Monday, December 10, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #220 - The Abyssinians - Satta Massagana

For me, studying reggae has been similar to studying the classic R&B recordings of Atlantic or Stax, the legendary blues sessions on Chess or the wide-ranging recordings on Sun Records. The label exists as a framework for all the great music that was released under its imprimatur. The various studio players that orbited the studio became part of the sound, the specific engineers and producers, even the tape-op guys associated with that particular label would come to define the artistic and commercial decisions made in the production of their albums. The classic era of reggae (from approximately 1960 until the mid to late 70’s) was produced in the relatively homogeneous environments of Jamaica and England. The communities of musicians and engineers who were responsible for the classic sound were relatively few in number and thus, as one studies this great music, it becomes clear that many of the same people played on many of the best records and that they were produced by only a handful of technicians in just a few studios. This is why, to the uninitiated, much reggae sounds confoundingly similar. Like the R&B on Atlantic, the deep pleasure and understanding of this music comes from an overarching appreciation of the traditions and techniques used and then an understanding of the individual strengths of each singer. With reggae, there is a deep history of beats, riddims and lyrical insights which can be followed and understood as the foundation, and then there is unlimited joy to be found in the varying vocal deliveries of each individual or group. The Abyssinians were in the tradition of other Jamaican vocal groups like The Paragons, The Heptones, The Mighty Diamonds and Culture who twisted the vocal harmony styles of Doo-Wop and early R&B into the hypnotic vocal attack of conscious roots reggae.
Satta Massagana - both the song and the album - are at the very pinnacle of reggae. The song has become recognized as the national anthem of reggae, and the album embodies everything one could wish for in reggae - it is inspirational, deep and danceable. All the elements are here: the lyrics are serious, political, spiritual and poetic, the band is filled with the absolute cream of Jamaica’s best (Sly & Robbie, Chinna Smith, Tyrone Downie, Mikey Chung et al.) and the three-part vocals by principles Donald and Lynford Manning and lead vocalist Bernard Collins are heavenly. If the band had only recorded "Satta Massagana" and no other song, their reputation would still be as solid. It is one of the most recognizable and wholly satisfying songs of its era; not just reggae - all songs. Everything from its righteous lyric filled with equal parts supplication and inspiration so beautifully sung and harmonized by the vocalists, to the tough, punchy horns, the perfect guitar riddim, and burbling keyboard - it all works wonderfully. In addition, there is the use of words and phrases from the Amharic language adding an even greater air of philosophical mystery. In the age of the internet it is easy to find out what these words mean, but when the album was first released in 1976 (the single was recorded in 1969) hearing these words so lovingly integrated into the song filled the listener with many questions and hinted at deeper meanings than those we were used to in top 40 rock music. These guys were tapping in to something ancient and profound while creating music that seemed unmoored from any specific time period. Listening to it in 2018 has changed nothing at all - this album still sounds fresh. And "Satta Massagana" is not the only masterpiece. The entire album is filled with miraculous songs. Each one a perfectly crafted piece of golden-era reggae, as well a lyrical triumph, nourishing spirit and intellect. "Declaration Of Rights," "Know Jah Today," "Abendigo," "African Race" or "Leggo Beast" are all equal to the title track, and the entire album rewards endless listening.
If diving into reggae seems daunting to you and you have no idea where to start, Satta Massagana is the perfect entry point. It is fantastic music that transcends any genre, yet it is also a perfect exemplar of what reggae can and should be. The world is filled with great music, but music that rises above fashion to “life-changing” - now that is worth pursuing.
-         Paul Epstein

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