zondag 2 april 2017

Subtle or subdued? : percussion in Bob Marley songs

In reality, it is a matter of connecting the dots. I am a reggae fan for over 30 years now, since I was about 11 years. Aside from this, some years ago, I took a more active interest in playing percussion, notably acoustic instruments. Before this I made music too (in fact since my teens), but through keyboards, MIDI, and singing.

My first encounter with reggae music back then (mid-1980s) included – as for so many people – Bob Marley albums, but also by other artists, such as the Wailing Souls. Over the years, my taste expanded to the entire Jamaican music scene. I specialized in reggae, you can safely say, and became (as other longtime fans) quite knowledgeable about it. This seems a natural progression.

In time I started to play percussion (hand drums, scrapers, bells, shakers etcetera) more actively, about 5 years ago. I was by then already a seasoned reggae fan, of course (listening of course at times also other music genres). I started with the Afro-Cuban bongó, followed by congas, the Yoruba ashiko drum, the African talking drum, djembe, bells, shakers, güiro, and other instruments. I also took lessons. Though I am broadly interested, I chose to focus most on Afro-American and African percussion instruments, with some slight Spanish/Flamenco influences. Since then – the last years as I write this - I played and jammed regularly with different musicians in the Amsterdam area. Mostly, though not exclusively, reggae musicians or music.


Of course, as can be expected, I started to focus on different aspects of reggae songs from then on, paying more detailed attention to the use of percussion in songs. This also to learn from, for educational purposes. I learned that some reggae songs had more prominent percussion, other reggae songs relatively less. This could depend on the producer, studio, time period, specific musicians, albums, artists..

It is here where “connecting the dots” comes in. In a former blog post of mine (on this blog) I studied the “güiro”, a scraper instrument, originally used in Afro-Cuban music, including son and salsa. I found that this güiro scraper was in fact used quite often by percussionists in reggae music, even throughout some entire albums. Often also quite “noticeable” (loud, audible) in the mix. Lee “Scratch” Perry seemed sympathetic to this scraper instrument’s sound, as were other artists and producers, like the band Culture, Burning Spear, the Congos, or influential Augustus Pablo and Sly & Robbie productions. More generally, they liked to add percussion sounds, also beyond the güiro scraper.


Bob Marley & the Wailers, by contrast, used the güiro scraper – and other percussion - relatively less prominently. There are some exceptions (Africa Unite, Crazy Baldhead, Get Up Stand Up, some songs on the Survival and Uprising albums). More generally, beyond just the güiro, on most Bob Marley songs percussion is used, but relatively sparse and limited, it seems, and often soft or somewhat “drowned” in the mix.

Africa Unite, a great song from the Survival album, is a case in point. There is a güiro audible, along with other percussion instruments, but barely audible without headphones. To really hear it well and prominent, one needs to listen in detail and preferably with headphones. That way I also found out that there is an African-type “talking drum” on the song Zimbabwe. I find those percussive details interesting.

So, not just that güiro, but the other percussion used in Bob Marley songs – at least on the well-known Island albums - tends to be soft, subdued (volume-wise) in the mix, compared to the other instruments. The woodblock (or jamblock) is used more in Bob Marley songs – quite regularly even – but somewhat hidden (read: soft) in the mix, as are bells and triangles. Only on a few songs of Bob, percussion was allowed to become more prominent. The bottle on the song Jamming, the audible cuíca friction drum on Could You Be Loved, and the interesting güiro scraper-woodblock interplay by Bob’s percussionist Alvin “Seeco” Patterson, on the song Crazy Baldhead (from the 1975 Rastaman Vibration album). These are exceptions, rather than the rule in the overall song book of Marley.

Many reggae fans may know that there is a bottle sound in Jamming, or a güiro scraper in the final part of Crazy Baldhead (or on Max Romeo’s Chase The Devil). They may also remember hearing a bell in several Bob Marley songs. They might, however, never have noted the talking drum in the song Zimbabwe. This is because it got “subdued”, drowned in the mix, amid the other (some say “main” instruments), namely the trap drums and electric instruments (bass, guitar, keyboard).

