Many musicians are given the sobriquet “legends”. Very few deserve it quite as much as roots reggae’s enigmatic Abyssinians. Formed in 1968, the group reunited in 2004 and have been touring the worlds stages, defying their years ever since.
Launching themselves on Jamaica and the wider world via Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One with their first single release Satta Massagana, they’ve influenced artists as diverse as Bob Marley, Damon Albarn, The Clash and Bruce Springsteen.
“Satta Massagana for Jimmy Dread, chopped off his ears and cut off his head, police come looking for Jimmy Jazz”, sang Strummer on their sprawling album, London Calling, paying tribute to one of his heroes.
The song remains their best known work, having been “versioned”, sampled and covered by countless reggae and other musicians.
The song (which means “give thanks” in the Ethiopian language of Amharic) is something of a call to arms and has became an anthem. Founder member Donald Manning’s Rastafarian beliefs drove the band’s early direction and this is reflected in the use of Amharic which was again, something of a clarion-call to awakening Jamaican youth, who embraced Haile Selassie’s teachings following his visit to the island in 1966.
The band’s tight, close harmonies are distinctive; the use of minor chord structures in harmony groups was (and is) an unusual sound. The use of this tonal system throughout The Abyssinian work leaves an element of the Far Eastern exotic amongst the more typical Jamaican flavours.
Donald Manning’s masterpiece “African Race” is one of defining compositions of the album and of the group’s career. After a seductively beautiful acoustic guitar solo by Mikey Chung, the song erupts into a chilling roots anthem.
From the early to mid-70s, the Abyssinians recorded sparingly, but the quality of the group’s work was remarkable. Bernard Collins returned to Studio One in 1970 (without the Manning brothers) to record “Declaration of Rights” with George Henry and Leroy Sibbles singing backing vocals. The recording featured an essential arrangement and organ melody by Jackie Mittoo and rhythm by Leroy Sibbles on bass and Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace on drums. Notably, the song was one of Bob Marley’s favourites, and a lyrical influence can be heard on The Wailers’ well-known “Get Up, Stand Up” recorded in 1973.
Signing with Virgin offshoot, Tuff Gong in 1978 saw the group join the glut of reggae/roots artists released as punk withered and Jamaican music went mainstream.
Arise established them worldwide, although internal bickering saw the group splinter shortly afterwards.
Currently comprising David Morrison, Bernard Collins and Donald Manning, the Abyssinian’s play Glasgow’s ABC on May 16th. If you’re a fan of classic roots reggae, don’t miss it. Buy tickets here.