Musical History Masterclass with Dr Carlos Malcolm OD – Part 1

By Angus Taylor, in collaboration with United Reggae

Trombonist, bandleader, composer and arranger… Dr Carlos Malcolm is one of the founding fathers of Jamaican music. His band the Afro-Jamaican Rhythms, melded traditional Caribbean folk patterns to jazz and ska. He was one of the key radio musicians at the foundation of the Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation. His abilities as an arranger found their way into the film scores of not one but two James Bond films – Dr No and Thunderball. All of these elements can be heard in his ingenious ska arrangement of the theme to the popular 1960s Western TV series – Bonanza Ska. 

The product of a boarding school education, and a leading light of Jamaica’s 1950s jazz scene with a pragmatic, holistic view of musical interconnection, Dr Malcolm’s ska contributions are traditionally considered at the more refined end of the music (alongside those of rival bandleader Byron Lee). But his considerable intellect, friendships with fellow greats like Don Drummond and Ernest Ranglin, and understanding of musical theory place him uniquely among the surviving musicians of the ska era to document its musicology. 

In this two-part interview, Dr Malcolm spoke to Angus Taylor about his life and his book A Personal History of Post-War Jamaican Music. The insightful theories he shared include: the evolution of the reggae bass sound, via the mento rhumba box from Cuba; the birth of the ska rhythm; the invention of the two-handed reggae keyboard shuffle; and the jazz and blues roots of the rockstone dancehall deejaying delivery. 

Dr Malcolm expounded for a fascinating couple of hours, but this in-depth conversation doesn’t even scratch the surface of his full history. We would recommend you read his book to fill in the gaps and find out more. 

I want to ask you about your very early life in Panama. Were you exposed to local rhythms as a child?

Growing up as a child, Panama was the crossroads of the world, so to speak. Everything came through the Panama Canal. It was the contact between the Atlantic and the Pacific. We had a lot of American influence in Panama, as well as the Latin American influence from Colombia and the adjacent countries. I had a pretty rounded exposure to all sorts of music.

Your father was also a musician who was in contact with some very great singers.

He was a businessman and our family was among the exposed West Indian families in the city which we lived – the city of Colon. My father and several other businessmen used to sponsor great Afro-American artists such as Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson, Hazel Scott and several others. We used to look through the railings from our bedroom on the steps and peek at these people. After the concerts they would come to the house. I remember hearing my father had a recording of Paul Robeson doing 76 and I remember that booming voice “in 76 the sky was blue” shaking the whole house. This was his actual voice. My father was playing the recording from when he came over. I had quite an exposure. 

Photo © The Gleaner Co Ltd.

My father was also an amateur musician. He played the trombone – Dixieland trombone. He was also in the municipal orchestra of Colon and they used to store some of the instruments in our basement. I used to go down there and play with the tubular bells and the xylophone and the little percussion instruments. My father recognised that I was musically attuned that way but he never really encouraged me to be a musician professionally because “Music is just an avocation, you have to get a real job”. (laughs)

You went to school in Jamaica with some of the island’s future politicians…

There were two dormitories in our Baptist boarding school – because most of the Baptist ministers used to send their kids to Calabar. I was at school with Marcus Garvey’s son Marcus Garvey Junior, and PJ Patterson, who was Jamaica’s longest serving Prime Minister. He was a good friend of mine. And Mike Fennell who was the head of the Jamaican Olympic committee, and several people who turned out to be influential writers on West Indian history. Especially Wilmot Perkins, one of the great journalists, and John Maxwell – both of whom are deceased but were very influential in the development of Jamaica’s projection into the future.

In the book you say you were interested in American music, even then at school.

Oh yes! (laughs) As a matter of fact we were totally taken with Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five and people like that. Which is really how ska music actually started. But I remember from the dining room we used to take back the spoons and the cups and make little percussion instruments, so we were jamming in the dormitory when the Masters were not there. We used to even take the chamber pots (laughs) and make drums of them to do Louis Jordan’s “There ain’t nobody here but us chickens”! But I was very taken with the jazz, especially Count Basie.

