Musical History Masterclass with Dr Carlos Malcolm OD – Part 2

By Angus Taylor in collaboration with United Reggae

In part 2 of this historical interview with
Dr Carlos Malcolm, he explains his theories on the genesis of ska, of the deejaying phenomenon and the unlikely roots of the rockstone dancehall vocal delivery of the 80s and 90s. He also recalls his unfortunate experiences working on the music for the James Bond film Dr No and also seeing a pre-fame Bob Marley perform…

Another very interesting thing you say in the book is about the birth of ska…

What became ska is created within the template of the New Orleans blues. 8 and 12 bar template. It is an adaptation that unless you are schooled in the American heavy light, heavy light which is taken for granted by all American jazz musicians. The early Jamaican blues records – a certain element of the population was very familiar with, because of the American influence in Jamaica. The music from New Orleans and Florida used to be in the “sport houses” they called them, the brothels of downtown because of when the ships would come in for R&R in Kingston. So that the 8 and 12 bar blues was still prominent after the Americans, after the war. 

So the electronic entrepreneurs took the booming bass out of the jukeboxes to the people, and they tried eventually to get Jamaican musicians to reproduce the American records’ sounds in local studios. But they were not too familiar with the blues templates so a lot of the musicians would lose their way during solos and instead of re-recording -recording time was so valuable and money was so short – they would still put out these recordings that were defective in musical structure. 

And when they were played at dances and the producers and the deejays knew that these defects in the recordings were coming up, you would hear a deejay come and say something funny to cover that aspect of the recording. And that’s how they got by with these recordings. When they were played at dances, which were usually chock full of people that had worked all week and their Friday and Saturday nights were spent dancing – these people would fill the halls and the promoters would disguise the defects of the recordings by having the deejays work out where the defect was and get in and do these vocalisations, usually improvised stuff.

That’s very interesting in terms of the development of the deejay in Jamaica but I remember you said that singers auditioning for talent shows would make a punctuating sound with their voices that created the ska chop in rhythm and blues…

Oh! Exactly. There was a set of programmes produced by Vere Johns who was very instrumental in the development of Jamaican music yet very few people touch on. But he had these programmes held mostly in open-air Jamaican theatres during the week. I guess the owners of the theatres were ok on the weekends – Friday, Saturday and Sunday. But Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday they wanted to keep the theatres full so they had these amateur night programmes. I happened to be one of the people who would audition people who were supposed to be creating original songs for the programmes. 

Photo © Malcolm Family. Dr Malcolm with Freddie McGregor.

In my auditioning them, they would come with a full song including the solo of an instrument. They had a full production. They would come with “Um-Cha Um-Cha Um-Cha, I Loved The Girl And The Girl Loved Me, Um-Cha Um-Cha Um-Cha” and in between the lines they would go Um-Cha Um-Cha Um-Cha, to get from line A to line B to keep the rhythm going and so I could keep a count of where the story was going. And that’s the first time I heard the Um-Cha Um-Cha Um-Cha, which is what the piano did on stage that night because there was no guitar until you got to the studio. But that is my first indication of ska music.

In the book you talk about Charlie Babcock and his influence on the deejays but you also talk about Louis Armstrong and his influence on what they later call the rockstone deejay style in dancehall…

My impression as to how we got to the voice of Buju Banton so to speak, came from a little fellow named Dixon. Louis Armstrong came to Jamaica and made an impression and lasting influence with his sort of guttural renditions. When he left Jamaica everybody was singing like Satchmo. And that lasted probably a year and then along came Fats Domino. And Domino really took the cake. Everybody cottoned to Domino and his stylings. And this little fellow took Satchmo’s voice and put it on some of Domino’s songs. And he went on Vere Johns programme with a tune called Blueberry Hill he tore the place down and he developed a little following that would go with him wherever he sang. 

They would take up the front row seats of the theatre right down against the apron of the stage. After he got the tone of the music from the piano he would go “I found my…” a cappella. But the moment that he said the next line the chords would come and the guys in the front would jump up out of their seats and shout “You hear him? You hear him?” (laughs) They were so excited and when he sang the rest of the song in the Satchmo vocal guttural tone, the place would tear down. And that went by the way until the deejays started to imitate that. People like U Roy and eventually coming down to Buju Banton like that.

You saw Mongo Santamaria play in New York and were inspired to start the Afro Jamaican rhythms – a project that would bring the different elements of your musical upbringing together.

