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Album Showcase: Roots Architects – “From then ‘Til Now”

 

Traditionally, the history of reggae music is told in terms of vocalists, producers and sound systems. An artist would be hired to sing or chant over a rhythm. The producer would put up the money for the recording session and test a song at a popular sound system dance to see if it was a hit. During the 1970s, as reggae was deconstructed and reconstructed into its avant-garde offshoot known as dub, increasing focus was given to engineers, who used their studios as instruments. Often overlooked, except by avid followers of the music, are the dedicated session musicians who created the actual rhythms. This all-instrumental project, gathering over 50 of reggae’s greatest Roots Architects to create new material, seeks to redress that.

 

– Angus Taylor

Roots Architects – From Then Till’ Now liner notes

 

According to the liner notes of the newly released Roots Architects LP titled, From Then ‘Til Now, in 1978, Chinese-Jamaican roots reggae singer, I Kong, released the LP, The Way It Is, with a “uniquely exhaustive line up of almost every top session musician on the island (of Jamaica).” Though it was critically acclaimed, the album flopped financially, and I Kong went into a self-imposed musical exile in the countryside until he was contacted by Swiss producer and vintage reggae student, Mathias Liengme, in the early 2010s. In 2011, Liengme had been befriended by Rockers movie star Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, the studio sensation and drummer extraordinaire of early Burning Spear recordings. Liengme soon found himself in Jamaica, recording the living legends of the reggae music golden era that had made the country world famous.

 

Through I Kong, Liengme was introduced to Robbie Lyn. Robbie had played keyboards on The Way It Is as well as hundreds of other celebrated Jamaican recordings. After working together on I Kong’s long overdue resurgent work, A Little Walk, Liengme sought out Lyn to become the cornerstone of a very ambitious project that his label, Fruits Records, had conceptualized and pitched to him on their 2014 trip to Kingston JA.

Mathias Liengme & Robbie Lyn; Photo credit: Liza Mazur Clivaz

The mission: To record the largest gathering of Jamaican musical talent on one instrumental album. Seasoned veterans, playing how they play, on all new riddims.

 

“Mathias decided I was somebody he could rely on as a musician,” says Lyn. “Being a young researcher, he would have known about myself and a lot of others. I guess I would naturally fall into place as a Studio One musician who was, you could say, noted or recognized. And I could assist him to assemble certain musicians and get his project going.”

 

Talk about getting the band back together!

 

The names, the names, the names. Ernest Ranglin, Sly & Robbie, Karl Bryan, Vin Gordon, Glen DaCosta, Robbie Lyn, Ansel Collins, Dougie Bryan, Mao Chung, Boris Gardiner, Jackie Jackson, Lloyd Parks, Bo Pee, Dalton Browne, Flabba Holt, Fil Callender, Mikey Boo, Barnabas, Horsemouth, Dean Fraser, Ibo Cooper, Cat Coore, Derrick Stewart, Dwight Pinkney, Bubbler, Lew Chan…all of them responsible for thousands of recorded hours and millions of minutes listened by generations the world over.

Robbie Lyn, Mikey Chung; Photo credit: Loïc Moret

So, in 2017, Liengme gathered everyone together in Kingston for a monster session to create and capture a history too often left unrecognized in a world which commonly celebrates singers over the players of instruments who make everything possible. As Angus Taylor states in the liner notes, “Never before have so many veterans, who helped create the immortal rhythms that made reggae internationally successful, been assembled to play on new material without vocals.”

The cover art of Roots Architects:From Then ’Til Now captures a typical day in the life of what we can assume to be a street scene in Kingston. Dogs are picking food from the sidewalk. A woman posted up is staring skeptically at the onlooker. Older men sit with the presence of endless patience on a bench overlooking a dusty street as a gray bearded gentleman with a cane approaches us.

 

The humility and humbleness the world has projected onto Jamaica and its reggae music could once again trick a pompous passerby. An inferior selector could flip past this record in the bin, but wisdom informs the educated that the realness depicted humbly in such an LP jacket is part of the trick reggae has the world play on itself. Like a cat, reggae will make you come to it. It doesn’t need to beg for your affection. It is already doing what it does. You are the lucky one to recognize its greatness.

 

Certainly the people in the photo have wisdom. Stories to share. There are decades of memories stored, lessons learned and practices perfected that few in this world have the patience to care for anymore. To those willing to listen – the open and observant – there are always clues present that flash the promises of greatness inside, but you must know some history.

 

Search the stars. We see that the border around the photo is round. Much like our earth which revolves like a record, we are in the orbit of endless stars and celestial wonders. Observing the outer universe of the LP cover, we discover written into the stars the names of just about every monumental reggae instrumentalist that has made reggae’s majestic sound the regal crown that it has been for the past 50+ years.

