maandag 3 oktober 2011

Connecting Jamaican music : a tribute to Leonard Dillon, "the Ethiopian"

In one of my previous blog posts (Best reggae albums lists) I mentioned the Ethiopians as a crucial band in reggae. Actually, this Jamaican band under the name ‘Ethiopians’ was active already since 1966 in genres preceding reggae, in the ska era, and in the rocksteady era, continuing in the reggae (early reggae and roots reggae) period. Leonard Dillon, essential and founding member of the Ethiopians died Wednesday the 28th of September 2011 at the age of 68.

He was truly a reggae pioneer. On reflection, I think that one of the things that made Leonard Dillon, also known as “Sparrow”, such a pioneering, interesting Jamaican artist was the way he “connected” different genres. He went with the Jamaican music flows, as other artists (not every one invents new music genres) but he did it in his own way, showing a strong, original personality: typical for a true artist.

Of course, the Ethiopians were a band, and the other founding members Stephen Taylor and Aston Morris contributed as well to the Ethiopians songs and sound. Aston Morris left at a certain point. Other members were temporary, and unfortunately steady member Stephen Taylor died in 1975, after being hit by a van. Dillon felt this as a blow, making him retreat for a while, while continuing to record again a time after this. Even when recording alone after this he understandably kept the name the Ethiopian(s).

Leonard Dillon was born the 9th of December 1942 in rural Portland (Northeast Jamaica) and later went to Kingston, mainly for the music. He early on met there Peter Tosh, introducing him further in the music scene.

Like I said, Dillon connected different genres. He actually made – before his ska recordings - some songs in the “mento” style, an older rural Jamaican style predating ska, under the name ‘Jack Sparrow’. In 1966 the Ethiopians started recording for Clement “Coxsone” Dodd’s Studio One. I’m admittedly more a reggae fan than a ska man but one of my favourite ska songs is the Ethiopians’ ‘Free Man’ (another ska favourite of mine would be Alton Ellis’s ‘Shake It’).

I got to know this song as part of an Ethiopians album I had: ska, rocksteady, reggae, recorded by the Ethiopians at Studio One in the 1960s and 1970s. I liked my first encounter with the Ethiopians’ songs very much. Also because of the variation throughout their songs. The rocksteady riddim has a different flow than most ska. Reggae is different also. Then, in some Ethiopians’ songs (like ‘One Heart’) there were still folk-like “mento” influences (the older rural style). Some of these songs, like ‘Well Red’, still put me in a good mood.

This “connecting” went as far that an Ethiopians’ song with “ska” in the title was oddly enough not in the ska but actually in the rocksteady style. I’m talking about ‘Train to Skaville’. Ska in the title, but features as the driving bass makes it more a rocksteady than a ska song. A “mix up” in a good, funny way. Some songs also combined ska and rocksteady characteristics, beyond the title.

A later album I bought (released in 1993) strengthened my love for the Ethiopians’ music: ‘Owner Fe De Yard’, combining older and newer recordings. Here is my review of it I wrote once for the (now stopped) Reggae Reviews site. See:

The lively “mento” feel was there throughout much of his songs, but Dillon and the Ethiopians could be very serious and emotional as well. ‘Free Man’ is “minor-chord” (read: bluesy) ska, but also the later reggae of ‘Incessantly’, and the beautiful ‘I’ll Never Get Burned’ were serious tunes, with conscious “sufferers’” lyrics.


‘I’ll Never Get Burned’, from the early 1970s, is truly a classic. Musically it is relatively faster “early” reggae, but lyrically it is a forebode to the Rastafarian-influenced Roots Reggae. It is sung with Dillon’s vulnerable yet beautiful falsetto vocals.

That there was a Rastafari influence on Dillon was already obvious from the band name the Ethiopians, although the origins of it was seemingly prosaic. Dillon said in an extensive interview on the site (see: ), that a place where they rehearsed in Trench Town, Kingston, was named - under Rastafari influence - the Ethiopian Reorganization Centre. Hence the name, but he himself was actually also a self-declared Rastaman.

The name 'the Ethiopians' was a statement, and in 1966 not really accepted by many Jamaicans. Far from a ticket to automatic acceptance and success, quite the contrary, but therefore more authentic. Many conservative, higher-class Jamaicans saw and despised Rastafarians as a weed-smoking, disturbing cult looking to Africa, a land of origin that was deemed less than Europe and Britain. In other words, it took guts to present yourself as Rastafarian in Jamaican society and culture, especially before the 1970s. Yet Dillon and the Ethiopians did that, staying true to themselves. Then (or later, by the way), Dillon never wore dreadlocks, but he was a Rasta from inside, evident in his songs and lyrics.

From the later period, I got the Ethiopians album ‘Tuffer Than Stone’, released in 1999. It was mostly roots reggae, with Dillon giving his own lively interpretation with folksy/mento influences. It had several good songs, and I liked especially ‘Mystic Man’, and ‘Play By The Rule’, but most other tracks on this album were solid as well. Most of these were written by Dillon.

Around the same time Leonard Dillon a.k.a. “The Ethiopian”’s album ‘On the Road Again’ was released, finding Dillon delving in yet another genre (or subgenre) in Jamaican music: dancehall. Three of the 10 songs were more or less in the dancehall style, the other tracks were more rootsy or even lovers rock, such as the nice song ‘Feed The Fire’, where Dillon employs his fine falsetto voice for a memorable (maybe even classic), sincere love song.

Listening to the Ethiopians’ and Leonard Dillon’s songs, early and later in his career, is truly like a lesson in Jamaican music. He started with mento songs, followed by ska, rocksteady, early reggae, roots reggae, and dancehall. Not always with strict boundaries between these genres, and connected further through his distinctive vocals, as well as a recurring lively, folksy (or “mento”) feel.

I was lucky to have seen Leonard Dillon perform live once, when he performed – February, 2004 – in Utrecht (in the Netherlands). I lived in Amsterdam, and it was actually not so easy to go there, but it was more than worth it. He performed together with another reggae veteran, Max Romeo, in Tivoli. Tivoli was (and is) comparable as a venue to Amsterdam’s Melkweg or Paradiso concert halls, only it was smaller. Yet it was cozy, and the “vibes” were good. Furthermore, the concerts were musically very good, and I “rocked my body line”. Leonard Dillon exhibited the same pleasant, lively feel “in person” as in many of his songs. It was a wintery day and the streets were full of snow. Nonetheless, I remembered I felt happy, and afterward almost “danced” (in my mind, and maybe even physically) my way home, back to Amsterdam, that night after the concert. Dillon’s music made me feel good, reminding me – like other great artists – why I’m a reggae fan. He reminded me of this actually for years with his songs and albums, that I have (and still play) for over 15 years now..

For that reason I think that this tribute to Leonard Dillon, “the Ethiopian”, a pioneering and “connecting” Jamaican artist, seems appropriate on my blog...