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The Economics of Reggae Keyboards: Technological Innovations and the Evolving Aesthetic of Sound

I was purchased my first shot of absinthe on Bourbon St. I typically like to have these experiences in authentic locations, but since I wasn’t touring Holland anytime soon, I decided that New Orleans was just as psychedelic a spot as any.  Besides, Rory swore this stuff was legit. $25 a pop!

We partook in the ritual: iced water added drop by drop over the sugar, color change admired, the slow and ultimate surrender of the sugar cube as it collapsed into the glass. Suck it down. It was nice…I’m not much of a drinker, but I could appreciate that every spirit has its own buzz.  Absinth was definitely a tinge on the psychedelic. No little green men, but I was certainly walking on the moon in the night light of Bourbon St.

It was a great memory from an epic tour. Panda was opening for Rebelution in 2011. We had three days in NOLA. One day to arrive, the next day to play, and another day left to just cruise around the town. We had a past with the Rebelution boys. To this day, we have never played more shows with any other band. They have been extremely hospitable with their crowd, and from day one they were humble cats just making their way doing what they love to do: playing positive, roots reggae music.

I remember clearly sitting in a coffee shop in Atlanta in 2009. Our agent called us up and told us that a band from California wanted to tour the east coast for the first time. They had heard that we were the band to be seen with, and would we like to show them around? We all huddled in front of the laptop and looked at their myspace(?!) It looked like some boy band. We didn’t really get it, and we had never heard of them.

A few weeks later, I guess we unmemorably agreed to the tour.

The first show was in Boston at the Paradise. We had played the Paradise a few times. We did pretty well in Boston. We walked in, and there were these Cali boys! All set up on the stage. The bass player was setting up fake plants they had purchased that day on either side of the drum riser to enhance the “vibe”.

These guys were clean cut, athletic, handsome, young men from California. They looked as if they had never seen a flake snow or lived an unpleasant moment. They were NOT posing as Rastas. East cost bands often looked raggedy. These guys were fresh faced.

Not only did they look good, they had a professional crew. They had a tour manager who was taking care of business, a sound engineer who was doubling as a guitar tech, and a fully dedicated merchandise manager. All three of them set up and broke down the gear each night so that the musicians could relax and be on star duty.

Cut to PANDA!, we were road haggard, ages ranging from 36-20, all sorts of shapes and sizes. Our faces told of numerous struggles as well as long winters in our northeastern lives. We were our own roadies, stage managers, and merch salesmen. We were always working and always exhausted.

Here were these clean cut Cali boys. They looked good and we probably did not.
So then it was made clear to us that we are actually opening the show. In typical Panda fashion, we were unaware of that. But we rolled with it. We were polite. We thought that probably everybody would leave after our set and then everyone would know what time it was.

Then we started getting phone calls.

“Hey can you put me on the guest list?”
“Hey can you get us some tickets?”
“I heard it’s sold out?! IS that TRUE?!”
“Sold out?! No man, we have never sold this room out. That can’t be”

Then the manager of the club came up to us. He told us that it was in fact sold out, and that we had limited guest spots. Again, we rolled with it. We didn’t really know what to think.  We had never sold out a show before.

We played our set. We recognized no one in the crowd. The crowd was very young. None of our friends could get tickets to the show. I guess it was sold out a few days in advance. After our set, nobody left, as we thought they maybe would.

Rebelution got on stage. They were spry. They had minimal gear. The plants looked dope.  They DID vibe out the stage in a big way. The music started. Eric Rachmany stepped away from the mic in the beginning of the first song and everybody in that packed, sold out, sweaty venue started singing the words to whatever song they were playing. The crowd knew the words to every.single.tune.the.WHOLE. night! We were completely blown away. We had no idea what to think. Who were these guys? Where do they come from? How are they doing this?

Just about every show on that tour was sold out. This was Rebelution’s FIRST east coast tour. Panda had gone around the country I don’t even know how many times by then. A LOT. We were exhausted, and here was this band, fresh faced, and absolutely killing it.

I’m not gonna lie. I did not want to like the music at first. I wanted to think that they were breaking a lot of reggae rules. Only one singer? Was he using auto tune? Are those synth horn lines? Why not get real horn players? Are all of these songs about chicks?

