A fine early work from one of reggae’s true visionaries
David Katz 2011
Augustus Pablo, aka Horace Swaby, is best known as the man who turned a children’s plastic toy, the melodica, into an instrument capable of imparting inspirational sound. Renowned for his ethereal productions, issued mainly on the Rockers label and often making use of eerie minor-key melodies, Pablo built up an impressive body of work during his lifetime. He succumbed to health problems in 1999, having suffered from the nerve disorder, Myasthenia Gravis, for much of his life.
Navigating Pablo’s back catalogue is a difficult task, since he got his start as an un-credited session player in the late 1960s, mostly working as a keyboardist. Several early singles credited to Augustus Pablo actually featured the work of other players, as the name was randomly assigned by producer Herman Chin-Loy, who first recorded Pablo’s melodica tracks. There are also albums bearing his name that feature less-talented imposters. But have no fear when you pick up Ital Dub, a 1974 album produced by Tommy Cowan; it is the real deal, featuring Pablo’s cool melodica over some of the best works Cowan ever issued, and even if it does not quite scale the heights of later sets like King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown or East of the River Nile, it is definitely worth having in your collection.
The album starts off strong with The Big Rip Off, a killer melodica take of Jacob Miller’s Forward Jah Jah Children (featuring a great King Tubby dub mix), followed by an echoing take on Marley’s Road Block (as re-cut for Cowan by Inner Circle). Though the wobbly cut of Curly Locks that follows sounds a little raw, Well Red is a sterling melodica take of Jacob Miller’s Moses. Gun Trade is a great re-working of Bob Andy’s Fire Burning. And Shake Up is a killer dubwise cut on the Please Be True rhythm.
On the original album’s second side, Hillside Airstrip is a wacky riff on the oft-versioned Skanga, the eerie Barbwire Disaster has Pablo’s melodica nicely offset by warbling harmonica riffs, and Mr Big is a great cut of Jacob Miller’s version of Natty Dread. Similarly, Eli’s Move is a spongy melodica number riding a dub-heavy rhythm, while House Raid is a throbbing dub cut to Inner Circle’s re-working of Peter Tosh’s Burial. Finally, closing number Shake Down is an alternate melodica instrumental of Shake Up/Please Be True, proving that there is always another way of looking at any given rhythm track.
Nicely straddling the divide between straight instrumental and manipulated dub, Ital Dub is ultimately a snapshot of Augustus Pablo finding his way, on the cusp of greater glory as a bonafide producer of his own works.