Well, this was way back when I was working doing a score of a Jamaican pantomime. A pantomime is a musical really, with folklore. I was writing original music and I got a grant to go to New York. I saw quite a few New York plays within a week. One of them was My Fair Lady and I met Michael Allinson who had just taken over from Rex Harrison and then my brother took me down into the Village – the Village Vanguard I think it was – to hear Mongo Santamaria. 

We were introduced to some of his management and we started talking about music… about the music of Bauzá who was the father of Afro-Cuban music, and Perez Prado who followed him and the whole musical developments in Cuba. Just sitting and listening to them and asking little questions I developed a burning desire to go back to Jamaica to write Afro-Jamaican music. And this is where the fire in my belly sort of produced taking Jamaican folklore music, introducing jazz cadences into it, using the rhythm of the streets and the melodic patterns so kids can sing it, jazz people can appreciate the cadences. This was the formula that I used for most of the everyday book of my band.

And how did you start putting the band together?

After my work with the Jamaican pantomime, I scored all this music and I looked around and I said to myself “My training comes from a perspective of… you’ve got to have musicians to play your work. There’s no way you can get someone off the streets who loves to play music, rehearse for a whole day on one piece, trying to absorb it mentally”. All my music was scored and I was living about an 8-minute walk from the rehearsal room of the military band so one day I saw the sergeant. After explaining what I was doing he said “I can supply the guys because these guys read music like a newspaper”. 

And he put together my first band for the pantomime which I directed. All I had to do was write my arrangements and make sure the accidentals are in the right place, put them down in front of those guys selected from the military band and count four. And the guys in my band like Cannonball Bryan, Winston Turner and Sparrow Martin were guys who read music like it was part of them, so I had no problems. My rehearsals ran very smoothly with the exception of certain people who came into the band with a lot of talent and were asking questions. I would always offer answers and help them develop their talent.

One person I wanted to ask you about in particular is Boris Gardiner. Because not only did you help him in becoming who he is today but I can see some parallels in how he has approached his career since. He has approached a wide variety of music, made advertising jingles, he became an arranger, he even played some funk which you did as well…

(laughs) Yeah! It’s just leading by example. I didn’t have to usher Boris into anything. I answered Boris’ questions. And one day he turned up with an arrangement. He would ask me little questions and I would answer them like “Why does the alto play in a different key from the tenor?” and stuff like that. And I used to introduce him to Grand Staff to show him that music was a composite thing and all instruments had their sequestered area of the Grand Staff. And Boris turned up with an arrangement! I remember we were at the Cat And Fiddle club in Nassau and I looked at the arrangement and said “Where’s the master score? There’s no master score?” He said “What?” “You mean you put all these things together without a master score?” That’s when I realised that Boris was an arranger. He could mentally compartmentalise each of his instruments. And let them work in harmony.

Can you tell me about how you came up with Bonanza Ska?

Bonanza Ska! I think it came by my guitarist Trevor Lopez. Bonanza was a big thing then. Right before we went to work the band started at 9 and at 8 Bonanza came on. Trevor said to me one day “You know Carlos I hear that a rival band are going to do an arrangement of Bonanza. Everybody loves Bonanza – why don’t you do an arrangement of it? Because somebody is going to do it and get there before you!” I took his words quite seriously and I went away and at some point somebody came and asked me about the tune. 

I would retire to… I would usually write a lot of my music in the john! (laughs) I would be missing for a few minutes and would come back with a sketch. No harmonies, just a melodic line with the harmonic accompaniment because the guys all read. And I would just put it down on the stand and especially if it was something in the ska genre I’d count 1-2-3 and then we go into the music. These guys reading music for the first time, most of them didn’t like it because they would say “I’d like to see what I’m reading you know?” To check and make sure the notes are right. 

But I think I was given the gift of putting the right notes in the right places. (laughs) I remember doing a sketch of Bonanza Ska and putting it down on the bandstand and counting four and they went right down and got a great reaction from the audience. So it wasn’t three days before I was in the studio with a full-blown arrangement. And it just took off by itself. It had wings of its own from then on.

You had a cautionary experience creating the music for the film Dr No…

(laughs) Sure! No it was a teaching. A life teaching. Because it got me into copyright to the point where I conferred upon myself a PHD! (laughs) After really studying what a copyright does and what it can do. A lot of copyrighting has been ripped off from people who created these musical pieces. And the people who marketed these forms are the ones who come up periodically for the royalties. 