Whoever is reading this right now, PLEASE understand that I am only trying to point out that my own self righteous, snobby standards, dictated by no over arching reggae power, was leading me to judge the aesthetics of a fellow band that were in fact in direct accordance to most music known as reggae.

Since its inception, reggae musicians have been modifying and scaling down the setup. Early practitioners of the genre were consistently the innovators.  Lee Scratch Perry, Bob Marly, Burning Spear, Culture…all of these artists moved with the times. Technological innovations in musical gear were utilized almost immediately from invention. From tape delay to synthesizers to vocal manipulation. Love songs have been a reggae staple since before it was called reggae. So what was bothering me?

Purity. It is an interesting topic to take up. I have been trying to investigate our early self inaugurated position as the protectors of roots reggae.  It is a strange calling to hear. I remember our friend Kevin had a dream that we were on the cover of Rolling Stone and the title was “Can Giant Panda save Reggae?” As I’ve made clear in other reggae Tuesday posts, we obviously did not invent reggae. Our over all knowledge of it was actually quite limited. We had only heard what we had heard. Reggae is one of those genres that has so much recorded work that you will never be able to hear all of it in a lifetime. Through developing principles of purity, we were denying ourselves more than thirty years of creation in the genre that had changed the direction of our lives.

There we were though, dragging around a 400 lb. organ, a fender rhodes, a clavinet, tube amplifiers, and much more added-on backbreaking weight simply because we thought it was the responsible thing to do! Well, that and we thought it sounded better. I think we still think it sounds better, for OUR band at least. You can’t really have Rebelution without synthesizers. You can’t have most of the past 30 years of reggae without synthesizers and drum machines. They have changed the aesthetic. They are part of the sound. The palate has been expanded in response to the technological innovations of the musical instrument industry.

So that was the first tour with Rebelution. It was a quick hint at what our peer reggae scene could become. We had always been told, by everybody that we had ever worked with, that reggae had a ceiling. You just couldn’t do that well playing reggae music. There was a certain demographic out there that would find out about you, and that would be it. No huge arena’s, no selling thousands of records. We were often encouraged to branch out of the genre.

Rebelution smashed that invisible ceiling playing roots reggae music. We remain great friends. They invited us out for several more tours. It was an impressive wave to ride. One that we had wanted for ourselves but never thought realistic. The most successful bands that we had known still traveled in vans.

So flash forward a few years and there we are sitting in the back of Rebelution’s tour bus.  Thank God for Rebelution and thank God for their tour bus because it was impressively thick with humidity out in NOLA and we were devastated from the previous evening of absinth tasting and boot guzzling.

It is Sunday, quiet on the street, and we’ve spent the whole day eating beignets and drinking coffee, soaking in the more mellow vibes New Orleans has to offer. A Prevost bus, in touring context, is no small luxury. It means you never need a green room, a hotel, or a place to hang during downtime, which is what most of the day consists of on a tour. Of course, if you are traveling in a Prevost bus, you have all of those things at your disposal anyways. If you are NOT traveling in a Prevost bus, you probably do not readily have access to any of those things. It is one of those tough tips of the scale.

Needles to say, the Prevost Entertainer Bus on a ferociously humid Sunday, the day off after a night stumbling down bourbon St. like a jabroni, makes you grateful that your buddies in the headlining band are killing it and sharing their afforded luxuries with you.
So the bus basically has an entrance into a pseudo living room with couch table kitchen oven microwave sink fridge endless drawers and cabinets vibe (full entertainment system). This is closed off by a door that leads to a skinny hallway of 8 bunks laid 4 across 3 up which is walled off by yet another door which leads you to a back lounge type of area. Circular couch seating, full entertainment system, and usually a bong (in the classier models).

And there we sat with our good buddy Rory. Rory is the keyboard player of Rebelution. Rory introduced us to Absinth the night before. Rory is a super reggae head.  It was obvious from the start of our first conversation that he was an educated reggae enthusiast. He has lived and breathed it since his childhood in Southern California. He is a vegan, and he will tell you that driving a car is technically not vegan because there is animal parts used in rubber for tires, so technically no one riding or driving in a car is a vegan. I thought that was awesome. I think Rory is awesome. All around one of the more solid people I have ever met on tour.  So, in this back lounge heaven on a Sunday in New Orleans, Rory pops in a DVD. Israel Vibration: Live at the Paris Zenith 1995.

