Born Herbert Swaby in 1954, Augustus Pablo was an orientalist before orientalism was uncool. The minor-chordal “Far East” sound the reggae auteur favored as a composer, producer, and no-frills melodica master may have been inspired by the Skatalites’ Don Drummond, but it didn’t take long for prolific Pablo to spread his sonic fetish far and wide. Most notably with 1972’s East of River Nile, Pablo more or less single-handedly created what Yale’s very own dub scholar, Michael Veal, calls “a devotional genre of reggae exotica.” When Pablo died from a collapsed lung in 1999 (he also suffered from the nerve disorder myasthenia gravis), his sound had risen and fallen without the anointment of a successor.
It’s surprising that it took this long to assemble an anthology worthy of Pablo’s substantial legacy. This five-CD/DVD collection hits the high points of his career as soloist, producer, and sessioneer, while offering enough rarities (e.g., Willie Williams’s “No War”) to tease tyro completists. Aiming for flow over focus, Rockers Story shies away from either über-narrative or strict chronology: For example, Pablo’s relatively cheerful first single, “Iggy Iggy,” opens the set-concluding “Rare Rockers” disc.
Pablo converted to Rastafarianism early on, and music was his jihad; revolution haunted Kingston’s streets during the mid- to late ’70s, along with the studios of dub heavyweights such as Errol Thompson and King Tubby. Thompson engineered the thick, heavy rhythms that defined the instrumental singles (including the 1972 hit “Java,” which is available here only in a 1982 version) that were collected on This Is Augustus Pablo, Pablo’s 1974 debut album. Tubby, on the other hand, was a postproduction genius who liberally added special effects to Pablo’s tracks, resulting most notably in the arguably unequaled 1976 dub classic, King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown.
For an instrumentalist, Pablo the producer had a fine ear for promising young singers. Hugh Mundell, Jacob Miller, and Earl Sixteen (whose “Changing World” may be Rockers’ sleeper hit) all rose to the occasion, providing seductive vocal tracks subsequently recycled into multiple versions. Pablo’s productions followed the harder “rockers” style through the late ’70s, when his career began to wane; history is on his side, however, and his experiments with digital dancehall rhythms during the ’80s have unexpectedly improved with age. (The same cannot be said for the drum-circle jam “Drums to the King.”) A shy and retiring star, Augustus Pablo ultimately stands alone on a green, misty mountain of greatness, and Rockers Story serves as a fine introduction to this not-so-jolly reggae giant’s bounty.