My parents led me into the Rochester War Memorial. I followed blindly into what was the first sea of people I had ever been among. The lights dimmed as I followed my father, in his suit and sport-coat, up an endless amount of steep stairs, to our seats in the nosebleed section.
Then the drums raged. They billowed through the arena, clearing the smoky air, in what seemed like an initiation into a transcendental experience.
“The Obvious Child”. Paul Simon: Rhythm of the Saints. Born at the Right time was the name of the tour. It was 1991 and I was 9 years old. This was my first concert experience.
My family looked out of place, as tye-dyed, herb smoking peers of my parents and younger piled into the aisles for a celebration of dance and music. Decades of Paul Simon’s catalogue was the soundtrack.
The context of the greatness was lost on me. The concert was just a quick stop for me in-between food and bedtime, which took hold about three songs into the show. I do remember the massive band, as well as an amazing light show during “Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes”
At the time I was more familiar with Simon & Garfunkel than I was Simon’s solo work, though I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that. Our family vacations and sing alongs were powered by their early work. “I am a Rock” and “He was my Brother” The tunes ran deep through my developing biology, and I could probably say they are my unconscious reference point for vocal harmony and song writing.
Through my teenage years, I rejected that stuff. When I realized we had no Aretha Franklin in the house, I became skeptical of the range of my parents music collection. Sensing my musical questing, Mom and Dad would try every year at Christmas to get on the same page and gift me some albums that they thought I would like.
I must say, they succeeded a few times. Despite my Mom, in an effort to give me Dave Matthews getting me Dave Mason (he might be great, it was lost on me at the time), most of the albums became entered into the repotoire of my bedroom listening.
Paul Simon’s self-titled solo album from 1972 is the undisputed winner. I distinctly remember enjoying this record start to finish on the first listen. The cover art revealed nothing of what to expect. Simply Paul in his winter parka. An eclectic array of moods, styles, and subjects wheeled Simon back into my ears for years to come.
The first track on this record is what I would like to bring attention to. It’s a big tune. “Mother and Child Reunion”. It’s a reggae song. The only one on the album and possibly of Paul Simon’s career. I didn’t recognize this until years later. The music is distinctly being played by Jamaicans in the early 70’s. Upon listen, and educated ear would immediately guess that it was recorded at Studio One. It sounds like “Caution” by Bob Marley. Paul even fakes the Jamaican slightly, “Mother and Chyld reuoooon-y-on”. I loved it so much I even lifted a line. I stuck the lyric, “In the course of a lifetime” into my tune, “All My Life” as a shoutout to one of my greatest influences.
The title of the tune was mysterious to me. I always wondered what the “Mother and Child Reunion” was. In my darkest interpretation, I imagined someone whose mother died in childbirth, finding themselves on the brink of death, and finding solace in the heavenly reunion. On the lighter side, I think about it when my wife is at work, and my daughter misses her milk. As I sit and write this on tour in Colorado, I remember that I have my own “Mother and Child Reunion” to return to, “only a motion away”.
Of course reggae is the perfect upbeat style to present heavy subject matter. It is almost its calling card: deep thoughts that you can dance to.
For years I listened to this song, wondering who the mysterious band was. Who made the crucial connection to bring Paul Simon, one of the most famous artists in the world, to Kingston Jamaica to record his first single as a solo artist? Who in his team knew that that was the place to go? Was it Paul? I made up stories in my head of how the session must have gone down. I imagined that the studio band just laid down the tune in one take for Paul, amidst a slew of other famous Jamaican riddims they happened to be recording that day. Just another pearl in a sea of gems.
So one day, in 2014, Panda was sitting down for breakfast in some New Hampshire diner, and we began to speculate, once again about who the drummer might have been.
Clearly it wasn’t Steve Gad. Gad is from Rochester, our hometown, and though he has been Paul’s drummer since the 70’s, there was no way he was coppin that beat at that time.
In our brilliance, we realized that this information might be publicly available on our cellular miracle machines. If bands in 2014 had action figures, their accessory would be a smart phone before it was a pair of drum-sticks. All bands have them, and have them out, all the time.
