Born Oswald Williams circa 1928 in Jamaica, as a boy Count Ossie became involved in the rastafarian community via of the teachings of a rasta elder by the name of Brother Job. Other than the doctrine side of rastafari Count Ossie also learnt hand drumming and the vocal chanting technique that reverberates back to pre-slavery days in Africa.
By the late 50′s, he had become a master drummer and had formed a group of other percussionists around him. The Count Ossie group were all living together with other rastafarians in makeshift dwellings high up in the Wareika Hills above Rockfort in east Kingston.
This Count Ossie based rastafarian commune had followed in the example and ideals of the Leonard Howell rastafarian commune at Pinnacle St Catharine which was developed in 1940. This earlier rastafarian commune was destroyed and the occupants violently displaced into the slums of western Kingston (mainly at the ‘Back-o-Wall’ ghetto near the Kingston waterfront) by soldiers in the 1954.
In the decades following the destruction of the Pinnacle settlement it was incredibly dangerous to be aligned to the the rastafarian faith and beatings and deaths would occur frequently. This oppression would normally happen at the hands of the police or the army for those Jamaicans who choose to ‘locks up’ and thus Ossie’s followers would begin to wear large wollen hats known as ‘tams’ to cover the dreadlocks from public view to avoid too much grief on the occasions they had to leave the commune for any reason.
By the turn of the 1960s Count Ossie was more of a cultural icon than pop star, and it was only the ingenuity of Prince Buster that made him a part of reggae. Buster, ever eager to get one over on his rivals, was looking for a sound that no one else in Jamaica had managed to put on a ska record. Buster knew about Count Ossie, but everyone told him that Ossie would never agree to work on a commercial record, particularly since Buster was a Muslim and Ossie a Rastafarian. However, Buster went up into Wareika Hills and returned the next day with Ossie and several drummers in tow.
The first and most famous record they made was “Oh Carolina” and “I Met A Man”, featuring Ossie and ensemble thundering away on funde and kette drums and the vocals of the Folkes Brothers out front. The record was a unique combination of ska, R&B and grounation fundamentalist music that scored heavily both in Jamaica and on the London mod scene.
Subsequent sessions for Coxsone Dodd followed accompanying the Mellocats’ “Another Moses”, Bunny and Skitter’s “Lumumbo” and Lascelles Perkins’ “Destiny”.
The Count Ossie drummers were present at the welcome of H.I.M Haile Selassie’s April 21st 1966 visit to Jamaica and his subsequent meeting with Rastafarian elders including Ossie and Mortimer Planno. Despite his own adherence to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the visit of the Emperor Of Ethiopia gave a marked boost to the rastafarian movement: Haile Selassie’s death in 1975 coincided paradoxically with the beginning of rastafarian’s most spectacular period of growth, sustained in part by the international popularity of reggae music in which rastafarianism found expression. Because of Selassie’s visit, April 21 is still celebrated as Grounation Day. It was during this visit that Selassie famously told the Rastafarian community leaders that they should not immigrate to Ethiopia until they had liberated the people of Jamaica.
The Count Ossie drummers made some records under their own name including “Cassavabu” for Prince Buster and “Babylon Gone” for Harry Mudie around the mid 1960′s and then the group refrained from recording until 1970, when they issued “Whispering Drums” for Harry Mudie, “Back To Africa Version One” for Lloyd Daley, and “Holy Mount Zion” and “Meditation” for Coxsone Dodd. Around this time, Count Ossie’s drummers were augmented by a horn section led by Cedric I’m Brooks, and the group took the name Mystic Revelation of Rastafari.
In 1974 they recorded a triple album set, “Grounation”, which is a landmark recording in Jamaican music. The set included treatments of Charles Lloyd’s “Passin’ Thru”, the Jazz Crusaders’ “Way Back Home”, Ethiopian melodies, improvisations, hymns and poetry. This album remains one of the most important cultural record releases to come out of Jamaica in the 1970′s.
In 1975 the group recorded a follow up album, the similarly excellent “Tales Of Mozambique”. Shortly after this on 18 October 1976 Ossie died, some say in a car accident, some say after succumbing to injuries that occurred after being crushed at a riotous crowd escaping a cricket match. But although the Count passed away unexpectedly he and the band he formed left behind a unique legacy, to be carried on by Ras Michael and The Sons of Negus, Light Of Saba and several less noteworthy outfits.