Photo © Malcolm Family pictures.  Dr Malcolm tutoring his granddaughter in music.

When Dr No came to Jamaica I read about it in the papers, that this company was here and they were going to shoot this movie. I think there was another American movie that came right after, In Like Flint. But about 2 weeks after it was announced in the paper that they were there I was summoned to a meeting at the Courtleigh Manor Hotel to meet with the musical director of Dr No, Monty Norman. I went to the bar at 5 and there were a few more people at the bar. At the end of the bar there was this guy and he came across and said “Are you Carlos Malcolm?” and I said “Yes”. “I am Monty Norman”. 

We started talking music and he reached into the pocket of his shirt and came out with a little blue wire-bound book and he said to me “What do you think of this?” So I took the book from him and I looked at the notation and I’m saying to myself “Why is he doing this? Obviously he’s wondering if I am giving him any of the answers that he has been getting all week. Looking for people who understand music for what he wanted to do.” So I’m looking at the notation and I saw the flatted fifths and whatnot and I said “Ah this is interesting”. And he had a bassline (sings James Bond theme) and I’m saying to myself “But this bassline, I think Henry Mancini has been there before! It’s the Peter Gunn bassline”. So I said “Isn’t this the Peter Gunn bassline?” And he looks off into the distance and he says “It won’t work huh?” And I said “You can’t get away with this”. (laughs) I did not know that I was actually looking at the James Bond theme. Which ever since has created so much royalties coming out of it. 

Anyway we did quite a bit of work together. He told me that the producers of Dr No were interested in in creating Caribbean original background music that would dovetail with the daily swatches but he didn’t have time to show me the swatches personally. What he would do is to give me the original version so I could do the music. So what I was actually getting was 17 seconds, 23 seconds, 15 seconds of music where a spider was crawling up James Bond and we are writing the music for the execution or the nightclub scenes. I would go to the actual filming and then I take my metronome with me and record the tempo and then go back into the studio and create a recording of original music so to speak, without the extraneous noises that you’d get at the nightclub shooting. Beer bottles and people chatting in the background. I developed 53 sheets of music for the various scenes. 

I remember one Tuesday night, I would usually take Tuesday nights off and meet a few people for T-bone steaks and beer. He was at one such party and taking him back to Morgan’s Harbour where he was staying, he borrowed my scores saying “We have some changes of scenery and I’ll mark it on the scores for you”. So I took him home at 2 and came back at 7:30 to go to the studio. I waited in the parking lot for a while and I walked into his room and I saw girls cleaning out the place. And I said “What happened to the occupant of the room?” They said “He left” so I went to the front desk and I heard that he was on the BOAC to London from 4. 

Right then my stomach fell out! And my bowels took over. (laughs) They say your first feeling comes from your bowels not your heart. I didn’t know what to do. I was in a daze for a couple of hours. Then I called my friend and my lawyers and they took over for me. Told me to get lost. So I went down into the country to Westmoreland and spent a couple of days down there. They said “We will call you when we’re ready”. They shut down all the movement of Dr No equipment in Jamaica. I think they were renting from Miami. Everything was staying at the wharf and they couldn’t find me for a couple of days. 

Then they sent for me. I remember walking into the office of the lawyers and this big fat guy my comes into the office with big chequebook sticking out of his is jacket. I think he was Saltzman and he said “Is this the fellow?” Because they had been looking for me. He said “How much do you need?” And my representation was there also so he drew this cheque and he stopped at the door. But I did not know that my lawyer was inexperienced and I happened to have signed a general release, not knowing what it was at the time. My lawyer at the time had a case in the Bahamas and he could not be there, so he sent a junior. And he said “Get the guys paid and we’ll take care of the rest because I can take care of it from you getting off the musicians”. Because I had to pay for the sessions that we recorded. And when he saw the general release he said “Good grief – there’s nothing I can do”. 

And we followed the movie, translated into so many languages within six months and I could not see that movie for a while. It took me almost a year because I knew that I sat down in Kingston harbour and wrote certain notes that I’m hearing the philharmonic orchestra in London playing. (laughs) But then after a while I decided to really school myself on copyrights because I was being paid services rendered and not as a composer.