He lets us know that this is one of his favorite reggae performances. Israel Vibration in their peak is what he says.  So while this is the second time in a row I have written about Israel Vibration, I must confess that at this point I had not had too much experience listening to their entire discography. I had my favorites, and we did that tour together. The first time I had ever heard them was while I was a sophomore in college riding around in the back of my friend Robbie Sahm’s car and observing in a heightened state that the bassline was most definitely “backwards”. After that I probably didn’t listen to them until we toured together.

Every time I do hear them, I remember that they were the first band that Bob Marley signed to the Tuff Gong label. They so represent to me the roots of reggae. The deep spiritual/political lyrical matter, the sparseness of the riddims, the angelic three part harmonies mixed with a crispy ganja cloaked lead.

This particular concert is from 1995. I made note of that. The show starts with a beautiful Nyabinghi rhythm. About as rootsy as it gets.  I acknowledge out loud how cool it was that Israel Vibration kept it roots in the black hole of reggae I knew as the 90’s—A decade that had been preceded by the general sonic quality disintegration of the 80’s, with its digital economically efficient technological innovations which contributed to, in my mind, multiple questionable aesthetic judgments to be made concerning the creation of reggae music.

The audience cheers as our polio stricken heroes dance on stage and greet the crowd,
“In The Name of His Imperial  Majesty Haile Selassie 1st JAH!”

You can’t see the band at this point. An organ is heard. It sounds fake but with an organ it is kinda the thought that counts with most modern reggae bands. It didn’t bother me.

West Coast rounds are being sent around (that’s where the bowl/bong is packed specifically for you and only you vs. on the east coast where we just pack it and pass it round: the effect of the west coast style is that you get a fresh green hit every time, so that’s pretty good practice: doesn’t take more herb, but heightens the quality of the experience). So everything is irie.

Rory actually informs us that this is one of his favorite keyboard players. He had this album when it came out in ’97 when he was 15 years old. That’s the thing to me about growing up in upstate NY vs Southern California. Rory, and Rebelution, they were kind of raised with this kind of reggae. Their reggae collection was not limited to just Bob Marley in high school. Their parents listened to reggae. Old and New. Reggae was happening in California. California is like that. If something is happening, usually the top shelf of that thing is spending time in LA for a couple months out of the year.

A lot of reggae greats have lived in Southern California since they left Jamaica. Why did they leave Jamaica? Everybody has different reasons but usually it is because things got too hot. Whether it was political,  music business shenanigans, gangs, or all of the above since they are often an interweaving circle in Jamaica. Many up and running reggae artists moved to similar climates with milder socio-economic ills.

LA, SoCal, Miami.  So many of our SoCal friends grew seeing artists that we are still finding out about in our 30’s. I do believe that this early exposure of 80’s and 90’s reggae on the west coast has a lot to do with currant east coast and west coast reggae bands sounding so different.  A good comparison being Giant Panda Guerrilla Dub Squad and Rebelution.

The after the Nyabinghi tune “Strength of My life”, Israel Vibration kicks into one of my favorite songs, “Vultures”.  My eyes are closed and I am so admiring the rootsyness when all of the sudden a blasphemy from the keyboards breaks my meditation! I cringe. It was my biggest pet peeve in modern reggae music. A synthesizer replacing a horn section! That means that two, possibly three hypothetical musicians did not have a gig that day. They were replaced by a computer.

Replaced? Replaced but never replicated. Nothing can replicate the humanity of three warm bodies blowing brass.

This was my perceived assumption of synthesizers. They were created to replace musicians in an effort to be more economically efficient for composers of music. The more personalities in the fish bowl can turn democracy into a complicated stew to brew.  Maybe the fewer musicians the better. More control? One less smelly guy to pay?

However, as I have stated time and time again in life and writing, there is no replacement for an authentic horn section, or a symphony string section, or woodwinds, or a glass harmonica,  or a helicopter, or whatever other sounds a synthesizer might mimc. It was still a hard hitting rhythm though. Maybe they couldn’t afford horn players that day. I let it slide. Izzy Vibes effortlessly transitioned “Vultures” into one of the most irie cuts, “There is no end”.

