Coupé Cloué et L'Ensemble Select, Sôciss


It seems that most new planets, especially those recent add-ons within our ever-expanding solar system, are discovered by more and less the same process. As I've been told, astronomers figure out where a planet ought to be and proceed to case the neighborhood with enhanced scrutiny. Often as not, these guys get lucky by informed means and something turns up.

By rights, then, it should have made sense that I'd gravitate to Haitian music. The western side of the island known as Hispaniola still holds the greatest concentration of African émigrés (that is a euphemism, folks) in the Caribbean. Also, Haiti occupies midddle ground, er, sea between Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Cuba; records from each of the latter three convinced me that equatorial musicians are second to none, all the better if they've honed their craft in comparative isolation on some island. Then there are the fabulous corollary attractions of Haiti to consider: native brews, exotic combustibles, populous bat and insect colonies, bizarre syncretic religions (and the oppressive dictatorships that exploit same), zombies and so much more.

I'm opting not to snow all of you with an account of musical detective work in exotic climes that led me to Coupé Cloué. Instead, I will own up and reveal that I first heard Gesner Henry and his impossibly cool compas band L'Ensemble Select in a barn in upstate New York, more than likely during a late '80s game of table tennis. The barn in question belonged to an English expatriate, John Storm Roberts. Though Roberts delighted in raising ducks and chickens on a Dutchess County farm, his principal concern was Original Music, the first niche record company devoted to nurturing a then-nascent world music audience. A convincing case could be made for the fact that Roberts' first release on the label, the continent-spanning compilation Africa Dances, kick-started the whole worldbeat issue. (Though as good a case could be made for Robert Christgau's favorable review that appeared in The Village Voice a year or two after the album's release; to that point, circa '82, a great many copies of the record had been languishing in Roberts' closet).

Original Music grew through the '80s, both as a record label and a mail-order source of lp's and cassettes and, later, compact discs from faraway places with popular music of their own. That other countries made their own popular music, being music about cars and girls and fast money, music to do the horizontal mambo to — rather than the tuned rock- and log-beating that preoccupied most ethnomusical types to that point — wasn't news to Roberts. He'd been stationed throughout Africa as a UNESCO employee and had assiduously purchased the local top ten wherever he'd lived. Interest in indigenous pop was the focus of Roberts' writing (Black Music of Two Worlds, The Latin Tinge), his own field recordings (as issued by Nonesuch Explorer and Folkways labels) and definitely his Original Music imprint.

I moved upstate from Manhattan in 1985. Once settled, I made a point of seeking out Roberts' farm and soon enough found myself editing and remastering Original Music compilations in my studio. Many happy days were spent in the barn housing Original, a drafty, miserably cold affair in winter, so much more fun in the warmer seasons. Roberts set up a ping-pong table in the main room, the scene of endless matches between Original employees and visitors as the stereo blasted Congolese soukous, beguine from Martinique, than ko from Southeast Asia or old jazz sides by King Oliver. On a given summer day, the ping-pong ball's report bounced off the roof beams, pets of various species wandered through 'the office' and a record I'd only just heard would set a hook in my consciousness, usually in the same moment that a winning serve had cost me a point; happily, I recall Najma's Anglo-Indo hybrid Qareeb as one of those mid-game revelations. Sôccis, by Coupé Cloué et L'Ensemble Select, was another.