Zimbabwe is actually an interesting example. Most prominent is the (cow)bell, which is audible even through superficial listening. That bell (mainly a triple and double tone interchanged) is even kind of “driving” the energy of the song’s flow. Yet, upon closer listening it becomes evident that several percussion instruments are used on Zimbabwe, including hand drums (probably nyabinghi kete drums and congas), wood blocks, talking drums, and varied shaker sounds (cabasa, maracas).

The irony is that the song Zimbabwe is relatively “full” with percussion, yet that this is not very prominent or noticeable. Superficially, anyway, without giving it detailed attention. Nonetheless, it gives a song a depth, perhaps even subconsciously, that has an effect on the listener. That is a mark of good quality, in and by itself. It nonetheless still leaves the question open why the percussion could not sound louder in the final mix.


In the remainder of this post I want to focus on how percussion plays a role in Bob Marley’s songs, being the best-known reggae artist, world wide. Bob played a main role in internationalizing reggae, that is evident. Several of his songs are known all over the world.

Bob’s natural charisma and personality played a definitive role in his worldwide fame and appeal, yet, also Island and Chris Blackwell’s commercial thinking and promotion. The translation to the mainstream, non-reggae markets can only affect reggae’s authenticity. In fact it did affect this authenticity, although Marley – especially in (Rastafari) message and lyrics - largely kept his integrity. It did musically, though. Especially since Chris Blackwell and Island took Bob under their wings since 1973, his music became – at least partly - more “Westernized”, and mainstream. It got to differ – albeit to differing degrees - from the kind of Roots Reggae Jamaicans themselves preferred, already in the 1970s. The more culturally authentic, or “raw” Jamaican reggae, with some “rough edges” from the ghetto, as some describe it. Or “Blacker” as some also call it.

Does this difference relate to the relatively subdued percussion on Bob Marley songs?


Percussion in the African and Afro-American traditions, from which reggae developed, has (simply put) two main functions: one is a rhythmic one (driving, leading the/a main rhythm), the other is more, well, additional, filling up, or “embellishing”. Decorative, and more marginal. Overall, in African-derived music, percussion is relatively important, especially in music with – in part - sub-Saharan African roots. That may be a known fact, as African drumming traditions are quite well-known, even among non-experts. Africa is the most “percussive” continent (also maintained by anthropologist scholar Robert Farris-Thompson), so the balance of percussion’s function in African music often goes toward “leading” and “driving”. To a lesser degree, percussion can have also derived, more decorative functions in African music.


Especially in the context of this particular post, Bob Marley’s steady percussionist Alvin “Seeco” Patterson has to be mentioned. Throughout most of his career, since the 1970s , Seeco was Bob’s steady percussionist, until the end.. He was actually named Francisco Willie (Seeco as nickname derived from the Spanish first name), and was born in Havana, Cuba. Cuba is percussively influential globally, but I do not know whether this influenced Seeco’s instrument orientation.

Looking at album liner notes, however, one sees mentioned that percussion on several albums (Exodus, Uprising and others) also Aston & Carlton Barret - and occasionally Bob himself - were credited with playing percussion, alongside Seeco. Nevertheless, Seeco remained the main percussionist. Besides this role, Seeco was also influential early in the Wailers’ career, introducing them to Studio One owner Coxsone Dodd, for an audition, around 1964 (in the Ska era). Seeco knew Dodd and the Jamaican music scene already quite well, being then already some years active as musician, also in the Jamaican folk genre Mento (though he had to work in a mine on the side).

It is interesting to focus on Seeco’s (and sometimes others’) percussion contributions to Bob Marley’s albums and songs, including the well-known ones and big hits.

