Today is a celebration for many around the world who recognize Easter, so today, I bring you another kind of celebration–that of the drums of Count Ossie. The above article appeared in Swing Magazine in 1969 and it speaks of a program featuring the drums of Count Ossie to encourage further understanding, or overstanding, of the instrument and culture.
The following is an excerpt from my book, Don Drummond: The Genius and Tragedy of the World’s Greatest Trombonist about Count Ossie including recollections from Rico, Carlos Malcolm, and Clive Chin:
Count Ossie was born Oswald Williams in March, 1926. He is considered to be the originator of Rasta music which began in the late 1940s at his first camp on Salt Lane in the Dungle, an area that was a refuse dumping ground for the government and tenement yards. Count Ossie was living at the bottom of Slip Dock Road at the time but he started a camp in the Dungle since he frequently traveled to the area to reason with local brethren about such subjects as Rastafarianism, Garveyism (the teachings of Marcus Garvey who advocated for repatriation to Africa and who prophesied the birth of a king in Africa), and black awareness. They discussed their belief that Haile Selassie, who was crowned King of Ethiopia in 1930 and was a descendent of King Solomon, fulfilled the Biblical prophecy as noted by Marcus Garvey. Selassie was given the title Ras, an Amharic title of royalty, Tafari, the king’s family name. He is called King of King, Lord of Lords, as proclaimed in the book of Revelations. He is considered by followers to be the incarnation of God and a savior for black people in times of great oppression.
During these conversations with fellow Rastafarians, Count Ossie, who always had a love for music, particularly drums and percussion, met a master Burru drummer named Brother Job. Brother Job played drums in the Dungle and at a camp held by a Rastafarian who went by the name Skipper.
The Burru were a group of men who emerged during the days of slavery on the island. Bands of Burru, African drummers, were permitted by slave owners to play drums and sing for the workers in the Jamaican fields to raise the slaves’ spirits—not for emotional reasons, but to impose more productivity. The first Burru drums were heard on the island of Jamaica in 1903 in the parish of Clarendon. Their drum beat was the heartbeat of Africa. After slavery was abolished, the Burru could not find work and so they congregated in the impoverished areas of Kingston. They continued their drumming and music, which was not religious in nature, but still had a ritual component grounded in the Jonkonnu, a West African musical festival and parade. Each Christmas season, the Burru men gathered to compose their own music with words about local events or about people in the community who had committed an act of wrongdoing. They worked on these songs starting in September and then on the holiday they traveled throughout the community, going from home to home, playing their bamboo scraper, shakka, and rhumba box for percussion, singing songs which were intended to purge the evil of the previous year before the new one began. Although the music was composed during the months previous to the event, they also were known to improvise on the spot.
Because the Burru were mischievous in this manner, and because they lived in the slum areas of the city, they were mistakenly considered by many to be criminals or undesirables. They were not unlike the Rastas in their early days. Both groups were persecuted by society and the government, both were anti-establishment, and both were firmly rooted in their African origins. So in the 1940s the two groups merged. The Burru acquired a religion or spirituality from the Rastas, and the Rastas acquired music.
Although Count Ossie learned his drumming from Burru men like Brother Job, he also developed his own individual style. In the early days, Count Ossie didn’t own his own drum but he had Brother Job’s teacher, Watto King, make a custom set for him. Count Ossie then traveled to meet with other groups of Rastas and share his drumming with his brethren, spreading the musical form in areas like Brother Issie Boat’s camp which was located in the Wareika Hills. Soon other brethren learned to drum and because the communal camps were transient in nature, the music spread quickly. In 1951, Count Ossie’s camp at Salt Lane was destroyed by Hurricane Charlie. He then spent some time at the Rastafarian camp at Rennock Lodge before establishing his famous camp in the Wareika Hills off Adastra Road near the area known as Rockfort. Saxophonist Herman “Woody” King says that Count Ossie taught them all how to play. He says, “Count Ossie was a magnificent drummer. He not only played in the Rastafarian style, but he was able to play with the musicians, like jazz musicians, so he was very versatile. He could adapt his style. And me being such a lover of music and the Rastafarian doctrine, I was right there when he was coming along and playing.”
