Bassmasters

The classic reggae beat is built on the interaction of drum and bass guitar. To Garry Steckles’s ears, there’s nothing in the world to compare with a solid reggae bass line

Aston “Family Man” Barrett. Photograph by Tim Barrow/Urbanimage.tv

The Caribbean has given the world a remarkable potpourri of
popular music — everything from calypso to salsa, from ska to zouk, from meringue
to soca. I love it all. But, with all due respect to the exponents of every
wonderful genre of music that this region has blessed us with over the decades,
there’s one form of Caribbean music that stands out above all others: reggae.

Okay, so music’s very much a matter of personal taste. But reggae, more
than any of its Caribbean musical cousins, has become a global phenomenon.
Among many other things, it’s given the world arguably the greatest singer-songwriter
of the past century, Robert Nesta Marley.

The heartbeat of classic reggae, of course, the very foundation on which
the music is built, has always been the combination of drum and bass, with
the drummer providing the rhythmic underpinning and the bass player embellishing
it.

To me, there’s nothing in all music to compare with a serious reggae bass,
and, at the risk of incurring the wrath of fellow roots fans, this column
is a thank-you to my five favorite reggae bass players. They’ve given me,
and countless millions of music fans throughout the world, enormous pleasure,
both live and on record, and their contributions have all too often been unheralded.

So, without further ado, let’s meet Lloyd Parks, Leroy Sibbles, Dennis Bovell,
Robbie Shakespeare, and Aston “Family Man” Barrett.

Apart from bringing us some of the deadliest bass lines in the history of
popular music, these five have one thing in common: their contributions to
reggae have extended, in one way or another, way beyond playing a superb guitar.

Let’s start with a tip of the Steckles hat to Lloyd Parks, singer, bandleader,
and the man whose bottom line has powered hundreds of reggae classics over
three decades and counting.

Parks started his career in the late 1960s, singing and playing rhythm guitar
with vocal groups like the Invincibles and the Terminators. It wasn’t until
1974 that he formed the We the People band, switched to bass guitar, and started
his rapid climb to the front ranks of reggae musicians.

In the three decades since, Parks and company have played with virtually
every singer and group of note in Jamaica. They’re best known for their long
association with the late Dennis Brown, but they’ve also backed, among many
others, Justin Hinds, Big Youth, U Roy, Delroy Wilson, the Abyssinians, the
Mighty Diamonds, the Itals, and the Gladiators. In short, Parks’s bass has
been featured on many of the greatest reggae songs ever recorded.

Like all of reggae’s great bassmen, Parks has developed a sound that’s distinctly
his own. “I try to develop a unique style . . . Like a drumroll on the bass,”
he describes it. “It’s a different sound.”

 

He’s best known as one of the most outstanding singers ever to emerge from
Jamaica — which is saying something — but when the definitive history of reggae
is written, Leroy Sibbles’s achievements as a solo singer and lead vocalist
with the seminal group the Heptones may be overshadowed by his contributions
as a bass maestro.

Sibbles is the man who created most of the bottom lines for one of Jamaica’s
greatest and most enduring bodies of music — the rocksteady and reggae recorded
on the Studio One label of legendary producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd in the
mid 60s and early 70s.

Like most of Jamaica’s great bassmen, Sibbles was self-taught and enormously
prolific, playing with John Holt, Burning Spear, Horace Andy, Alton Ellis,
Dennis Brown, and scores of others, and contributing the bass to the Abyssinians’
Satta Massagana, one of roots reggae’s classic recordings, and the
Full Up rhythm that was the foundation of Pass the Kutchie, a global
sensation for one-hit wonders Musical Youth in the 80s.

Sibbles, too, has a bass sound that’s very much his own.

“I realised that most musicians start before the [down] beat or on the beat.
So I created a thing after the beat. And that took off, and right now it makes
me stand out in the history of reggae music as a bassman.”

The only non-Jamaican in my five favourite reggae bass players is Dennis
Bovell, the Barbados-born master of dub who has been the single most influential
figure on the British reggae scene for the better part of three decades.

Bovell moved to England in 1965, in his early teens, and a few years later
formed Matumbi, Britain’s leading reggae band of the early 70s. His influence
on British reggae was so pervasive that at one time he was the bassist on
no fewer than 18 numbers in the UK reggae charts. Among his classics of that
era was a track titled Don’t Call Us Immigrants, a hit for the little
known Tabby Cat Kelly that remains one of my all-time favourite reggae numbers,
and which was, and is, quite simply a bass fan’s heaven on earth.

As leader of the Dub Band, Bovell has also had a long and productive partnership
with Linton Kwesi Johnson, the brilliant and controversial dub poet who for
decades has been the musical voice of Britain’s black communities.

The best-known bass player in reggae is also one of the most famous in all
popular music. After cutting his musical teeth as a sought-after session man
in Jamaica’s smoky studios in the 70s, Robbie Shakespeare went on to international
fame as a key member of Peter Tosh’s first Word, Sound, and Power lineup,
followed that with a long stint with Black Uhuru when that group was at its
peak, and then worked with international artists as varied as Grace Jones,
Bill Laswell, Bob Dylan, and, more recently, Michael Franti, one of the most
important singer-songwriters to emerge on the international scene in the
past decade.

Alongside drummer Sly Dunbar, the other half of the Rhythm Twins and collaborator
on the vast majority of his work, Shakespeare has established a well-deserved
reputation as an innovator whose musical horizons stretch way beyond reggae.

“I play a melody foundation line, not just a line,” is how Shakespeare explains
his individual sound. “Anyone can play a note, but I turn my notes into phrases.
I try to look for the perfect bass line. I don’t know if I’ve reached it —
or if I’ll ever reach it — but I’m always digging for that perfect line.

 

Finally — and I’ve saved my first choice for last — there’s the man who
created and played the bass lines for a body of music that many people, myself
included, regard as perhaps the most significant of the past century.

Aston “Family Man” Barrett was the bass giant who anchored most of Bob Marley’s
prodigious output from the late 60s until Bob’s death in 1981.

And every time I listen to Marley — which I’m happy to say is about 19 days
out of 20 — I marvel at Family Man’s seemingly endless creativity. He somehow
managed to come up with a distinct and different bass line for each song,
always within reggae’s basic rhythmic structure, perfect for Marley’s sublime
melodies.

Family Man has a deceptively simple explanation for his ability to create
reggae’s most sophisticated and innovative bass lines. “The drum is the heartbeat
of the music, and the bass is the backbone. If your heart not beating right,
or you having some heart attack, you know, then the backbone don’t stand up
and the music can’t get up in it.

“So those two things keep it real. And, as you know, reggae music is the
universal language and heartbeat of the people.”

Sadly, this giant of international pop, like fellow members of the Wailers,
was one of the big losers in the battle over Bob Marley’s multi-million-dollar
estate. Marley didn’t leave a will, and the musicians who backed him are still
fighting to get what they believe is rightfully theirs. I wish them well.

Meanwhile, the bass goes on.