Satta Massa Gana: The making of an anthem

HOWARD CAMPBELL, Observer writer
Sunday, March 09, 2003



The original Abyssinians (from left): Donald Manning, Lynford Manning and Bernard Collins. (Photo: Heartbeat Records)

Contrary to popular belief, One Love, the calling card for the Jamaica Tourist Board and the British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) Song of the 20th Century, is not reggae's anthem. Pride of place goes to a less heralded song, The Abyssinians' Satta Massa Gana, a song with roots steeped in inner-city Trench Town where roots-reggae had its genesis during the 1960s.

Satta Massa Gana was first recorded as Far, Far Land by the roots trio in 1969 at producer Clement Dodd's Studio One. Because Dodd believed it would never be a commercial success, the song was never released until two years later when The Abyssinians put it out on their Clinch label. Its vision of a paradise for persons of African descent had a bearing on many youth in Jamaica, who had embraced the Black Power movement that was then sweeping the United States and other Caribbean territories.


Bernard Collins (right) and his version of The Abyssinians (file photo)

Written by Bernard Collins and Donald Manning, Satta Massa Gana is recognised by most as reggae's unofficial anthem. It is one of the most covered songs in Jamaican popular music, and has been sampled by many of contemporary reggae's producers.

The stories about Satta Massa Gana's origins vary. But one thing is for sure, it was co-written by Collins and Manning, two men who had found Rastafari in Trench Town, an expanse of shacks that was home to mostly migrants from rural Jamaica.


Leroy Sibbles

It was where Donald Manning first met Collins. Born in 1940, Manning had been a groom at the racetrack in the 1950s while Collins, eight years his junior, was an amateur cyclist who competed in events at Race Course (now National Heroes Park).

In the liner notes to Satta Massagana, the 1993 Heartbeat Records album, Manning said he and Collins were introduced by a mutual friend in the early 1960s. He recalled that they shared an interest in spirituality and music, and attended many Rasta meetings in Trench Town and Rockfort where they jammed on drums with elders like Mortimo Planno and Count Ossie.

At the time, Manning and his three brothers were regulars at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church; through friends in Ethiopia, Manning studied books on that country's culture and Amharic language, the base of the song that would make him famous.

"One night I start play my guitar and I hear Bernard sing, 'there is a land, far, far away'. I start sing with him too, I ran up to my house and got a pen and wrote the words to the song and Satta Massa Gana (Amharic for 'give thanks') came about that same night," Manning told Heartbeat's Chris Wilson.

With song written, Manning and Collins sought a third member for the group they formed and called The Abyssinians. Their first choice was another Trench Town resident, a student, but because of studies he was unable to attend rehearsals; Manning then enlisted his younger brother Lynford and The Abyssinians was born.

Lynford Manning was no stranger to success. He was formerly a member of Carlton and The Shoes, a group headed by another Manning brother, Carlton. They had a massive hit at Studio One with Love Me Forever in 1968.

In a July, 1997 interview with the Observer, Collins said the trio went to Studio One where they paid for studio time and recorded Far, Far Land, the original version of Satta Massa Gana. "The song came out as Far, Far Land but it neva mek no headway until wi version the song in 1970-71 and mi gi it name Satta Massa Gana...the song tek off from dey so."

Re-released in 1971 with a new title on the Clinch label, Satta Massa Gana, built around Collins' piercing vocal and the Manning brothers' haunting harmonies, was a sensation.

Once it took off, Dodd reportedly jumped on the bandwagon and released instrumental versions of the song by saxophonist Tommy McCook (Cool It) and keyboardist Jackie Mittoo (Night in Ethiopia). The Abyssinians countered with a deejay edition, the powerful I Pray Thee, by Big Youth, which became a dance favourite.

In 1973, while still enjoying the fruits of the follow-up hit, Declaration of Rights, The Abyssinians recorded two more "Satta" songs: Mabrak, which heard members reading from the Old Testament, and Satta Me Born Yah featuring Collins.

Satta Massa Gana was never a radio-friendly song but it reached the ears of youth fascinated with Rastafari, including a band of middle-class youth who called themselves Third World. The group covered the song for its self-titled debut album in 1976.

Unlike the rush of roots-reggae groups from the 1970s which had, and continue to enjoy success as touring acts throughout Europe, The Abyssinians' career never really left the ground. They recorded the amazing Satta Massagana album (produced by Clive Hunt) in 1976 and Arise for Tuff Gong two years later, but the original group only toured once, in 1988.

The group split the following year shortly after performing at Reggae Sunsplash, differences between Collins and Manning have kept them apart since. Collins has had hits as a solo performer with This Land, recorded in 1978, and in 1999 the Paris-based Tabou Records released his solo album, Last Days, in Europe.

In recent years, Collins has performed with George Henry and Melvin Trusty as The Abyssinians at the popular Heineken Startime shows while Donald Manning has toured with his own version of the band with older brother Carlton as lead singer. Lynford Manning gave up secular music for Christianity shortly after the group's Sunsplash gig in 1989; like Donald, he lives in Miami.