zaterdag 3 juni 2017

Solos and reggae

The phenomenon “solo”, in the world of musicians/instrumentalists, is of course quite known. In more jazzy, experimental musical genres they are quite common, as they are in experimental, freer “jam” or live sessions, among musicians of various genres.

A solo in this sense is when a specific musical instrument takes a time period in a song - an instrumental part - to play a divergent, yet fitting melody and pattern, as a variation within that song.

In more “popular” or commercial genres – pop music – they occur too, as the aim is to give songs a distinctive touch, though less common than in specific genres for specific audiences. This applies to jazz, blues, and to a lesser degree of rhythm and blues, funk, soul, and salsa. Those fields where musicianship is still valued, generally over commercial standardization, although cliché, not very creative solos have found their way in pop, rock & roll and other more popular genres.


An interesting difference is between the musical instruments that tend to play solos in specific genres. Predictably, in “Rock” genres (this term is used quite vaguely, especially in the US..), like rock and roll, grunge, or hard rock, heavy metal, much of country, the guitar is anyhow very important, especially the electric guitar, so also guitar solos are very common. Rhythm and Blues tends to have more piano or horn solos, as is also the case with jazz. Blues – again – tends to have more electric guitar solos than of other instruments.

These electric guitar-driven genres became popular in the US, although Punk music in Europe has this electric guitar focus too.

Kind of odd how the electric guitar became so determining in these popular US music genres, though it can be explained. The genesis of the guitar is by itself an interesting one, the acoustic one, the original “Spanish guitar”, developed as such centuries ago in the South of Spain, based on string instrument models of the ruling Islamic Moors, although the latter based theirs in turn on older Persian models. In Spain thus developed the most known version of the acoustic guitar with 4, later 6 strings. The Spanish or “classical” guitar had nylon strings (later ones metal ones). It came to play a role in Spanish traditional and folk styles, resulting in South Spanish Flamenco music, with a crucial role for this acoustic guitar, often even rhythmically, and not just melodically.

Other “guitar-like” string instruments are found elsewhere in Europe, like Italy, the Balkan, other parts of Spain, France, yet the Spanish guitar became the model for later “electric guitars” in pop music.

Remarkable how history goes: the electric version of this guitar – that once arose in Spain - became over time a determining instrument in pop or “rock” music in the US. Yet, as so often: influential, innovative and original musicians played crucial roles on the way to this, for instance Jimi Hendrix, but also Blues musicians. This puts in another light the image of electric guitar-driven genres in the US being especially by and for “White people”.

Guitars travelled with other instruments along with the Spanish to the Americas, as did Portuguese string sinstruments to Brazil. In many traditional and folk genres the guitar, or versions thereof, became quite important, such as in Mexican music.

In areas with stronger sub-Saharan influence, drums and percussion – and in general “rhythm” – became more important, absorbing often the guitar in supportive rhythmic roles, such as in the Son music genre of Eastern Cuba (later influencing what would become known as “Salsa”), and even more in the Son-influenced Bachata from the Dominican Republic.


Relevant is here what is explained also in ‘The Aesthetic of the Cool : Afro-Atlantic Art and Music’, a 2011, scholarly/essay work by Robert Farris-Thompson, on the African influence on Afro-American art. Farris-Thompson makes a rough – if slightly simplistic –distinction between “forest” Africa, including the Congo region, and the South of Nigeria, Benin, and Ghana, and “Griot Africa” to the direct North of it (with more Savannah or Steppe-like landscapes), and with more Islamic/North African influences, such as in the Mande-speaking area around Guinea, Senegal, Southern Mali, Northern Ivory Coast and around. Here string instruments, like the Kora harp, are more prominent, while in “forest Africa” drums and percussion are more common (relatively).

Interestingly, Farris-Thompson sees the influence of slaves from this Griot Africa (sahel) region (Mande-speaking, often), in a genre like the Blues in the South of the US, as many slaves from this area ended up there (though coming also from other, “forest” parts of Africa). In the Caribbean and Brazil, however, African slaves came (proportionally, relatively) more often from “forest Africa” (Congo, Yoruba areas, for instance), explaining the emphasis on percussion and drums in Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian genres.

