A second serving of Ras Michael

Observer senior writer

Sunday, January 28, 2018

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AS principal of Talent Corporation, Tommy Cowan had reggae's elite artistes on his roster during the 1970s. For all that prowess, one act made a profound and lasting impression on him — Ras Michael and The Sons of Negus.

“I heard the playing of a Nyahbinghi session around 1974 and was mesmerised by it. I thought I was in a church in a different time and maybe in a different country because the music was so 'churchical',” Cowan told the Jamaica Observer. “The drumming, which I'd never heard in church, accompanied by the drawing vocals following a lead voice along with the repeater drums which interpreted the message of the songs. It was a church service of a different kind, but very captivating,” he added.

Cowan reached out to the group and recorded three outstanding albums with them. On Friday, VP Records/Greensleeves Records released None A Jah Jah Children, a two-CD composite of that work.

The multi-song set contains the title track, Birds In The Tree Top, Truths And Rights, and New Name. Also included are four bonus vocal songs and four remastered dub versions.

None A Jah Jah Childrencaptures Ras Michael and his group at their creative and spiritual peak. A former member of harmony group, The Jamaicans, Cowan moved into management and production after his career as an artiste cooled, working with acts like The Wailers, Dennis Brown and Inner Circle.

After hearing Ras Michael and The Sons of Negus' impromptu jam, he knew they were special.

“Being brought up in church, I loved this and thought to myself, 'maybe this is my calling to record this music', and so I went to see Ras Michael at his home where he laid out his drums and a set of clay pots, filling them with different levels of water and began to play on them with sticks,” Cowan recalled. “With a bit of apprehension I invited him to come to the studios and record an album in this raw state, and after listening back, all I could do was to name the album Nyahbinghi.”

Released in 1974, Nyahbinghi's raw sound did not go over well with the mainstream. Cowan's next move was to re-record the songs with top session musicians, including Robbie Shakespeare on bass, guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith, keyboardist Robbie Lyn, and Peter Tosh, who played guitar on several songs.

“The album entitled Rastafari became well known and, of course, the cover, which is a portrait of young Haile Selassie, was quite an attraction as many had never seen him at that age. So I got Neville Garrick, the graphic artiste of the day, and together we did the album jacket cover,” Cowan explained.

The next album he and Ras Michael and The Sons of Negus did was Kibir Am Lak, released in 1977.

“I took Ras Michael and that entire group to England, one of the biggest investment I'd ever made, and the few shows we had blew the audiences away,” Cowan recalled.

Born Michael Henry in St Mary, Ras Michael was introduced to Rastafari and Nyahbinghi drumming while living in West Kingston during the late 1950s. A regular at Rasta elder Mortimo Planno's 'Groundations' in Trench Town in the 1960s, he assembled a corps of like-minded drummers that developed a reputation in Rasta circles.

Rastafari and Kibir Am Lak helped establish Ras Michael and The Sons of Negus in Europe and the United States West Coast. Now 74, Ras Michael lives in Los Angeles. He was invested with the Order of Distinction by the Jamaican Government in 2015.

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