Ernest Ranglin: Ska pioneer
Feb 20, 1999
When I was six or seven I fell in love with a pixie-voiced girl called Millie. She was on the radio singing – or, rather, hiccoughing - a song called “My Boy Lollipop” and she sounded like she wasn’t much older than me. But I don’t think it was Millie I was really in love with, it was the rhythm. I didn’t know it then, but Millie’s compulsively jumpy accompaniment was in a style known as ska, a dance beat popular in the nightclubs of her native Jamaica. Neither did I know that, more than thirty years later, ska would be as universal as rock ‘n’ roll (there are ska bands from Moscow to Manawatu), nor that I would be speaking to the man who played on and directed the original recording of “My Boy Lollipop”.
To Ernest Ranglin, “My Boy Lollipop” must seem rather a minor achievement. By the time he produced that pop hit in Britain in 1965, this virtuoso guitarist had been professional for more than ten years, playing every style from bebop to Broadway, Goombay to meringue, all over the United States, Europe and the Carribean. Since then, he has played on literally thousands of recordings of ska and its descendant, reggae, as well as making several fine jazz-flavoured albums under his own name. The most recent of these, In Serarch Of The Lost Riddim, was cut last year in Dakar with Senegalese master musicians, and its intricate tapestry of beats seems to trace ska back to its African roots.
Ranglin is gracious when I gush that he played on the first single I ever bought. “Ah, “My Boy Lollipop””, he interrupts, laughing, before I can even get the title out. “That record has a lot of memories for me. When I went to England they didn’t know anything about ska. I had to teach all the Englishmen in the studio at the time how to play this music. The only person that was West Indian, apart from myself, was the first trumpeter, I think his name is Pete Peterson. But the second trumpet, trombone, saxophone, piano, bass.. everybody was English. But it was pleasant, you know, because Englishmen are great musicians, as long as you can write your music properly for them. They are great readers, you know.”
Musical literacy has been a calling card for Ranglin throughout his career. As a fourteen year-old in Kingston, Jamaica he began to teach himself guitar from published tutors. His first engagements were with large dance bands. “In those days the guitar player didn’t have much to do but strum chords, but it was good for me because I learned to read the chords and every now and then I’d see a little solo phrase and it felt so good!
“Eventually I went into a small group and copied the stylings of George Shearing’s music. As soon as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie came in, that was my great moment. I started going over to bebop. It’s still some of my favourite music. But I’d play everything.” Gigging all over the Carribean, he would play with Haitian and Bahamian musicians, learning the rhythms peculiar to their islands. When Cuban singers and dancers toured Jamaica he was hired to accompany them, and he would play in Broadway musicals from America. “I got this wide knowledge of various types of music, and that is how I managed to keep on going, because sometimes you may find there’s not a string band going but there’s a calypso band going, or maybe there’s a Latin band going. So at least I’d know I would be making some money instead of sitting down and waiting for one style of music.”
Ranglin’s rich and varied background prepared him better than any player on the planet for the arrival of ‘world music’. Though the term was coined by marketing men as a convenient catch-all for selling any music not of western origin, it has increasingly come to represent the bold fusion of previously isolated styles. In Search Of The Lost Riddim is world music at its finest. It’s roots go back to 1976, when Ranglin toured Senegal with reggae star Jimmy Cliff. There he first heard talking drummers and met a young singer and guitarist named Baaba Maal. “I thought it would be great if I could come back to this country and see if I can participate in what they are doing and learn.” It was 22 years before he had the chance to return and record with members of Baaba Maal’s band, by which time his concept of a new music based on an amalgam of Jamaican, Senegalese and other styles had crystallised. “What I wanted to do was make sure I had every styling in it. You can hear Latin, you can hear jazz, you can hear ska… different little colours in it.” . He hopes to return to Senegal this year to record a follow-up.
Then again, one could say Ranglin has been playing world music all his life. After all, what is ska? Back in the ‘50s, the shuffle beat of Louis Jordan and Fats Domino’s rhythm and blues was heard in Jamaica via the powerful New Orleans and Miami radio transmitters. The Jamaicans mixed these sounds with their own folk styles such as mento and calypso. “With the shuffle rhythm we could formulate a ska beat from it. That’s where the ska beat came in. If you notice, the second beat is much more emphasised. This is really from R&B that we formulate this rhythm of ska.” In turn, ska and reggae have influenced African musicians such as Baaba Maal, and so it goes on.
After living in both Europe and the US, Ranglin (now in his 60s) has recently settled back in Jamaica (“My wife couldn’t take the climate in Florida too well, it agrees with her much better here”), but he still travels and performs widely, visiting New Zealand this month for an appearance at WOMAD. The riddims of the Pacific are about to become a part of Ranglin’s musical world.