PART THREE: “RASTA HAVE THE HANDLE”
Film producer and lifelong reggae fan Jerry Stein travels to Jamaica in 1978 with sound engineer Jeff Roth to film what will ultimately become Word, Sound, and Power, an engrossing film about Jamaica’s finest group of reggae instrumentalists, the Soul Syndicate Band. While he is on the island filming for the documentary, Stein has the unlikely opportunity to interview and film Hugh Mundell and Augustus Pablo together. The resulting film footage, which features Pablo and Mundell reasoning and performing acoustically, is the only footage in existence featuring Mundell and Pablo together. The shoot takes place at Pablo’s home in the hills of Port Maria, JA.
Stein spoke with me about the experience in an interview for this piece:
“Pablo actually lived on a Catholic school’s grounds up in the hills at Port Maria. That’s why we got those shots of the kids staring into the camera. It was just amazing stuff. Each kid had a different facial expression…I don’t think they had ever seen a camera before.”
“So the day after we shot up in the hills at Pablo’s in Port Maria I get a call from Hugh Mundell saying that Pablo wants to talk with me. So I’m like ‘oh shit, what is this about?’ I was staying downtown so I went to the market and bought all this fresh fruit you know, and Pablo was supposed to come down at 6:00 pm. So Mundell shows up and he says ‘you gotta come up to Pablo’s place in Papin.’ I was like ‘what? You guys were supposed to meet down here.’ Mundell says ‘no, you gotta come with me.’ It was almost like a strong-arm situation. He had his posse with him and I don’t know if you know this but Mundell was kind of a wise guy. I mean he was a kid, like seventeen. He had this attitude you know. So we get in the elevator at the Intercontinental hotel and he lights up this big spliff right there in the elevator. The doors open on the lobby and there’s two security guards there and they are really pissed. So they start coming down on him like they were gonna rough him up or something and Mundell jumps into this crazy kung-fu stance. I had to step in and cool everything down and I take Mundell outside and he just starts laughing and the vibes were level.”
“We jump into this car with Mundell and his posse. It’s dark outside now. They drive to an area in north Kingston that was really rough…gang kids on the streets and at the corner, and there are no street lights for some reason. Mundell and his crew get out and walk up the street and they just left me there. It was not cool. I was getting really freaked out. They come back about 15-20 minutes later and we drive to Pablo’s house in Papin. I walk in and Pablo is there with a straight looking white english man…it was his attorney.”
“So I say ‘what’s up?’ And Pablo is like ‘well I’m not really cool about the footage. I need you to sign this contract.’ Now, we had already signed contracts to make sure that Pablo would get paid if the footage was used in the final cut of the film. But now he wants to talk about it and have his guy draw something up. So I’m sitting there and Pablo is playing these amazing riddim tracks that I had never heard before. Mundell is sitting beside me on a bar stool and he’s singing along to these tracks and it is just the most amazing, beautiful thing I had ever heard.”
Stein is eventually forced to negotiate new terms to the contract with Pablo’s attorney. Evidently, the terms drawn up by the attorney were very confusing and involved a sliding scale based on how many minutes Pablo is featured in the final cut.
Stein says to the attorney “give me a blank sheet of paper.”
Stein draws a line and places his signature on the line. He then tells the attorney to draw up whatever terms Pablo wants and to use his signature to sign the contract.
“Look man, I was not trying to rip off Pablo,” Stein explains. “The guy is a legend and I was going to give him the terms he wanted. I wasn’t thinking about money, I was just so glad that I had the footage. So that was my first experience with Pablo and Mundell.”
It may have been his first, but it surely was not his last.
Jump to several years later. The year is 1981 and Stein is hired by the family that owns The Stone night club in San Francisco, CA and the Keystone club in Berkeley, CA. Upon hiring Stein as a booker, the clubs become top spots to see reggae in the Bay area. After booking sold out shows for the great Joe Higgs at The Stone, Stein has the opportunity to bring Hugh Mundell to northern California to perform in the US for the very first time.
Mundell makes his US concert debut at The Stone, San Francisco in July 1981.
