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Friday, May 5, 2006
Man from Wareika returns
By JEFF HAMMOND
Special to The Japan Times
During a break in a Tokyo recording session, Rico Rodriguez puts down his trombone to lark around on the roof with the teenage members of Oreskaband, the all-girl ska band he's been working with. That, at 72 years old, he is now old enough to be their grandfather doesn't even faze him.
"It was good to play among young people. You can feel the vibes from dem," he says, with a strong Jamaican accent. "The energy deh give to the music is great."
Rico is visiting Japan to record with a number of Japanese ska and reggae bands, from Oreskaband and the relatively new Mice Teeth to the well-established Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra. He'll also be playing a string of gigs. The results of the recording sessions will be released on a Japan-only album, "Japa-Rico" -- the title a play on his 1982 album for the 2-Tone Records label, "Jama-Rico," which paired him with other Jamaican musicians.
The music business is a tough nut to break, requiring persistence, faith and a strong spirit. Luckily Rodriguez has these qualities in abundance. Over his career, the legendary trombone player has worked with the biggest names of reggae and ska, including Bob Marley, Sly and Robbie, and The Specials, the multiracial U.K. band that brought a punkish, political attitude to hits such as "Ghost Town."
Although many people may know him primarily from his work with The Specials in the early 1980s, Rico's musical adventure started way before then. Born in the ghettos of West Kingston to a Cuban father, Rico was a bit of a rude boy, who soon found himself at the Alpha Boys School, a Catholic-run reform institution. The reputation of the school's music program and band was so high that some kids -- such as Johnny Moore of The Skatalites -- went so far as deliberately getting into trouble to get into the school.
Studies centered on classical music and theory, but jazz was in the air and Rico learned just as much outside the classrooms as older students taught him how to improve his playing, especially trombone master Don Drummond, who later formed the legendary Skatalites. Rico's heroes at the time were the jazz sax players Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, but he ended up with the trombone.
"I wanted to play the saxophone, but there weren't enough instruments to go around and you had to play what the bandmaster told you to play," he says.
He soon picked up work playing in jazz and Latin bands, which were huge in Jamaica before the rise of ska. While living in a Rastafarian community in Wareika Hills just outside Kingston, he also became a part of the just-emerging recording industry in Jamaica. Like many Jamaican musicians, Rico was underpaid, but unlike some, he doesn't hold any grudges.
"First and foremost you want to go into the studio and not think about the money," he says. "You don't become bitter over them things, you become conscious."
Thinking the grass might be greener on the other side of the Atlantic, a year before Jamaica celebrated independence from Britain in 1962 and ska really took off at home, Rico boarded a boat for England, without even a trombone to call his own.
He was in for a shock as work opportunities were few and he spent the '60s and the first half of the '70s drifting from one manual labor job to another, with only the occasional recording session or gig. One admirer and supporter of his was ska band leader Georgie Fame, who gave Rico an open invitation to play with him and his Blue Flames. "He let me play anytime I liked down at the Roaring Twenties club in Carnaby Street," Rico recalls, "and he'd pay me £10 or £20 [$20-$40]."
He had to wait until the mid-'70s before things really began to take off with an offer from Island Records to record in Jamaica -- which would become his classic 1977 solo album "Man from Wareika" -- and a chance to tour Europe with his new label mates Bob Marley and the Wailers.
In 1980 Rico was asked to join the already popular Specials and he toured the world with them during the 2-Tone ska revival until the band unexpectedly broke up two years later. By that time, Rico had already played on some of their best-known songs such as "A Message To Rudy." "It was unbelievable, the band is so successful and they wanna break up," he comments. "What's the problem?"
After a spell sitting it out in Jamaica in the '80s, Rico is back on top, with a regular job in the United Kingdom with Jools Holland's Rhythm And Blues Orchestra, the odd recording project, legions of fans and a family of eight children.
While others might lament the opportunities missed and time wasted, Rico is content with the shape his career took.
"I don't regret nothing. Everything adds up very good. I'm still performing, and the public show a lot of appreciation toward me. Anywhere I go the people shout at me that they like what I do. People love my style and give me lots of work," he muses.
Concerning his current project, he is pleased with the popularity and quality of ska here.
"There are lots of good bands in Japan" Rico says, "and they can only get better."
Rico plays today, 5 p.m. at Esaka Muse Hall, Osaka (tel.  6387-0203), 5,000 yen; May 6, 6 p.m. at Club Upset, Nagoya (tel.  936 6041), 4,500 yen; May 7, 5 p.m. Shibuya Egg Man (tel.  3496 1561) 4,000 yen.
Them ska bones
Masahiko Kitahara, who plays trombone with the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, had a chance to collaborate with Rico Rodriguez on his current trip to Japan. Originally formed in 1985, TSPO have released over 10 full length albums in their career and are easily the most high-profile band on the lively Japan ska scene right now. In a recent interview with The Japan Times, Kitahara discussed the ska scene in Japan and what it was like to play with a ska original such as Rodriguez.
When did you first get into ska music?
In 1998, after I joined the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra.
Why do you think it remains popular internationally after so many decades?
When you listen to ska, your body naturally wants to move. The beat is easy to understand and whatever other music you play with it works well -- it has that depth and openness.
What do you think of Rico's position in the history of ska and Jamaican music ?
He's the real thing!
What was it like working with Rico on "Japa-Rico?"
As a musician playing the same instrument, the trombone, there can be no happier time than this!
What did you learn from collaborating with him?
It confirmed my feeling that the sound that comes out of an instrument really is the sound of the person playing it.
What's special about Rico's playing?
He sings simple melodies and plays uncomplicated solos, and believes strongly that each and every sound is important.
TSPO are at the forefront of a ska movement in Japan. Why do you think ska has taken off in Japan?
Listening to it is fun, playing it is fun. Sometimes we cry, sometimes we laugh, that's what life is.
Some ska bands mix ska with punk, and other genres. Do you think Tokyo ska bands are true to the spirit of ska?
I don't think that playing "authentic" ska -- for example, copying The Skatalites -- would necessarily give you the true spirit of ska, in some ways mixing things up might be closer to that spirit.
What are TSPO's plans for the future?
On June 7th we release our 12th album "Wild Peace." On July 8 and 9 at Hibiya Yagai Ongakudo [in Tokyo] we start the ball rolling for a tour which will keep us busy until the end of the year -- we will be touring in Europe from late August to early September.