These machines are tools. They will help you only if you understand how to use them. The creative burden is still on you to ask the right questions. You still have to understand the problem that needs solving.
Faster than you could say “Cecilia”, we had the answers in front of us. It was mind-blowing, and transformative in our understanding of reggae history. How had we not heard this information up until now? How was Winston Grennan not a household name amongst reggae musicians and lovers? He was never mentioned to us along with Carly Barret, Sly Dunbar, Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, and Style Scott.
He played drums on “Mother and Child Reunion”. He is most famous for creating the one-drop. The backbone of reggae music. The emphasis on the two and the four “within a highly syncopated 4/4 bar”. The one drop is what makes you dance. It is a space where science and spirituality intersect. The mechanics of the rhythm support your physiology, providing your consciousness the foundation to elevate. Similar to the heartbeat. Similar to ocean waves.
Winston Grennan played on thousands of tracks. You have heard him. You just didnt know his name.
“Grennan’s drumming style was extremely innovative and constantly evolving. Even his drum set-up was also highly idiosyncratic: he placed his cymbals behind him. He mentored a number of Jamaican musicians including notable drummers, Carlton Barrett, Sly Dunbar, Tin Leg, and Willie Williams. Prior to leaving Jamaica he worked on recordings by various foreign acts who gravitated to Jamaica’s studios, including Paul Simon, Eddie Kendricks, Peter Paul & Mary, and Booker T. and the MGs. Just before leaving Jamaica he also appeared in the classic film The Harder They Come, as well as playing on most of the soundtrack cuts.”
His innovation and artistry calls for a massive amount of thanks and recognition. A true artist. The individuals who are able to collect the bits and pieces that progressive culture spews out and swirl them into a new style all together. They deliver the perspective. Other artists pick it up and round the edges.
So give thanks for Winston Grennan for delivering the one-drop, but save some for later too, because there’s more:
Paul Simon has a history of going to hard to get to places, discovering the local talent, and using them to make his music. “Using” is up for your interpretation. There has been much controversy over his career regarding his appropriation of sounds and styles that are not of New Jersey, where he is from. However, the musicians on Graceland are adamant that if anything, they used each other. The collaboration was beneficial for all parties involved.
When I was in Ghana, working with a traditional group Hewale Sounds, Dela Botri, the leader of the group, had high hopes that our collaboration would get exposure like Graceland. Being fully aware that this probably would not happen, it still felt cool to be considered in a Paul Simon-ish role.
Musicians bond everywhere we come across each other. We always want to collaborate, we always want to connect, and we always want to be able to get beyond the obvious differences and plethora of variables that separate us outside of our drive to create and vibrate. Culture can be shared and exchanged, but you can’t dismiss that reality is political.
In that real life, your ability to have bus fare to make it to rehearsal, or the fact that your job might take all your time away that you have to play music, or your daily Ghanaian existence colliding with my American in Ghana experience, stays strong on the surface.
So there is a sensitive degree of hope that often enters its way into these cross-cultural, cross-class collaborations. There is a hope that this experience with an American songwriter will lead to worldwide success, and an escape from local stifling.
These musicians that I was working with, they were more successful than I was. They were older for the most part, and fully professional, world class, well known players. From performances in Germany to workshops at University of Colorado at Boulder, these guys were doing what I wanted to do. I was 20. Yet still, this hope existed that the project we were working on was going to break through the pop barriers and propel them even further out onto the world stage.
The project was highly collaborative. Matt Goodwin and I would bring them tunes, they would interpret what feel would go behind it, and we would jam. We wrote melodies together, and played as part of the band when Dela Botri was the author of the tune.
We called it Sankofa Root Revival. When we returned to the States in 2002, we desperately tried to have the raw multitrack sessions sent to mix. Sadly, there was a computer malfunction at the Ghanaian studio and the session was lost. All we are left with, is the raw unmixed tunes.
