Rhythm Revolution: Cedric “Im” Brooks
Saxophonist Cedric Brooks weaves the rebellious history of Jamaica into his music
Cedric “Im” Brooks is one of Jamaica’s greatest and most imaginative, if underrated and under-compensated, tenor saxophonists. He was born in Denham Town, in western Kingston, Jamaica, in 1943, and music was around him from the beginning. Cedric spent his first years in a house run by the Salvation Army, whose owner played trumpet in the local church band. His uncle, Baba Brooks, played in one of Jamaica’s most famous big bands. At the age of seven, Cedric was sent to the Alpha Boys’ School. Run by nuns, the reform school took in underprivileged kids and turned out many of Jamaica’s most gifted musicians in the early days of the music. It was there that Brooks would forge lasting partnerships.
He played with all the early giants of the music, and, like many of the island’s best musicians in the 1960s, he worked the hotel circuit on the North Coast. On the weekends, Cedric would travel back to Kingston to jam with the legendary Count Ossie and his Rastafarian drummers in the hills, or to record for producers like Clement “Coxson” Dodd at his celebrated Studio One. There, he began arranging and composing as part of the house band for the biggest label in the history of Jamaican music. Later on, he recorded some of the most daringly creative and progressive records to ever come out of the Caribbean, fusing Afro-Caribbean sounds, calypso, and reggae with free jazz, Afrobeat, and traditional African, particularly Ethiopian, rhythms.
Brooks, a multi-instrumentalist who also plays the flute and percussion, is probably more known for his work in backing bands like Sound Dimension on classic Studio One singles or as one half of the duo Im and Dave (with trumpeter David Madden, releasing the hit single, “Money Maker,” among others) than for his more obscure, noncommercial work. After touring the Caribbean hotel circuit with various big bands in the mid-’60s, Brooks spent a brief period in Philadelphia, absorbing the music of some of his greatest influences, including Sonny Rollins, Pharoah Sanders, and Sun Ra, before returning to Jamaica in 1969. Over and above his work as a session musician, Brooks decided to follow the Afrocentric fusion model of Sun Ra. At the turn of the decade, he formed the Mystics and played with Count Ossie, both in informal “grounations”—or jam sessions—and in clubs. The combination caused a sensation, and the new group, the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, recorded an authentic session released in 1973 as the seminal three-album set, arranged by Brooks, called Grounation. A follow-up, Tales of Mozambique, appeared in 1975. The rare One Truth, credited to Cedric Brooks and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, was released in 1980.
After conducting research into the evolution and genealogy of Jamaican music at the Institute of Jamaica, Brooks brought together a large group of dancers, percussionists, singers, and hornsmen, mostly out of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, to continue exploring African rhythms. Playing daily in his yard in a communal atmosphere, heavily influenced by Fela Kuti and the Sun Ra models, the ensemble was called the Divine Light. Their first record, arranged by Brooks and titled From Mento to Reggae to Third World Music, developed out of workshops at the Institute in an effort to present the history and progression of indigenous Jamaican music. Rereleased in 2008 by VP Records’ 17 North Parade reissue label, the 1973 album is an impressive historical document. Apparently after the church asked them to remove “Divine” from their title, the group changed its name to the Light of Saba, with the albums The Light of Saba, Saba in Reggae, and Sabebe following in the mid-’70s.
Cedric Im Brooks and the Light of Saba, released by Honest Jon’s in 2003, is a solid collection of singles and select album cuts from the group. The technical and financial burden of organizing such a large group eventually made it impossible to continue, and Brooks moved on to form United Africa, releasing a self-titled album on the Water Lily subsidiary of Aquarius in 1978, which again broke out of the rigid commercial barriers often imposed on musicians at the time to explore a fusion of jazz and world-music concepts. The end of the decade also saw two more releases: Studio One’s Im Flash Forward, a stellar set that features Brooks’s sax on top of some of the label’s top rhythms, and the rare One Essence, on Sonia Pottinger’s High Note label, both circa 1977.
Spending his time between Ethiopia, where he is studying theology—“educating myself to educate, through the vehicle of music, to represent various African traditions”—and New York, as well as touring with the Skatalites band, Brooks is an artist who has consistently educated and reeducated himself throughout his life, and is nothing less than an authority on the history and development of African and Afro-Caribbean musical forms. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of how different colonial practices and slave markets created different types of rhythms. I met him at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the Bronx, where we discussed the origins of popular Jamaican music and how the resistance to slavery became so inextricably linked with music.
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