What was it about Louis Jordan and Basie that really spoke to you at that time?

Well, mixed with the Latin American background I absorbed two conflicting rhythms. I never knew, until I was able to analyse them as a musician, what it was all about. If you divide the 4 note measure into 8 you get 8th notes, the quavers. It was reflected in the history of jazz coming on the 1st of the 3rd emphasis of the measure. Jazz is “heavy light, heavy light” and the Latin American Son music goes into an accent on the 4th and 7th of the 8th notes. The 4th and 7th in Latin American music is what is called Son music, which they say came from Kinshasa to Cuba. 12345678 12345678 as against jazz going 1234 1234 1234. 

So growing up I was very interested in the intricate parts of the music. I went past the melodies to analyse “How did this whole thing come together?” I remember my father had quite an eclectic collection of music from Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak you name it, coming through what they call the five eras of music from the middle ages, baroque, classical, romantic, modern. I used to absorb all of these musics and rhythms without actually knowing what I was listening to, until I was able to determine through musical studies what I had accumulated in my youth.

Can you tell me a bit about learning the trombone?

Well that came naturally because my father was a Dixieland trombone player. He taught me the positions on the trombone and ran me through the scales. But he always said to me “I wanted to make it part of my future but I learnt after a while that you have to know where you’re going to earn a living and exist in this world. The music in my experience is on a backburner position and I treated it as an avocation”. He did not encourage me to go further in music than to understand what it was all about. 

But there was music in me that used to wake me up at night! (laughs) My curiosities went beyond just listening to a melodic line and a bass pattern. I wanted to find out what happened in the intricate parts of it. And with him observing my curiosities in the music, he said to me “Ok, so you’re interested in music? But you have got to go beyond the trombone because the trombonist in a classical orchestra is one of 32 guys”. So he said to me “You remember Beethoven’s 5th?” I said “Yes”. He said “Ok, you’re in the trombone section. I want you to get up from the trombone section and come up to the podium and take up the stick”

He sang Beethoven’s 5th and asked “How many notes are there that I enunciate?” I said “Four?” He said “You know the guy with the stick? There are 30 guys in the orchestra. That guy with the stick has to know what each of them is doing. Some of them are counting the rest and some of them are playing the notes. But this guy has to know exactly which each of them are playing. What’s in their brain and how accurately they are taking direction. So I want you to find what a conductor does. And what he has to go through to be a successful conductor”. That’s where my delving into to the intricacies of music began.

Photo ©

Can you tell me about the history of the trombone as an instrument in Jamaica? Because the trombone doesn’t feature so strongly in the African American music or West African contemporary music of the 60s and 70s. It’s usually saxophone and trumpet with no trombone involved. Is this because of the military bands in Jamaica?

Not only the military bands. There was the Alpha Boys School. Run by the Catholic nuns. I associated the Alpha Boys School with certain New Orleans schools for wayward children. I think Louis Jordan was part of one of those schools. In Jamaica the Alpha Boys School trained 13 year olds, kids that had a problem growing up. Some of them, their parents would bring them to the school for them to be apprentices in various trades. 

The most successful programme was a musical programme.13 year olds could come and learn to play an instrument because the Alpha Boys School developed students to a certain level and became a feeder school for the military band. The Jamaican military band was world-famous and whenever someone went on vacation or retired, they were replaced by a student from the Alpha Boys School. A student who was actually playing the repertoire of the military band on a lower level but when he ascended to the seat of the military band, he was a well-trained musician. And when they left the military band to become musicians in the burgeoning recording business in Jamaica they went in there as well-trained jazz men. 

Jazz in Jamaica was very big from the 30s. As a matter of fact my father was the manager of a group called the Jazz Aristocrats who came from Panama to Jamaica to play with musicians there. I remember as a little boy travelling up and down with them. But for instrumental music and session work in Jamaica, we had an array of full sections: three trumpets, four trombones, five saxes and the wind section. My eldest brother used to take me to the Ward Theatre to see these big bands. And some of these guys actually left Jamaica and went to Europe and made quite a name for themselves. Bubbles Burrowes used to play with Duke Ellington. So these musicians, all they knew, from 13 years old, was music at a high level.

