Jamaiel Shabaka cut his teeth with legend Sun Ra before recording the mysterious reggae LP The Land of the Rising Sun
by Seb Carayol
It was a record. It’s always a record. A few months ago, while on a visit to the best unsung record shop in Los Angeles, Mono Records, owner John pulled an intriguing LP off his oh-so-coveted shelf of not-yet-priced acquisitions. He wanted to show me a reggae record he didn’t know anything about, lost—but not so lost, as I would soon discover—in a huge collection of radical jazz he had just purchased. Credited to one Jamaiel Shabaka, it sounded both heavy and definitely different. Its intricate artwork read Land of the Rising Sun, and its back-sleeve notes only added to the mystery: Recorded and mixed at studios such as Hit City West (L.A.), Channel One and Music Mountain (Jamaica), engineered by four different people including legendary singer/producer Sugar Minott.
A quick Internet search later, thanking God once again for unusual names, I was in touch with the man himself, before being blown away by the richness of his life’s movements beyond this very album, as I found out after driving to his current home in Leimert Park, Los Angeles, for an interview.
From a mythical college radio station in Long Beach to playing with avant-jazz drummer Alex Cline, or on never-released Sun Ra LPs, Jamaiel Shabaka did it all, and has evidence to back his word—which explains how our interview ended with an hour-long treasure hunt in his garage full of the rarest avant-garde jazz LPs, looking for the albums whose covers Sun Ra had personally hand-drawn for Jamaiel.
“Matter of fact, I went to school in Compton,” Shabaka starts as we sit in the living room adorned with Nyabinghi drums. “I’m from here and there, but the story starts from Ghana. And it was taken to Saint Thomas [Parish], Jamaica, from slavery. So this is how I see the story starts.” Not where it ends: with a dad in the army, young Jamaiel soon migrated to Florida and Texas before the musical family settled in Compton. With a mom playing classical piano whenever her hairdressing job would give her a break, and a violin-playing father, originally from Cuba, let’s just say that the kid’s ear was predisposed to hear.
What bit Shabaka the hardest, though, was the jazz bug. “I grew up more radical with the music,” he nods while pensively looking into the street. “The music was a vehicle to express the times, so we started playing a more creative type of what we called jazz music. Non-structured towards form, basically our own compositions. More spontaneous improvisation. More like what they consider avant-garde. Even in high school, we used to listen to Pharoah Sanders and John Coltrane, plus the Yoruba and the other types of African-Latin-Cuban sound. I was already practicing the saxophone, and the clarinet. All the while gravitating towards the more radical sound—Archie Shepp, Byard Lancaster. These people were in my repertoire.”
They were also in his record collection, as listeners soon were to discover. Moving with a group of forward-thinking musicians, Jamaiel Shabaka found himself part of a lucky crew to be granted a radio show on a young jazz music station at the California State University, Long Beach, KLON, now KKJZ (or KJazz). He became a radio announcer from the early ’70s on. “It was a project that we was doing in school, because we had radio and television, and that’s what I was studying. We would come out from late night to the morning,” he says, smiling. “We called our slot Spirit and Unity, but we had different names for that particular slot. We’d specialize in all types of roots music; it wasn’t commercial but more straightforward. Raw. Raw roots music. I would play Horace Tapscott. I would interview him, bring him down there to the radio station. I would play a lot of real roots music from the island, the nyabinghi and some of the jazz. Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, yeah. Cedric Brooks. Sun Ra. He used to send me his poetry, like his big book Immeasurable Equation. And then one day he sent somebody, a young guitar player named Holmes, who said, ‘Come to Philly.’ So I went.”
Such was the power of snail mail. For years, the aspiring radio DJ and the master had been exchanging letters, with Sun Ra growing familiar with Jamaiel’s skills at the horns. So off to Philadelphia Shabaka went, staying in town for three years. “It was all music, continual music,” Jamaiel reminisces about Sun Ra’s Germantown haven. “His house was very filled with everything. He traveled all over the world, so he had all sorts of things in there.” But the musician didn’t drive from L.A. just to come check a few cabinets of curiosities, as exotic as they might have been. The stay turned out musically prolific as well. Besides on numerous audiotapes, Jamaiel Shabaka ended up playing on at least three never-released private press Sun Ra LPs. Some of the improvised sessions that Shabaka played on ended up on actual wax—an easy hookup since Sun Ra had easy access to a pressing plant—stamped with labels from other existing records. For good measure, each of the three LPs that Shabaka packed in his Volvo when he drove back to California had received the solar guru’s treatment: custom-made Sharpie sleeves.
