There was something in his eyes, Augustus Pablo's inevitably reefer-blurred eyes, that was alternately haunting and sad, chilling and beautiful. In the numerous photos of the dub innovator that grace the slew of albums released during his life (which ended May 17 at the age of 46 after a bout with pneumonia), Pablo never cracked a smile, not even a slight grin, and always appeared lost in deep thought. Whether he was staring directly into the camera's lens or gazing into the distance, his eyes somehow bespoke of a desolate, yet eerily captivating beauty, a beauty that was matched by the music he made during a career that stretched back more than 30 years.
Although he was among the first artists to enlist the enchanting nasal vocal work of Hugh Mundell, Pablo has been revered by reggae enthusiasts and electronica aficionados alike as the quintessential genius of dub, a stripped-down strain of instrumental Jamaican music wherein the studio is as much an instrument as the crashing drums, bubbling bass, and chopping guitar that define the sound of the island's greatest legal export. Through his work with legendary producers such as Lee Perry and King Tubby, Pablo created lyrical, atmospheric soundscapes punctuated by his graceful, lilting melodica. He used this child's toy the way Ennio Morricone used the harmonica on his classic spaghetti Western soundtrack Once Upon a Time in the West: to both underpin the drama of the rumbling rhythms and crashing percussion, and to create melodies that were as creepy as they were exotic.
The details of this quiet, private man's life are sketchy, right down to his birthdate; similarly his discography is a statistical mess, with conflicting release dates for albums issued and reissued on a dizzying number of domestic and import labels. This much is known for certain: He was born Horace Swaby sometime in the early Fifties, in poverty-racked Kingston. In the Sixties he studied piano at the Kingston College School, and, according to legend, borrowed a melodica from a girlfriend and became enchanted with the possibilities of this supposedly limited instrument. He soon fell into the capital city's thriving studio scene, recording in the late Sixties as a sideman in Lee Perry's band and developing his style with Burning Spear, Jimmy Cliff, and Bob Marley and the Wailers (including that seminal trio's original versions of "Kaya" and "Sun Is Shining"). He made his debut as a band leader and solo artist in 1972, with the Herman Chin-Loy-produced "Java." But it was under the early-to-mid-Seventies tutelage of King Tubby that Pablo (rechristened Augustus Pablo by Chin-Loy) would help turn dub from simply the backing track for vocalizing toasters into a reggae art form itself.
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The singles produced by the duo between 1972 and 1975, collected on 1979's Original Rockers and 1991's Pablo Meets Mr. Bassie: Original Rockers Vol. 2, are studio constructions as taut, intense, and inventive as anything in the canons of Sam Phillips, Phil Spector, or Berry Gordy. Tubby and Pablo skinned their reggae down to its bass-and-drums framework (provided usually by the Barrett brothers Aston and Carlton), then carefully, artfully, rebuilt it, adding a slash of Earl "Chinna" Smith's guitar here, a torrent of echo-drenched vocals there, leaving Pablo to weave his plaintive melodica lines into the mix. Borrowing the melodies of everything from Bill Withers's "Ain't No Sunshine" to Bob Marley's "Dem Belly Full," Pablo brought to dub a lyricism that could be tearjerkingly lovely ("Cassava Piece" is his definitive exploration of Far Eastern melodicism) or as chilling as the bleakest Delta blues ("Jah Dread," a moody little wobbler featuring the funereal trombone of Vince "Don D. Junior" Gordon and a rare vocal turn by Pablo). None of the singles clocked in at more than three minutes, yet each packs an almost cinematic punch; imagine the classic opening scene of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil scored to a dub beat, and you'll have an idea of what Pablo and Tubby could do within the confines of a seven-inch piece of wax.
After 1973's This Is Augustus Pablo, a surprisingly mediocre longplaying debut, he and Tubby conceived the absolutely masterful King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown, issued, depending on your source of reference, in 1974 or 1976. Whatever its vintage Uptown remains a benchmark of dub and one of the Seventies greatest albums of any genre, a classic of rhythmic grace and innovative studio experimentation that has influenced everyone from the Clash circa Sandinista! to the turntable artistes of hip-hop and electronica. Throughout the 35-minute set, familiar songs from Pablo's oeuvre are retooled into wholly new creations: Trombones establish a riff, then fade into the echoey distance, replaced with a dab of thwacking guitar, splashing cymbals, slapback snare, mathematical drum figures, and Pablo embellishing his melodica contributions with punctuations of equally stunning keyboard work. Along with the pair of Original Rockers compilations, King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown provides the bedrock of Pablo's legacy. (Much of Tubby's work has been reissued in America on the RAS label.)
King Tubby Meets Rockers in a Firehouse, Uptown's ostensible followup (again, its actual date of release is subject to debate -- 1980? 1981?), couldn't help but pale in comparison, and suffers even more from Pablo's role as a player than a band leader. By 1981 though, Pablo rebounded with the self-produced East of the River Nile, a masterpiece of ensemble playing that is dominated by his floating melodica and percolating clavinet, with only dollops of behind-the-boards trickery. This is where the pastoral atmosphere of Ennio Morricone meets Pablo's unique sense of melody and dynamics, from the minimalist melodica wail on "Nature Dub" to the soul-flame shimmy of the title track. And by the time you realize that he's worked a motif from Fiddler on the Roof into his own "Jah Light," you'll think Pablo capable of practically anything. Even something as ludicrous as finding the beauty in the treacly pop goo of Rod McKuen's "Jean," which, as a matter of fact, he did the previous year, on Pablo Nuh Jester's "Fat Jean."
Sadly these revelatory triumphs would become rare throughout the rest of his life. Pablo's gift for melody gave way to dull, desultory efforts such as Rockers All-Star Explosion (a far-from-combustible set from 1985 issued around the time of his first U.S. club appearance at the Kitchen in NYC) and 1990's mostly wretched Rockers Come East, on which he succumbed to the temptation of drum machines and synthesizers. Ironically Pablo's influence began to expand beyond the realm of reggae just as he lost the muse that produced his greatest work: Electronic acts like the Orb began incorporating his work into their own music, and the Glasgow popsters in Primal Scream featured Pablo in a cameo appearance on their Vanishing Point album from 1997. Despite his artistic plummet, the loss of Augustus Pablo -- much like the influence of the man's greatest music -- is immeasurable.