While simplified, I think the basis of this analysis and distinction of Farris-Thompson is historically and culturally correct. There are some exceptions, as to all general rules, but in broad lines it is a sensible distinction. One aspect that is disregarded in this, hwever, is the fact that some colonizers, especially the British, forebade drums in colonial policies, affecting also musical developments. The Spanish, Portuguese, and French tended to permit drum music more leniently, even during the slave regimes, albeit under conditions. So, colonial policies hindered and thwarted African cultural continuity, which on the other hand is nothing new. A rhythmic focus remained though, and even drums and percussion survived partly also in former British colonies as Jamaica or Trinidad and Tobago.


This all explains why the electric guitar as such did not become that “leading” in some Caribbean genres, and even less as a solo instrument. In Reggae music the bass guitar – indeed a type of guitar – became a bit leading and ”chording”, but in close tandem with the drum and rhythm. . This inherent interrelation with the drum and rhythm, has interesting similarities with how guitars (or the small guitar called “tres”) is absorbed in Afro-Cuban genres like Son, though in a different way. The bass guitar in reggae is a guitar, is semi-melodic and chording, but at the same time “rhythmic”, when compared to its role in “Rock” or “Blues”. Other guitars – notably the “rhythm guitar” - tend to have rhythmic roles in Reggae even more exclusively, with the known strum on the 2nd or 4th beat of 4/4 (counted in double time), part of the basic Reggae groove.

Electric guitar solos were and are, consequently, not very common in Reggae. Solos of other instruments are more common. In genre’s preceding Reggae, notably Ska, horn solos (trumpet, trombone, saxophone) were very common, a bit like in Rhythm & Blues, that influenced Ska strongly. In Cuban Son and salsa, horn solos occurred too, maybe being another influence, as some early Ska musicians in Jamaica – from the band the Skatalites - had links with Cuba.

As Reggae developed, though, not only horns, but also flutes, piano, keyboards, melodica’s and harmonica’s and other instruments came to provide solos, and on some experimental songs, even vibraphones, xylophones, steeldrums or other instruments. And yes, occasionally also a “electric guitar solo” could be heard, though initially not much in Reggae.


In fact, the electric guitar solo on Bob Marley’s Concrete Jungle for Island (album Catch A Fire), by US musician Wayne Perkins, has become well-known. Its fame especially came because at the rise of Marley’s international fame, this known electric guitar solo became kind of a “bridge” to cross-over to a White, Rock-minded audience, broadening Marley’s fame. This of course along with other production choices led by Chris Blackwell at Island Records, along with others.

Producer Chris Blackwell even said that the guitar solo and the guitarist were chosen to reach another (Rock) audience and public, as such Rock-like electric guitar solo were then uncommon in Reggae and Jamaican music.

Maybe the solo appealed to some people, but to be totally honest it did not do that much for me (then and now). The song Concrete Jungle I liked, but not because of the solo, but especially because of the vocals and lyrics.


Not that I dislike solos. I play instruments myself (mainly percussion), and often jam with people and occasionally play solos too. This often also in jazzy, improvisational settings. Furthermore, while I focus on vocals in Reggae too, the combination with instrumental music and rhythm certainly has my attention too, sometimes even in a balanced sense.

Sometimes I find such a solo to be somewhat sober, unimpressive, yet not bad per se. It then fits the groove and song, sounds okay, but does not add that much extra’s. It does not disturb, at least. I, on the other hand, also hear solos in Reggae and other genres that impress(ed) me more and that I really liked, adding something extra, often a nice, “reflective” vibe to the song.

Some solos in Reggae songs impressed me therefore immediately, and I liked more than the one on Concrete Jungle. The first that comes to my mind is Burning Spear’s song Holy Foundation (from the album Resistance), with a crucial role for a somewhat meandering yet strong saxophone part, bringing this atmospheric song to an apothesis, with a kind of extended solo.

Another fine solo that comes to my mind is on the Abyssinians’ song the Good Lord, with a beautiful, emotive flute solo. A reviewer said that the flute gave this song a “pastoral” feel. Not a word that I chose, but therefore not bad and still well put, haha..

