Count Ossie on drums

The Jamaica Observer’s Entertainment Desk continues with the 47th of its biweekly feature looking at seminal moments that have helped shape Jamaica over the past 60 years.

THE history of Jamaican music would be incomplete without mention of pioneer drummer Count Ossie and his group, The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. Once relegated to the slums of Kingston due to his religious beliefs, Count Ossie and his African-inspired rhythms eventually made the mainstream.

Born Oswald Williams in 1927, Count Ossie was from St Thomas. In the early 1950s he set up a Rasta commune in Rockfort near Wareika Hill, where many musicians learned about that movement. Soon, many of Jamaica's leading jazz musicians ended up in the 'east' playing late-night sessions with his drummers.

According to American writer David Katz, "It's hard to overstate the talent that was coming through to Wareika at that time. There was Ossie's close friend, Wilton 'Big Bra' Gaynair, an expressive tenor saxophonist who went on to become part of London's avant-garde jazz scene. Trombonist Rico Rodriguez was a long-term resident of the camp; his mentor, the exceptionally talented Don Drummond, also dwelled there, as did saxophonist Roland Alphonso and drummer Lloyd Knibb. Keyboardist Jackie Mittoo and guitarist Ernest Ranglin were regular visitors too, and trumpeter Johnny 'Dizzy' Moore was based there to the end of his days.

"These were the musicians largely responsible for breaking the ska form — Jamaica's first truly indigenous style of popular music — and all but Rico would later be active in The Skatalites, a group formed after Studio One founder Clement 'Sir Coxsone' Dodd discovered them performing at Ossie's camp."

Count Ossie and his band got their first taste of national limelight at the Vere John's Opportunity Hour talent show in 1959. Despite opposition, rumba dancer Margarita Mahfood demanded that they be part of her Ward Theatre show. Impressario and radio host Vere John resisted at first, but at Mahfood's insistence they were on his show at Carib Theatre. Both events were successful and opened new doors for Count Ossie.

He and the band hit paydirt that year when they were featured on the Prince Buster-produced Oh Carolina by the Folkes Brothers.

According to Katz, "They caused a sensation. Demand for the tune was so intense that each of Jamaica's two radio stations were forced to give it regular airing, despite initial bans."

Count Ossie also recorded for producers Harry Mudie, Vincent "Randy" Chin, and Dodd.

The group performed for Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I at King's House, during his State visit to Jamaica in April 1966.

Count Ossie and The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari recorded two albums and inspired similar groups, including Ras Michael and The Sons of Negus. His masterpiece is the Grounation album, released in 1973.

Count Ossie died in a motor vehicle accident on October 18, 1976. He was 50 years old.

BY BRIAN BONITTO Associate editor --- Auto & Entertainment bonittob@jamaicaobserver.com

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