A true reggae original, dubmaster Augustus Pablo is as closely identified with his instrument — the melodica — as most jazz musicians are with theirs. Horace Swaby was a Kingston pianist when he borrowed a melodica; the simple instrument’s unusual sound caught the ears of local record producers, who hired him to give their dub treatments some exotic color. Soon, as Augustus Pablo, he was composing, arranging and producing his own instrumental tracks; now the reedy, vaguely Middle Eastern sound of his melodica is immediately recognizable, a plaintive cry in the dub landscape.
Like his music, a sensory stimulation interlude, evoking different moods as it carries the listener to other lands and other times, Augustus Pablo has always been in a class by himself. His deep spirituality and carefully guarded public image only add to his mystique.
Pablo’s earliest available recordings are mainly session work. Both Ital Dub and King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown (widely considered a dub classic) are as much showcases for King Tubby’s mixing as for Pablo’s playing. His own debut, This Is Augustus Pablo (later reissued as Rebel Rock Reggae), is much better, distinguished by strong presence and lively playing. So is Original Rockers, a collection of singles he doctored. The selection is diverse, and Pablo’s production (particularly the drum sound) is bright and snappy. For the uninitiated, either of these two offers a perfect starting point.
His recent work is, to some extent, of a piece, with little variety and few distinguishing characteristics. Africa Must Be Free Dub is an adequate companion to an LP made by singer Hugh Mundell, a young Pablo protégé who was murdered. Rockers Meets King Tubby in a Firehouse, while compelling, features less melodica than usual. East of the River Nile is quintessential Pablo, and perhaps his most consistent LP. Earth’s Rightful Ruler includes a real rarity — a vocal — along with a new version of Pablo’s first record, “Java.” King David’s Melody, a singles collection, has the evenness of sound and style of an album. It’s a bit sleepy, but lovely all the same.
Pablo’s ’86 release, Rising Sun, marked a change in direction. Mixed by Scientist, the overall sound is less distinctive than Pablo’s other work. Many of the tunes are uptempo and disappointing, even though some of the playing — particularly on “Pipers of Zion” — is superb.
But it proved to be a transitional album rather than a glimpse of things to come. On Rockers Come East, Pablo returns to the dreamy sound that is his trademark, using lots of synthesizer bits to supplement his melodica. The synthetics are subtle, however, so the dub remains warm and compelling. More richly textured than ever, the music on the LP ranks with Pablo’s best, and shows the maestro to be at the top of his form.
Like Sugar Minott (with his Youth Promotion label), Pablo has always provided a forum for ghetto youth to explore and express their musical talents; his Rockers label has become a training ground for up-and-coming artists. Rockers Story, the fifth collection of Pablo’s various protégés, is a mixed bag of Pablo’s own material, singers such as Delroy Williams and Barry Reid, U-Roy-style DJs (e.g., Dillinger and Ras Bull) and such groups as Tetrack and the Rockers Allstars.
Eastman Dub is actually the dub version of the Tetrack album Let’s Get Started, a classic example of Pablo’s exotic and meditative melodies, not to mention his renowned melodica playing. The subtleties and colorations that a wind instrument can express are elevated to an almost ethereal quality in Pablo’s music.