The said main – if simplistic – distinction between rhythmic, “carrying” percussion on the one hand, and atmospheric or decorative/embellishing on the other, is I think useful when listening to percussion on Bob Marley songs . The distinction cannot always be made, must be said. Especially in the African and Afro-American traditions, a counter-rhythm can be part of the overall call-and-response structure defining the song in its totality.

Though I am a percussion aficionado, I am not that biased or narrow-minded that I think that all reggae songs should have percussion, or that songs can only be good with added percussion. Some trap drummers are very creative with hi-hat patterns or added hits or rimshots, filling songs up quite nicely, as can dub/echo effects, or more rhythmic keyboard/synth or added guitar patterns. So much percussion is not always that indispensable. I like music in general (“soul”, melody, lyrics, harmony, rhythm), though I admittedly focus a bit more on rhythm, generally speaking. Probably, because I like to dance or move to music.

I have enjoyed songs, not really consciously aware of percussion present in it (or not). On the other hand, I do also encounter regularly songs, in reggae and other genres, of which I think: that could have used (more) percussion, to make it (even) better. Just to spice it up, groove it up, or fill it up, haha (I don’t even know if “groove it up” is an expression, but let’s continue). Some songs by the St Croix reggae band Midnite are examples of songs I thought could use more percussion, sounding somewhat “empty” to me.

Likewise, I “missed” more percussion also on some Wailers’ songs from the 1973 Catch A Fire and Burnin albums. These two “earlier” crossover albums were aimed at a White rock audience (in part) in Europe and the US, explaining perhaps the subdued role of percussion on the albums. Maybe Island records boss Chris Blackwell (co-producing these and later Bob albums) thought too much percussion was too, well, Black, Afro-Caribbean, or “ethnic”. In fact, Blackwell was the Executive Producer on Bob’s albums since 1973. I am afraid that Exeutive means something like “the final say”.

It is true that on most Bob albums Seeco was free to add percussion. This became, however, often soft in the mix, but upon closer/headphone listening – simply necessary to hear it well – even in earlier Bob Marley songs, some variety of percussion instruments can be heard. Not on all songs, however.


Among these percussion instruments, there seemed to be some preferences. Cowbells, other bells, and wood/jam blocks recur regularly, shaker instruments, jingle sticks/tambourines too, a bit less regular also an Akete hand drum or conga’s. Occasionally a rattle can be heard (on the songs Satisfy My Soul and Sun Is Shining for instance). Less heard (though not absent) is the scraper or güiro instrument. This is interesting, because scrapers were used quite commonly in other Jamaican Roots Reggae at the time.

Through a representative sample from different Bob Marley’s albums I can draw some general conclusions about preferred percussion in Marley songs.

-bells (cowbells) are used relatively often
-the triangle (!) can be heard regularly
-woodblocks/jamblocks are also used relatively often
-cabasa and other shakers also quite regularly
-tambourines and jingle sticks recur as well

Their presence reflects general trends in both pop and reggae music (apart from maybe the triangle use, more common in European classical music and Brazilian music forms than in pop).

More specific to reggae as an Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Jamaican genre:

-hand drums (especially akete/nyabinghi drums) regularly too
-rattles and güiro’s share a somewhat rasping, scraping sound and are quite commonly used in reggae, in other Caribbean genres (e.g. Cuban and Dominican ones) even more, but less so in pop, rock, soul, or funk. In Marley songs, the rattle is used more than the güiro scraper, but not so much.

Exceptionally some other, “extraordinary” instruments appeared, such as a cuíca friction drum, a bottle/glass, or a talking drum.

Quite some variety in percussion instruments, not unlike other reggae or perhaps even more varied in instrumentation, though with some specific accents. Marley songs used relatively more metal percussion when compared to other reggae (bells, triangles), and also the woodblock/jamblock. The güiro, however, seems relatively neglected. Tellingly, earlier/other versions of Small Axe, a song appearing on the Island-produced Burnin’album too, had a quite prominent güiro pattern, that however disappeared from the Burnin’album version.