“I think I brought Joe Higgs over first. Joe Higgs sold out so I reached out to Mundell’s father Alvin to see about bringing Hugh to The Stone to perform. Alvin was an attorney and a real straight shooter. We became fairly good friends. In fact, I still have the letter he sent me asking that I look out for his son and take care of him while he’s in the States. Anyway, Mundell comes out for sound check. I had set up a three-camera video shoot to capture his first performance. Took over the executive’s offices and put monitors everywhere so he could have a live mix. I had an entire film crew in there to get this performance. Well, he sees the cameras and he freaks out. He’s like ‘nah mon, I not gonna perform if you are doing video…we gotta work some tings out.’ So I’m like ‘well, what do you want to work out, this is for you, I will turn the tapes over to you tonight after the show. If you want to release it you can, you know, whatever you want.’”
‘No mon, I’m not doin’ it,’ says Mundell.
“It would have been the most priceless footage you know. A three-camera shoot, it wasn’t film, it was video. I had a sound guy from the biggest television station in the Bay area doing a live mix. But he just wouldn’t do it. He would not come on stage unless I shut the cameras. I did get it on audio. It’s called ‘Hugh Mundell Live at The Stone’ and it’s pretty good. The only thing was, the local band I hired to back him up just wasn’t up to the level of Mundell’s singing, I don’t think they took enough time to learn his songs. But the show sold out, both shows, the one at The Stone and the one the following year at The Keystone over-sold. The reggae fans here loved the guy.”
Mundell blazes through a set of seven songs that night “Let’s All Unite,” “Great Tribulation,” “Short Man,” “Run Revolution A Come,” “Jah Fire Will Be Burning,” “Feeling Alright Girl,” “Time and Place,” “Africa Must Be Free By 1983,” and “Africa Dub.” The backing band (a local Bay area reggae band) struggles at times to keep up with Mundell, but to no avail. Mundell’s voice is strong, almost flawless throughout. The audio mix is phenomenal with lots of echo and dub effects, giving the show an otherworldly vibe.
It is on this initial trip to northern California that Mundell forms a bond with the San Francisco-area Order of Olufunmi, especially the Reverend Ashiya Odeye and his assistant Sadie McFarlane. The the Iniversal Order Of Olufunmi is a Rastafarian church and religious order that was established in 1976. The Order, which is still active today, is livicated to the service of the Creator (JAH) through “works for the upliftment and advancement of, and service to, humanity, as shown through the works of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Empress Menen, and the teachings of Patriarch Joseph Hibbert.”
I spoke with the Reverend Ashiya Odeye about his relationship with Hugh.
“Yes we knew Hugh, myself and Sadie. Sadie was my assistant at the time and heading up the Reggae Calendar, a publication we started together through the Order Of Olufunmi. Our Order housed him while he was in the Bay Area those 7 months, and I spent much time reasoning with him at Reggae Street our headquarters where he stayed most of the time he was here. We were all very close. We did all the hands on stuff with him, like getting him to gigs, supplying equipment, etc. I had just spoken to him about coming back to the States to do a tour we had been planning the day before he was murdered. I can still feel the pain and sense of loss we all felt then.”
On October 24, 1981, Mundell performs at the first annual Reggae Sunblast, which is held at the 8,500-seat Greek Theatre. Also on the bill are Judy Mowatt, Marcia Griffiths, Joe Higgs, The Wailers Band, and Wailing Souls. This is a notable show for several reasons. It is the first live performance by The Wailers Band outside of Jamaica since the death of Bob Marley on May 11, 1981 (they played Reggae Sunsplash in August 1981). Also, it is the U.S. debut of the Wailing Souls, the much heralded vocal group from the Trench Town area of Kingston, JA.
According to Bay area radio DJ and event organizer Doug Wendt, Mundell’s performance is nearly flawless and captivates the 5,000 event attendees, despite the fact that Hugh is suffering from a severe cold.
In reviewing Mundell’s performance in the local city paper, music journalist Bruce Dancis writes the following:
“Nineteen year old Jamaican singer Hugh Mundell, backed by Ras Kidus Roots Connection, contributed a brief set that was marred by the fact that he was obviously feeling the effects of a cold. This was a disappointment, because the angelically voiced singer possesses one of the purest voices in popular music. Ironically, in Mundell’s prior Berkeley appearance this past July, his glorious vocals were impeded by poor communication with his support band; this time around, Mundell and the band were more connected, but the singer’s illness prevented him from launching into the spirited performance of which he is capable.”
