vrijdag 3 november 2017

Fats Domino as milestone toward Ska

Recently, the 24th of October of 2017, Fats Domino passed away. Always sad – how nice if we all could live forever – , but at least this was no relatively untimely passing – as all too common among musicians -, since Fats Domino was at the blessed age of 89 when he died. The New Orleans Rhythm & Blues artist was in and by itself an interesting musician, selling almost as much as Elvis Presley, they say. He was unique and influential as musician and artist in several ways.

Moreover, he was also relevant for this – my – blog on which I pay relatively much attention to Reggae music, as one of my main interests. Yet, the relevance is also there regarding other themes I discussed on my blog.

It is largely pointless to repeat here what everyone can study for oneself about Fats Domino – or read in the Wikipedia article on Domino. A general introduction is still useful, though.


In light of his relevance for the development of Jamaican music, beginning with Ska around 1959, it is good to know Fats Domino’s musical “position”, so to speak, within the genre known as Rhythm & Blues in the US. This term – often shortened to R&B – is not without ambiguity, more recently also being used for what seem variants of Soul- and Funk-influenced Pop songs.

This is more recent, though. Originally Rhythm & Blues developed in the 1940s among African Americans in US cities, combining largely elements of Jazz and Blues. Louis Jordan was an influential, early figure in its development, and before him people like Cab Calloway, T-Bone Walker, and Count Basie.


In the course of the 1940s and later, as other music genres, this R&B developed further, with regional differences. There were for instance differences in the classic Mississippi Blues, and particular variants of New Orleans blues. The latter, New Orleans Blues and Rhythm & Blues, showed more Afro-Caribbean influences, including from Afro-Cuban genres like Son and Contradanza. This relates to Louisiana’s past as French and Spanish colony.

Cuban patterns like the tresillo, based on sub-Saharan African polyrhythmic 3-2 “clave” patterns, were absorbed into this New Orleans variant of R&B. Also Cuban musical instruments became used at times after 1949 in New Orleans and the wider US, such as the maracas shakers, and the hand drums the bongos, and conga’s.

Professor Longhair was an influential New Orleans R&B singer and pianist, who was influenced by Afro-Cuban music. This in turn later influenced – some say – to musical change toward the genre Funk.

Anyway, several distinct Afro-Caribbean connections helped give the New Orleans R&B, its distinct touch, including a “back beat” feel. It is in this particular R&B tradition that the popular New Orleans artist Fats Domino stood.

So New Orleans – commonly known as the birthplace of what we know as “Jazz” –has been influential in more than one sense on US music and beyond, especially Black music. Also, “whitened” Rock & Roll was influenced by New Orleans R&B, many assert.


It is also this New Orleans tradition that reached Jamaica, often more than other US or Blues genres, through US radio stations in the US South, Louisiana being simply geographically closer to Jamaica. Fats Domino songs became known and popular in Jamaica, along with the R&B or “jump blues” of other US artists like Louis Jordan, by the 1950s.

It is said that this R&B variant influenced the development of Jamaican own music, as musicians in Jamaica started to make their own music, under several influences. The back-beat shuffle of some Fats Domino songs - and related New Orleans Rhythm & Blues - influenced the feel of Ska, albeit along with other influences. Drum-wise, for instance, local Afro-Jamaican drumming influences (with both Akan and Congo origins) influenced Ska too from early on, as did the preceding, more rural Jamaican folk genre Mento (which was not unlike Calypso).

Interestingly, Afro-Cuban influence came to Jamaica too – partly at least – via Louisiana, while Cuba is located closer to Jamaica than Louisiana. It must be the language barrier.

Ska and Reggae historians tend to mention especially the song of Fats Domino called ‘Be My Guest’ as influencing early Ska strongly. This song was a big hit in the 1950s at the Jamaican sound systems, as were some other Domino songs. Listening to this song, Be My Guest, which accentuates the offbeat, one easily notices the influence.

There is thus a quite direct link between Fats Domino and Ska, and following Jamaican genres like Rocksteady and Reggae, all maintaining this offbeat characteristic.

However, Jamaican Ska legend Prince Buster maintains that another R&B song from 1950 was even more influential on Ska, and was likewise popular at sound systems: Willis Jackson’s ‘Later For The Gator’. Jamaican sound system and studio owner Clement “Coxsone” Dodd had this record as a kind of “rare speciality”. Here also a possible influence on Ska as you hear it, but it took some years for Ska to develop.


