Farewell Brethren: Homage to Rico Rodriquez (the Man from Wareika Hill)
Rico Rodriquez, MBE, born Emmanuel Joseph Rodriquez (Kingston, Jamaica October 17, 1934 to September 4, 2015), was best known as a trombonist and composer who emerged on the local scene at the beginning of Jamaica's recording industry, playing a fusion of American jump blues coloured by a 'native' lilt and infused with Rastafari nuances. A product of the famous Alpha Boys' School, where the more advanced trombonist Don Drummond mentored him, Rico also played the trumpet, saxophone and clarinet.
A devotee of Rastafari from as far back as the 1950s, Rodriquez was recognised internationally as an exponent of ska and other forms of Jamaican and global popular music. He was the trombonist of choice among the pioneering exponents of Jamaican popular music, the main and most effective signifier of our culture. He was also one of the musicians whose style and personality conveyed an identity steeped in Afro New World
aesthetics and a philosophical world view that centres Africa at its core. This perspective was noticed by eccentric and eclectic free jazz trumpeter Don Cherry who asked Rico, "How can you play like that"? And referring to his own experience, Cherry told him, "To play like you, I had to go to Africa to learn."
PERFORMING FOR FISHERMEN
Struggling to survive after his early days on his own, Rico recalled scuffling on the Rae Town beach where he regularly performed for fishermen in exchange for fresh fish. "Because you were poor and had to eat, you stay down where the fishermen draw their nets so you'd have food every day. Fishermen always give you fish; they like to hear you playing."
Among his brethren and local admirers, Rico symbolises a freedom ethic and is often credited along with Wilton and Bobby Gaynair, Don Drummond, Tommy McCook, Johnny 'Dizzy' Moore, and others, with a musical and ideological philosophy that was pivotal to the innovation of an indigenous musical form, simultaneously shaping Rastafari identity nationally and globally. This perspective, musically and otherwise, was imagined and shaped while participating in Grounations at Count Ossie's Wareika Hill Camp, where a socially integrated audience would congregate. In an interview we did in 2005, Rico recalled his experience in the hills with Count Ossie and his drummers: "They're more developed, mentally and musically, than the average musician. When you play with them, you can really explore; most of what I know I learned from playing with them." From those formative years prior to, and concurrent with Jamaica's bid for political independence, as a nationalist, Rico's world view, artistry and lifestyle forecasted and exemplified a pan-Caribbean and Africanist attitude.
Inspired by the impending declaration of independence from British colonial rule, one of Rico's most important compositions, the little-known song, August 1962, represents for many a statement of liberation. Its repetitious melody evokes a sombre mood, but by the end it also suggests hope, victory and celebration - a mix of cautious approach and uncertainty, desire and will, release and ecstasy that Rico and the progressive proletariat must have felt, and which was communicated through his horn.
It is ironic, therefore, given his social and political views, that on July 12, 2007, Rodriquez was bestowed with an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for his contribution to British music by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. From a Jamaican perspective, the Institute of Jamaica followed in 2012, awarding him a Silver Musgrave Medal for his role in the development of Jamaican music.
The trombonist's impressive catalogue during his Jamaican phase between 1958 and 1961 include music essential to his oeuvre and the development of ska and all popular Jamaican music. In addition to an overwhelming repertoire backing vocalists, the most appreciated instrumentals featuring Rico from that formative period include: Freeman Lane Shuffle, Salt Lane Shuffle, Beaston Street Riff, Milk Lane Hop, and Shuffling Jug. In his role as leader, Rico's Special, Rico's Farewell, the Prince Buster-produced Luke Lane Shuffle, Duke Reid's Pink Lane Shuffle, and his standard, Let George Do It (which has been consistently attributed to Drummond). On these songs, Rico engages optimistic forward-flowing lines at various tempos, with textures and attitude whose melodic liberation provides insight to his ability.
The rhythm section, led by bassist and straw boss Clue J, swings in blues fashion, previewing the staccato offbeat piano and guitar riffs - as on Freeman Lane Shuffle and Rico's Special, that was being defined and transformed to what would become ska, the first step to an internationally recognised Jamaican idiom. Whether or not Rico and the other musicians had planned or were conscious of the direction they were navigating, what is certain is that they are the musicians on whose shoulders ska and all other forms of Jamaican music was developed.
In a supportive role, as on the song credited with being the bridge between ska and New Orleans shuffle/jump blues, Theolopheus Beckford's Easy Snappin, the Jiving Juniors' Over the River, and I'll be There, Rico contributes in such a meaningfully creative and sanative way that these songs - good as they may be - are illuminated by his presence. In addition to superb vocalisation, these recordings radiate the sheer pleasure of the trombonist's sense of melody, bursts of spirited and swinging riffs, and his empathy for rhythm and beat.
His distinctive personality infuses Higgs and Wilson's His Robe, with obbligatos that capture his natural infectious warmth, he blows with tender lyricism on Lascelles Perkins' Lonely Robin (1961) and on any number of songs, his solos are not only soulful but may also transition into a joyous celebration of human feeling as the tenor of the song suggests. Usually performed in the company of Cluet 'Clue J' Johnson, Johnny 'Dizzy' Moore, Drumbago, Count Ossie, Ernie Ranglin, Roland Alphonso, Bobby Gaynair, Aubrey Adams or Theo Beckford, Rico achieves all this without diverting the attention from the collective group experience, even when soloing with a maestro's elan.
- Herbie Miller is the director/curator of the Jamaica Music Museum at the Institute of Jamaica.