By Rob van Alstyne
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By Emily Weiss
The melodica was considered little more than a cheap, plastic children's toy when a young Jamaican instrumentalist named Horace Swaby began fiddling with it in the late Sixties. But in the hands of this teenage instrumentalist, better known as Augustus Pablo, the breath-powered pocket piano took on a haunting, mournful voice all its own. This accordionlike birdcall, usually heard hovering in minor key over anvil-heavy basslines and snaking guitars, became all but synonymous with Pablo's name in the early Seventies, when Jamaican pop began exploring darker, more contemplative moods. More broadly, Pablo, who died of a nerve disorder in Kingston on May 18, became virtually synonymous with dub, reggae's studio-concocted stepchild.
Born on June 21, 1952, in the middle-class Kingston neighborhood of Havendale, Swaby was a sickly child who withdrew from studies for health reasons to teach himself the organ, clarinet, and xylophone at home. But it was an impromptu audition in a local record store that launched the frail-looking and gloomy-eyed 15-year-old into Kingston's cutthroat music business. As legend has it, Swaby walked into the Aquarius Record Store with his melodica and began playing for the shop's owner Herman Chin-Loy, a local producer of Chinese descent. The impresario was intrigued enough to whisk the youth into the studio, dub him Augustus Pablo (a name previously used by another session man), and cut his first instrumental single, "Iggy Iggy."
Pablo's early records quickly became a sensation in Jamaica, both for their novel use of the melodica and for the way the instrument played off the deep, tough rhythms underpinning it. Most of these singles were produced by another Chinese Jamaican, a school chum named Clive Chin, and 12 sides were collected on Pablo's 1970 debut album, This Is Augustus Pablo (later reissued by Heartbeat as Rebel Rock Reggae). Filled with supple, relaxed grooves, the so-called Far East Sound crafted here by Pablo, who was himself half Chinese, seemed simultaneously earthy and unearthly, an apt aural representation of his budding Rastafarian beliefs.
Still not quite out of his teens, Pablo became a much sought-after session player in the early Seventies, contributing to work produced by Chin and future dub icon Lee "Scratch" Perry, then an emerging pioneer of the stripped-down, Rasta-identified sound of roots reggae. Pablo quickly became a producer himself, founding his own labels, Hot Stuff and Rockers (the latter named for his brother's sound system), and overseeing a succession of star vocalists. The most notable of these was singer Jacob Miller, who until his death in 1980 was arguably Jamaica's most popular performer next to Bob Marley.
But it was a "version" mix of Miller's 1975 hit "Baby, I Love You So," that demonstrated how Pablo's spacious productions could make prime grist for the dub mill. Cut by Pablo collaborator and remix specialist King Tubby, the classic dub track "King Tubby's Meets Rockers Uptown" still sounds like an epic in miniature. Opening with an echoing snare hit that evokes a gong splash at the beginning of a kung fu flick, the drums roll thunderously, stinging shards of guitar shrapnel zip in and out, and Pablo's plaintive melodica sails through the mix like a tropical bird navigating a hurricane. The shock of hearing Miller's treble-soaked vocal snippet "Baby, I-I-I..." jump out of nowhere and echo into nothingness remains one of the more frightening moments in dub.
It's telling that such radical music went pop in Jamaica just as the decade dragged into 1977--a year Rastafarians believed marked the end time. "Rockers Uptown" became more popular than Miller's original tune, and the album of the same title found its way into the record collections of more adventurous reggae lovers everywhere. Nearly as good was the profoundly disorienting Original Rockers, with even wilder mixes of many of the same tracks. If the first collection was the reggae equivalent of a mushroom walkabout, this trip was more akin to a Rasta skinny-dipping party in a pool of acid. In other words, Original is all dislocation, with voices and instruments jumping in and out of the mix like trickster elves. (Both albums are available on Shanachie.)
Today the stoned groovescapes of Tricky and Massive Attack would be unthinkable without these twin monoliths from the Seventies. And while Pablo's subsequent stuff never quite topped them, many of his later albums are worth falling into. The best is East of the River Nile (Clocktower, 1978), a nondub instrumental album that feels tougher than the artist's early work--less mystical, perhaps, but more militant. And Classic Rockers (Island, 1995) stands out as a fine representation of his best mid-Eighties work, finding the old studio master adeptly embracing digital recording.
In the last few years, Pablo's health problems worsened, and after faltering onstage in London last year, he returned to his home in the hills outside Kingston, spurning Western medicine to treat what appeared to be polio. A few days before the release of his latest album, Valley of Jehosaphat (RAS), he died in a Kingston hospital, a month shy of his 47th birthday. But Pablo leaves behind a sonic legacy few his age could match, and his wordless hymns to Jah remain as stirring as the deepest gospel.