Grounation is the title of a new album by the magnificently named Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation Of Rastafari.
This set is not just unique for the quantity and quality of the music, or for the fact that the liner notes are thorough in dealing with the music and its culture. It is unique because it makes available for the first time rastafarian music proper, a fact which is important because the music and its culture has for years played an integral part in the development of Jamaican music without being recognised as such. The music here is not typical of the music which Jamaica has produced since the early sixties, yet rastafarian music is as familiar to Jamaicans as reggae.
In the evolution of its music, Jamaica has never produced musicians who have regularly made rastafarian music except perhaps for Count Ossie and his band who backed The Folkes Brothers on “Oh Carolina” back in 1961, and perhaps a few others have done so when the idea was trendy.
But the existence of the rastafarians in Jamaica has social, economic, and political consequences which focused attention on the sect and enabled their countrymen to become more aware of their historical and cultural roots, and the rastafarian ideals. These have continually provided Jamaican musicians, rastafarians and non rastafarians alike, with sources of influence and inspiration.
Thus, over the years we have had songs such as “Marcus Junior” by Don Drummond, “A Place Called Africa” by Lee Perry & The Upsetters, “My Ancestors” by Jimmy Cliff, “400 years” by The Wailers, and “Rivers Of Babylon” by The Melodians which have reflected the rastafarian influence.
Count Ossie and his band represent a total embodiment of the rastafarian tradition. “Grounation” describes a way of life that identifies in every way possible with Africa, the rightful homeland of Rastafarians, and the music deals with this ideology. Moreover, the set, with its eloquent narrations and poems traces that part in the black man’s history which deals with his enslavement and colonization. And the music’s strong African feel helps in the digestion of the Revelations.
The complete text of “Narration”, a track that lasts over thirteen minutes is included in the liner notes. The method of production here, percussion and narrative, are simple yet stunningly effective. More so than The Last Poets for instance whose use of the same techniques is too crude to be enlightening. “Narration” tells it like it was and like it is, so does ”Four Hundred Years” which has a meandering tenor and flute accompaniment and is the most poignant of the four poems.
Percussion is the dominating aspect of all rastafarian music. In both “So Long” which is a chant, and in major parts of “Grounation” which lasts for over half an hour and features a type of communal singing praising the doctrine of rastafarians, the drums, the bongos and the shouts are all tribal. They echo the sounds associated with Africa and they are angrier than the native war drums.
On two of the best numbers “Bongo Man” and “Lumba” brass is prevalent. In the former, the baritone and tenor saxes interwine and the plodding bass and lazy trombone and baritone gives this number a very jazzy feel. In “Lumba” trombone and tenor duet and the baritone riffs effortlessly. A flute solo along with intermittent vocal shrieks and vibrant percussion, combine to make this a tremendously haunting piece which conjures up images of toiling slaves under the painful persuasion of the slave driver’s whip.
It’s no coincidence that “Way Back Home” should follow as the next track. In this context it has much deeper meaning than the original by The Crusaders.
If you’re looking for musicians with ‘feel’ then Count Ossie And The Mystic Revelation Of Rastafari are one very hot bunch of brothers.
BLACK MUSIC DECEMBER 1973
St George saving the maiden in Beruit. Ethiopian fresco circa 1600 AD.
A different take on St Georges Day this year, Mark Stewart And The Maffia uploaded last April 23rd, The 4 Skins the April 23rd before that.
This take on St Georges Day takes KYPP back to the old English colony of Jamaica to bring for you one of the most respected recordings that was ever undertaken and released in that country. Count Ossie, Cedric I’m Brooks, Brother Samuel Clayton and the rest of the Mystic Revelation Of Rastafari jazzing out all over Afro Jamaican nyahbinghi rhythms to create a piece of work that is more in tune with the late Rex Nettleford than the late Bob Marley. Wonderfully produced and engineered by Arnold Wedderburn (Wedderburn which convienately happens to be my wife’s maiden name).
This triple LP is the most important cultural musical work ever created, recorded and released from this small island of Jamaica.