It has long been rumored by fans and collectors that an audio recording exists of Mundell’s performance at the Reggae Sunblast. Unfortunately, the only audio recording of the performance that exists is a short three-minute audio clip in which the MC introduces Mundell to the crowd. The remainder of the recording is corrupted and unlistenable.
Mundell appears in the Bay area once again in December 1981 where he plays a reggae roots festival along with Wailing Souls, Raskidus, Joe Higgs & Unity, and Uprising at the Oakland Auditorium on December 11th and the Japan Center Theater on December 12th.
Stein brings Mundell back to Berkeley on May 30, 1982 for another performance. This show is also captured brilliantly with an audio recorder, and Mundell was in top form once again. Mundell does not disappoint, however, once again he is at the mercy of a mediocre local backing band who has no business sharing the stage with the young prodigy. The band’s performance is uninspired, but Hugh triumphs despite their seeming lack of skill and interest.
Mundell performs material from all three of his albums. “Lets All Unite,” “Walk With Jah,””King of Israel,” “Jah Fire Will Be Burning,” “Jah Will Provide,” “Great Tribulation,” “Are You Feeling Alright Girl?,” “Run, Come, Revolution,” “Africa Must Be Free By 1983,” “Walk With Jah Jah (reprise).” The highlight of the set is a 20-minute plus version of “Africa Must Be Free by 1983,” complete with nyabinghi drumming and dub effects. This show is clearly his best when compared with the other shows that are in circulation.
For his next album, Mundell abandons the Rockers sound and vibe altogether, choosing instead to record with producer Henry “Junjo” Lawes and the mighty Roots Radics band at Channel One. Junjo Lawes rules the sound system circuit in the early ’80s, with a huge militant sound laid down by the Roots Radics. Lawes and the Radics are on a mission: to take the popular roots reggae sound, speed it up and play it harder. No apologies. Harder. Faster. Stronger. Lawes’ incendiary sound launches a new generation of toasters straight to the top of the charts. Unfortunately, this musical shift is accompanied by a thematic change as well, as the lyrics become less serious, less impactful, and at times border on ridiculous. Many roots artists are not willing, or are not able to adapt to this revolution in sound, however, Mundell is ready, willing, and able. Over the previous two years, Mundell sharpened his toasting skills recording clever deejay tracks under the pseudonym ‘Jah Levi.’
As Jah Levi, Mundell records a string of successful singles including “False Rumour,” “Zion A Fe Lion,” “Let Jah Be Praised,” “Love and Unity,”and “Selassie I Veranda” (on which he spars with Junior Delgado). “Zion A Fe Lion” was laid down by Pablo using the Wailers band on the riddim. The tune even features Bob Marley on rhythm guitar. Pablo highlights Bob’s guitar skank in his dub mix, which has appeared under the title “Bob Shuffle Lion Dub.”
According to many reliable sources, Mundell records with Stranger Cole on a track titled “I’m Living” as Jah Levi. The single, produced by Oswald Creary for Half Moon productions, is released as a 7” single on the Half Moon label, and also appears on the Half Moon compilation double-LP titled Glory, Dominion, Majesty, Power. Although this track is co-credited to Stranger Cole and Jah Levi, it is highly unlikely that Mundell laid down vocals for the track as there is no record indicating that he ever recorded with Oswald Creary or Stranger Cole.
1982’s Mundell, which features the superb production of Lawes and solid riddim tracks by the Roots Radics, is a stellar album that still stands the test of time. “Rasta Have the Handle” and “Tell I a Lie” are Lawes at his absolute best, lighting up the backing with soulful brass solos from Felix “Deadly Headly” Bennett’s sax and Nambo Robinson’s trombone. “24 Hours a Day” features masterful guitar work by Winston “Bo-Pe” Browne. Gladstone Anderson’s masterful piano work highlights “Red Gold & Green.” This album is a classic in every sense of the word and is eclipsed only by Africa Must Be Free By 1983. Mundell is released on the Greensleeves label in the UK and on Randall Grass’s Shanachie imprint in the U.S.