Just as interesting, however, is in my opinion the cultural and musical history behind this. I alluded to this already a bit: the Afro-Cuban influence on New Orleans R&B, that in turn influenced Jamaican music. This relates to degrees of African musical retention in Black music genres in the West.

As a percussionist, having studied Afro-Cuban patterns (and soon also other Afro-Caribbean and African patterns), this has a practical interest for me as player. Yet, I also find it an intriguing theme at a purely theoretical level, from a strictly cultural/historical perspective..

There is some kind of intriguing and ironic contradiction here. On the one hand, the popularity of New Orleans R&B, at least for a period, at Jamaican dances/sound systems in the 1940s and 1950s – especially in urban parts of Jamaica – shows how musical influences are international. It influenced to a degree the developed own genres in Jamaica since the later 1959; Ska to start with.


On the other hand, it is certainly not correct to see this Jamaican Ska as an “offshoot” of this type of R&B. there is much more to it. In fact, it is more appropriate to conclude that New Orleans R&B by people like Fats Domino were just one of the influences absorbed into Ska, resulting in a new musicial idiom (Ska). This idiom included however local Jamaican influences too: from Mento (a more rural Jamaican folk genre, not unlike Calypso), or Afro-Jamaican drumming traditions, including those from African “spirit religions” such as Burru and Kumina.

Rastafari drumming called “Nyabinghi”, in turn absorbing Burru and Kumina influences, influenced Ska too in some sense, noticeable in the early Ska song Oh Carolina, for which Rastafari drummers (Count Ossie a.o.) were employed. Their drums combine here with a R&B-like “boogie shuffle”.

In addition, New Orleans Rhythm & Blues itself, as has been said already, was the result of various influences. Afro-Cuban ones, but also Haitian ones: Louisiana was a period a French colony, and also a period a Spanish colony (up to 1800). These French and Spanish influences set it culturally apart from the other Southern states in the US, and enabled connections with other French colonies like St Domingue (known as Haiti after independence in 1804), and Cuba. Afro-Haitian music genres, probably influenced the New Orleans sound too.

The slave regime under the Catholic French and Spanish had some differences with the slave regime of Anglo-Protestant colonies. Africans were – under conditions – allowed to play their traditional music, at certain occasions, mostly on Sundays and specific places of the city New Orleans, the famous Congo Square, notably. More of the traditional African music –like in Cuba – could be maintained this way, giving the New Orleans variant its stronger polyrhythmic characteristic.


Author – and musician - Ned Sublette, furthermore, argues that increased Afro-Cuban influences on New Orleans music, such as on the mentioned Professor Longhair, a bit also on Fats Domino, helped “re-Africanize”in a broader sense US Black music. Afro-Caribbean (Cuban, Haitian) influences were there in New Orleans before this already, though..

Blues that developed elsewhere in the US South and the Mississippi delta, seems to have this polyrhythmic and offbeat focus less, but have more a “swing” influence. Africa is also there, however. The same Ned Sublette also pointed at the differences between influences from different parts of Africa between US Black music on the one hand, and the Caribbean and Brazil/Latin America on the other.

Especially in US Black music the influence of the “Griot” tradition from the Guinea and Senegambia regions in Africa is more evident. Relatively more slaves brought to the US came from that region (especially also around the Mississippi), bringing Griot traditions, based a bit more on “string instruments” than on drums. This string-instrument focus was partly an Islamic/Arabic influence, sharing this ironically with the “guitar culture” in the former colonial power Spain; where what we know as the “Spanish guitar” indeed arose.

These string instruments in the Guinea, Southern Mali, Northern Ivory Coast, and Senegambia regions –however - were given a distinct African interpretation, including own instruments as the Kora, as well as distinct “swinging” playing styles, markedly different from string instruments being played in Arab or even North African cultures. It is a Black African interpretation, so to speak, that also travelled to the US with the slaves, feeding into Blues. That whole idea of “swing” (“around” the beat), is thus also af African (Mande) origin.

Enslaved Africans brought to other parts of the Americas brought other Black African traditions, less influenced by Arabs or Islamic cultures, more based on percussion and drumming. This included more complex polyrhythmic structures, cross-rhythms, and call-and-response. These aspects were also present in the Griot/Guinea region music in Africa, but more limitedly.

