East of the Psychedelic Nile
Augustus Pablo’s music has assured him an everlasting place in reggae history, but with his son Addis stepping forward in similar fashion, the spotlight has recently returned to the melodica master. It’s timely then for Giullame Méténier’s Soul Sugar outfit to release a re-cut of the 1977 classic ‘East of the River Nile’ that captures the psychedelic essence of Pablo’s tune and turns it up to eleven.
‘East of the River Nile’ was the title track from Augustus Pablo’s 1977 album of instrumental music. The title track was a triumph of Pablo’s compositional skills and a variety of versions attest to this genius. The album was my introduction to Pablo though the cover art is distinctly unpromising: I remember picking up a second-hand copy at a record shop, reading the title, and thinking ‘That doesn’t look like the River Nile’. It was a classic Jamaican cover shot, with Augustus dressed in shirt and slacks, playing his melodica while perched on a rock beside a river. He looked like an office worker practising music during lunch break.
But what a record it was! It’s not a dub album, but an instrumental album in its own right; Pablo stuck to minor chords and the edgy, keening sound of the melodica gave his music a sound often described as spooky or eerie compared with the sunnier sounds commonly associated with Jamaica. Pablo played on this theme with his ‘East of the Nile’ analogy and reviewers dubbed this sound ‘Far Eastern’: it was literally and metaphorically an orientalist stereo-type. None of this is to overlook Pablo’s great skill as a player and composer, as subsequent versions of the title tune prove.
The bassline alone is a triumph of simplicity; it’s the type of riff that’s the foundation of many an Afrobeat groove. You could also call this a ‘Far Western’ tune: Listen for instance to jazz pianist Monty Alexander’s version (with Ernest Ranglin) on Alexander’s 2004 album Rocksteady, and you’re transported into classic Western soundtrack territory.
People often forget that reggae assimilated many influences from other genres; in the late 1960s, the Wailers and other were mesmerised by the ultra-tight funk of James Brown, and in the 1970s, the psychedelic funk of Sly and the Family Stone and the P-Funk ‘family’. Pablo, I think, was deeply influenced by funk and psychedelic music and I think that’s one reason that he was so influential in moving reggae music away from the ‘one drop’ towards the rockers style, which drew the groove towards the one. It’s no accident, perhaps, that great exponents of psychedelic music leaned towards Indian music in an effort to developing music to expand consciousness.
Soul Sugar’s new re-cut of ‘East of the River Nile’ is by far the most psychedelic cut I’ve heard of this tune’ it’s hard-edged and wailing with the organ and guitar taking front stage and the melodica playing a minor role. Led by keyboard player Guillaume Méténier, Paris-based Soul Sugar features Yvo Abadi on drums and Thomas Naim on guitar and as you might guess, they lean towards soul and jazz but also play funk, afrobeat and reggae, which are among the most psychedelic strands of modern band music. Méténier plays classic keyboards such as the Hammond Organ and Fender Rhodes, and although he name-checks Jackie Mittoo as one of his favourites, he’s also a fan of Bernie Worrell, the musical genius whose fingerprints are all over some of the greatest dance music of the 20th century. Worrell was one of the founders of Parliament-Funkadelic; he later went on to play with Bill Laswell, Sly & Robbie and Talking Heads, and it’s Worrell that you can hear on Fela Kuti’s classic ‘Army Arrangement’.
With Abadi stepping on a deep bass drum, and Naim channelling Ernest Ranglin, Soul Sugar’s ‘East of the River Nile’ has got that combination of rawness, hard edges, spaciness and musical sophistication that defined psychedelic music. Funk musicians can bring something special to a reggae cut, and this isn’t the first such cut from Soul Sugar; this 2012 release is another cover, this time of Dr. Louis Smith’s ‘Play It Back’. Soul Sugar’s version is available on 7” vinyl on Gee Recordings and you can order the vinyl or get the digital download here: Soul Sugar on Bandcamp
If that’s not enough, check out another slice of reggae that’s been given the Soul Sugar treatment; this is their re-cut of Dr. Louis Smith’s ‘Play it back’ part 1 and 2.