Galvanized by such an experience upon his California return, the disciple felt ready to venture into recording more music. In 1976, introduced by Woody “Sonship” Theus, he met avant-garde jazz drummer Alex Cline, who had then already been playing with his twin brother, Nels, since he was eleven under the band moniker Homogenized Goo. From playing regularly together came the idea to turn the live Cline/Shabaka Duo Infinity project into an LP, with Jamaiel, then called “Jamil,” taking care of the vocal, tenor sax, alto sax, soprano sax, flute, and percussion duties. It came to fruition, almost inadvertently, on May 30, 1977.
Contacted by email, and very surprised that anybody even cared about such an obscure album, Alex Cline replied in neatly arranged, numbered answers to the few questions I sent him. “Initially, there was no real plan to make a record,” he swears. “An old friend of mine, Bruce Bidlack, then a student at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, actively pursued recording music. It was his idea to record us in what he felt was the excellent acoustical environment of Balch Hall. This is how we recorded the long improvisation that later wound up being the Duo Infinity album.”
As it turns out, despite numerous other projects allegedly in the pipes, Duo Infinity ended up being the only record to ever come out on the Aten imprint, Cline’s friend Lee Kaplan’s label. Cline continues: “No mixing, no editing, no post-production magic. I don’t think either of us felt it was the most profound, magical, or transcendent music we had ever made, but we felt strongly enough about it to think that it would make for a good document of our music.”
Needless to say, what this type of process wins in honesty loses in other domains. “The album was adequately representative, but I also felt, and still feel, that it in no way represented Jamaiel and I at our best individually as players,” Cline regrets, echoing Shabaka’s thoughts on it. “Jamaiel in particular was the kind of player whose performance output could vary extremely from one moment to the next. He definitely had many times when his playing was far stronger and more affecting than that heard on the Duo Infinity album. This remains the single biggest disappointment to me about the record. For example, we actually did what I felt was a much stronger duo performance when we played live on Paul Vangelisti’s KPFK radio show Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. Jamaiel’s playing was very consistently wonderful on that, but the recording was egregiously and permanently marred by the engineer inexplicably randomly engaging tape echo/delay at regular intervals, destroying any use it might have had as a valid documentation of our music.”
Was that last aspect, for irritating as it may be to a jazzman’s ear, a prophecy of the reggae/dub future to come for Jamaiel Shabaka? Following a last concert with Cline at the Century City Playhouse in 1978, which Cline “wouldn’t term a success,” Shabaka was ready to move to the next planet, the one his newly found Rasta faith had slowly led him to.
Embracing his Caribbean heritage, Jamaiel Shabaka carried his heavy jazz luggage over to the greener pastures—at least spiritually, if not monetarily—of reggae. “I was really moving towards my roots in terms of the music, so I would bring in [Nyabinghi/Rastafarian drums] the kette and the funde,” he says about the spiritual transformation. “I stayed for two years in Jamaica, and was living in the hills as well. You have to be actually living in the hills and living natural and taking on another transforming of yourself.”
Moving between the countryside sanctuary and the grime of Kingston’s Papine area, Shabaka ended up recording a very personal album, The Land of the Rising Sun, using the studios from friends he made in the music community—including Sugar Minott’s and the very rarely heard of Creative Arts Center, a complex of smaller units that didn’t last long enough for history to remember.
With its unusual jazzy/improv’d sonic essays among straight-up heavyweight roots tracks (such as “I Am That I Am,” later the object of an extremely sought-after 12-inch), saying that The Land of the Rising Sun is an unusual-sounding reggae album is an understatement, and far from a surprise: after all, who in the reggae world started improv’ing for days on end with Sun Ra? “It was complicated to overstand where I was traveling,” he says, grinning. “This is what we know as a complication for some musicians. Most reggae musicians like a certain way, and pulse, and they stay sturdy and that’s cool, the heartbeat, and we can relate to that. But at some point, there’s some other types of movement and sounds that move in and out, like a spirit moving.”
To put it in layman’s terms: recording The Land of the Rising Sun was no picnic. Regardless, in 1988, the album was good to go. And Jamaiel was ready to venture into yet another dimension. Since these epic soul-finding days, he has been involved in various projects at a school and various cultural centers in the Los Angeles area, mixing traditional teachings and yoga, presenting music and playing flute, and overall being busy as a family man. Recording-wise, Jamaiel Shabaka has three new songs, he claims, that should see release soon. Just another challenge for him, one more in the intergalactic journey Jamaiel Shabaka calls life. “When I write for reggae,” he concludes, “I pretty much put it together traditionally. What I haven’t done yet is what I’m doing now. Some of the things that I’m expressing now are going back to the free expression.” .
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