Disco routes

By Alastair Bird

Pass It On (Part 1)/Tomorrow’s Sun, by Eddie Hooper (Soundway Records, SNDW12006)

Eddie Hooper

Eddie Hooper, from the cover of his 1987 record Nosey People

There is no clear consensus on the identity of the first disco record, but most of the contenders appear to date from around 1972. Recent publications have attempted to place the music in the broader sociopolitical context of the time, suggesting that, as a social movement, disco can be traced back a few years previous to this. Alice Echols, in Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (2010), takes 1967 as her starting point, arguing that the scene began with the opening of the Stonewall Inn. She suggests that, as the first public venue in Manhattan to allow its gay clientele to dance openly together, it instigated a cohesive sense of gay community that was fundamental to disco’s infancy. Peter Shapiro provides a supporting narrative in Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco (2005). He allies disco’s origins to the migration of New York’s prosperous professionals to the suburbs in the 1960s and 70s. He suggests that, as tax revenues dwindled and public services declined, the city centre was increasingly occupied by the immigrant groups and transitory artists who would provide the nascent disco scene with much of its musical source material.

Whatever date you pick as your jumping-off point, there was, it appears, a period of a few years when disco existed as a scene without yet acquiring its subsequent recognisable soundtrack. It’s intriguing to consider what music was being played during these early years. Vince Aletti, widely regarded as the first journalist to routinely write about disco, comments that, musically, the scene was at its most interesting in its infancy and in its death-throes. At these points, he suggests, DJs were challenged to search that much harder to find the records they could play into one another, in order to build a sense of euphoria among club-goers. Interviewed by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton in 1998, Aletti spoke fondly of standing next to David Mancuso in the DJ booth at the Loft nightclub, comparatively early in the evening, as he played “jazz-fusion records, or international world music things.”

Mancuso and his contemporaries were instrumental in melding together the different influences that would ultimately provide the musical bridge between late 60s soul and funk and early disco. The influence of salsa and boogaloo, originating from New York’s Puerto Rican communities, and merengue from the Dominicans, is well documented, supplemented by gospel, early experimental electronic music, and various genres of African music. One of the most famous proto-disco records from this early period is Manu Dibango’s Soul Makossa, recorded in Paris in 1972. The record’s title is a literal statement of intent, and it indicates the burgeoning global influence of the black American music of Memphis and Detroit. Dibango took the makossa music of Cameroon and combined it with contemporary American soul.

Popularised at the Loft that same year, Dibango was instrumental in birthing the next genre of black American music. He was part of a growing trend of global artists re-interpreting American musical forms and, occasionally, returning the resulting music to an American audience. Comparable things were happening all around the world. In an interview, the late Jamaican reggae singer Gregory Isaacs once described Sunday nights at home when he was growing up. His mother would turn on a “rented Rediffusion radio” and do the ironing as she listened to rhythm and blues. Within a year of Dibango recording Soul Makossa, the adult Isaacs — influenced by Sam Cooke and Smokey Robinson — had recorded one of the first lover’s rock tracks in Kingston. Lover’s rock didn’t find a significant audience in the US, but it did successfully cross the Atlantic to a British audience.

Influences on early disco from the English-speaking Caribbean were more disparate and less obvious than those from the Spanish Caribbean. One popular record was Funky Nassau, by the Bahamian funk band The Beginning of the End. Also from the Bahamas, but based in New York, was the musician Exuma, also known as Tony McKay, whose early 70s recording “Exuma, the Obeah Man” was a hit with disco audiences. “Obeah Man” now sounds about thirty years ahead of its time. Its lyrical references to religious practices derived from an ancestral spirit-worshipping heritage in the Niger delta region and its use of African drumming are probably closer to the recent house records of the American musician Osunlade than anything else that emerged from the disco era.

Significant proto-disco records also emerged from the Caribbean migrant communities of London. The Afro-Caribbean funk bands Osibisa and Cymande both produced records popular among early disco DJs and their audiences. The founding members of Osibisa were from Ghana, Nigeria, Antigua, Jamaica, Trinidad, and Grenada, while the members of Cymande were originally from Jamaica and Guyana. They were contemporaries of the Brooklyn funk bands of the 70s, picked up on by disco audiences; among them the relatively homogeneous Mandrill, formed in Bedford-Stuyvesant by the Panamanian Wilson brothers.

The scattered global influences that informed the birth of disco were reinterpreted and returned to a worldwide audience, as the music briefly became the lingua franca of global youth culture. It wasn’t as immediately radio-friendly as the rhythm and blues and soul that came before it, and it wasn’t immediately as influential in the Caribbean as it was in Europe, where a significant quantity of the kitsch, derivative records that subsequently came to define disco originated. Nevertheless, these global influences may ultimately have been more pervasive. A compelling case could be made that the heavily synthesised production and the insistent, propulsive rhythms associated with disco remain a core influence on the soca music that emerged in its wake, and that remains the dominant music of the southern part of the English-speaking Caribbean.