Now the digital horn section and the digital organ are being played together, by one man, and I just couldn’t take it any more! Everything else sounded so good, but this one patch was ruining it for me. I opened my mouth to speak. Just then, Rory exclaimed, “I love that patch! That is one of my favorite patches!”

A patch is a keyboard sound. A synthesizer can have many patches ranging from a Tuba to a Robot sound and beyond. You can design your own patch with sine waves. So Rory continued to praise the very element of the music that I was ready to rally against. He continued to discuss the keyboard player, who goes by the name T Bird, enthusiastically, particularly commenting on his brilliant use of patches and patch designation. What a strange compliment. I asked him what he meant by that. Brilliant patch designation?

I then realized that I pretty much had no idea what Rory did on stage with his two synth setup. I had watched Rebelution play probably over 50 times. I knew that Rory had all the techniques of a reggae key player down pat. His bubble was on. His chuck was tight. He could handle playing the melodies while keeping rhythm. All of these elements are essential. Was there more?

I have only worked in a band with people playing analog keyboards. That means that the keyboard for the most part, makes one kind of sound. An organ for example, always sounds like an organ no matter how much you manipulate the drawbars and endless amounts of levers found on various models. In order to get a different keyboard sound, you have to bring another keyboard.  If you want three keyboard sounds, you need to bring three keyboards.

The very basics of a good reggae keyboard foundation in my opinion is a Hammond organ, a fender Rhodes, and Honer D6 clavinet. They each weigh well over 100. Their corresponding speakers usually also weigh over 100 lbs. We are talking minimally, almost 1000 lbs in keyboards. They are also expensive to buy and fix, and they break often. They sound Godly. They have juju. I have been blessed to play with masters of these instruments. For every keyboard player I have worked with it has been an HONOR to break my back carrying their shit up and down fire escapes in the snow at 2:30 in the morning. My life may be a bit shorter, but it is richer nonetheless.

I have actually never worked with a synthesizer. Is my distaste all that righteous, or does it stem from ignorance? Rory schooled me that day on the economics of the reggae synthesizer. Let’s talk specifics. For the particular Israel Vibration show that we were watching where the perceived blasphemy occurred, I cannot say why they had digital keyboards mimicking horn sections. Perhaps they did not have the budget to hire horn players, or rent a Hammond B3 organ and Leslie speaker. However, the Zenith seems like a pretty massive venue. The French are known for their love and respect of Reggae music, their highly professional venues, and their attention to artists needs, so therefore I want to hypothesize that quite possibly they did not desire these analog keyboards I speak of.

Perhaps synthesizers were in part intentionally designed to mimic, but somewhere along the way they developed their own character. Maybe some artists no longer wanted the sound of a human horn section. Maybe they specifically wanted the synth horns.

As the Israel Vibration concert continued, the amount of synth work grows song by song. Rory explains to me that you can assign different patches, or keyboard sounds, to different parts of the keyboard. The bottom of the keyboard can all be organ while the top is horns. Maybe you want just one key to trigger a sample of an airhorn, or a sample from a movie you love, or a laser beam. Synthesizers can do that. They can turn three keyboards into one, or ten keyboards into one.

Bob Marley was using synths in the late 70’s, changing the reggae aesthetic as soon as he could.  These synthesized sounds were emerging as new instruments that were fair game in the genre.  I’m not sure if it can be determined whether players originally used the synths for economic reasons, such as to mimic a horn section or a full string section, or if they simply liked the sounds.  Anybody with an ear could tell you the mimicry is far from perfect.

Was it an aesthetic choice, or was a matter of economic efficiency? Did the efficiency of not having to pay a trumpet player sweeten the sound to the composer? Are there any cases of keyboard horn sounds existing on stage along side a human trumpet player?

Definitely. Today, in 2015, most of the reggae bands you would see at the Zenith in Paris have synths on the stage alongside horns, backup singers, and percussion players. They exist for their own timbre.

For whatever reason, be it economic, aesthetic, or both, those synthesized sounds have been cemented in the reggae aesthetic since the late 70’s, becoming exploratory in the 80’s, and being a permanent fixture by the 90’s.

I know for a fact, that Rory has chosen these sounds as a matter of preference. They are part of his reggae aesthetic and musical history. They are found on all of the first albums that heavily influenced him.

