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The rhythmic innovation of Lloyd Knibb

Published:Monday | May 16, 2011 | 12:00 AM
Lloyd Knibb
Dr Alfred Sangster, deputy chairman of council, Institute of Jamaica, presents the Silver Musgrave Medal to Lloyd Knibb, on October 13, 2010, during the annual Musgrave Medal Awards Ceremony at The Institute of Jamaica on East Street, Kingston. - Winston Sill/Freelance Photographer

Herbie Miller, Contributor

Virtuoso Skatalites drummer Lloyd Knibb died on May 12 at his home in Harbour View, St Andrew. Knibb was simply the most important and influential modern drummer this country has produced. A master percussionist, he contributed to every style of this nation's popular and not so popular musical forms, including jazz, mento, burru, nyabinghi, rock steady and, by extension, reggae.

As a drummer, he established rhythmic syntax through bold innovative advances; a synthesis of styles that set the rules for rhythmic structure that later informed every drummer (interested in Jamaican beats) in terms of the logic and structure of popular dance-floor rhythms.

greatest ska drummer

Because of that, he was known as the world's greatest ska drummer.

Born March 8, 1931, Knibb grew up on Bond Street in west Kingston. Close by was a house where a 12-piece band rehearsed. Its drummer was Donald Jarrett, who mentored the young Knibb, answering questions about beat and different rhythms, swing, mambo, mento and bolero.

Knibb practised these beats on a wooden box which served as bass drum, and paint cans, as tom-toms.

He began playing at various venues in the Corporate Area during the 1950s.

It was during this period that bandleader Val Bennett asked Knibb to fill the vacant chair in his band, an engagement which lasted six years and allowed him to fine-tune his approach and expand his reputation.

By 1952, Knibb, now a resident of east Kingston, became part of Rastafarian drummer Count Ossie's granulation sessions in the Wareika Hills. These jam sessions exposed him to burru and nyabinghi rhythms.

Knibb was able to perfect these patterns through performances with

Rastafarian leader Sam Brown at his Spanish Town Road meetings.


These experiences provided Knibb with ideas to expand the possibilities for trap drumming.

Knibb joined the Eric Dean Orchestra in 1953/54, where he met and performed with some of the best musicians, including some with whom he would later collaborate. They included saxophonist Tommy McCook, trumpeter Baba Brooks and Lloyd Brevet, the innovative bassist with whom Knibb would revolutionise Jamaican dance rhythms.

Following his tenure with Deans, Knibb did an extended residency with Cecil Lloyd on the north coast.

Perhaps the greatest asset of this master drummer was his eclectic tastes.

Exploring extemporaneous rhythms without retarding the beat, a feat he mastered, Knibb imbued popular Jamaican drumming with its own form and character. It was an innovation which involved assimilating all the styles, tempo and collective excitement of not only what had gone before and the lessons learned at Count Ossie's, but further elaborated by Pentecostal, Revivalist and Pocomania drumming styles; which included clapping and tambourine punctuations on the offbeat, and the distribution of these diverse patterns across the trap set.

The shuffle beat that was the standard pattern of popular Jamaican music was completely overturned in preference for the new shift of placing the accent on the two and four instead of the one and three that was the norm. It is this synthesis of styles and beat that introduced ska at the Studio One camp of Clement 'Coxsone' Dodd, that is credited to Knibb, and for which every drummer in his wake, both at home and abroad, is indebted.

driving energy

The popularity of ska led to the formation of the Skatalites, and Knibb was the driving energy of the band. He has performed on over 2,000 recordings; backing everyone from Toots and the Maytals, The Wailers, Tony Gregory to Jackie Opel.

Brooks, McCook, trombonist Don Drummond, guitarist Ernie Ranglin, trombonist Raymond Harper and saxophonist Roland Alphonso are some of the instrumentalists who benefited from Knibb's innovations.

He recorded for the best producers, including Dodd, Duke Reid, Prince Buster, Lloyd Matador, Leslie Kong and Moodies. The Skatalites disbanded after only 18 months, but regrouped in 1983. The band has since recorded several albums and toured the world, with appearances across Russia, China, the Philippines, Iceland, Greenland, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, Japan, Western Europe and the United States.

Knibb refined dance-floor celebration through a complete creolisation process. The result was an unabashed Jamaican beat which can be heard on recordings like Addis Ababa, Smiling, Mad, Mad World, Ska La Parisian, Latin Goes Ska, and Jackie Opel's The Vow. On these and other vocal songs by the Wailers (Simmer Down), The Maytals' Shining Light, and Margarita's Ungle Malungu Man, one experiences the comic and the heroic.

turning heads

Lloyd Knibb exemplified musical communication, displaying telepathy and empathy without substituting meaningless thrills.

That until recently he continued to turn heads, both in recorded and live situations, is indeed a reflection of the unique sound he created. And he will remain relevant because of the sampling of rhythms he and Brevet invented almost 50 years ago.

Knibb recently became ill while in Brazil on tour. To the dismay of doctors, he returned to Boston where he resided when not at home in Harbour View. Told he had only about four days to live, and against the advice of his doctors there, Knibb returned immediately to Jamaica, his family and his roots. He confronted his mortality without self-pity.

For his role in establishing Jamaica culturally, his rhythmic imagination, groundbreaking innovations, creative ingenuity, and bold visionary initiative, he has been well recognised.

Over the years, Knibb has been rewarded with the Prime Ministers' Award, the Order of Distinction, the Silver Musgrave Medal, citations from city and state representatives across the world, and induction into the Jamaican Music Hall of Fame.

We, as music lovers, musicians and musicologists, are grateful that Lloyd Knibb established an authentic Jamaican rhythmic structure. For, he too, like the music he made and his achievements, has become a symbol of hope.

Herbie Miller is a director at the Jamaica Music Museum in Kingston.