In no musical genre does bass play a greater role than in Jamaican music. From the mid-50s through today, popular Jamaican music has gone through stylistic changes, starting with early ska, moving to rock steady, then to roots reggae and dub, and later to modern ska and dancehall. Today all of these styles, and many sub-styles, continue to have a major influence on popular music throughout the world. And in all of these styles, bass is the defining instrument.
In this issue and the next, we will focus on reggae bassists, specifically masters of the roots reggae and dub styles. One must check flashy chops and outside harmonies at the door to play these styles. Here simple two-bar repeating patterns are often the rule, especially in dub. If the bass patterns are often so simple and reggae even today is so popular, why can one name only a few true masters of the style? Playing reggae bass is more than just rolling off the treble, slapping a set of flatwounds on your bass, and donning a red, green, and gold stocking cap. What separates the great reggae bass players from the rest is rhythmic feel – and it is virtually impossible to imitate. Let’s look at some of the great reggae bassists in this installment, and next time we will examine masters of dub.
Aston “Family Man” Barrett
Family Man is generally considered the father of reggae bass. He began as a first-call studio bassist in the late-60s in Jamaica and, together with his brother Carlton Barrett on drums, went on stardom with Bob Marley’s Wailers in the 70s. Today he continues to tour with the Wailers. This clip shows Fams with Bob Marley and the Wailers performing “Natural Mystic.” Check out the deep groove that precedes the tune.
A disciple of Family Man, Robbie and his riddim twin Sly Dunbar on drums have constituted one of the most prolific and influential rhythm sections as well as production teams in all of popular music over the last three decades. While the duo has made a mark in a wide variety of styles with everyone from Bob Dylan to No Doubt to Herbie Hancock, Robbie’s style of bass has never strayed far from the roots reggae style born in the 70s in the Trenchtown-Kingston area. Here Sly & Robbie perform “What is Life?” with Black Uhuru. Serious dub begins at about the 3:58 mark.
Errol “Flabba” Holt
Flabba is the bassist in one of reggae’s longest-running back-up bands, Roots Radics, and has also recorded with the Itals, Bunny Wailer, Gregory Isaacs, Culture, Israel Vibrations, and Dub Syndicate and other Adrian Sherwood projects out of England. Flabba is shown here with Roots Radics and Israel Vibrations from 1993.
Survey of Reggae Styles
Here is an entertaining and informative video by educator Ed Friedland, in support of on his book on the different styles of Jamaican bass titled “Bass Builders: Reggae Bass” (Hal Leonard Corporation, 1998). Check out the over-the-top hat and “wig.” Jah Rastafari, anyone? No one?