I also can name a piano solo that I liked, from a perhaps surprising source: Eek-A-Mouse’s fine tune Struggle. The Roots Radics play a basic Reggae Rockers groove, nice and steady, but added to this is a nice, minor-key piano pattern throughout and a piano solo that is seemingly simple, yet adding a beautiful, melancholic feel befitting the “sad” lyrics (about a poor woman struggling). Maybe it is simply a matter of a few right minor-key notes.

Certain others solos stand out for me too, notably on tunes of the African Brothers, Pablo Moses, Burning Spear, or Ijahman Levi. These artists tend to have longer, “jamming” instrumental parts, such as Ijahman Levi, having also a guitar solo on – for example – his (for pop music) relatively lengthy (and beautiful!) song Jah Is No Secret. Some songs by Burning Spear or Pablo Moses (e.g. Come Mek We Run) have solos of different instruments interchanging in some mostly instrumental songs, in a kind of “jazzy” way . As in other genres, but here with a Roots Reggae groove/riddim.

An interesting website pays attention to the use of the “flute” in Reggae music. The author lists songs with prominent flutes, as melodic (or rhythmic) addition/support, but also pays specific attention to Reggae songs with flute solos. Interesting songs he lists, but the song I mentioned before, the Abyssinians’ The Good Lord, is an unfortunate omission.


I further even have an example of a solo of an instrument not too common in Reggae, namely the violin. One of my favourite reggae songs with a violin is by the Gladiators (Albert Griffiths), namely a song called Slim Thing. The violin is hardly my favourite instrument, but I liked its use on this song, for some reason.

Electric guitar solos were long not very common in Reggae, neither in its precursor Rocksteady. Rocksteady tended not to have many solos (being more vocally oriented than Ska that came before), but if there were solos they tended to be of the keyboard or organ (probably an influence of the influential and talented keys virtuoso Jackie Mittoo in Jamaican popular music), or of horns (like often in Ska, and partly in Reggae). Horace Andy had one of the few Rocksteady songs with a guitar solo in it. The guitar tended to be rhythmic or supportive in Rocksteady, not soloing.

Up to today, there are – relatively - not many examples of electric guitar solos, outside of Bob Marley’s work that is. More acoustic sounding guitar solo’s (some even with a flamenco-like touch, others show a mento influence) are a bit more common, though. Also after Concrete Jungle there were some electric guitar solos in Marley tunes, some of which I liked better than the one of Concrete Jungle.
In a documentary I recently saw on the album Legend, a type of Greatest Hits album released after Bob Marley deceased, UK guitarist Les Davidson commented on Waiting In Vain (included in that compilation) that he liked the guitar solo by Al Anderson on it very much, and argued that rock & blues fans might have liked it too. This indeed nice solo has a more acoustic feel, though, (no wah wah-effect) than the more “rock” one of Concrete Jungle.

Good solos, in my opinion, have a “reflective” function: an interesting nonverbal reflection of the verbal part of the song (the lyrics). Sad themes therefore ideally have minor-key solos, uplifting or spiritual lyrics should likewise have “fitting” solo parts, expressing the same “feel”, only without words. Music has after all also the power to express and convey feelings, mere words cannot. Beyond words and the verbal, messages can after all be conveyed too. Sometimes even “realer” (i.e. “still unordered or untranslated).


The earlier Studio One albums of Reggae artists like Burning Spear, Dennis Brown and others (from around 1969 and 1970) are interesting in this context, too. In fact, Burning Spear’s (Winston Rodney’s) debut single Door Peep had a saxophone solo, whereas other songs on his first Studio One albums (e.g. He Prayed, Bad To Worst) had interesting horn or organ solos too. Studio One owner Coxsone Dodd was a jazz and rhythm & blues fans, so maybe that explains in part this room for solos, along with keyboard player Jackie Mittoo’s influence, or a general jazz influence among the musicians at the sessions (then including the Skatalites a.o.). On Dennis Brown’s first Studio One albums you hear some “jazzy” solos too, such as of the Hammond organ on the lively tune Going To A Ball..