We had been rehearsing under a tree at the University of Legon campus. Some of the most magical musical moments I have ever had were under that tree. Djembes, Ballaphones, Gome Drum, and Ateneben thrive in an open organic space. The wind in the trees, the chatter of passing students, and the traffic packed street close by, all provide a deep and profound harmony with these instruments.
That sound was never captured unfortunately. The close mic placement of these instruments in the studio sounded cold. Post production reverb would be applied. Editing was bound to occur because it could. Two singers overdubbed multiple stacks of harmony to create the effect of a full chorus. There was a piano. There was no wind in the trees.
Don’t get me wrong, it was an amazing experience to record in that studio, with those players, in a truly collaborative way. Everybody got paid. Goodwin and I were in no way cracking the whip as project leaders, we were simply facilitating a cross cultural musical experience: financially and creatively.
I wonder what would have happened if we finished the album. Would we have gone the Paul Simon route? I imagine we would have chopped and edited and changed it to be our own.
From watching the movie Under African Skies (100% on Rotten Tomatoes) as well as VH1’s Classic Albums: Graceland, I am under the impression that while the recording sessions were fun and exciting, the end result was not too collaborative. Paul went to South Africa, found the best players, and recorded jam sessions. From those jam sessions, he would create sections. He was a band leader. Those sections were compiled and arranged to make songs like “Call Me Al”, “Boy in the Bubble”, and “Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoe’s”. It was sonically revolutionary. The music of modern South Africa, edited and overdubbed under the category of Paul Simon’s world music.
I never grew up knowing the names of the musicians, or anything about the styles of music that influenced the album. The cover has some celtic inspired artwork. I just knew and loved the tunes.
I don’t have any animosity towards Paul. Neither do the players on the record. I am happy that this album was made. It has supplied me with great times and memories. I was disapointed though, to learn by watching the movie that Paul had played with these guys, paid them, and then quickly lost touch. He didn’t speak with them again for over a decade, when it came time for the reunion concert and the making of the documentary film.
These music of South Africa and these musicians were definitely put out on the world stage. The awareness of contemporary South African music was internationally hightened like never before. Groups like Lady Blacksmith Mambazo certainly gained fans and sold millions of records that otherwise might not have been heard outside of the region, and that recognition is owed to Paul Simon’s Graceland.
Still, I think there are other western artists out there who have done a more conscious job of exposing lesser known international treasures. I heard and listened to Buena Vista Social Club as well as Ali Farka Toure hundreds of times before I knew who Ry Cooder was, despite the fact that it was him who delivered the music to my ears. David Byrne has created quite a legacy of releasing lesser known music from far away places, my favorite being World Psychedelic Classics Volume 3: Love is a Real Thing.
Everyone was going to buy the album because it was Paul Simon, and that was just the route he chose to take. He is an artist and he had a vision. I wished he had kept up with the musicians as people, but who am I to say. Artists have their reasons for picking up and moving on I suppose.
Shortly after Winston Grennan recorded drums on “Mother and Child Reunion”, he picked up and moved on from Jamaica to New York City where he became a well employed session drummer.
He brought a little thing that he developed in Jamaica with him that he liked to call the “Flyers” beat. That became disco. So there’s that.
One innovative drummer from Jamaica is responsible for birthing two of the most influential and famous rhythms in the world. Reggae and Disco went on to become Hip-Hop and House music and much more. And we didn’t know his name.
No but seriously, I would never have been led down this journey of discovery if Paul had not gone down to Jamaica for the session. I sought out knowledge and found answers using tools of the future. Long live the internet. History is here to learn from so let’s learn it.
It also turned out that I wasn’t the only one mystified by the song title. There are many rumors and discussions online regarding the subject matter. Some claim that Paul wrote it after hearing Jimmy Cliff’s “Vietnam“. Paul himself announced recently that this was in fact true, and that the song that influenced him to go down to Jamaica to record “Mother and Child Reunion”. Internet for the win again. Online, you will also discover, that the song is about Paul’s dead dog. The “Mother and Child Reunion” title was taken from a Chinese Restaraunt menu. It is a chicken and egg dish. Snopes confirmed. Artists.