Here's what I actually know about Coupé Cloué, a.k.a. Gesner Henry: He was born in 1925 in Leogane, Haiti. He won renown first as a professional football star. Gesner's nickname, typical of his sly nature, was a multifold pun on both soccer skills and sexual prowess. His musical career lasted some forty years, beginning with Trio Crystal, later renamed Trio Select which then morphed into L'Ensemble Select by the early '70s. In that time, Coupé Cloué managed a brainy and sensuous meld of old-school twobadou style (its guitar technique imported from Cuba by cane-cutters), island folk rhythms, Haitian méringue and jazz. He popularized electric guitar in Haiti's pop music. Singing in Francophone patois, from the beginning Henry evinced a knack for double entendre. (Though the cover photo and the title of today's album, Sôciss, nearly qualifies as a single entendre, one about as subtle as a flying anvil.) And so, another reason to enjoy Coupé Cloué: Gesner Henry was wonderfully rude, as remains obvious to Haitians and honkies alike. Most of his songs featured extended monologues set to music, commentaries on life and love and sex, the human condition at a humid latitude; imagine Balzac telling dirty jokes while leading an irresistable dance band. Gesner's own delivery alternated between song and speech much like that of his American counterpart, Andre Williams, another transcendental hedonist.

The guitar interplay within L'Ensemble Select much resembles that heard in Congolese rumba-rock or soukous, the stuff of my initial (and future) NCIP posts. Gesner Henry always claimed that he had not heard soukous prior to visiting the Congo in 1975. Not surprisingly, Henry & Co. were très populaire in Africa and remained so at home. Indeed, Coupé Cloué may have been too popular for their own good in Haiti, as they were often asked to perform at parties held by the Tonton Macoutes, the dreaded secret police force maintained by dictator Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier. Gesner Henry was sensitive to criticism of these gigs, deflecting charges that he supported a corrupt regime by pointing out that an invitation from the Tonton Macoutes was one that you couldn't refuse.

Gesner Henry died at age seventy-three in 1998, about four weeks after his final performance. Like Pamelo Mounk'a, Henry was a victim of diabetes. It saddens me, that there won't be any more records by Coupé Cloué; I wish there were more like him. Other Haitian bands like Boukman Eksperyans and Tabou Combo and RAM more recently have made inroads with international audiences; while they're each one fine in their own right, they all seem more than a bit polite. None possess the rootsy, lo-fi raunch of Gesner and his ensemble of horn-dogs. Someone once described Neil Young's Crazy Horse as being the antithesis of slick, looking like a band made up of car thieves. To judge by the picaresque verve evident in every note of their music, Coupé Cloué et L'Ensemble Select played like a band of car thieves.



Prince Jazzbo,
Natty Passing Thru' / Ital Corner

IMG_0287 by you.

Each iteration of this journal has found me striving to preach both to the choir and beyond, by hopefully inviting means. Some years ago, Paul Buckmaster (composer of the 12 Monkeys film score and string arranger for the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers lp…and for Elton John, too, but we'll forgive him) chastised me gently, as he is a good egg, for assuming too much of my readership's knowledge. He felt that my writing should be more instructive for those new to the subject at hand. I agreed with Mr. Buckmaster, then and now.

Of course, that doesn't make introducing this week's entry any easier, as our featured album represents a number of entwined threads:

• Jamaica's DJ culture of the '70s, which in turn spawned hip-hop and rap and the debatable 'science' of remixing
• that most prolific record producer, Lee "Scratch" Perry, an inventive runt whose mixes are recognizable from note one and whose significance in the history of popular music is unimpeachable
• the embrace of weirdness for its own sake as an esthetic strategy, utilized — perhaps unconsciously — by artist and producer alike, often to self-immolating extremes (literally, in Perry's case, as he ended the chapter of his greatest creativity by torching his own studio)
• the admixture of music, humor, millennial cult religion, paranoia and drugs

What say, we just take the last three for granted? It would make my life so much easier. OK, anyone unfamiliar with Lee Perry and the musical output of his backyard studio, a blaze of hard work and bizarre inspiration lasting three or maybe four years (depending on the strength of your affection), is directed to David Katz's biography and the Scratch-themed back number of the Beastie Boys' magazine Grand Royal. Those acquainted with the quixotic, ultra-distinctive and probably pathological career paths of record producers Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, Joe Meek and Todd Rundgren should have no trouble mapping Thread #3 onto today's topic. And as I'm certain you've all taken drugs and laughed achingly at nothing in particular while music was playing and then wondered why, perhaps hoping that membership in the Church of the Subgenius might solve your existential dilemma...well, I think that takes care of Thread #4. Are we happy thus far, Mr. Buckmaster?

