Jamaica has a population of nearly three million, growing from two million in 1960 when the first rumblings of what would become reggae were heard. On a small island, a relatively tiny group of musicians were responsible for a monster truck full of sound. Jamaica is The Beatles of countries, hugely influential musically.
Amongst that small group of musicians, drummer Sly Dunbar and the recently passed bass player Robbie Shakespeare were inordinately influential. Before their partnership, they were busy side men, playing session after session until, finally coming together in the Revolutionaries, taking disco and Philly influences and Jamaica-fying them into Rockers, the beat that demystified reggae, connected the music to the modern pop of the era. From roots and dread and country herb to Bladerunner in several short years.
When I’m asked (most days, if you must ask) what is my fave live concert my answer is generally Black Uhuru at Aylesbury Friars in 1981. Black Uhuru were a newly minted vocal group, manufactured in the same way PiL were manufactured. Thought about. Michael Rose, their misogynist lead singer had a beautiful voice and a militant stage presence, a handsome, small man with long locks. Ducky was a tall, laconic dread and Puma, a beautiful American-in-Jamaica, both providing an extraordinary counterpoint to Rose’s determined tenor. Unusual as they were, their relevance depended on Sly and Robbie’s rhythms and production and arrangement.
Here was reggae assimilating machines, synths, effects and motorik motion, no longer the sound of the drum beat in the yard, nor rude boys bigging themselves up, but a sharp, honed and futuristic package of noise, an accompaniment to Martin Hannett’s productions in Manchester, ahead of Trevor Horn’s attempts to fuse wires with veins in the 1980s. More Kraftwerk than Ultravox.
At Aylesbury I was introduced to bass as a concept, as a weapon, as a deep mystery. Robbie Shakespeare, grooving next to Sly, pushing his groin into the back of his bass, defined life. The frequencies were unreal, impossible. How something seemingly so casual, so apparently every-day as a series of one/two note bass lines could warp an hour or so into endless space time I can’t explain. But I left transformed, as if I’d been beamed up and back down after a cosmic ride.
Yep, he was that good, that transformational. Taxi for Robbie, to the heavy heavens.
Main photo: Robbie Shakespeare at concert with Sly Dunbar and Nils Petter Molvær at TFF Rudolstadt, 2015. By Schorle