A general polyrhythm and drum focus of Africans from what Ned Sublette calls “forest Africa” (closer to the Equator), from people like the Yoruba, Igbo, Congo and Angolan people, Coromantee/Akan (Ghana), Ewe-speaking peoples (Benin), and others, thus came to the Americas, with the slave trade. While this slavery certainly caused a cultural destruction and alienation, it was not a full one, as it survived even strict legislation in certain colonies, and making use of the few channels in colonies with less strictly prohibitive legislation, such as French, Spanish, and Portuguese colonies. Both “Griot” African as “Forest” African music could survive slavery in the Americas.


There exist several different books and documentaries on the historical development of Reggae and other Jamaican music. All more or less confirm the role of R&B’s popularity in the 1950s in Jamaica, especially in urban, Kingston sound system and dancehalls, in helping to shape Jamaica’s own Ska music. Different works – though – accentuate somewhat different aspects of this process, mainly remaining within the realm of veracity.


Some sources claim that even one specific song set Ska in motion, the already mentioned ‘Be My Guest’ by Fats Domino, or the one by Willis Jackson.

Others have a broader view, pointing out that Jamaican sound system owners played some popular Fats Domino tunes, but also searched “rarer” R&B, after Domino became perhaps a bit too mainstream. These were often, though not always, also of the New Orleans R&B variant, or – as also referred to it – the “shuffle boogie” R&B. Jazz, bebop and swing, or other blues or R&B reached Jamaica too.

This is related as such by Dave Thompson in his work ‘Reggae & Caribbean music’ (Backbeat Books, 2002). In that same book, however, influential Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin pointed at this shuffle boogie R&B, or “shuffle rhythm” (characteristic of New Orleans R&B, such as by Fats Domino) as “point of departure”, after which Jamaican musicians like himself first playing this, then went their own direction. They for instance placed a stronger emphasis on the second beat, resulting in what can be deemed “proto-Ska”.

Thompson in this work, on the other hand, also mentions the influence of Laurel Aitken in Ska’s development, someone who also played Mento music, and was influenced by latin styles, bringing these probably into the mix creating Ska too. He also mentions other people and influences.


Others, such as Lloyd Bradley in the book ‘Reggae: the story of Jamaican music’ (BBC, 2002) – accompanying a BBC TV series - even argue that while there is a link between R&B and Ska, the overall influence of Jazz musicians on Ska’s development is actually larger. The main studio band in the early Ska stages, the Skatalites, were indeed experienced as jazz music performers by the time Ska arose around 1959. The space for horn solo’s in several Jamaican Ska records, - with Skatalites members as musicians - can be attributed in part to this.

Jazz is known as originally as coming largely from New Orleans, so there is another link.

Also, by the way, - not everyone knows this - the standard idea of a modern “drum kit”, now so common in Western popular music, originated they say in the New Orleans music scene. The combination of different types of drums with cymbals, notably. Earlier, Caribbean genres like Mento (Jamaica), Son and Rumba (Cuba), Merengue (Dominican Republic) were quite percussive, but the “drum” or “beat” part was mostly covered by hand drums, often combined with shakers or scrapers. With Ska the standard drum kit as we know it now in pop music began to be used more in Jamaica, but that happened in other genres too, showing another international influence of New Orleans globally (along with Jazz since around 1900).

The drum kit spread with Jazz, can be said somewhat simplified. At first Jazz was in Jamaica mostly popular with more wealthy people, where some drum kits might have been used earlier, whereas ghetto residents often preferred the rawer R&B. Musicians like the Skatalites, though, played in different circles and for different groups. The first two musicians to own an electric bass were also active in Ska, Byron Lee, and Lloyd Spence, the latter being also a jazz musician before that.

Bradley writes that Ska partly derived from R&B boogie, changing the emphasis from the upbeat (as in R&B) to the “downbeat”, giving it a distinct Jamaican touch. He points out, however, that this was done by mainly local Jamaican jazz musicians, that came to form the Skatalites, driving Ska forward. He stresses that besides “sound systems” there was also a vivid “live music” scene in Jamaica and Kingston, albeit in part class-related. This was simply because instruments and learning to play them cost money. However, the famous nun-run, Catholic Alpha Boys School in Kingston gave music lessons to its pupils (including Skatalites’member) since the 1940s, and was thus an alternative avenue for children from poor families to learn to play musical instruments.

