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BERNARD COLLINS OF THE ABYSSINIANS

Few reggae acts better capture the heart and soul of roots reggae music than the Abyssinians. Their deep catchy melodies, Rastafarian themes, and beautiful harmony arrangements all delivered with a deep spiritual feeling were instrumental in defining and refining the entire reggae genre. Bernard Collins and Donald Manning had a creative opening one night in 1968, when they composed "Satta Massa Gana". Their Rastafarian devotion is found in the title, which is Amharic for "give thanks and praise", Amharic being the language of Ethiopia. The song was adapted from a Carlton & His Shoes B-side song called "Happy Land". Carlton is Donald Manning's brother.

Bernard and Donald felt the power inherent in their effort, and along with a young third vocalist the newly formed Abyssinians sallied forth into the turbulence of Kingston's music scene. This unnamed young man, still at school, was soon replaced by Lynford Manning and in 1969 the new lineup approached the producer Clement "Coxsone" Dodd. Dodd had produced "Happy Land" and he agreed to record the trio. Dodd was unhappy with session's outcome. In his opinion, the Jamaican record-buying public would have little if any interest in the Abyssinians revolutionary Rastafarian themes. Reggae was still a relatively new genre, and in its early days, it was brightly upbeat, yet the trio had slowed the beat down and smothered it in plaintive melodies in a minor key. Who in their right mind would buy such music? Who, indeed? The answer came in 1971 when the trio finally bought back its tape (for a ludicrously inflated sum), and released "Satta Massa Gana" as a single on their own Clinch label. The song's deeply devotional message, its dreams of far-away Africa, its throbbing rhythm, and its melancholy melody struck a chord across the island, and the song was an instant classic. A label battle between Clinch and Dodd's Studio One label was now sparked. Belatedly realizing what he'd let slip away, Dodd quickly released "Satta Massa Gana" himself, backed with "Jerusalem," admittedly in very limited quantities. A rush of DJ versions inevitably followed. Dodd released two instrumental versions, "Night in Ethiopia" by pianist Jackie Mittu and "Cool It" by saxophonist Tommy McCook. The latter recorded another instrumental version for Clinch, "Mandella," while the label also put out several DJ versions, including two by Big Youth and one by Dillinger. Other DJs soon followed suit, but the most innovative was the Abyssinians own toasting take, "Mabrak," on which the Abyssinians recited passages from the Bible in Amharic.

The Abyssinians released three further hit singles in 1971. The first was "Declaration of Rights," and never has a call to revolution sounded so sweet and heartfelt. The equally evocative "Jerusalem" also appeared in 1971, and completing a quartet of hits for the year was "Let My Days Be Long." Over the next few years, the trio continued releasing excellent singles, both on Clinch, as well as recording for other producers. However, in a musical scene renowned for its prolific output, the Abyssinians recordings were now to come few and far between, at least by Jamaican standards. But what records they were: 1972's "Leggo Beast," a simmering blend of deep roots and soul, and the deeply religious "Yim Mas Gan," excellently produced by Lloyd "Matador" Daly were some of the more notable singles released.

The trio finally cut its debut album, Forward Unto Zion, in 1976, with producer Clive Hunt. Including hits, re-recordings of older classics, and new material, the record remains a roots masterpiece and brought the group great international acclaim. Their follow-up album, Arise, was released in 1978 through a deal with Bob Marley's Tuff Gong label. Arise brought the hit single "Hey You".

Soon after the recording was finished, Collins quit the group and he was replaced by Carlton Manning, now making the Abyssinians a family affair. In 1979, they gave a breathtaking performance at Reggae Sunsplash; the group then folded the next year. Gone, but not forgotten, the Forward album appeared later in 1980, bringing with it a variety of rare gems. In the late '80s, Collins resurrected a new Abyssinians and released two singles, "African Princess" and "Swing Low," on the Clinch label.

Meanwhile, the Mannings re-formed their own competing Abyssinians. The return of the groups prompted the Heartbeat label to release an excellent best-of album, Satta Massagana, in 1993. France's Music Disc considerately gathered up non-Clinch material for The Best of the Abyssinians the following year. Two sublime dub sets, Tabou's Satta Dub and Heartbeat's Declaration of Dub, appeared in 1998. The Abyssinians promptly released a new album, Reunion, the same year, which featured Mannings and Collins indeed reunited. However, it was a short-lived reconciliation and the next year Collins, with a new lineup released The Last Days, credited to Bernard Collins and the Abyssinians.

The Abyssinians are one of the most spiritual reggae acts and one of the greatest reggae acts in the history of Jamaican music. Their music spreads a message of love, faith and peace all over the world. Their catalogue is moderate in quantity but their music has made a great impact.

Original author: Roman
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