Before you became a full time musician, you spent some time as a music journalist and an interviewer yourself.

Yes, more of a photojournalist. I did quite a bit of journalism with a magazine called the West Indian Review. My beat was at the Myrtle Bank Hotel. I would go down there and establish the contact with somebody and come to interview them. I remember there was a programme by the name of Celebrity Concerts where inspiring Jamaicans were invited back to do concerts in Jamaica. I remember they brought Carmen McRae who was actually Jamaican. I got to interview Dr Don Shirley who was a genius. He had three doctorates by the time he was 26 years old. As a matter of fact part of his life story was made into a film, The Green Book. 

I interviewed him as a journalist and he was the one that changed my view of music where I actually discounted the five musical eras. Because he said “Listen to me, in all my studies I have come up with one approach to music, which is that music is just a tonal representation of social dynamics. Every one of these eras has a social dynamic to it. When you look at the baroque era it’s all flair, with apertures in music and you can see it in the structure of buildings – everything is flair. It’s just social dynamics and this is what you should look for in your music. So I’ve always had that accompanying my arranging and everything. As a matter of fact, this is why we now have what we call rap music or dancehall. They have taken away the melodic structure and we are now in an age of rhythm (laughs).

I’d like to come back to dancehall later on. You worked as a journalist but you also got involved in the live jazz scene in Kingston.

My trombone training led me on to certain radio programmes, one of which was at Radio Jamaica. I auditioned and got on a programme. I was approached by some of the leading musicians who wanted to find out where I got my musical training because obviously I was not a student of Alpha. I had studied, gone back to Panama and come back to Jamaica. With my musical training as a young arranger and trombonist and I found myself suddenly in the company of people who meant something in the jazz world.

I joined the Jamaican All Star Jazz Orchestra, this was way back in ’57 I think, helping to augment arrangements and getting all of the books of the orchestra together and rehearsals. The programme was reviewed as one of the best jazz programmes in years. I remember the trombone section was very tight and one of the members of the section who I dubbed a musical genius on the trombone, Don Drummond, he and I became quite close. And Rico Rodriguez was another member, with Rupie Anderson and myself. The four of us were dubbed The Wicked Four because we were very tight. 

My arranging abilities became quite known, with Jamaica being very into independence, this was 1958, so the Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation was put together as a showcase of Jamaican talent. Also in the pictorial arts there was a Jamaican Institute but the Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation had producers, writers and arrangers. I happened to be selected among the first cadre of creative people. I was the head arranger and producer being schooled by people like Loyd Brydon from CBC Canada because Jamaica borrowed a lot from the BBC and the CBC. This is where I learnt to do commercials and all kinds of stuff. I’ve actually started my own commercial production company with the help of Loyd Brydon, which did quite well.

You say something quite interesting in your book about Jamaica’s first recorded music, mento, having its roots in the student bands in Cuba – and the rumba box.

Now this is a theory of mine. I’m asking questions because I don’t see any more literature on it. The Son music is a Cuban rhythm. As a matter of fact salsa music is Son music! (laughs) Salsa is coming out of New York and the Puerto Rican influence with Castro coming down from the hills and taking over Cuba, most of the Cuban businesses went to Puerto Rico including the music. The music of Bauzá and people like that, that developed Afro Cuban music. Anyway, mento music has that flavour, that African flavour that was brought to the South, to Santiago. Most people don’t know that Santiago was once the capital of Cuba before Havana. 

Back in the 16th century there were Spanish groups of students that would go out into the streets and play folk music, most of them identifying with their university wearing their University shawls and other clothing of identity, to collect money to pay for the education. I think in the 1890s there was a turnover in southern Cuba that meant Jamaican and Haitian cane cutters were sent to Santiago to the plantations to bring in in the new sugar crop. They took their families seasonally to bring in the crops in Cuba but most of them never returned to Jamaica. They intermarried and remained in Santiago. But some of them took the music and the social habits from Cuba back to Jamaica. 

