Funk Brothers, The Wrecking Crew, and the gang at Muscle Shoals, the Skatalites (even before they were named) backed anyone and everyone in town. Like the MGs (and the Meters), their own group instrumental performances and singles raised the standard for everyone else. The "Countdown" to Jamaican Independence Day came straight from Don Drummond and his mates as the UK flag went down and Jamaica went up and up. Along with live gigs, it was the time of the great sound system battles on the island that created an insatiable competitive and commercial demand for new seven-inch record releases. These portable discos each took their shot at ruling the market. Their own rulers had names (who became producers) like King Tubby, Duke Reid, and Sir Coxsone. Dances and modern, danceable, pop became central to the youth culture of Jamaica. When a steady feed of obscure American rhythm and blues records hadn't been enough to satisfy these souls, island men began to compose. So it was that Don Drummond and his cohorts shaped ska.

Ska drew from all forms of artistic and commercial inspiration and exploitation. Ska referenced American rhythm and blues covers, movie theme tributes, dance craze reworks, and even cultural novelties. More and more material was always needed. Of course, it wasn't all serious. The music could be Dada, or even goofy fun. It even took Beatles melodies and blasted off into ska-space. Mouth clicks and pops in ska would grow up someday to be the human beat box. The musicians working in the genre (with its’ strong horns and accent on the off beats) had to have a tested ability to create art in many different moods within the same basic (limiting) framework. Theirs was the soundtrack to dance lives of joy, sweat, release, contact, love, loss, food, drink and even death. In the end, the overriding motto was always, "You gotta dance to it." This young, liberating music would eventually energize its’ own darker side as sound system rivalries begat violence and rude boys. As the wave of energy crashed over and over again, Don Drummond would look out at the audience and ride it towards something more. He would establish himself as prolific within the genre both vertically and horizontally. Here at the apex of an artistic and commercial moment, he would help to draw the line that would continue to connect ancient drums and plantation wails to Love and Bennett and Marley and beyond. It is here that he would help influence and perpetuate Jamaican music's ongoing evolution from a form of tales to a form of message.

Don Drummond

In the land of wood and water, it was the hills. Don Drummond, a singularly gifted talent, a technically schooled craftsman, angry young man, jazzer, mental patient, tone explorer, dance man, and composer, drifted into the hills of Wareika. The pure music of the Rasta had called. He had listened and embraced it. In these hills and other gathering spots, what some had regarded as a cult had actually developed into a religion. Rastafarianism had become for many a true inner and outer root philosophy that stemmed from the oldest known Christianity (the Ethiopian Orthodox Church) and the descent of Solomon and Sheba. Sacred ganja was in abundance, but the greatest sacrament was the reasoning of the worth and self determination of one's own soul and mind. Here, a musician prolific on vinyl and on the bandstand, still only making just enough scraps of money to get by, would gladly sacrifice a gig's pay or a day's work to be of higher spirit. In the hills, frustrated and perplexed with his denial from the larger worldwide aesthetic center, Don Drummond clung to a new chart.

Musicians like Ras Michael and Count Ossie had taken the African buru drum and through nyabinghi called "down with the black and white oppressors!" Food, thoughts, and fires were shared in circles. Jah was the omnipotent center of the music of these grounations. Under a standard of green, gold, and red they had turned away from America. They now faced towards Ethiopia specifically. They followed with zeal, the chosen Lion of Judah, Haile Selassie I. Jah led them further (like the prophet Garvey had said) towards all of Africa. Drummond's embrace of Rasta ways completed the long cycle of his young life. He steered his music towards the tough and political ("Occupation", "Around the World.") Don Drummond dared even his least interested dancing fans to look eastward past the legacy of self hatred, to dream beyond the physical and psychological bonds of imposed slavery, and to reclaim the dark and beautiful history of great kingdoms ("Addis Ababa", "Mesopotamia", "Eastern Standard Time".) The ingredients of minor over major tonal juxtaposition, Rasta heritage, and content of memory and message formed the seed that would birth rock steady and reggae. This trademark style, eerily flickering around the black keys of the piano, would be seized and furthered by "Augustus Pablo, Bob Marley, Hugh Mundell, and hundreds of vocal groups from Burning Spear to Israel Vibration." In the hills, Don Drummond realized that he and other musicians had to be brave enough to face their own problems and destiny in their own way. Rasta credo and Drummond's prolific output formed a potent brew that would lend vitality to those who didn't make the trip. The soundtrack of the struggle would be forever preserved and renewed.

Don Drummond recorded hundreds of songs in only a few years. His work was released on many different labels and shepparded by ground breaking producers, like Sir Coxsone, who always knew when to step back and "let the musicians get on with it." He showed incredible artistic ambition for a man only beginning his twenties. All the while, Don Drummond maintained a remarkably steady hand at the creative wheel despite an unstable mental condition and erratic home life. Perhaps his misplaced hate consumed him. The system of post-colonial Jamaican apartheid surely helped neither in treating his ailments or encouraging understanding. The music business of the 1960's Caribbean and the competition that it fostered was itself wicked. Don Drummond never received much financial reward as penny sheets morphed into spinning wax.

