Birth of an anthem

Birth of an anthem

Observer senior writer

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

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The Jamaica Observer continues its 'Reggae 50' feature on people, organisations, and events that have made an impact on reggae over the past 50 years.

Though long considered reggae's anthem, Satta Massa Gana by The Abyssinans has never enjoyed the acclaim of One Love, the music's official standard-bearer. With roots steeped in inner-city Trench Town, home of roots-reggae, it was recorded in 1969, 50 years ago.

Satta Massa Gana was first done as Far, Far Land by the roots trio in 1969 at producer Clement Dodd's Studio One. Because Dodd believed it would never be a commercial success, the song was never released until two years later when The Abyssinians put it out on their Clinch label.

Its vision of Utopia for black people had a bearing on many Jamaican youth, who embraced the Rastafarian movement sweeping their country at the time.

Written by Bernard Collins and Donald Manning, Satta Massa Gana featured Leroy Sibbles on bass, Fil Callender on drums, Headley Bennett playing saxophone and Vin Gordon on trombone.

It is one of the most covered songs in reggae, and has been sampled by many contemporary producers.

Manning first met Collins in the early 1960s in Trench Town, then an expanse of shacks. Born in 1940, Manning was a groom at the racetrack while Collins, eight years his junior, was an amateur cyclist who competed at Race Course (now National Heroes' Park).

In the liner notes to Satta Massagana, the 1993 Heartbeat Records album, Manning said he and Collins were introduced by a mutual friend. He recalled that they shared an interest in spirituality and music, and attended many Rasta meetings in Trench Town and Rockfort, listening to elders like Mortimo Planno and Count Ossie.

At the time, Manning and his three brothers were regulars at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Through friends in Ethiopia, Manning studied books on that country's culture and Amharic language, the base of the song that would make him famous.

“One night I start play my guitar and I hear Bernard sing, 'there is a land, far, far away'. I start sing with him too, I ran up to my house and got a pen and wrote the words to the song and Satta Massa Gana (Amharic for 'give thanks') came about that same night,” Manning told Heartbeat's Chris Wilson.

With song written, Manning and Collins sought a third member for the group they called The Abyssinians. Their first choice was another Trench Town resident, a student, but because of studies he was unable to attend rehearsals; Manning then enlisted his younger brother Lynford and The Abyssinians was complete.

Lynford Manning was no stranger to success. He was a former member of Carlton and The Shoes, a group headed by another Manning brother, Carlton. They had a massive hit at Studio One with Love Me Forever in 1968.

In 1997, Collins told the Jamaica Observer that the trio went to Studio One where they paid for studio time and recorded Far, Far Land, the original version of Satta Massa Gana.

“It neva mek no headway until wi version the song in 1970-71 and mi gi it name Satta Massa Gana...the song tek off from dey so,” he said.

Re-released in 1971 with a new title on Clinch, Satta Massa Gana, built around Collins' piercing vocal and the Manning brothers' haunting harmonies, was a sensation.

Once it took off, Dodd released instrumental versions by saxophonist Tommy McCook ( Cool It) and keyboardist Jackie Mittoo ( Night in Ethiopia). The Abyssinians countered with a deejay edition, the powerful I Pray Thee by Big Youth, which became a dancehall favourite.

In 1973, while still enjoying the fruits of the follow-up hit, Declaration of Rights, The Abyssinians recorded two more “Satta” songs: Mabrak, which heard members reading from the Old Testament, and Satta Mi Born Yah, featuring Collins.

Satta Massa Gana was never a radio-friendly song but it reached the ears of youth fascinated with Rastafari, including a middle-class band called Third World which covered the song for its self-titled debut album in 1976.

The Abyssinians split up in 1989 after performing at Reggae Sunsplash.

Collins nowperforms with George Henry and Melvin Trusty as The Abyssinians, while Donald Manning, who lives in Florida, has toured with his own version of the band with Carlton as lead singer.

Lynford Manning also lives in South Florida. He gave up secular music long ago and is now a devout Christian.

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