‘Theremin in Dub’
The package came to me with a return address of:
50 Nicolayevska Street, Suite 728
Write or call for a free catalog
‘Budapest,Czechoslovakia? I thought Budapest was in Hungary?’ I think to myself. What have they taught me in these institutions? Like Bob said when asked about his level of education “I don’t have education, I have inspiration. If I were educated I’d be a damn fool.”
Now, the fact that I received a package from a record company is nothing new. As a writer and reviewer of reggae music I receive stuff from small labels all the time. However, I have never heard of a label called Tsosume (So-sue-me), somehow I doubt there is an upstart reggae label operating out of Budapest, and there is no phone number to call for a free catalog. Besides, do labels still mail out free catalogs of their music?
I open the package and find two things, both of which catch me completely off-guard. The first: a DVD titled “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (1993).” The second: a CD titled “Theremin in Dub.” I turn to the back cover of the disc and there is my good friend Doctor Dread in a slick suit, fedora, and shades seemingly conducting some sort of orchestra. For those who are not aware of who Doctor Dread is, you have probably not been listening to reggae for the last 25 years. Since the CD is sealed I decide to throw in the DVD to see what this is all about.
Lev Thermen was a Russian inventor most famous for his invention of the theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments, and the first to be mass produced. He isalso the inventor of interlace, a technique of improving the picture quality of a video signal, widely used in video and television technology. His invention of “The Thing”, an espionage tool, is considered a predecessor of RFID technology.
While adapting a dielectric device by adding circuitry to generate an audio tone, Theremin noticed the pitch changed when his hand moved around the instrument. In October 1920he first demonstrated this for professors and students at university. Theremin recalled trying to find the notes for tunes he remembered from when he played the cello. By November 1920 Theremin had given his first public concert with the instrument, now modified with a horizontal volume antenna replacing the earlier foot-operated volume control.
I couldn’t wait to hear what was on that CD. Is it possible that Doctor Dread mixed some of Theremin’s playing with modern dub reggae songs? Upon investigating the Theremin instrument, I discovered that the RCA Corporation who owned the patent for the purpose of manufacturing had only manufactured some 500 of these instruments back in the 1920s. There’s no way that Doctor Dread found a Theremin, spent time learning to play the instrument, and then recorded a dub album using the Theremin. Right?
The phone rings. I pick up to hear an operator say “Hello, a Doctor Dread calling from Budapest. Do you accept?” Of course, I couldn’t wait to find out what he’s been up to. “Sure” I reply.
“Mike, how’s the family” I hear Doc ask on the other end. He’s such a great spirit and such a family guy. He always asks about the family, especially my 7 year old who is captivated by his mad genius style and vibe.
“Good, good. What are you up to?” I reply.
“Did you receive the package I sent?” he asks.
“Yes, what is this all about?” I had to know.
“Listen, I want for you to listen to the CD and watch the DVD and just enjoy yourself. I know you love these songs. I’ve always been fascinated with the Theremin since I first heard it in The Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations.’ I thought it was a moog synthesizer but it’s actually a Theremin that Brian Wilson is playing. After researching it for some time I found out that this instrument is the only instrument that you play without touching. I purchased the finest 1920s Theremin in existence.”
As the great Scotty sang in that old reggae tune “Draw Your Brakes!”
Did he just say that the Theremin is the only instrument played without touching? In fact, that is exactly what the Theremin is. At the risk of overstating this, using the Theremin as a way to accent music has the potential of revolutionizing dub and similar genres like spa, atmosphere, chill, electronica. etc. From what I understand based on the film and some independent research, the Theremin is essentially a vehicle that converts the player’s electrical vibration into a sound wave, or musical vibration. So theoretically we are talking about an artist sending a vibe directly to the listener, or in this case with the dub album, enhancing existing tracks with a new and unique vibration. The artist no longer has to translate what they are feeling through a mechanical instrument with the Theremin because it is all done electrically, without interference from the mechanism. This is huge.
Imagine if the true masters of dub in our time, King Tubby, Lee Perry, Jammy, had access to this instrument and could directly transfer to tape what they were hearing in their head, without the limitations placed on them by the mechanical world in which we live. Dubologists, mixologists, and the like will now know that it is a possibility to transfer the sounds in your head directly to tape. The implications for it’s effect on the future of music is only limited to access to the Theremin, since there are so few.
“So based on my experience with dub music in producing it, mixing it, and just digging it, I could hear the Theremin filling in these spaces here and there. I thought it would be a perfect complement. So I took some existing dub tracks and added in the Theremin just playing by feel because I am not a trained musician and that’s how I came with the sound of Theremin In Dub. I played it from the heart. You know my son was really into hand drumming. He was about 5 or 7 years old and I was going to get him some lessons and he told me not to because he plays from the heart. I told this to the famous Jamaican drummer Harry T and he said my son is right, he has the right vibe because when its good it comes directly from the heart. I always remembered that and that’s how I pursued this. Leon Theremin intended for this to be played by feel and that’s what I did. If it sounded good and the vibe was right I kept it. If it didn’t quite work I threw it out. My inspiration for the sound I was seeking comes directly from the great King Tubby who used different outboard gear in the studio to fill in the spaces between sounds and that’s what I tried to do here in placing the Theremin sounds.”
“So did you do this all on your own or did you have others helping you put this all together?” I ask.
“I had a lot of great help from Mike Caplan and Jim Fox over at Lion and Fox Recording Studios. You know well how good those guys are at what they do and they really helped make this happen. Also, the person who runs RCA Theremin is a guy named Andrew Barron who I consider a true genius. He and I became good friends through my interest in the Theremin. He wrote the liner notes for the CD. He is also the greatest pop-up book engineer in the world. If you open up the CD case you will see a pop-up of Leon Theremin playing the instrument. He really helped me out in so many ways and the pop-up for each CD case is something really neat and unique. Every pop-up has to be glued by hand. I worked with Nina Palmer who I’ve worked with for 30 years on album covers and she is really great. Also, Bob Dylan’s people are great too because they allowed me to create a dub version of a Dylan track for the reggae tribute album I produced. That dub track is also featured on ‘Theremin In Dub.’ It features Sly and Robbie, and Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits, and Mick Taylor from the Rolling Stones, and it’s all in good fun. We made a video for the track that will soon come. My head spins off my body and up into the clouds. Great fun. Also my good friend Neil the Mad professor really helped me out. Dubenstein was amazing. I only pressed 1000 copies. It’s not a money thing, just something I’ve been feeling for quite a while.”
And as quick as he rang in, he had to go. Probably on to the next brilliant Doctor Dread project promoting the Jamaican music and culture he has spent his entire life paying tribute to.
So I go down to the basement, throw in the CD, and marvel over this Andrew Barron pop-up of old Leon playing his Theremin.
Be sure to visit Doctor Dread’s website HERE for more information on upcoming products and ventures!