It would be easy to dismiss Prince Jazzbo as an also-ran in reggae, a DJ who validated trends rather than instigating them. Consider the pantheon* of Jamaican DJ's:

U-Roy, the first true star of 'talkover,' shrieking and cackling nursery rhymes and ass-backward limericks over instrumental mixes of hit songs;
I-Roy, his toasting glacially cool, wicked and literate, fast as lightning, a consummate wise-ass with a gift for extemporaneous lyrics comparable only to Lou Reed;
Big Youth, spearheading the second wave of DJ's during the 'cultural' era, the perfect blend of good humor, Rasta dread, fascinating orthodonture and the manic presence of a late night horror movie host, crazy about motorcycles, Marcus Garvey, John Coltrane and herb;
Prince Far-I, the sub-glottal rumble of his voice probably registering on the Richter scale above that of Barry White, filled with righteous indignation (Inspirational quote: "I grieve for this generation"), the lone source of information whom I'd believe, were the world about to end.

IMG_0288 by you.

Jazzbo shared qualities with each of these characters, though to my ear he never came across as an originator. For many reggae fans, he was the guy who lost a cutting contest with I-Roy. As documented in David Katz's indispensable oral history of reggae, Solid Foundation (Bloomsbury, 2003), the war of words between Prince Jazzbo and I-Roy was a marketing gimmick instigated by the manager of Monica's, the Toronto hairdressing shop that became a serious reggae emporium in the '70s, as mentioned in my Medley Dub entry.

It all began cute, but sure as my mom or Michael Madsen's Mr. Blonde will tell you, the kids play rough and somebody — in this case, Prince Jazzbo — gonna end up crying. His "Straight to I-Roy's Head" single charged that I-Roy was a mere U-Roy imitator, a barb too polite by half. Jazzbo was a ghetto kid, unschooled and fundamentally kind. I-Roy was anything but, as he proceeded to rip several new orifices in the carcass of Jazzbo's career with the demented relish of a Sergio Leone villain. I-Roy's intimation that Prince J was gay was but one among many of the former's rapid-fire ripostes, each more lethal than the last. This was about as bad as it could get in Jamaica, an island whose males suffer a paralyzing fear of homosexuals and the menstrual cycle (to the latter, blood clot, bumba clot, etc. as the last words in deprecation, not to mention grounds for justifiable homicide). Jazzbo couldn't compete, ultimately, and threw in the towel. Incidentally, the 45's documenting Jazzbo's and I-Roy's feud were collated on an lp, Step Forward Youth, which I have yet to find, this collection distinct from the entirely weak conciliatory duet CD they released over a decade later.

We will never know Prince Jazzbo's true place in the greater scheme, had his recorded debut (Choice of Version) appeared as scheduled in the early '70s; producer Coxsone Dodd delayed its release by a couple of decades and more. As such, the album known variously as Natty Passing Thru' (for its initial release on the Black Wax label in Jamaica) or Ital Corner (when later issued in the U.S. by Brad Osbourne's Clocktower imprint) represents Prince Jazzbo's moment in the sun. It was tracked in its entirety early in 1974 at producer Lee "Scratch" Perry's newly opened four-track studio, the Black Ark, a garage-sized structure in Perry's backyard, with Perry's house band as rhythm section.

