Count Ossie and the Birth of Reggae

David Katz explains how a single drummer became one of the most important figures in Jamaican music history

Reggae has been shaped by a handful of innovators, pioneering figures that have given the music its distinctive contours. Count Ossie holds a particularly special place in the genre’s history. The late night sessions held at Ossie’s encampment during the late ’50s were crucial to the spread of Rastafari amongst the Jamaican musical fraternity, the end result being a uniquely Jamaican form of music that surfaced just as the island’s independence movement gathered steam.

The Count was born Oswald Williams in 1927 and raised in a quarrying village called Bito, located a few miles east of Kingston in the hills above Bull Bay. Young Ossie played drums in the Boy’s Brigade and in a local marching band before his family moved to Slip Dock Road, an underdeveloped patch of east Kingston, near Bellevue Mental Hospital. Ossie soon became a regular figure at a Rasta camp in Salt Lane, a particularly infamous west Kingston slum, where he was taken under the wing of Brother Job, a Burru man who was himself taught by Watto King, one of the island’s most prominent drum makers.

The Burru were shunned by Jamaica’s Eurocentric mainstream, but they found kindred spirits in the Rastafari.

Historically, the Burru have been among Jamaica’s most defiant people, and music was a major component of their rebellion. These lowly outcasts from rural Clarendon retained the drumming traditions of the Ashanti, from whom they are descended, their music revolving around a trio of hand drums: the huge bass drum is pounded with a rounded stick and the funde keeps a steady two-beat rhythm, while the smaller kette or “repeater” drum takes the melodic, improvisational lead.

The Burru were shunned by Jamaica’s Eurocentric mainstream, but they found kindred spirits in the Rastafari, another group of outcasts whose adherents dared to proclaim that God was a living black man. As the Rastafari movement grew, notably in Kingston’s sprawling ghettos, a fertile intermingling took place between both groups, with Count Ossie emerging as the most important figurehead of this merger.

By 1948, Kingston’s leading jazz musicians were already playing late at night with the drummers at the Salt Lane yard. Ossie also attracted likeminded outcasts from the Rockfort and Wareika communities of eastern Kingston, who saw him practicing on the edge of the local sewerage gully. In 1951, after Hurricane Charlie destroyed the Salt Lane camp, Ossie moved to Adastra Road in the heart of Rockfort, and the “groundations” he held in the surrounding Wareika Hills (in which drumming, chanting, and spiritual reasoning took place), rapidly became a focal point for the Rastafari movement, resulting in dramatic changes to Jamaica’s music scene.

It’s hard to overstate the talent that was coming through to Wareika at that time. There was Ossie’s close friend, Wilton “Big Bra” Gaynair, an expressive tenor saxophonist who went on to become part of London’s avant-garde jazz scene. Trombonist Rico Rodriguez was a long-term resident of the camp; his mentor, the exceptionally talented Don Drummond, also dwelled there, as did saxophonist Roland Alphonso and drummer Lloyd Knibb. Keyboardist Jackie Mittoo and guitarist Ernest Ranglin were regular visitors too, and trumpeter Johnny “Dizzy” Moore was based there to the end of his days.

These were the musicians largely responsible for breaking the ska form – Jamaica’s first truly indigenous style of popular music – and all but Rico would later be active in the Skatalites, a group formed after Studio One founder Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd discovered them performing at Ossie’s camp.

What originally drew all of these artists to Wareika, though, was the drumming. When Count Ossie’s drummers appeared on Prince Buster’s production of the Folkes Brothers’ “Oh Carolina,” they caused a sensation. Demand for the tune was so intense that each of Jamaica’s two radio stations were forced to give it regular airing, despite initial bans. “[When] Count Ossie played with the Skatalites at a presentation, ‘Oh Carolina’ actually became the first real reggae that was introduced to the public,” recalls the Jamaican dub poet and broadcaster, Sister Melva. “Through a combination of the drums, the bass guitar and the horns, reggae was born; Count Ossie’s drumming kept the heartbeat of reggae to the fore.”