These might show a slight preference for “safe”choices, derived from Western pop music, besides perhaps the akete drums. Yet, overall there is quite some percussive variety in Marley songs, I must admit. The variety of instruments is not so much the problem. It is more the way it is played and recorded/mixed: simple, not very “full” patterns, that furthermore ended up soft and subdued in the final mix.


A matter of choice, and maybe not even that important. The musical composition as a whole has to have quality, has to impress artistically, that’s what is most important. The combination of sounds and vocals. Quality is however largely subjectively defined. Furthermore, tastes of the public, of listeners, can be “shaped”, or at least influenced. Blackwell and others shaping the Bob Marley reggae sound – as known, more commercial and aimed at the mainstream than other Roots Reggae – made choices, which included – apparently – subduing percussion. Percussion was added, but was usually drowned and softened in the final mix.

Other producers in reggae since the 1970s, especially the more experimental ones like Lee “Scratch” Perry, Niney The Observer, or Augustus Pablo, made other choices. This includes often more prominent percussion. Especially on 1970s Roots Reggae albums produced by Lee Scratch Perry, percussion instruments were made deliberately prominent (scrapers, bells, hand drums, wood blocks, rattles, etcetera). Often even with “carrying” or “driving” rhythmic roles. Also the Rockers era, such as Henry “Junjo”Lawes productions, from around 1980 (the Wailing Souls album Fire House Rock, for example), did regularly have quite prominent roles for percussion.

On most Bob Marley songs, however, percussion is softer in the mix, drowning it more sonically. On the plus side, this has on several songs a nice atmospheric effect of “filling up”. Subtle, but notable. Adding indeed “depth”. I personally like this subtle effect of percussion on Bob’s song So Much Trouble In the World, and several other songs on especially the later albums Survival and Uprising. Also on earlier songs I liked the subtlety of added percussion, such as on the fine song Guiltiness (from the Exodus album), or the nice touch percussion (bell, block, rattle, hand drum) subtly adds to the excellent musical piece Misty Morning (on the 1978 Kaya album). Subtle and tasteful, similar to adding just the right amount of a spice to a dish, not too much and not too little.

I notice that the percussion became more varied in the later Bob albums Survival (1979) and Uprising (1980). More varied percussion, but generally not “louder” in the mix, and still subtle (or subdued). It adds to the nice feel of some songs like We and Dem (scraper/güiro, cowbell a.o.), Zimbabwe, Africa Unite, Forever Loving Jah (hand drums, triangle a.o.), and other songs, if partly subconsciously. An interesting approach to “playing with sound” found in other genres (like the “wall of sound” idea), but a bit less common in most reggae. There has to be variety in reggae, and there are different ways to add percussion, all effective and good in their own way, I guess. In most Bob Marley’s songs, especially for Island records, thus, the percussion was subtle and subdued.

Regarding the aforementioned “percussion roles” distinction, I think that the balance on most Bob Marley songs (with several exceptions) tipped toward “decoration” or “embellishing”, rather than more prominent “carrying” or “driving” rhythmical roles. An European influence, simply said.

There are exceptions, though, such as the great, relatively acoustic, Nyabinghi-based song Babylon System (on the album Survival), the glass sound on Jamming, or the groovy effect of the friction drum cuica friction drum on Could You Be Loved. The already mentioned song Crazy Baldheads had quite prominent percussion, and also on a song like One Drop (on the relatively “percussive” 1979 album Survival) the percussion is quite “carrying” and rhythmic, rather than just embellishing, due to a driving jam/wood block pattern in it.


Like I said, I found it interesting to study these subtle roles of percussion in Bob Marley songs. Especially because he was a relatively well-known reggae artist, internationally, reaching the mainstream. Plus, it is a nice change for me to analyse from another perspective songs I often know already well by now.