Jackie Jackson, Bo Pee; Photo credit: Liza Mazur Clivaz

I myself am not a vocal listener. It could be 50 times that I listen to “One Love” before I realize the words and the message. I am immersed in the feeling of the groove. I am in the minority and this is a topic I like to discuss with people. The majority of my investigations have concluded that the majority of people listen for words and gravitate to the vocals when being drawn to a song. It’s perfectly reasonable as we are humans and we communicate with our voices, so singing is a natural call to the listener. But almost never in a club, or in a car, or in an ear bud, are we dancing and losing ourselves to acapella music. It is rhythm and interwoven melodies that bring us to the dance. Even if we don’t recognize this consciously, it is like breathing. It is the necessary foundation of survival of modern music. And music is medicine. So let the music makers heal.

 

I am a longtime reggae listener, but not necessarily an academic one. I am familiar with many of the great works of the long list of instrumental stars who grace this record, but I won’t boast and say that I can pick out who is who with great accuracy just by listening. This is where this album reveals a secret weapon for reggae listeners, a sonic decoder of sorts.

 

Roots Architects: From Then ’Til Now has a gorgeous vinyl with cover art by J. Bonner and photography by Liza Mazur. It is Angus Taylor’s liner notes, though, which act as our guide to understanding the Rosetta Stone-like quality this album possesses for all reggae enthusiasts wanting to learn exactly how the nuances of each player have shaped the reggae aesthetic we know today. The insert of this record is honestly one of the best told stories of who was who in the reggae recording community of the 1960s,’70s, and ‘80s. Taylor, through interviewing Robbie Lyn, identifies who came into the scene where and when. Who was who’s friend. Who was their neighbor. How did Sly and Robbie go on to form such a legendary production team? How did the instrumentalists powerfully direct the most eccentric singers towards a new style?

Roots Architects; Photo credit: Liza Mazur Clivaz

Jamaica is known to be a country bursting with talent, but like most everywhere, it comes down to community in the end. This was a group of artists who were constantly working together in different circumstances, constantly pushing the aesthetic to higher heights and deeper drops, sharpening each other’s iron with iron. In many ways, this is a story told through the eyes and ears of Robbie Lyn, his lived experience connected with all of this music and personnel and the importance of keeping in good contacts with greatness.

 

For real though, the wealth of the writing in these liner notes is not to be missed. When you do the research and track down the names of all the players listed, it is a crystal palace of overlapping layers and connections. Between these players, there is support for every known reggae singer who comes to mind. Stories are told throughout about the players’ relationships with artists such as Peter Tosh, Gregory Isaacs, Bob Marley, Toots Hibbert, Dennis Brown, The Mighty Diamonds, Abyssinians, Alton Ellis, Johnny Clarke, and so many more.

 

This singer-centric industry has left a lot of great innovators’ legacy largely unsung. This, in essence, is the mission of this record – shine as much light as possible on those responsible for crafting the greatest recorded music the world has ever heard, and capture their sound once again in their age of stylistic maturity and actualization. We would never be able to list all of the works, but we greatly urge you to type any of these names into discogs.com and marvel at the catalogs these musicians have made possible. It’s overwhelming. Most have thousands of credits in reggae music history.

Mathias Liengme Photo credit: Liza Mazur Clivaz

I highly recommend that reggae fans order this LP to hold the physical item in their grips, because the story is one of a kind, and the credits and song descriptions contain insight that cannot be replicated here.  Enjoy the new sounds of forever legends.

 

Music exists as long as people listen to it, but for the singers and players of instruments, impermanence is a constant theme. This album unknowingly serves as a tribute for many of these great players, many of whom passed in years shortly after these recordings were made. Such is the case with generations. This record does the justice of making sure that the greatest of Jamaica’s young past will never be forgotten.

 

From the liner notes:

 

As well as a lovingly assembled tribute to the greats of reggae’s ascendancy, the Roots Architects project is sadly an epitaph of sorts to the musicians who have passed away since it was recorded in 2017. Bo Pee, who named the album, suffered a fatal heart attack, aged 62 on March 26th, 2019. Arnold Brackenridge was taken by prostate cancer, aged 70, on October 7th, 2020. David Trail died on an unconfirmed date that year. Dalton Browne was 70, the same age as Bo Pee,when he died on November 1st 2021. Bongo Joe died, aged 86, September 5th, 2021. Mikey Boo, whose drumming was affected by a stroke and then dementia, departed on November 28th, 2021, aged 74. Just ten days later, Robbie Lyn’s dear friend, Robbie Shakespeare, succumbed post kidney surgery, aged 68. He would be followed the same month by 71-year-old Mikey Chung. The youngest musician on the project, bassist Christoper Meredith, died on July 27th, 2022, aged just 54. After a series of health complications Lyn’s beloved “big brother” and former bandleader, Fil Callender, passed on May 27th, 2022, at 75. Robbie’s keyboard colleague and close friend, Tyrone Downie, died in the hospital in Jamaica on the 5th of November, 2022, aged 66. Their fellow keyboardist, Ibo Cooper, departed on October 12th, 2023, at age 71.

 

May they all rest in peace as their movements shake speakers, bodies, and souls for infinite dances to come.

 

 

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Bass player and songwriter for Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, James feels, plays and lives the music. Lucky for us he also has the knack for remembering what happened and writing it down in his own voice.

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