by Fred Mills
One of the most influential albums in the history of reggae music was 1977’s East of the River Nile. By then, Augustus Pablo (Horace Swaby) had already begun carving an impressive career — but Nile would assure his place in history alongside such production legends as King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry. Just the mesmerizing title track alone — described by liner notesman Randall Grass as “a hypnotic bass-and-drum pattern topped by jazzy guitar accents and snaky melodica riffs bathed in discreet washes of reverb” — is enough reason to investigate the legacy. For this 25th anniversary edition Shanachie has remastered and expanded the out-of-print record, stripping away much of the hiss that marred an earlier CD edition.
The sound is sleek and sinewy, a panther’s assured, unhurried stroll across his tropical domain, with instrumentals that get at the sonic essence of dub. A deep, nocturnally insistent bass throb is overlaid with rhythmic and melodic flourishes from the guitar, plus Pablo’s signature minor-key melodica lines and assorted other keyboards (which frequently take on an almost Oriental texture). With few exceptions, these 12 tracks are not dub “versions” of prior songs, but wholly unique compositions. Of course, one can instructively compare the elegant, soulful “Natural Way” with its slightly moodier cousin “Nature Dub.” Or “Jah Light” — whose accordionlike melodica riff suggests a Jamaican transplanted to a Venice street café — with “Jah Light Version” (one of six rare bonus tracks added to the CD). It gets stripped of key melodica passages, liberally dosed with echo and transformed into a dark, rastadelic epic.
To put Pablo into contemporary perspective, without his groundbreaking efforts we’d have no Bill Laswell (who has always been vocal in acknowledging his dub debt), no On-U Sound collective (On-U/African Head Charge main man Adrian Sherwood lends his kudos to the Nile booklet liner notes), no Orb, no St. Etienne, no Massive Attack, nor countless other electronic and dance outfits that sampled Pablo. He died in 1999 at age 46 of a sudden ailment, prematurely robbing the world of yet another prodigious talent.
E-mail Fred Mills at firstname.lastname@example.org.