And they brought back with them a box that they called the rumba box. The rumba box goes all the way back to Kinshasa, Central Africa. In Cuba the rumba box, which is the finger box in Kinshasa, was made into a bass sounding instrument because they put metal tines onto it, with a hole in the box that would simulate the action of the bass. They took back this rumba box, which is known in Cuba as a marimbula. It became the basis of what we call Jamaican mento music. They would put the Jamaican sounds accompanied by this box which took on the bass impulses – just like in New Orleans they have this one string bass on top of the tub that produces the same bass impulses. But in Jamaica the rumba box which is the Cuban marimbula, which is the African finger piano magnified to that level, and the whole thing is Central African. From Kinshasa.

Do you think there is any connection between that very deep bass sound of the rumba box and the particular tone that reggae bass players liked in the 70s where an untrained musician might not even be able to identify the note because the tone is so bassy?

Yes, and the whole thing is African from the perspective of how they listen. How Africans or people of certain ancestry listen to music. We listen to music with the tympani going between the two ears but the actual organ that we listen to music with is called the diaphragm of the stomach. In Jamaica if your stomach is not vibrating it is not music. You would disregard it. I remember going in the early days to mix music in Miami, I think it was Criteria studios, Mack Emerman who owns Criteria. I used to plead with them to let the meter go into the red! They said “No. It will distort” and I said “We don’t know about distortion. We need to feel that music”. The lower decibels are the mark of music because the decibels will vibrate in the diaphragm and the top of the diaphragm is vibrating the kidneys and the kidneys are these two little organs that spew adrenaline into the bloodstream. And this is what makes people dance or throw themselves into a crowd in rap music and not feel it until the music stops. (laughs)

Let’s go back to Don Drummond. You knew him well. You say in the book that your closeness to your mothers was part of the reason why you got on. How did you meet him and what kind of person was he?

He had a far-thinking mind. I remember our houses were half an hour walk between both so we used to meet halfway. He would come to my house to practise and we would meet and stop for conversation. He had an idea about musical things that were very close to his chest. He never shared too much with me but I used to see some of the scribblings because he never worked on manuscript. He had this elementary school exercise book on which he would draw the five lines and musical notations. I don’t know if this is still in existence where the back of the book used to have a picture of Queen Elizabeth and the times tables and all this kind of stuff! 

He used to share are a lot of his ideas with me subsequent to the jazz concerts. I was asked to play the piano with a small group called the Vivian Hall All Stars. I remember we went to practise at a certain residence and we were playing Tommy Dorsey’s Song of India. It was an up-tempo piece and we only had 5 or 6 instruments playing a 14 instrument arrangement. So if 6 instruments play a 14 piece stock arrangement you’re going to get a lot of stuff that sounds like Chinese music because there is so much missing. 

And I heard him and Vivian Hall playing in perfect thirds. So I said to myself “How can a trombone and a trumpet play in perfect thirds in a 14 piece arrangement?” And I was very curious about that, so when we broke I got up from the piano and went around to the bandstand where the instruments were playing. I saw the second trumpet part being played by the trombone! And this was a rapid up-tempo thing and I’m saying to myself “What? This guy is playing transposing one tone up” – because the trumpet plays one tone above the concert key and the concert key is being played by the trombone. So he is transposing and also playing outside of the comfort zone of a trombone – he is playing in the treble! So it really takes a good embouchure to stay up there. 

So he was doing all three things – playing with rapidity, playing out of his comfort zone and transposing! (laughs) I said “This is impossible” to myself, and my thought followed “When we start up again you’re going to hear some more of it!” This guy was playing like a like a translator in the United Nations that will translate French to English or German to Russian. Just the rapidity and the smoothness with which he worked – this guy was a genius.

Was there any truth to what several people in the business have said about Drummond that he could read music upside-down?

