Ken Khouri: The man behind Federal Records

My Jamaican 55

Observer senior writer

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

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This is the 30th in our daily entertainment series highlighting 55 Jamaicans who broke down barriers and helped put the country on the world stage. Each day one personality will be featured, culminating Independence Day, August 6.

ONE of the quiet pioneers of reggae, Ken Khouri earns his place among the music's visionaries. He established the first modern recording complex in Jamaica — Federal Records.

Khouri's father was among the influx of Lebanese merchants who came to Jamaica in the early 20th century, and eventually opened a business in St Mary. In a 2002 interview with the Jamaica Observer, his son Richard recalled how he set up his first studio at his furniture store at King Street, downtown Kingston.

Ken Khouri took his ailing father to Miami for medical treatment in the late 1940s and bought a recording machine by chance. On his return to Jamaica, he began recording calypso and mento songs by artistes like Lord Flea.

Eventually, the business grew, and by the late 1950s his engineer was an Australian named Graeme Goodall who also worked with the shrewd Khouri when he launched Federal Records in 1961.

Khouri was also distributor in Jamaica for major American record labels such as Decca, Capitol, and Brunswick. When he died in September 2003, legendary music producer Clement Dodd paid tribute to him.

“I was one of the earliest persons to record at his studios. Through me and him use to move so good, people would say, I was his little black son. As a matter of fact, he usually had the rights for labels such as Decca, Capital, and Brunswick, and he would allow me to scratch off the labels — which would give me a jump on the market ahead of competitors before he would release them.”

In 1980, Khouri sold Federal to Bob Marley who renamed it Tuff Gong Records.

The company was a powerhouse during the 1960s and 1970s. Ken Lazarus, Ernie Smith, Ken Boothe and Pluto Shervington were just some of the acts who recorded hit songs there.

In 2003, Ken Khouri was finally recognised for his contribution to Jamaican music. In July, he received an award from Kingsley Goodison's Tribute To The Greats; the following month, he was named a recipient of the Silver Musgrave Medal from the Institute of Jamaica.

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