Lawes feeds the sound systems with a clip of vinyl singles from the album. in 1981 he issues “Tell I A Lie”/”Jah Music” on a Jah Guidance 12. In the UK, Greensleeves issues the popular “Can’t Pop No Style” on a 12″ (GRED 054) backed with Junior Reid’s “Know Myself.” Linval Thompson issues limited copies of “Red, Gold, and Green” as a 7″ on his Thompson Sounds label.
There is no doubt that Mundell is at his best when Pablo is at the helm. Pablo’s ethereal and majestic instrumentals soar when Mundell blesses them with a vocal. And while Mundell is today considered a great reggae roots album by many, music critic and writer Vivian Goldman skewers it in the August 21, 1982 issue of New Musical Express, recasting Mundell as “Hugh Mundane.”
Throughout 1982 and 1983 Mundell continues to perform sparingly and lends his talent to several different projects. He voices the title track and “Rastafari Tradition,” and records background vocals for Augustus Pablo’s forthcoming Earth’s Rightful Ruler album. Mundell also plays percussion on Augustus Pablo’s Rockers Meets King Tubby In A Fire House (1980), Tetrack’s Let’s Get Started (1980), and the Rockers International album (1980). He also lends his vocals to Scientist Wins The World Cup (1982). At the same time, Mundell continues recording his own material with Justin Hinds at Music Mountain in Jamaica, owned by Chris and Steven Stanley and home to Tappa Zukie and The Skatalites among others. This material will eventually be released as the Arise album on the Mun Rock label.
In the spring and summer of 1983, Mundell performs on the island sound system circuit with the likes of Barrington Levy, Burro Banton, Ranking Toyan, Junior Reid, and Elfigo Barker (Volcano Hi-Fi). He also performs for Noel Harper’s Kilimanjaro Sound System with artists like Super Cat, John Wayne, Dirty Harry, Junior Reid, Madoo, Hopeton James, Puddy Roots, and Major Manzie.
In August 1983, Mundell, along with Junior Reid, represents Killamanjaro at Whitehall Avenue, Kingston. With selector Ainsley on the turntable, Mundell and Reid bless several numbers, Mundell versioning “Reasons” and Reid voicing the “Some Guys” standard.
On September 7, 1983 Mundell and Junior Reid put in an impressive performance at Cassava Piece, Constant Spring, Kingston 8. With Volcano’s supreme selector Danny Dread at the controls, Mundell and Reid spar over the “Diseases” riddim before they have a go at the “Betcha By Golly Wow” standard. The highlight of the live session, however, is when Mundell versions his classic “Great Tribulation.”
In 1988, the Shanachie record label out of Ho Ho Kus, New Jersey issued the posthumous Blackman’s Foundation album, which includes five tracks from Time and Place (1981) along with an additional four cuts from the same period. Composed primarily of tracks produced by Augustus Pablo, the riddims are solid and the track list includes a handful of Pablo’s best-loved Rockers-style arrangements.
I spoke with label chief Randall Grass about the album and how it all came together:
“My memory is a bit hazy, but as I remember, Hugh came to us through Augustus Pablo. Pablo might have even brought Hugh to our office around 1982, but I’m not sure about that. I think we were being presented with Hugh’s Time And Place album to license…and we felt it needed a couple more tracks. We retitled it because it had been out already. Hugh was kind of at his height at that point because of the success of Africa Must Be Free By 1983 a couple years earlier so he was getting bookings for shows in the U.S. and I think was staying on the West Coast for awhile. But by the time we brought out Blackman’s Foundation, the first wave of excitement for roots reggae was waning, dancehall was taking off and it sold only modestly.
Hugh called us about putting out a new album. The music was strong but we felt the market was too weak and I had to tell him that we weren’t interested. I felt bad about that. Hugh had taken me around when I first came to Kingston the year before, even bringing Yabby You to me when I remarked on how much I wanted to meet him (that resulted in us putting out Yabby’s One Heart One Love collection). In fact, when Hugh was driving me around, the other people in the car were his girlfriend and Jr. Reid, at that time an unknown. I remember Jr. Reid saying to me ‘I can sing too!’ as we rode in the back of Hugh’s car. Not long after all this we got a call from Pablo….he said ‘dem shot Mundell!’ And that’s when we heard the terrible circumstances of Hugh’s death.”