The purity of Rory’s love for these synthesized sounds I had grown up seeing as blasphemous wasn’t my only revelation of the day. I was fascinated to learn that my approach, as well as my analog keyboard playing friends’ approach, to live music was quite different from Rory’s and other digital keyboard players’, such as T Bird.

Rory marveled at T Bird’s precision in preparing his keyboard patches for the show, explaining how he would slyly move from sound to sound throughout a song without barely having to move. There was a blueprint. This was like classical music. T Bird had spent a good amount of time planning out what sounds would be used in what part of the song. The workflow for each song had to be carefully thought out, programmed, and practiced.

My experiences playing music has been supported by my ability to improvise. A keyboard player is limited to the sounds provided by the instrument.  Part of the style is learning how to color that differently from night to night.  I can’t imagine knowing in such detail what sonic changes were to occur measure after measure, let alone for an entire show. It demonstrates impressive skills in planning and organization, as well as intention. Each sound has been carefully selected for its specific role from tune to tune.

At the Zenith, some of the songs would have 6-7 patches. Remember, that would be 6-7 KEYBOARDS on a stage, possibly only to be used for one song, but T Bird had it dialed in on two small keyboards that probably weighed a total of 25 lbs (no amplifiers necessary). An added convenience is that all models of these keyboards would probably sound identical, unlike the analog keyboards, that often each have their own nuanced character. No two B3’s are identical in sound. No horn player plays exactly the same. The consistency makes it possible to hop on a plane with no luggage from Jamaica (or LA) and take a flight to Paris, get on stage at the Zenith with the identical synthesizer provided by the venue, press a few buttons or load a disc, and have the same exact sound you had in rehearsal halfway across the world the night before. Modern technology. Modern magic. The extra added bonus is, if you prefer these sounds and are not intending to replace the irreplaceable, you lighten your load considerably.

Just for one moment, imagine the changes in cost that this technological innovation and aesthetic shift has afforded an artist monetarily. Show to show, the savings are astronomical.

What about the sound though? Is it all a compromise? No. Synthesizers are their own instruments. They have expanded the palate of the reggae aesthetic. They are to be respected as instruments and not replacements.

The next evening I watched Rory closely and admired his efficiency. His intentional, well thought out programming provided the necessary patch for each part of every song. Rory went to school for accounting and he is a CPA in addition to being a musician. He has a mind for numbers and order.  Watching his performance reminded me that economics has more than one meaning. There is an economy to everything. Economics is the art of using your resources efficiently. In this instance it is not about who has been cut from the band but what has been added to the sound. In a four person band, Rory makes up a big chunk of the sonic waves. Eric can stop playing guitar and sing, and Rory can keep chugging along, keeping the groove thick, as if nothing has been lost. Rory has the ability, the freedom, to employ as many sounds a night as the music calls for. He does it tastefully, in a reggae style, like those that influenced him. He is carrying the torch brilliantly. He still uses his Roland RS-5, the first keyboard he ever bought, every night onstage with Rebelution. He also employs a Nord Stage 2 synthesizer along with a Korg Triton Extreme (added weight together 96 lbs but whose counting you COULD back line). They are a big part of the Rebelution sound. They are a big part of the sound that is selling out arena’s worldwide, and holding the top spot on the Billboard reggae charts for 2014. Whatever he’s using, it’s working.

Big special props to Rebelution for teaching me to embrace modernity and love simplicity. They are one of my favorite bands. Not because they are my friends, but because of what they do. They are providing original, positive, reggae music for a new generation, and I do believe that they are making them better people in the process. I myself have witnessed two frat boys, who would have never been at a concert for my band, embraced arm and arm having a genuine moment of solidarity while screaming the lyrics “WHATS A LIFE WITHOUT DEDICATION”.

I can’t say that we had such positive role models when we were young. Most of our rock star heroes died. They were involved with horrible drugs and/or went crazy. Even the reggae ones. The Absinth was about as crazy as we ever got together.

The moral of the story? Go with your heart. Don’t limit yourself to principles that you are applying to something that you didn’t create. Have the Absinth in New Orleans, especially if a friend is buying. What you like is what you like and what you don’t like is important for your creation. Your distastes’ will be another’s inspiration. They might use elements of what you don’t like to create something that you do like. This is music. These are musicians.

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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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