In Early and later Reggae, thus, horn and keyboard solos remained quite common (as in Ska and Rocksteady)..


The form and instrument choice of such solos in Reggae songs are of course shaped by the history of Jamaican music, which is I think interesting to look at in this context. In Ska horn solos seemed quite common, in Rocksteady also (think of the nice sax solo on Alton Ellis’s Rocksteady), along with more keyboard solos. Yet guitar solos of the more acoustic kind can be heard more than electric guitar solos.

This might very well be an influence of an even older, more rural folk music genre in Jamaica, namely Mento, popular throughout the earlier 20th c, up to the 1950s.. This mento was played with acoustic instruments, including the banjo and acoustic guitar, with these – especially the banjo – often taking time for solos as breaks within vocal songs. While a string instrument, the banjo is by the way associated with African, Congo region origins. Some guitar solos in later Ska, Rocksteady, and Reggae still bear such a Mento feel, as some are even played by veteran musicians who also played Mento, such as Ernest Ranglin. An evident continuity, even if banjo’s as such are not much heard in later Reggae.

Electric guitar solos – louder - are more an “outside influence”, though absorbed partly in some more crossover Reggae, but also in more “authentic” Roots Reggae (Burning Spear, Congos, Pablo Moses, Horace Andy). Pablo Moses’s I Man A Grasshopper has even a quite extensive electric guitar solo. It started once as an outside, “Rock” influence, though, such as in Marley’s Concrete Jungle, especially with that “wah wah” effect.


Yet, Reggae music is strongly rhythmic, though not solely so. This determinees largely the proportion of melodic or harmonic solos, being therefore a bit more limited than in solo-or improvisation-oriented genres like Jazz. Instruments like the bass guitar, but also trumpets, trombones, guitars, keyboard, flutes, melodica, harmonica etcetera are all “chording”and semi-melodic (unlike drums and percussion) in Reggae. Although still often “supportive” to the overall melody, and at the same time the driving rhythms of many songs. As a mainly African retention (from the polyrhythmic tradition), these instruments often present “counter points/answers” and counter-patterns to other (main) patterns, typically the bass and drum. Related to this sub-Saharan African rhythmic concept, they can also syncopize main patterns. This is more common than solos as diverging sidepath melodies, although – as said – such more melodic solos are not absent in Reggae compositions of different types (commercial or noncommercial).

There is another side to this, from an artistic, musical perspective. Melodical, meandering lines of certain instruments have the inherent capacity to emphasize the underlying strong rhythm in that same song. As a form of functional, explanatory contrast. Yin and Yang. This contrast thus helps emphasize the usually strong and steady rhythm in Reggae behind solo parts, perhaps a reason some artists chose to include such solos. Functional contrasts in music.

Due to the strong rhythmic focus in Reggae, the already crucial drums do not need explicit solos (as sometimes heard in jazz). Solos of percussion added to the drum base (hand drums, kete and nyabinghi drums often, but also regularly scraper instruments) do occur, but more commonly percussive patterns continue throughout the song as a structural rhythmic part, though some varying (solo-like) parts with hand drum or scraper or block patterns can be heard on songs by the Itals, Culture, Burning Spear, Bob Marley (Crazy Baldheads with the scraper-block interplay as “solo” at the end), or the Congos. The Itals’ Me Waan Justice is a great example of a percussion “semi-solo’”, but at the same time of cross-rhythms in the African tradition.


Dub Reggae is a largely instrumental variant of Reggae, yet can be characterized as “raw rhythm”. It is mainly rhythmically focussed, using fading in and out and various sound effects to create variation, and less instrumental solos as such. Alternatively, you can say that it is the “engineer” soloing, instead of musicians/instrumentalists. An important (and influential) exception is the work of Augustus Pablo, using often the melodica on many of his Dub instrumentals: as leading instrument, but often also “solo”-like, interchanging vocal or other musical snippets or echoed parts, with diverging melodica lines..

Augustus Pablo’s son Addis Pablo continues in this melodica on Reggae vein, by the way.


I have said my piece, but if some readers having read this know of interesting solos within Reggae I have not mentioned in the piece above, I’ll be happy to hear about them (perhaps as comment)..