The Folkes Brothers - Oh Carolina

Prince Buster, who had left sound system operator Coxsone Dodd to go it alone, knew that the track would be a hit precisely because it didn’t sound like anything his audiences were familiar with. “I was on top of sound system, but I like something different all the time,” he says. “I used to hear Ossie come ah Salt Lane as a little boy listening and love the sound, so when I was on top I said, ‘I’m going to make some drum sounds with Ossie.’ Nothing that they hear no carry the Rasta flag then; I had ‘Carolina’ on my sound, and ‘Carolina’ bury Coxsone.”

Rasta drums play anywhere that Rastaman meet, but it was more dynamic at Count’s because of all these other instrumentalists that used to be there.

Sam Clayton

Ossie’s drummers were subsequently featured on a number of recordings for producers Harry Mudie, Vincent “Randy” Chin, and Sir Coxsone Dodd, and their performances at the annual Festival of Arts yielded gold medals in 1965 and 1966. The group also performed before Haile Selassie at King’s House, during the Emperor’s State visit to Jamaica, emphasizing that Ossie’s project was always more than just musical: the idea was primarily to affect social change, and to express a Rastafari worldview.

As the camp’s chief orator, Sam Clayton explains, “Ossie have him camp that discharge the music and the culture: the horns, bells, flutes, stringed instruments and black soulful voices all getting together, chanting for peace... Rasta drums play anywhere that Rastaman meet, but it was more dynamic at Count’s because of all these other instrumentalists that used to be there.”

Perhaps the greatest collaboration that Ossie undertook, however, was the group The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, which saw Count Ossie’s drummers merging with The Mystics, a group led by gifted saxophonist and spiritual seeker, Cedric “Im” Brooks. Their groundbreaking three record 1972 set Grounation featured drumming, chanting and wild jazz instrumentals, sounding like a less discordant and more Africanised take of Sun Ra’s Arkestra. These records – and an encouraging visit from Duke Ellington – led to travel outside Jamaica: They had an overwhelming reception at the Caribbean Festival of Arts in Guyana in 1972 and went on to perform and lecture at a number of prestigious North American universities, while pianist Randy Weston later arranged for the group to give a well-received performance at the Newport Jazz Festival.

At the height of their international popularity, Mystic Revelation received a potential blow when Cedric Brooks left to form the Divine Light/Light of Saba, but all remained on friendly terms, and both groups gave resplendent performances at Kingston’s National Stadium in August 1976 for a segment of the second Carifesta entitled “Rasta and Steel.”

Then, without warning, multiple tragedies struck on October 18th, during a public holiday honouring Jamaica’s national heroes. The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari was booked to perform at the National Stadium as a centrepiece of the festivities, but heavy rainfall caused a stampede at the stadium, resulting in the deaths of two children. With their performance delayed, Count Ossie went to St Thomas to relax, only to be run off the road by a drunken bus driver, the impact of the crash killing him instantly. In the chaos that followed, Ossie’s eight-month-old son somehow also died in a freak accident at home, and was ultimately buried in his father’s arms.

In a musical genre that is largely defined by backbiting rivalries and malicious slander, Ossie was an unusual figure: He was universally venerated.

In a musical genre that is largely defined by backbiting rivalries and malicious slander, Ossie was an unusual figure: He was universally venerated. Even the leaders of both of the nation’s highly fractious political parties were on friendly terms with him. Sam Clayton says that Ossie was respected in the community because he communicated personally with everyone and his generousity was well-known: He once declined to go on a pilgrimage to Ethiopia in 1961, so that fellow drummer Filmore Alvaranga could travel instead. “Count Ossie was my bosom brother,” emphasizes Rico Rodriguez. “He was the only person in this society that I really talked to, the only person that really loved me.”

These days, Ossie’s group still gathers every Sunday at their Rockfort home base. His legacy clearly lives on inside – and outside – the music. “Reggae music, Rasta music, music in its fullness is that special part of man, and our music in the Caribbean carry us beyond our borders,” says Sam Clayton. “We came without pants on our backsides, but the music came with us because we start making drums… and it’s not just music to dance to, it’s music for spiritual work, to make one wholesome and understand a thing or two. That is what reggae music is all about.”

By David Katz on April 24, 2015

On a different note