SLY DUNBAR:On a roll since the 1970s

HOWARD CAMPBELL, Observer writer
Friday, September 19, 2003

DUNBAR... rehearsing in the studio

Sly Dunbar revolutionised the art of reggae drumming in the 1970s and 1980s. And with longtime collaborator, bassist Robbie Shakespeare pushed the music's boundaries by incorporating a fresh dance feel to roots-Reggae acts like Peter Tosh and Black Uhuru and the pop singer Grace Jones.

Dunbar, now 51, got his start by playing on Dave and Ansel Collins' 1971 monster hit, Double Barrell. But his career really got a kick at Channel One during the 1970s where his distinct beat was the backbone of that studio's sound, and house band, The Revolutionaries.

Dunbar credits his durability to a keen ear and his refusal to be stuck in one groove for too long. By the early 1980s, he was experimenting with electronic drums at a time when the synthesizer movement was taking shape in the United Kingdom through new-wave groups like A Flock Of Seagulls and Soft Cell.

That new twist paid off heavily for Black Uhuru on whose 1984 album, Anthem, it figured prominently. Anthem was recorded at Island Records' Compass Point studio in Nassau in The Bahamas where Dunbar and Shakespeare constantly experimented with new sounds.

In 1993, Dunbar's Ska and Rhythm And Blues influences came to the fore on comeback duo Chaka Demus and Pliers' All She Wrote album, which spawned six hit singles and sold gold internationally.

Thirty-one years after playing on Double Barrell, Dunbar is still hitting the skins, even though he spends a lot of his time around drum machines these days. Recently, the man colleagues call "Charlie" spoke with this column about the importance of getting that perfect drum sound.

Howard Campbell : What type of drums did you start playing?

Sly Dunbar : Ludwig, yuh nuh. Up to this day I still think they make the best drums, the snare of the Ludwig is still the wickedest snare drum. The sound 10 time wickeder than anything else; I prove that on any session I use it.

HC : On the Channel One stuff you used to use a military sound. Was it tedious playing basically the same thing?

SD : No, it was basically to let people know dat this is the sound of Channel One. If yuh listen to Studio One, they had a concept drum sound, Treasure Isle the same thing, Philadelphia (International Records) the same thing and Motown the same thing. Wi look at all the big labels and realise dat they have the same set of musicians, so musicians could jus' look at musicians and create a feel by eye-contact; we had the same thing at Channel One where wi could guarantee how the record would come out jus' by the drum sound.

HC : Who were some of the people you listened to those days?

SD : People like Lloyd Knibbs (of The Skatalites), all the Reggae Drummer dem, especially from Studio One. People like Earl Young from MFSB (house band at PIR), Steve Gad, Harvey Mason, Bernard Purdie...mi listen all of dem 'cause every drummer have something different fi offer.

HC : When you started touring with Peter (Tosh) you started to open up to a different drum sound?

SD : Yeah, I started to use four tom-toms like the rock and roll people dem. If yuh see dem soloing yuh tek a likkle piece and filter it into the Reggae; wi realise that wi had to develop our Reggae thing to mek it more accessable to their level and the only way to do dat was through recording. Dat's why the whole drum sound at Channel One was so important, for the outside world would hear it and sey 'dat is Reggae.

HC : When did you decide to start using electronic drums?

SD : I was looking at the whole electronics thing and I bought the Syn-drum which became the Taxi main tool.

HC : What are the first songs you used it on?

SD : A instrumental version of Queen Of The Minstrel. Then I start use it as a organ shuffle on songs like Love and Devotion and Unmetred Taxi (makes electro-type sounds) and wi use it on Pull Up To The Bumper.

HC : When did you start using the Symonds?

SD : When wi do Anthem in Nassau, wi figure dat the drum sound in Reggae was getting stagnant. So wi carry in the Symonds and use it on the whole album, on songs like Solidarity; it was good 'cause everybody was excited at the sound and how the drum looked.

HC : A lot of serious musicians used to hate the Symonds; you got a lot of flak for using it?

SD : No, I tune it up a special way, people use to sey it sound wicked especially when the engineer get it right, it really sound powerful.

HC : Which are some of the Channel One songs that you listen to and love?

SD : A whole heap (laughs)! I Know Myself by Ernest Wilson, there's a version of Big Heel Boot by Freddie McKay, Things And Time (Wailing Souls) and Far East (Barry Brown). Yuh had Woman Is Like A Shadow (The Meditations) and Right Time by the (Mighty) Diamonds had a special drum sound ...bwoy, so much tune!

HC : What about the stuff with Peter?

SD : Mystic Man and Bush Doctor, dem two albums.

HC : Black Uhuru and Grace Jones?

SD : Bwoy, everything with Uhuru. Mi really love the Sensimilia album 'cause the drums sound different. With Grace it was like Pull Up To The Bumper and the Private Lives album.

HC : Chaka Demus and Pliers?

SD : Dem have so much wicked tune. Tease Me, Murder She Wrote always stand out, She Don't Love Nobody and I Wanna Be Your Man.

HC : People ever criticise you that you spend too much time with drum machines now?

SD : No, no, no, 'cause a lotta people think I'm playing live with the sound I get. A lotta people want mi to play live but it's not like in the old days when a studio like Channel One give yuh a crisp sound and yuh coulda sit down and play anything. If the studio room is not right the sound going to come out wrong.