Count Ossie’s camp became a place for groundations or Nyahbinghis or Issembles, a spiritual communion of music composition, herb smoking from the chalice, and reasoning. Nyahbinghi originally meant “death to the whites, or death to the Europeans” in the 1930s, but then evolved to mean “death to the white oppressors and their black allies.” During these musical sessions, it wasn’t uncommon to borrow from melodies of other songs, such as hymns, a practice that also took place by other musicians in the studios and on stage. The groundations were a time of spiritual bonding meant to heighten one’s spiritual consciousness. They were gatherings that took place anywhere from three to seven days in length when brethren and dawtas engaged in communal activities, such as music, chanting, dancing, and smoking herb. A purpose of the Nyahbinghi was to restore the natural order of creation through purging the evil from the world. The music had an emotional purpose, a healing purpose, and a religious or spiritual purpose. Numerous visiting musicians came to participate in the groundations, including Roland Alphonso, Cedric Brooks, Little G McNair, Bra Gaynair, Rico Rodriguez, Tommy McCook, Johnny Moore, Vivian Hall, Ernest Ranglin, and Don Drummond. This group of musicians, sometimes called Count Ossie’s Band, performed until dawn throughout Jamaica at dance sessions and at Coney Island, an amusement park in Kingston.
Carlos Malcolm recalls the days when music was created in the Wareika Hills. “We used to practice against the hills. Oliver Road used to come down from Wareika Hills and that is where the Eastern musicians mostly used to congregate. This was, when we started, a little before Count Ossie started recording. He grew up in the hills. Don Drummond used to hang out at Oliver Road with Vivian Hall (trumpeter). Everybody used to go up to the hills,” says Malcolm.
Clive Chin remembers the times he too went into the hills, not as a participant, but as a spectator when his dad, Vincent Chin, came to talk to the musicians. “They used to go up there and my dad would take me up there and at times he would leave me out in the car and sometimes I could get upset because he would leave me out there for hours, although he had someone watching me, but I ask him permission on a number of occasions to come out and look and see what they are doing, and I think one of the things my dad didn’t like was the atmosphere of the ceremonial things that they had to do, the smoking and stuff, he didn’t want me around it. Ossie would be playing a full setup of drums and it was mostly just rehearsals where Don would come in and solo and then back out and Tommy come in and do a solo and Johnny Moore come in and it give them a little way to introduce themselves and flow in. They were improvising. Herman King was there a lot too. He’d always be there. There were quite a few men, mostly men,” Chin says.
Drumming was always the foundation of the music in the hills. The drums used involved three drums: a repeater, or akete which is the melody line; the fundeh, or funde which plays the steady rhythm or life line in addition to syncopation; and the bass drum, a two or three-foot drum hit many times with a paddle, which keeps the same basic beat of the fundeh but varies it in rhythm and tone. Count Ossie’s bass drum featured a phrase written in large letters on it— “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity,” a passage from Psalm 133. Percussionist Larry McDonald says the camp was a place for drumming and dancing and it was a popular place for musicians in the 1950s and 1960s. He says, “I used to go up to Wareika on Sunday evening because on Sunday evening the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari would play up there, Count Ossie. Ossie is a friend of mine, so I go up and carry my drums up and every Sunday they’d set up and we’d play a big set. And me and the little kids would hang out. It was just about going up and getting a chance to play the music.” The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari was a group consisting of Count Ossie and some of his drumming brethren. They later recorded music and performed on stage, even for the visit of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie to Jamaica on April 21, 1966. This date is marked each year still today with celebratory groundations.
The musicians came to Count Ossie’s camp because it was a chance to be free with their music and they could truly expand their skills in a way no studio or stage would allow. But they also came because of the spiritual and emotional connections to their fellow brethren, led by Count Ossie, although there was no leader in a strict hierarchical sense. Rico Rodriguez who spent time actually living at the camp pays respect. He says, “Count Ossie was like a chief. He was like a chief in the hills. Everyone look up to him. Once he told me he wanted to learn trumpet but he was more into the drums, so he played the drums instead of the trumpet. A lot of Rastas around and I used to go home. I used to go home. We go away and play and I don’t go back to my mother’s house no more until I’m ready to come to England. I was leaving from Wareika Hills to come to England. Some of us stay in Wareika Hills. It was safe there. We cook and eat and they had Wareika school for the children to teach them about history. Communication everyday was about prayers, psalms and we chant psalms and play instruments. No really bed, just makeshift, yeah. Rough living, you know? No house, shelter, sheltered place. Everybody lived in stiffs, a variety of stiffs, you know? But it was a community. We play music all day, all day, all day and night.”