Jazz (with some Blues influences) brought some ‘swing” (as musical term) aspects to Jamaican music, indirectly a Griot influence that can be partly traced back also to Mande-speaking parts of Africa, despite the “whitened” image swing jazz or Dixieland music got over time.

I myself was advised when I learned to play the bongos and conga’s that Afro-Cuban patterns could be used on Reggae too (I figured that out a bit already), but that an element of “swing” should be added to fit the Reggae rhythms, especially with the Left hand. It was supposed to be less tight on the beat as in Salsa or other Cuban music: Afro-Cuban music tends to be relatively more polyrhythmic (clave-based), but tighter on the beat than, say, Blues, Jazz, Soul, or Reggae. I tried the “tighter” Cuban patterns on Reggae too, and it “kind of” seemed to fit too, though perhaps not fully. So the advise I got seemed appropriate.

Alongside these R&B and Jazz (and other) influences there were many other influences on Ska, and following genres Rocksteady, and Reggae. The rural Mento genre should not be forgotten. Most of these, like Mento, are also from the local Afro-Jamaican tradition, as well as from the Rastafari cultural influence (signifying a focus on Africa). The Rastafari movement also originated in Jamaica in the 1930s, not long after the coronation of Haile Selassie as Emperor of Ethiopia in November 1930.

Further there were other Caribbean (Latin, Cuban) or African influences. Rastafari drumming, known as “Nyahbingi”, combined local Afro-Jamaican influences of ancestral African, Akan and Congo, origins, while also Yoruba drumming, such as by the well-known Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji, is said to have influenced some early Nyahbinghi drummers. Rastafari influenced Reggae music culturally, lyrically, and also musically, such as through this drumming. The “heart beat” drumming characteristic of Nyahbingi, even gave Reggae rhythms their own feel, especially Roots Reggae since the 1970s, while also the “answering”, freer, repeater patterns of Nyahbinghi recurred (and still recurs) on Reggae records and rhythms.

This all combined, in a varied and interesting African Diaspora connection with the said influence from Black American music, and in this New Orleans R&B was a large proportion.


That is what makes Reggae, the genre that originated in Jamaica first around 1968, having Ska and Rocksteady as precursors, interesting also from a cultural and philosophical perspective. The combination of influences from it, from different cultural zones within the African diaspora, and ultimately Africa itself. The “swing” tradition – stemming mainly from “Griot” cultures in the Guinea and Mande-speaking part of Africa (around the Sahel) - entered Jamaica via Jazz and Blues from Black US music; “clave-based” polyrhythmic structures and Congo-influences from Central and “Forest” Africa entered via Afro-Cuban music, as well as from local Kumina, Burru, and Nyahbinghi traditions, but also via New Orleans R&B; and African storytelling music left legacies in Mento and Calypso also influencing Reggae, having partly also roots in what is now Ghana.

Reggae represents thus, in a musical and cultural form, an African unification, in that sense well along the lines of Marcus Garvey, a thinker influential on Rastafari, who aimed at uniting Africans at home and abroad. Another important person for Rastafari, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, was also very active with a Pan-African “uniting Africa” focus, also in a political sense within the African continent, starting the international Organization of African Unity.


Rather than a divertion from Fats Domino, the above tekst of mine, can better be seen – I argue – as a “contextualization”. How the recently departed Fats Domino stood within the R&B tradition in the US, I sketched more or less, becoming – many say – also influential in what would be called “Rock & Roll”, and an influence on Elvis Presley.

Rock & Roll, as a “Whiter” more Country-influenced derivation of R&B, never became very popular in Jamaica, unlike earlier, 1950s R&B. Partly because of that, probably, Jamaicans were stimulated to make their own music, instead of following what came from the US. Fats Domino was in that sense one of the “last milestones” in tracing the influence of Black American music on the development of Ska.

In later decades, other US Black music would to degrees influence Rocksteady and Reggae (Soul, the Impressions, James Brown a.o.).

Yet, in the development of Jamaica’s first own urban, popular music genre, Ska, that would feed later into Rocksteady and Reggae, in this crucial, pioneering phase of Jamaican popular music, Fats Domino was one of the crucial influences, along with the wider shuffle, New Orleans R&B tradition he represented.