By the time of his death last year at the age of 46, Augustus Pablo (born Horace Swaby) had attained global recognition as one of the most influential reggae instrumentalists and producers of his generation. Remarkably, Pablo had already secured that reputation within the first five years of his recording career and that period—1971 to 1975—is the focus of this posthumous compilation.
On the strength of his output during that relatively short time, Augustus Pablo came to be widely acclaimed—alongside Osbourne “King Tubby” Ruddock and Lee “Scratch” Perry—as a principle architect of the emergent dub style of the early ‘70s. During those years, it was Pablo who popularized the use of the lowly melodica, his unmistakable signature sound confirming that what many saw as a child’s toy was in fact a viable and subtly evocative means of musical expression.
Although Augustus Pablo’s work had a profound impact on the evolution of reggae, it also found resonance beyond that specific musical context. In the U.K. in particular, his recordings influenced a generation of artists who, operating at the interstices of musical styles and cultural traditions, crafted the hybrid and rapidly mutating techno-/electronica-related genres of the ‘90s. For example, Primal Scream’s dub-inflected “Star” (from 1997’s Vanishing Point) was graced with the presence of Pablo on melodica while, on a more general level, the Orb have consistently translated his style to their own extended ambient dub passages.
Having inherited his pseudonym, as well as his trademark instrument, from Glen Adams of the Upsetters, Pablo recorded his first single (“Iggy Iggy”) in 1970 with producer Herman Chin-Loy. But it was with the release of a second single in 1971 (“East of the River Nile”) that Augustus Pablo began to generate interest. “East of the River Nile”—the opening track on this compilation—might have made only a minor dent in the charts but it nevertheless introduced the reggae world to what Pablo termed the “Far East” sound.
Characterized by fragile, minor-key melodica melodies hovering over keyboards, snare drum and—rarely—vocals, all treated with liberal amounts of reverb and delay and then weighted-down with expansive, echoing bass, the “Far East” sound would prove to be a foundational coordinate for subsequent reggae producers and musicians.
Pablo followed up “East of the River Nile” with “Java” (also featured on this collection), a track that further refined and defined the “Far East” sound. “Java” also earned Augustus Pablo his first big hit in Jamaica and remains among his best-known and best-loved songs.
Having founded his own Rockers label in 1972, Pablo went on to work with numerous celebrated producers and musicians. Tracks recorded with Bunny Lee (“The Great Pablo”), Lee Perry (“Hot and Cold”) and Big Youth (“Bass and Drum Version”) are all assembled on The Great Pablo, their hypnotic, often shimmering textures underscoring his undeniable contributions to the reggae landscape of the period.
Also included on this CD are tracks from the out-of-print Ital Dub (1975), Pablo’s first album-length project with mixmaster extraordinaire King Tubby. Among the most notable cuts are the instrumentals “Curly Locks” and “Shake Up,” as well as “House Raid” (interpolating Peter Tosh’s “Funeral”) and “Road Block,” a version of “Rebel Music (Three O’Clock Road Block)” by Bob Marley. Each of these, to different degrees, bears Pablo’s hallmark sound of melodica weaving its way in and out of a subtly reverberating, at times dizzying mix.
Without a doubt, the tracks from Ital Dub are representative of some of Augustus Pablo’s most accomplished work. However, his 1976 album King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown, on which his instrumental tracks were re-mixed by King Tubby, is perhaps Pablo’s finest moment, if not one of the finest dub albums ever. Unfortunately, no tracks from that outing appear on this collection.
Omissions notwithstanding, The Great Pablo is a good introduction to the man’s work and it successfully completes the standard task of the compilation album: namely, providing a brief glimpse an artist’s oeuvre and whetting the appetite for more.
// Notes from the Road
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