Thursday, April 28, 2005

"Bring some peace and light on this world."

glisten: hugh mundell

It is 1983. In Kingston, Jamaica; the U.S. installed leader of the Jamaica Labor Party, Edward Seaga arranges for his election to the head of the Jamaican Parliament, establishing a single-party grip on the reigns of Jamaican political power until 1989. Kingston is (then and now) a dangerous place to be, perennially ranking amongst the highest murder per-capita cities in the world.

In America, the unemployment rate is a gaudy 9.6 percent. President Reagan addresses the nation in October to tell us that "all the ills of the world are to be blamed on the Soviets". In the midst of Cold War Fever, America's interest in Jamaican violence and poverty is muted at best.

I am eight, laid out on the floor and reading my father's old Warren Spirit comic magazines. My father listens to music; he's always listening to music. I listen with him while I read. He's been spinning one record quite a bit lately; a reggae disc called "Africa Must Be Free by 1983". It's the first reggae I've ever heard and although the sound of the music is terrifically alien and utterly beyond my experience, it still somehow speaks to me. "Africa Must Be Free" becomes an album that I forever after associate with a childhood sense of comfort, security and happiness.

Back in Jamaica, the artist behind that album, a boy not yet 21 (in fact he was only barely 21, see amendment below), sits in a car on the streets of Kingston. A figure approaches him from behind, raises a gun and fires; the boy is shot in the neck. Accounts as to the motive vary; some say that the victim had entered the neighborhood seeking revenge for an earlier burglary; there are those who claim that the boy had sold his assailant a faulty refrigerator and was shot in retaliation for the scam; some argue that it was a dispute over a woman. Whatever the cause, Hugh Mundell, a prodigy who had at the age of twenty created five albums and three children, lay dead.

Hugh Mundell was born in 1962 in East Kingston, to a solidly middle class family; his father was a well-known lawyer. We can only surmise that Alvine Mundell had ample opportunity to discuss politics, law and the sad inequalities that men faced in court with his son; we can only imagine what effect these stories might have had on young Hugh. What we know is that Alvine's job forced him to often move his entire family; one chance landing placed the Mundells next door to well-known Reggae performer and producer, Boris Gardner (note amendment below). Gardner recognized the young man's potential and schools Hugh and a few of Hugh's friends to reggae music and the nature of the Rasta faith. Eventually, Hugh and his friends access Gardner's studio space and, at the age of thirteen, Mundell records his first single, "Where Is Natty Dread?" with Joe Gibbs.

The song is never released, but the experience is noteworthy as it brings Mundell to the attention of Augustus Pablo, a well-known reggae producer who had a run of considerable successes creating riddims for such artists as Dillinger, the Heptones and Delroy Williams. Pablo takes the young man under his wing and enlists him as a DJ for his sound system, where Mundell works under the DJ AKA Jah Levi.

Augustus releases a number of singles with Mundell over the next three years; in 1978, these are collected and released, with a few new tracks, as Mundell's first album, "Africa Must Be Free By 1983." It is one of the truly great freshman releases of all time; polished and expert beyond any expectation. Mundell's smooth voice has all the command and control of a man well past his modest years; Pablo's beautifully understated production elicits a spiritual depth in Hugh's work. There is an unmistakable political aspect to this remarkable album; beyond the obvious anti-apartheid sentiment inherent in the album's title cut, tracks like "Day of Judgement" and "Run Revolution a Come" promised an end to the harsh treatment of the underprivileged Jamaican masses.

One could argue a corollary connection with Maya Arulpragasam, if it were not for the fact that MIA has a good decade on Hugh and that Mundell's preachings were rooted in a deep and almost Zen-like desire for non-violent revolution. The track that most clearly reflects this is "Why Do Black Men Fuss and Fight," an enduring anti-beef anthem if ever there was one.

Hugh Mundell - "Why Do Black Men Fuss and Fight"

Hugh Mundell - "Run Revolution a Come"

Buy "Africa Must Be Free By 1983" on CD or vinyl from Ernie B's Reggae.
Mundell would not live to see the end of black subjugation in South Africa; in the spirit of the album's title, read this brief skim of the History of Apartheid.
Listen to this in-depth NPR piece on the rise and fall of apartheid.
Read the story of Walter Rodney.
The Rodney riots in Jamaica would have undoubtedly colored Mundell's nascent political beliefs.
Read this brief bio of South African martyr Steven Biko.
Explore this Frontline page that explores the life and times of Nelson Mandela.

"Africa Must" was well-received both critically and financially and announced Mundell as a powerful new voice on the Kingston musical scene. A year later, Pablo released a dub version of the album, with new track names and vocals. The following song, labeled "Ital Slip" is the dub version of the song "Jah Will Provide" from the original "Africa Must" album; it is among Pablo's best riddims: reverent, hypnotic and gently insistent.

Augustus Pablo and Hugh Mundell - "Ital Slip"

Mundell leveraged his success by creating his own label to record on, dubbing it "Muni-Musik". Hugh worked with a few new producers between 1979 to '83, Prince Jammy and Henry "Junjo" Lawes among them, and tried his own hand at production with his first signed artist, 'Little' Junior Reid. Reid, who will go on to become a highly acclaimed artist in his own right, was sitting beside Hugh when he was shot.

In the style of Prince, Mundell proceeded to drop one new album a year for four years straight. These new albums are not nearly awe-inspiring as his first, but show considerable growth and exploration; they are the works of a young artist beginning to find his own way. The tracks spotlit here come from "Blackman's Foundation" and the posthumously released "Arise"; both of these would have been recorded near the end of his life, in 1983.

Hugh Mundell - "Great Tribulation"

Hugh Mundell - "In the Ghetto"

Buy "Black Man's Foundation" from Amazon and buy "Arise" from Roots 2 Music.
Explore this complete, and all-too-brief, Mundell discography.
Explore El Rockers, a dense Augustus Pablo tribute page.
Learn more about the Rastafari faith.

Mundell's tragic murder leaves us with an unfinished artist's career and a story cut short. He remains unjustly unknown outside of a small circle of roots reggae buffs.
July 2011 finds me older and surprised to receive the following letter in the mail today that I post here edited for anonymity of the sender and out of appreciation for his attention:

"I appreciate you writing these positive things about our friend Hugh. Your article is positive and your intentions are good but I want to give you some facts for your future writings. First of all he was in fact 21 years old when he died. He was born in June of 1962 and died in October 1983 (very ironic given the title of his first recording ). He was never at any time a neighbor of Boris Gardener. We grew up together and I am very proud of his accomplishments. I can tell you that he had a very privileged childhood and is the only son of his parents (he has three sisters). When he first started disappearing from the neighborhood and eventually growing dreads, I have to admit that I did not find it cool (being a pall bearer at his funeral was even worse). As I have gotten older I now understand his purpose and am now at peace with his activities while he was alive. I also realize that he has put me in a hell of a position even in death because I walk around as a person with authentic knowledge of what is now a very important piece of music history."

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