In spite of the obstacles that he faced, Don Drummond's greatest creative legacy lies in the fact that he chose to continue as an artist with a message. His direct contact with those who would become the leading lights of reggae music (Coxsone, Marley, Tosh, Wailer) charted a course of "no look back." Island visitors and exporters could now take away records that Jamaicans had authored as "letters for the world." Modern music with deep and ancient roots could rock it and comment. Listeners could scream "Oh, yeah!" but also ask "What is that?" or (as another conscious kin - Marvin Gaye - would ask America in the 1970's) "What's Going On?" Jamaica was portrayed as complex and complicated in its now independent modernity due to the incredible wellspring of talent that Don Drummond helped lead and influence. Artists all around were encouraged by concrete example to feel more, to seek more, and to know more.

Today, through influence and parallel consciousness, this circle of artists is ever expanding. It includes the 1970's afrobeat of Fela Kuti kicking against relentless government oppression in Nigeria, and laughing at death. It harbors the 1980's Ethiopian jazz and vocals of Mahmoud Ahmed refusing to suffocate under the Stalinist Derg regime. In the 1990's and 2000's it has seen the appropriately named Alpha Blondy bringing reggae directly to political Pan-African struggles. Reggae, says Blondy is " the voice of angels that must carry the listener on clouds all the way to heaven."

* * * * *

Don Drummond stood with his trombone and blew the truth. In jazz, ska, and beyond, he struggled and experimented with craft, form, material, and tone so that Jamaican music, first and foremost, could flourish. In his career, we can see exactly how an important art form got from point A to point B. Don Drummond showed how modernity could not only combine with, but also embrace, roots. His downfall and sad ending also reveal poignant things about the toll of commerce and competition on the creative mind. His illness (and violent outburst) is a stark reminder of the mysteries of the human brain.

In 2006, there is not much said about Don Drummond. There is no definitive biography or documentary film. Jamaica, perhaps out of perceived criminal shame, promotes no Drummond memorial or resource center. His efforts did so much for people with their creative, inquisitive, uplift. As Amiri Baraka once said “When the musician is committed…ethics and aesthetics are one.”

Some last thoughts on Don Drummond come from the cinema. Ska was heavily influenced by movies, from James Bond, to Italian Westerns, to classic romance. In the 1997 film “TwentyFourSeven” (about a man who sacrifices all so that wayward kids can have a boxing club) the narrator could easily have been speaking about Don Drummond and his music.

The lads and the people in this town have been living in the same day their whole lives. Not one of them is singularly strong enough to break away and be more than this. That’s why nothing ever changes.

Don Drummond, The Skatalites, and The Wailers together worked very hard for change in Jamaica and the world. As Don Drummond felt the heat of the 1964 sessions that produced “Simmer Down” and more, he moved forward, so that all could move forward. May the black shine of space and the possible forever reflect in these records.

_ . _


 For Part I>

Get some ska. Listen to the Roots Rock that stems from Don Drummond. Investigate these excellent sources of musical knowledge. All helped greatly with this appreciation. Special Thanks and All Respect to Herbie Miller of The New School.


- Barrow, Steve and Dalton, Peter. Reggae: The Rough Guide. London: Rough Guides Ltd, 1997.
Bradley, Lloyd. This Is Reggae Music: The Story of Jamaica’s Music. New York: Grove Press, 2001.
- Foster, Chuck. Roots Rock Reggae: An Oral History of Reggae Music from Ska to Dancehall. New York: Billboard Books, 1999.
Fraim, John. Spirit Catcher: The Life and Art of John Coltrane. West Liberty, Ohio: Great House Company, 1996.
Meadows, Shane and Fraser, Paul. 24/7. UK: Independent Film, 1997.
Miller, Herbie. Class notes Reggae / SHAP 3005. New School: Fall 2005. Class available Summer 2006.
Potash, Chris. Reggae, Rasta, Revolution: Jamaican Music from Ska to Dub. New York: Schirmer Books, 1997.
Salewicz, Chris and Boot, Adrian. Reggae Explosion: The Story of Jamaican Music. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001.
Sherlock, Philip and Bennett, Hazel. The Story of the Jamaican People. Kingston: Ian Randle Press, 1998.
Simon, Sylvan. Personal interview. 10 Jan. 2006.
Skatalites and Friends. Phoenix City: A History of the World’s Greatest Ska Band. Trojan Records, 06076-80453-2, 2004.
Steffens, Roger and Pierson, Leroy Jodie. Bob Marley and The Wailers: The Definitive Discography.
Cambridge, MA: Rounder Books, 2005.
- Reggae website, 2005.
Tenaille, Frank. Music Is the Weapon of the Future. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2002.

Summer 2006
Issue# 18
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