The problem with trying to impose an elegantly simple, chronologically reciprocating, and intercultural global narrative on the evolution of musical genres such as disco and soca is that the narrative never quite fits. Contemporary influences are multiple, and the dialogue is gleefully messy; it’s rarely possible to identify where one wave of influence concludes and another begins. This is conspicuously the case with the recent 12-inch release of Eddie Hooper’s 1980 recordings “Pass it On (Part 1)” and “Tomorrow’s Sun” by the London-based reissue label Soundway. The label has described the tracks as “spiritual disco,” but on first listening, “Pass it On” in particular would appear to be the musical equivalent of a glacial erratic: a large boulder transported by ice flows, such that it appears strangely incongruous in the surrounding geological environment. Both tracks are remarkably far-removed from the synthesised production and up-tempo rhythms that characterised mainstream disco from the mid 70s to the early 80s. If, however, your perception of disco is as a Latinised take on soul and funk, then you might gradually reconcile yourself to the possibility that the recordings aren’t anchored, culturally, all that far from the disco era in the blurry continuum of twentieth-century popular music.

Hooper was the late Guyanese calypsonian Lord Inventor (a different artist to the Trinidadian calypsonian of the same name). Guyana had a strong calypso tradition in the 1950s and 60s; it was a receptive testing ground where calypsonians from neighbouring Trinidad could perform their new material, and local artists had a fruitful co-existence with the stars of the genre. These two Hooper tracks have largely dispensed with any distinctive calypso influence, however. Neither do they sound, to any great extent, as if they are derived from the salsa-merengue tradition that is most frequently associated with disco.

On first listening to “Pass it On” (the A-side of the vinyl release), the immediate cultural reference point seems to be samba. The track starts with a syncopated, six-beat rhythm, most likely played on an agogo bell, which sounds very much as if it originated from the samba traditions of Rio de Janeiro. The next instrument to feature is an electro-acoustic piano, an instrument that was initially incorporated into disco music from the jazz-funk of artists such as Herbie Hancock. Applied here in tandem with a bass guitar, however, it gives the track a slightly Hawaiian feel, providing an effective stand-in for a steel guitar. This funky, hybrid Hawaiian-Brazilian sound, combined with a lyrical call for self-realisation, compels comparisons not with disco but with a preceding musical genre. Hooper’s tracks could easily be tagged as companion pieces to the samba-soul that artists such as Jorge Ben were recording in Rio a decade or so prior. Although samba-soul didn’t achieve the global success of disco, it was, in many respects, an obvious precursor. It effectively merged Afro-Brazilian rhythms with soul and funk in much the same way that disco subsequently did with Afro-Caribbean rhythms from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

Instinctively, the comparison with samba-soul seems an obvious one. Guyana and Brazil are, after all, neighbouring states. But the major urban centres of the two countries are separated by thousands of miles of savannah and rainforest. The coastal regions of Guyana, where Hooper came from, retain a distinctly Caribbean character, and reggae and calypso provide the dominant soundtrack. The Brazilians that do venture over the border into Guyana tend to be prospective miners from Brazil’s rural north looking for work in the interior, not metropolitan Cariocas. Nevertheless, Hooper’s tracks seem to reside more comfortably alongside those of the samba-soul genre, rather than among subsequent disco records.

“Tomorrow’s Sun” provides further evidence to support Aletti’s claim that, as the popularity of disco started to wane in the early 1980s, it actually experienced something of a creative revival, with artists drawing on a wider and more eclectic range of influences. The track starts with a mix of drums, rattles, and agogo bells, and when lush strings are added to the mix, the combination of instruments does initially seem to evoke a disco sound. But as it proceeds at a woozy, languorous pace through the nine-plus minutes afforded to it by 12-inch vinyl, the echoey soundscape increasingly seems evocative of dub.

Dub is frequently associated with the evolution of hip-hop in the US. New York residents of Caribbean heritage, such as DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, adopted Jamaican sound system culture and bought with it the practice of vocal improvisation over a minimalist, rhythmic soundtrack. What weren’t adopted were the distinctive bass rhythm tracks, stripped from reggae recordings. Early hip-hop DJs and producers, like their disco counterparts, referred to soul and funk for their musical source material. Nevertheless, Jamaican dub producers, early hip-hop DJs, and the early disco remixers were all doing something similar: stripping a track down to its essential elements and extending it, either to serve the purposes of live improvisation or, in the case of disco, to rebuild the track for the newly emergent 12-inch format; while steadily working back in the components parts to achieve a sense of cumulative momentum.

The particular bass sounds of dub didn’t become widely incorporated into North American and European music until disco started to morph into house music, however. DJs and producers like François Kevorkian and Arthur Russell, who straddled this transition, were among the first to start incorporating dub. Notable exceptions from the disco era are the recordings the Jamaican rhythm section Sly & Robbie made with Grace Jones at Compass Point studios in the Bahamas. Hooper’s “Tomorrow’s Sun”, along with these Compass Point recordings, affords an early glimpse at how black dance music was to evolve over the coming decades: it provides a pointer to the influence of Jamaican dub for the emerging generation of American and European producers and remixers.


The Caribbean Review of Books, January 2011

Alastair Bird is an engineer in the oil and gas sector. Currently based in Houston, Texas, he previously lived in Trinidad for five years. During that time he travelled widely in the Caribbean and South America, attending — and, on occasion, writing about — a number of the region’s music festivals and other events.