Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

/ARTS WEEKLY/MUSIC: Producer Pioneered Reggae Forerunner, ‘Rocksteady’

Howard Campbell

KINGSTON, Sep 30 2003 (IPS) - When Jamaican record producer Kenneth Khouri died of heart failure here Sep. 20, aged 86, there was little mention of his passing in the local media. Indeed, it was three days later that his death was first reported.

In life, the unassuming Khouri always kept a low profile.

Though he was one of the first record industry moguls in the Caribbean, his legacy is largely understated; he may not have had the huge catalogue of hit songs of other early reggae producers, such as Chris Blackwell at Island Records and Clement Dodd at Studio One, but for over 20 years Khouri’s Federal Records was the epicentre of Jamaica’s music business.

That is where Bob Marley recorded his first song, ‘Judge Not’, in 1962. Paul Simon recorded part of his 1972 album, ‘Mother And Child Reunion’ there, while The Rolling Stones visited in 1972 to do sessions for their 1973 album, ‘Goat Head Soup’.

Federal was also the Caribbean distributor for major U.S. record companies such as Decca, Capitol and Columbia Records.

Ironically, Khouri’s work as a pioneer was being recognised in the months leading to his death. In August, he was honoured at the annual Tributes To The Greats ceremony in Kingston, and in September, the Institute of Jamaica historical society named him and Blackwell among the 12 recipients of its Musgrave Medal.

The medal, one of Jamaica’s most respected civic awards, will be handed out here Oct. 8.

Paul Khouri, one of Ken Khouri’s six children, says his father and Federal Records never got the respect they deserved from Jamaicans. “People have this notion that Bob Marley started reggae – we created rocksteady and formulated reggae,” he said in a 2002 interview.

Reggae historians credit the Khouris for starting the rocksteady craze of the mid and late 1960s. The slower, bassier beat replaced the jazz-based Ska as the sound of choice among partygoers here when singer Hopeton Lewis cut ‘Take It Easy’ in 1965 at the Federal studio.

Four years later, as the sound of Jamaican popular music again evolved, singer-songwriter Bob Andy recorded a version of American singer Joe South’s ‘Games People Play’ at Federal. Paul Khouri insists it is the first reggae song; most musicologists cite Larry Marshall’s ‘Nanny Goat’ in 1968 as the song that got the reggae train rolling.

While Paul Khouri’s claims may be debatable, no one can question the magnitude of his father’s contribution to the development of Jamaica’s pop music.

Ken Khouri was born in 1917 in rural St. Mary parish to a Lebanese father and Jamaican mother. He was working as a manager in the in-bond sector when he bought a disc-recorder from his mechanic and started manufacturing records by Jamaican calypsonians Lord Flea and Lord Fly.

Sales by both performers were so good that Khouri left his job and went full-time into the record business, which was accelerating during the mid 1950s. He started Federal Records in September 1954 and seven years later established the Federal Studios, where Jamaica’s leading producers eventually recorded.

As Jamaican music began making ripples overseas in the late 1960s and 1970s, U.S. acts began visiting Kingston to soak up the island’s increasingly popular beat.

Most of them went to Federal, including singer Johnny Nash, who recorded many of his reggae-tinged songs there. The record studio scenes in the 1972 film classic, ‘The Harder They Come’, were also shot at Federal.

For most of the 1970s, reggae was dominated by Rastafarian singers and protest records. Because Federal’s management was from Jamaica’s middle-class, the Khouris stayed away from such heady sounds; instead, Federal released light-hearted, up-tempo numbers by singers like Ernie Smith (‘Duppy Gunman’) and Pluto Shervington (‘That Thing There’).

In 1974, the company picked up distribution rights for Ken Boothe’s cover of U.S. pop band Bread’s hit song, ‘Everything I Own’. Boothe’s reggae version was a smash in the United Kingdom, where it made the top 20 of the national charts.

But by the end of the decade, recording all but ceased at Federal, which seemed out of touch with the political climate.

Like many in Jamaica’s middle-class, the Khouris moved to North America, fearing that the socialist government of Prime Minister Michael Manley was moving towards Communism. When Manley was beaten at the polls in October 1980, Ken Khouri returned but left the music business for good in 1981 when he sold Federal Records.

He lived in virtual seclusion until his death, splitting his time between Jamaica and Miami, where the family operates K&K Records, which distributes records from the Federal catalogue.

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