Firebrand Roots on Shoestring Budget

By Anthony Chuka Konwea, PhD, PE
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Depending upon the degree of capitalization there were at least 3 categories of "producers" in the Jamaican reggae industry in the sixties and seventies and partly into the eighties.

At the top of the food-chain were the fat cat Entrepreneurs. These were the most capitalized people who either had record labels, or printing presses, or recording studios or extensive local and international music distribution and marketing networks or all of them.

For obvious reasons they were mostly whites or Chinese (called Chiney by black Jamaicans). Island Records founded by Chris Blackwell, Graeme Goodall and Leslie Kong, Randy's Records owned by Vincent Chin and Channel One Studios owned by Joseph Hoo Kim are prime examples.

Below these fat cats were the black Jamaican moguls who initially owned sound systems, then later recording studios and record labels. Chief among these were Sir Coxsone Dodd (Studio One), Duke Reid (Treasure Islands) and to a lesser extent Joe Gibbs (Amalgamated).

At the base were the indie, freelance Producers who mostly neither had recording studios nor record presses nor marketing & distribution networks. All they had were record labels, tons of musical ideas, some quantum of cash and plenty of enthusiasm.

Some were talented music entrepreneurs with keen ears for music, sharp eyes for money, and superb skills for spotting raw talent.

Chief among these and the doyen of this category was Bunny Lee.

Others were successful musicians who were flush with cash from their previous hits and wanted to put it back into the business with the aim of making more money by promoting the next generation of roots stars.

To this latter subcategory belonged many producers and record label owners like Niney the Observer (Observer), Yabby You (Prophets), Augustus Pablo (Rockers), Dillinger (Oak) to name just a few.

Included among the third and last category of indie producers was the late producer Bertram Brown (shown here). But Betram Brown was not an artist per se. Neither did he have cash to spare nor was he an enthusiastic entrepreneur with cash to burn.

He nevertheless created the Freedom Sounds Label in 1975 and produced some of the most uber-conscious roots music using struggling youths mostly from his Greenwich Farms ghetto suburbs of Kingston, Jamaica.

How did he do it? How did he pull off this stunt with a shoestring budget?

Well he identified talented youths aflame with musical desire and backed them up with the Soul Syndicate, one of the greatest session bands Jamaica has ever produced. The Soul Syndicate was populated with extremely talented instrument players.

With Carlton Santa Davis on drums, Earl Chinna Smith on guitar in addition to other Soul Syndicate members including Robbie Shakespeare a non-member on bass, he coaxed out uber-intensive roots from his Gang of five musically starved "youthmen."

These “youthmen,” mostly from the Greenwich Farms area, were yearning and pining for musical opportunities to come their way.

Hitherto overlooked by the mainstream producers including chiefly Bunny Lee a citizen of Greenwich Farms himself, once Bertram Brown gave them their chance, they never looked back. Virtually all five of those youthmen are now established roots stars in their own rights.

Sadly Bertram Brown died while swimming in St Elizabeth Parish of Jamaica in September 2008 aged 58 years.

This firebrand roots producer may be gone, but if you have the chance, check-out some of the immortal firebrand roots music that he coaxed out of his Roots Gang of Five.

In no particular order check out Rod Taylor - Ethiopian Kings, Phillip Frazer ( he prefers to write his name as Phillip Fraser) - Come Ethiopians, Earl Zero - Shackles and Chain, Prince Alla (born Keith Blake) - Lot's Wife and Sylvan White - Son, Be Careful.

All these roots masterpieces were recorded at Randy's records and dubbed at the late iconic King Tubby's Studio in Kingston, Jamaica.

Bertram Brown may be gone at such a relatively young age, but the firebrand dimension he brought to roots music will never be forgotten.

Sadly they don't make roots like this anymore and undiluted roots enthusiasts are the worse off for it.

Anthony Chuka Konwea, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE, MNSE, FNIStructE, MNICE.