The Bob Marley sound, as Island and Chris Blackwell helped shape it, did not become a dominant influential model in Jamaica itself. The concessions to White, European tastes were probably all too evident and deemed inauthentic by most Jamaican musicians, preferring instead to “keep it real” and original culturally. Only some acts went a similar crossover direction, through modern, Western influences, notably Third World and Chalice, and to a lesser degree artists like Prince Lincoln Thompson. Most artists however wanted to sound original, Jamaican, and “real”, even sacrificing for that commercial success. You can consider this a self-sacrifice, or even in a sense “culturally heroic”.

The soft, subdued percussion on most Bob Marley songs were, I argue, part of a wider approach by Island and Chris Blackwell, to promote Bob Marley’s music to a more mainstream audience. They may have even have considered it more “sophisticated”. This combined with a greater role for the electric guitar in Marley songs (compared to other reggae) – to appeal to Rock fans? – synth additions, other influences from genres like blues and funk, relatively modest drum parts (Carlton Barret was certainly skilled as drummer, but kept it mostly steady, rather than being too experimental or polyrhythmic), and a not too low or prominent bass guitar. The “heavy bass”- common in a part of Jamaican music, influenced by Dub and Rub-A-Dub subgenres, was mostly avoided on Marley albums.

This bass guitar, though, was still quite prominent in Bob Marley’s music, when compared to other genres, and - as main chord instrument - at least audible and musically “leading”. Percussion was compared to the bass more often relegated to the background, subdued and soft, and even mostly marginal/decorative, at least on many songs. Also compared to the guitar. Percussion still added to the overall feel of Marley songs, but subtly. Occasionally, I appreciate this subtle approach to percussion on some Marley songs, I must admit. More often, though, I find it too subdued or too understated.

I think that the “wall of sound” notion, popularized by Philip Glass, and which suggests “Western sophistication” (justly or not), made the percussion be “drowned” or “buried” more in Bob Marley songs, when compared to other reggae. Most other reggae since the 1970s was “rawer” – so to speak – but also “sparser” in sound, with more open spaces sonically . Author Michael Veal noted this openness or “spatiality” in sound too, when studying Dub Reggae. Any percussion added to this more “open” or “spatial” sounding reggae, would therefore be more easily audible and identifiable.

Moreover, also important of course, many artists in reggae, increasing with the Roots Reggae period starting around 1972, preferred to use different percussion instruments regularly. This probably was in part due to cultural or spiritual reasons. The Rastafari movement focussed on Africa, and influenced Roots Reggae strongly in the 1970s. Using hand drums like the (Nyabinghi) Akete, or Congas, assured at least a symbolical connection to the African roots and Rastafari, but also other rhythmically used acoustic instruments like scrapers, shakers, or wooden instruments, had connections to the African motherland, and to “traditional culture”. The latter meant also a connection to the “folk”, away from too much attachment to Western -Babylon, as Rastas call it - modernized culture and technology, even though the use of it seemed inevitable in modern pop music. Percussion became thus part of a way to “keep it real”, differing from the polished, commercial approach aimed at Euro-Western cultural that the Island-shaped Bob Marley sound represented.

This is not to say that Bob Marley’s songs lacked quality. Bob Marley released several great albums and songs, that not entirely, but at least in part kept a musical integrity and represented Jamaican reggae. A bit more polished, but hey.. Bob Marley had good songwriting skills and talent, and proved this. Lee “Scratch” Perry especially appreciated his melodies. Marley also had good, effective lyrics, seemingly simple, yet full of wisdom. His singing voice was also okay, although there were – in my opinion – better singers in Jamaican music at the time (Alton Ellis, Dennis Brown, Horace Andy, Ken Boothe and others) with a wider, or more soulful vocal range. Overall, however, Bob was very talented as songwriter, musician, and artist.

I merely contend that the too commercial, “slick” and polished production and arranging and mixing choices of Bob Marley songs, made at Island by Chris Blackwell cum suis, diminished the power and “raw authenticity” of this talent. That’s what the relatively subdued percussion of Bob Marley songs in my opinion represents.