Drums of love and kindness - Grounation series begins with reasoning on Count Ossie
Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer
Brother Uriah 'King Royo' Smith, one of seven panellists for Sunday's Grounation at the Institute of Jamaica, brought badness into play in the discussion about Oswald 'Count Ossie' Williams.
Royo and six other persons who interacted closely with the late drummer, who died in 1976, spoke about their experiences with Count Ossie, who was the nucleus of a collective out of which came the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari and was a training ground for what would become the Skatalites.
The other panellists were Sister Audrey Wallace, Brother Samuel 'Sam' Clayton, Brother Samuel 'Time' Williams (Count Ossie's son), Brother Douglas 'Dougie' Mack, Brother Philmore Alvaranga and Brother Herman 'Woody' King, each walking on the stage with the stately steps of age and dignity as they were introduced by moderator, Jamaica Music Museum curator Herbie Miller.
In his late teens, the Rockfort, east Kingston, resident Royo became attracted to the drumming of Count Ossie and the Rastafari brethren in the community. When Royo started visiting their Adastra Road base his family told him "is pure bad man" there and eventually put him out.
Now homeless, Royo said "Count Ossie was my refuge. I go to Count and was sleeping under a lignum vitae tree for three months". So sure was his family of the Rastafari gangster bent that when Royo refused a farm-work ticket to cut sugar cane in the United States, his mother said, "Gwaan, mek police kill you."
But Royo decided to test Count Ossie's character himself, deliberately bursting a drum skin. Instead of an outburst, Ossie simply advised Royo that if he wanted to play the drums he should learn the funde first.
Adding to the advice, Count Ossie told Royo to get a goat skin, then showed him how to clean and use it as part of a drum.
"Everybody love Count. Him bad, but him bad with the drum!" Royo said, to applause from the substantial audience.
Brother Herman 'Woody' King, who introduced himself as representing the uptown grounation with the Rastafari brethren, confirmed Count Ossie's kindness. "He would show perfect love. Anyone in need could get a place to live," King said.
However, there was a sterner side to the Count as, late in a long programme, King recalled how many men in Rockfort got work when the Harbour View Housing Scheme was being built. The community celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010.
RISE OF HARBOUR VIEW
King said at the time there was no work in Rockfort and "everybody was hungry". As the preparations were being made for the housing development and jeeps were buzzing around, no communication was made with men in the area about working on the project.
So, King said, "Count Ossie organise one morning a force of men who wanted to work and blocked the road so the jeep could not pass. He told the men 'lift up the jeep!'," King said. They did. Then he told them to "turn it over!" At that point, the engineer in the jeep asked for the names of everyone there who wanted to work, wrote them down and told them they could come for work the next day.
"That was the start of Harbour View. Shortly after, every man in Rockfort was working," King said, to laughter.
In a reasoning session that was extended beyond its expected time and also the core purpose of examining Count Ossie as a catalyst for popular Jamaican music, Philmore Alvaranga recounted Ossie's musical ability with a cheese pan before getting to play a set of drums acquired in the Dungle on a Sunday.
Those first drums did not last long, as police officers burnt them up after someone in the community complained about the noise - but the drummers simply got another set.
RUNNING FROM POLICE
There were many more run-ins with the police, Time's recalling of a lock hanging on a wire fence while the man who wore it had simply continued running from the police when his hair tore out all the more striking for the matter-of-fact tone in which it was said.
Sam worked in a definition of grounation, drawing on his studies in electrical engineering from his youth. He said the ground wire provides the shortest distance to the earth for a particular circuit and is the natural path of harmless release for any excess charge which may occur. Grounation, then, is the most direct link to Rastafari and the energy the movement generates.
Sister Audrey's retelling of her first glimpse of Mack and how they eventually got together was humorous and engaging. However, on Miller's urging she also provided some insight into how the Rastafari women in the Dungle, especially, engaged in commerce to generate funds and were very loyal to their men when they ended up in jail, an inevitable outcome of the antagonism of the police. She also spoke of the women dancers, including Margarita, who was eventually murdered by Don Drummond.
And Time underscored the importance of the women when he pointed out that the 32 Adastra Road base of Count Ossie was his mother's, Alvira Sweeney's, premises.
Alvaranga invoked the names of many famous musicians who participated in Count Ossie's sessions, including trombonist Don Drummond, Dizzy Johnny and Lloyd Knibb. "The brethren get together and form the Skatalites," he said. "Count Ossie get together with the Mystic and form the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari."
With the hour getting late, Mack's listing of many of those who were in Count Ossie's camp, complete with anecdotal information on a few such as "baddest man in Jamaica" and "one of the first locksman", though very valuable, had to be cut short.
The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, with Ras Michael as guest and a horn section of two trombones and a saxophone, played beautiful music, opening with Bongo Man and None a Jah Jah Children and Rockfort Rock among their extended tracks.
Bongo Herman, Jah Youth, Junior Reid and Count Ossie's daughter Moji did brief guest vocalist stints, before the closing chant of Peace and Love.
The Grounation series continues every Sunday through February at the Institute of Jamaica’s lecture theatre.