The Upsetters were Scratch's answer to the Meters, whose New Orleans funk was plagiarized often and effectively on early Upsetters instrumentals. Most of Ital Corner's tracks were cut for Jazzbo's use, according to David Katz's exhaustively researched People Funny Boy: the Genius of Lee "Scratch" Perry (Payback Press, 2000). Some rhythms, though, will prove immediately familiar, the accompaniment of Max Romeo's "One Step Forward" recycled as the basis of Jazzbo's "Ital Corner." The sound is pure Scratch, reggae-as-moiré-pattern, the entire band and vocalist pushed through phase shifters and excessive spring reverb. The other Black Ark productions released on Island Records had the benefit of English mastering engineers. Ital Corner is rougher around the edges, dark as India ink and enhanced with portents of doom. We hear the DJ at the bottom of a very deep pit, en route to Hell; the horn section squalls like insects over a distant hill at dusk.

Throughout, Prince Jazzbo plays the sufferer, enumerating the difficulties of a Rastafarian marooned several area codes distant from his true Ethiopian home. Jazzbo's raps document his struggles through the veil of tears known as Babylon or Jamaica, as Noel Coward and Ian Fleming might have recognized it. Our Prince bad-raps the Pope and rails against the breadheads with vehemence that would do Neil of The Young Ones proud. All told, Jazzbo summons feelings of wrath and paranoia and vengeance that, combined with the fog of herb, create an ambience that is very dread indeed. And, from time to time, a tad dyslexic, as typified by Scratch's decision to let an episode of the Rhoda TV sitcom play into the mix of "Blood Dunza." (Myself, I'll take the Pope over Valerie Harper, but to each man his own image of iniquity.) An outtake from the Ital Corner sessions, "Croaking Lizard," appeared a few months later as part of the Upsetters' Super Ape, a rococo masterpiece still available on aluminum, the Sgt. Pepper's… of reggae, deconstructed and over-embroidered all at once. Differing from other NCIP entries to date, Ital Corner has been issued on CD, though obviously ripped from a vinyl pressing and not so well at that. I hope today's entry is an improvement.

It has been mooted that the more tightly wound rhythms of rock steady unspooled into the slower tempo of reggae in response to very loaded types dancing outdoors in the depths of an especially muggy Jamaican summer. I'd venture that now's the perfect time to reenact history. It's Friday, for Jah's sake. Torch one, people! Check it! Seen? As I would really, really tell ya!


* Well, my pantheon, anyway. Make your own if you don't like it.


Prince Jammy, Jammy's In Lion Dub Style

Dub, in all its shadowy refulgence, offers pleasure on par with few other items in my life. Its pleasures are rivalled only by the sight of pale, overly-mascara’ed, zaftig girls spilling out of black corsetry at Goth clubs or, more likely, the cloudy afternoon that finds me curled up with a favorite anthology of Charles Addams cartoons. There is more than faint redolence of the macabre, enjoyably so, in the murky dream logic of reggae deconstructed in dub. Fitting, then, that the caption of a particular Addams cartoon sums for me the joy of immersion in a great dub album: Addams's drawing shows the couple whom we now know as Gomez and Morticia (thanks to the ABC sitcom, as they were never named in the pages of The New Yorker) standing in the doorway of their decayed Victorian pile, waving good night to a pair of mutants shambling down the front walk. Gomez remarks, “I like them. They wear well.”

As much can be said, and more (as you knew I would) of Jammy’s In Lion Dub Style. Though it appeared circa ’77, in the fading years of dub’s halcyon era, this set is a standard bearer for the form, with its many strengths linked to the first great collections of ‘version’ sides appearing earlier in the decade. Jammy's... was mixed at the studio of dub potentate King Tubby, by his then-assistant Prince Jammy (neé Lloyd James). Most of the tracks versioned herein were drawn from Black Uhuru’s debut album for Jammy’s label, reissued by Greensleeves in the U.K., the set known variously as Black Sounds of Freedom or Love Crisis. That group’s vocal talent was mostly absent from Jammy’s In Lion Dub Style, as the mixer of the title was concerned with hammering out his own signature mixes and escaping the shadow, still lengthening through the present day, of his employer. The space-delineating reverb, a Fisher unit rewired by King Tubby, added a dimension perhaps best appreciated by spelunkers. Though there was more than enough bass, the first priority of any self-respecting dub organizer, Jammy used filter sweeping to create slow-motion melodies, anticipating Kraftwerk’s activities in this area by a full decade or more. The album that emerged was dark, very dark, deceptively plain-spun as a Double Dutch rhyme and every bit as insidious.

