Rico, Jama Rico

Though doubtless I already owned a great many records containing the trombone playing of Rico Rodriguez, his name was impressed upon me only after he joined The Specials partway through that group’s early ‘80s career trajectory. Rico — his first name alone has long been an imprimatur of quality in Jamaican music — was at least a generation older than anyone else signed to the 2-Tone label. Of his tenure with The Specials, group founder Jerry Dammers once remarked that there was a lot less fucking around at rehearsals, once Rico came on board.

Rico was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1934 and subsequently attended the Alpha Boys’ School. He was a pupil of Sister Mary Ignatius Davies, who taught at the school from 1939 until her death in 2003; several reggae luminaries, including the doomed genius Don Drummond, Roland Alphonso and Lester Sterling among many others, had their interest in music nurtured by Sister Ignatius. She gained cred with her rude boy students by dint of owning a record collection of impressive size; this was a nun who ran a disco at the school on Saturday nights.

Leaving school, Rico recorded for many of the soundsystem proprietors who would become record producers: Clement Dodd, Duke Reid, Prince Buster. He played in hotel orchestras, won competitions on Jamaican radio; then, turning his back on the hit-or-miss existence of a black musician in the late ‘50s, Rico followed Don Drummond, his horn tutor at the Alpha school, to live at Renock Lodge in the Wareika Hills, home to Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. Rico’s description of this group as “more developed, mentally and musically, than the average musician” doesn’t quite do justice to a nearly cult-like ensemble, the Jamaican equivalent of Sun Ra’s Arkestra. Where Sun Ra and his fellow travelers of the spaceways used Fletcher Henderson’s charts as a jumping-off point to explore musical terra incognita, Count Ossie’s band was rooted in the hand drum-weighted rhythms of Rastafarian liturgical music. Of his time in the hills, performing with the group that recorded Tales Of Mozambique and the multi-lp boxed set Grounation, Rico said "When you play with them you can really explore. Most of what I know I learned from playing with them."

Rico left Jamaica in 1961, emigrating to the U.K. like so many citizens of the Commonwealth’s Caribbean outposts. He played in English jazz clubs and recorded two albums, neither of which he felt came close to representing his music. He worked on the line at the Ford plant, and played briefly in a group with the very young Ray Davies on guitar. Rico recalls the future Kink as an energetic sort, rolling on the floor while playing his guitar upside down; clearly, the well respected man about town was some years distant in the early ‘60s.

Come the 1970s, Rico signed with Chris Blackwell’s Island label, releasing Man From Wareika, an instrumental set focusing on the ska rhythms that had fallen out of fashion nearly a decade previous. The record was well received in the UK; though released in the US as well, it probably bypassed potential American customers owing to its appearance on a jazz label, Nemperor. (By the way, the dub version of this album is floating about cyberspace and is infinitely preferable to the released version.) After which, Rico joined the Specials, the most versatile of the ska revivalists associated with the 2-Tone label. The latter imprint would release two solo albums by Rico in the early ‘80s: That Man Is Forward followed by today’s offering, Jama Rico.

Both albums pair Rico’s trombone with the flugelhorn of Dick Cuthell, nearly all of the tracks from both records benefiting from the magical laminate created by the two musicians’ unison melodies. Recording for both albums was divided between English studios and producer/label owner Joe Gibbs’ facility in Jamaica. The Kingston sessions were engineered by the great Errol Thompson, who conjured smoky ambiance throughout a series of fantastic dub albums in the ‘70s. Thompson wound up managing a supermarket owned by Joe Gibbs, a fact that I am at a loss to explain, though he managed to find time to return to the control room in the years before his passing in 2004.

Where That Man Is Forward toggled between the ska expected of a 2-Tone release and a survey of cultural reggae rhythms then in fashion (“Chiang Kai Shek”), Jama Rico followed with a more consolidated set owing much to the Nyabinghi drumming that underpinned Count Ossie’s music. The magic of multi-track recording allowed Rico himself to play the funde, repeater and thunder drums essential to the pulse of Rasta liturgy, a very dread thing indeed. As befits royalty, an array of stellar Jamaican players rammed the studio for these tracks: Santa Davis, Skully, Sly & Robbie, Winston Wright, all of their names familiar from even a parvenu reggae enthusiast's collection. In their company Jerry Dammers acquits himself in good form, adding keyboard parts sufficient for snake charming and atmospheric production touches into the bargain.

Jama Rico compares favorably with the late-in-life renaissance of other island-bred talents, most notably the 70’s output of Hawaii’s Gabby Pahinui on Steve Siegfried’s Panini label. Rico is still with us, last I checked, and continues to perform and record, but none of his subsequent discs match the delectable malevolence and worthiness of this album, its imagery rendered in the inky strokes and dark washes characteristic of Charles Addams’ best paintings.

The record is nearly too cool to bear. Some listeners may require medication for this one – possibly a feisty little indica, or at very least an icy glass of Stone's – but as I tend to suggest something along this line for the majority of my postings, one could be forgiven for assuming a particular mindset at work here. Seen?