The man who invented reggae

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The Independent Culture
Of all the attempts to marry jazz with reggae, nothing gets close to the wonderful rootsiness of Ernest Ranglin's new album, Below the Bassline. It's arguably the best jazz album of the year so far, and of its genre the best, making even last year's brilliant Skatalites Hip Bop Ska set, with guests Lester Bowie and David Murray, look slapdash. For Ranglin, a quietly spoken, shy and (superficially) modest 64-year-old Jamaican, it's also a return to roots. In 1958, he cut the first album for Chris Blackwell's Island Records. Now, 38 years later, Below the Bassline is the first release on Island's Jamaica Jazz label, along with the excellent Yard Movement by Monty Alexander, who produced both albums, and on whose set Ranglin also plays.

Between these dates, Ranglin directed and played on some of Jamaica's most famous recordings, such as Millie's "My Boy Lollipop", which Blackwell brought him to London to record in 1964, as well as hits by the Wailers and Prince Buster, and the Melodians' "Rivers of Babylon", which he arranged. Ranglin will get his due in the history books, for he's the man who virtually invented the chunka-chunka ska rhythm, and, as he let slip during our interview at Island's offices in Notting Hill, he also had a hand in slowing the music down and turning it into reggae.

Born into the rural community of Robin's Hall, Jamaica, Ranglin learnt how to play as a child by watching his uncles, who jealously guarded their guitar and ukelele. Proficient on a home-made instrument with twine strings connected to a sardine-can, he would wait until his uncles went out and then carefully tune up and practise before tuning down again before they got back. "I would try to memorise how the instruments were tuned," he remembers, "but I didn't tune them too tight in case I broke a string."

By the age of 14, Ranglin had decided "to stop playing by ear and start studying the instrument properly". He moved to Kingston and enlisted with some of the era's top big bands. He learnt to arrange by accompanying visiting Broadway singers, while the great Jamaican saxophonist Joe Harriott helped to introduce him to jazz.

Ranglin began to work in Coxsone Dodd's Federal recording studios in the late Fifties when the island's music was changing in response to American R&B. "The ska was really coming from the rhythm and blues - that nice shuffle rhythm of Bill Doggett and Louis Jordan. We found we could formulate a thing where we placed the emphasis on the second beat. That gave it an identity. It felt awkward but eventually, everyone got into it."

However, the subsequent collective taste for rocker's reggae distanced Ranglin a little from the beat of the street. He shakes his head ruefully. "It was rebel music and certain types of people didn't want to be associated with it." The music, he says, "took the turnaround about '66 or '67 and became very rough. The ska was a little too fast and suddenly they started to play rocksteady, and somehow it started to get too slow for the dancers." He looks up slyly and says quietly: "I would say I'm the first guy who started the reggae music, with Scratch Perry, when we made the first reggae tune, by Monty Morris at Treasure Isle studio. The music was just a little faster and more bouncy, the beat like a-reggae, a-reggae, a-reggae, you know? Really, the word came from a dance in America, like all these things."

'Below the Bassline' is on Island Jamaica Jazz. Ernest Ranglin appears Monday-Thursday with Monty Alexander at Ronnie Scott's, London W1 (0171- 439 0747)