Prince Jammy issued this lp in close proximity to two other essential dub albums he created, Horace Andy’s In The Light Dub (reissued on CD in combination with its parent album of songs, on the Blood & Fire imprint) and Gregory Isaacs’ Slum In Dub. Jammy’s In Lion Dub Style has never seen release on aluminum, possibly owing to what Steve Barrow (A&R director for archival imprint Blood & Fire, he's also the music’s greatest historian, the A.J.P. Taylor of reggae) described as ‘ineradicable groove swish.’ This artifact is occasionally audible and may speak to an attribute of the studio then frequented by Prince Jammy. To describe many of the dubs being cut in King Tubby’s studio is to speak literally; often as not, the mixes went straight to a disc-cutting lathe, bypassing the usual intermediary master tape. This technique is still employed by audiophile labels; it certainly abetted the cavernous sound stage and stygian bass unique to Tubby’s mixing room.

Of course, an enduring tenet of dub is that the weirdest, most inventive mix can’t save a duff performance. Jammy’s In Lion Dub Style drew upon sessions featuring a stellar array of Jamaican studio talent: Robbie Shakespear on bass, drumming by Sly Dunbar or Carlton ‘Santa’ Davis, keyboards by Keith Sterling and Winston Wright (both from the later edition of Lee Perry’s studio band, the Upsetters) and the largely unsung MVP of reggae, guitarist Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith.

I was saddened, as many others were, to see 'cultural' rhythms of the '70s segue into ‘80s dancehall. The ostensible symptoms of change seem linked. The figurative death of songwriting in reggae. The too-literal death of many legendary talents (Marley, Tosh, Prince Far I, Hugh Mundell, Michael Smith — the latter stoned to death by a mob in the 20th Century — and King Tubby himself), others emigrating from the world's loudest island. Dancehall’s serving as soundtrack for the test-marketing of crack in Jamaica, before that substance became the mid-'80s agent of cultural corrosion elsewhere. Prince Jammy matriculated to King Jammy as this new era dawned and made his greatest mark as a dancehall producer. I will always favor the earlier years, though, when he helmed fabulous dubs such as those heard today.

As Jammy’s In Lion Dub Style is a comparatively brief collection, I have added a rarity found only on a 12” vinyl single, to the best of my knowledge. The A-side is a song by the Congos, “Jah Is The Sweetest.” (By the way, since I've mentioned Black Uhuru already in this post, don’t you think it’s interesting how reggae artists obsess about Haile Selassie-as-godhead, until their royalty cheques improve? Excepting Burning Spear, of course.) The B-side, included in today’s listening, is “Reggae Strings,” credited to Derrik (sic) Holtsma and Sly & Robbie. The intro of this instrumental finds the treble muted, under heavy manners. Another wild filter sweep, the high end opens up and lead violins (!) appear in duet; a bit Alice In Wonderland, this. I don’t know of any other reggae tracks that employ strings so effectively, save for those comprising the four volumes of Harry Mudie Meets King Tubby In Dub Conference. (Jamaicans were way in front — by years — of author Alexander McCall Smith in the baroque titling sweepstakes.) “Reggae Strings” resembles a soundtrack cue from two decades later, composer Angelo Badalamenti’s “Alvin’s Theme,” the splendid musical centerpiece of The Straight Story. That film was directed by David Lynch, something of an Addams character in his own right.

Next up, our trio of Jamaican posts concludes with the one mid-‘70s album from Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Black Ark studio that still is not properly represented on CD. Please stay tuned...Querida.