You also contributed a song to the film Thunderball only to find that somebody else stole a portion of your arrangement…

Well they didn’t actually steal it! When my band played at the Cat And Fiddle, If I Had The Wings Of A Dove was a big opener and when we recorded it, I took a ditty of 10 measures and expanded it by putting a bridge into it. I composed the middle of that tune and the harmony and everything. And people who know If I Had The Wings Of A Dove will assume that that part came with it. Everybody started recording it. I didn’t want to make any noise on it, because it was so popular that I let it go. Because I celebrate Jamaican folklore at least getting internationally accepted. And up to now I haven’t done anything. I let it go. In the book I displayed my copyrights. So that is still open (laughs) as well as a lot of stuff that’s been appropriated. But I haven’t taken any legal action on a whole lot of stuff.

You saw Bob Marley perform right at the beginning of his career.

Oh yes. He used to come down to audition with the Wailers having been instructed by Joe Higgs…

Who you also knew at the beginning of his career…

He used to work with me. Joe Higgs I knew for years and I think he was the one who got that whole thing together. Higgs and Wilson who were the first Jamaican artists to produce stuff for Jamaican recording that matched the international standards, called Manny Oh. He worked with me for a while and he used to sit down at the back of the theatre where we were conducting the rehearsals for the Jamaican Hit Parade. We started rehearsing at 4 and at 7:30 was the show. Higgs, after he would rehearse his number he would sit down at the back of the theatre and watch.

So after I left JBC my band used to play at the Bournemouth Club and kids from schools all over used to come down for a show called Talent Parade. There were all these groups called the Jamaicans and School Kids who would put together what they were rehearsing – and Bob Marley and the Wailers were one of them. And I could see that he was… he was outstanding… not precocious but you could see that he understood what he was doing. I remember little kids who were waiting on their turn would come to the bandstand and as I finished with one artist they’d run down and shout the name of the next artist and then they’d be downstairs playing football with an orange in the gravel. And I remember them running down and saying “Wailers”! 

I remember him coming up with one of his trouser legs rolled up and they would rehearse. Never did much, never won anything. Joe Higgs was the one who won a few nights. But everybody was there auditioning on Wednesday nights we’d offer first, second and third prize. The first prize was a contract with a certain recording company that I don’t want to mention because I suspected what they were doing and after a while I desisted from sending anybody to them.

I was in the audience when you received your JARIA award in 2017 and I heard your speech. Since that time you have been honoured by the Jamaican government with the Order Of Distinction…

JARIA contacted me and I was in California then. I’m in Florida now. I move up and down between my two daughters. I gave a talk at the Institute of Jamaica that morning and JARIA was in the evening. I accepted the award and I told them that that music has been my mistress for such a long time and that I’ve been sort of abused by the talent that was given to me! And at the end I… not cautioned but offered advice to creative people that when you go into a studio you should make friends with Lady Music because she will reflect exactly what’s on your mind. And you have to make sure that that you are honest with her because it will reflect on you for the rest of your life. So good stuff in, good stuff out. Garbage in, garbage out. And these things will last a lifetime. At least for your life. That’s what recording does. But there are so many people that take it for granted and suffer the consequences. 

My Order of Distinction came to me while I was in in California also. They were inviting me to come in October two years ago. But at that point in time I’m there were hurricanes in Florida and I had to come and take care of my house. I couldn’t make it. So that is still left over for my personal appearance to receive the honour from the government. Hopefully this year I’ll make it. But the honour was bestowed and I have the documentation.

What are you working on at the moment?

We have a new programme called the Afro-Jamaican programme which I’m working on with a few people. We are at the very beginning. I just got the African rhythms from Ghana. One of my partners, the vice president of the African Jamaican project, his name is Mike Jarrett, he is actually the editor of my book. We’re using African rhythms with all the genres of Jamaican music – ska, rocksteady, reggae and dancehall and carrying them to the symphonic level. 

I’m working on trying to carry the music, to document my own music to the level where it can be memorialised with the passage of time. Just like the music of what we know as the Masters like Beethoven and Handel. Everybody loves Handel’s The Messiah, the Hallelujah Chorus or even Elgar’s Pomp And Circumstance. Most high schools in this country re-use it for procession. 

If the music is not memorialised it will die with you and your generation. Because in the life of a composer, if his works are not properly written down for the future, when the composer dies and his generation dies there is no written music that others can play. The whole thing dies within the generation. We can listen to the music of Bach, Beethoven, Dvorak, they are all documented on manuscript for centuries. In our digital age there is very little of that. I know that it’s happening with certain people and certain works but I know that our folk music is very seldom written down in such a manner.

By Angus Taylor in collaboration with United Reggae