I don’t know where they got that from but he is not of that ilk, so to speak. He was quite a low key person that answered questions and didn’t ask them! (laughs)

Can you tell me more about your work at JBC? You worked with the great Jamaican performance poet, Miss Lou, Ernest Ranglin and a lot of important people in the history of Jamaican music and culture…

Like I said, I was among the first cadre of great people that JBC put together to develop this this showcase to show the world what we were worth in the arts. With the help of Loyd Brydon from CBC – he kind of mentored me and Sonny Bradshaw in radio and what it takes to put programmes together. Coming out using the stopwatch as a surgeon’s scalpel! (laughs) Coming out at 29 minutes and 15 seconds with a 45 second commercial going up to the hour. He drilled us in this and anybody that came up through the Variety department would pass through us when it came to writing music for programmes and things like that. 

Sonny Bradshaw was eventually put in touch with the Teenage Dance Party and the pop music side of it. I was part of the committee that organised the Jamaican Hit Parade through which came many artists that went to England. The early ones like Jimmy Cliff and Owen Grey and people like that. And I remember the morning he asked me to the Lou and Ranny show to see Miss Lou, who I was meeting for the first time. 

As the show progressed, she showed me what professionalism was. We’d be chatting in the corridors or in the cafeteria and when Loyd came push the door to say “Time’s up” she became a new person when she went into the studio. Just by her demeanour she could put the whole studio into a professional approach to their work. She and I developed quite a rapport to the extent where she said she was writing a book and wanted me to do the musical illustrations. But the time constraints of the both our schedules did not allow for much of that.

What about your experiences with Ernest Ranglin?

(laughs) Another genius. Oh boy. Ernie was part of the studio orchestra and I remember with things like the Jamaican Hit Parade, the sound system owners who owned most of the early artists would make discs and play them only at their own affairs. So it was difficult with them, becoming a board to let the Jamaican Hit Parade develop. I remember the first programme was mostly US artists and what was on the Dick Clark hit parade, American Bandstand. It was sort of duplicated in Jamaica on the Jamaican Hit Parade. 

And I remember Ernest Ranglin doing an arrangement that I did for the theme for A Summer Place which was number 2 on the Hit Parade then. The stuff that I wrote for Ernest, I usually say he would take the music that I was scored and “Ranglinised” it! (laughs) He said “Oh this is what he meant but he could have done this too” and he would have flurries of stuff around it. I would sometimes go to the bathroom and sit down and say “Why didn’t I think of that?” He was and he still is a marvellous musician. I think that he was like how they would speak of Mozart. He would just hear something and memorise it and the next time it came out to you, it came out with stuff added that you’d scratch your head to wonder why you didn’t go in that direction.

Can you also tell me a bit about Aubrey Adams? In the book and you talk about his very important place in reggae music.

Aubrey used to live in Denham Town. Him and Rupert Anderson, the fourth trombonist whose name I mentioned earlier. I used to have jam sessions all the time with members of the military band. Coming down to my house to jam after playing Verde and whatever it is that they were rehearsing to play at Hope Gardens on Sunday. Hope Gardens in the promenade of the gardens every Sunday evening where they used to play some classics. And Aubrey used to come across to jam with us. He played for years in the nightclubs of Panama so his musical style had rich chords from playing Latin American-style piano, especially the cha-cha was the big thing at that point in time. He used to play the jazz arrangements while we were jamming, and then he would go into a Latin style, a conflagration of notes where you would say “Where did that come from?” 

Aubrey Adams recorded with a few producers when we were going from rocksteady to reggae. He started with the ska but became more prominent when he would introduce the ska piano accompaniment into reggae, which was playing on an organ using the lower and upper keyboards. He would play left right right left right right left right right left right and just like the ska music, the one left hand to two right hands. When he introduced that to reggae music it fit like a glove and everybody suddenly fell in love with this accompaniment. He had actually invented what we call “bubbling”. Aubrey Addams introduced bubbling to reggae music. This was my observation and I refer to this in the book.

By Angus Taylor, in collaboration with United Reggae