When a lot of people think of Jamaican music they think of Reggae and inevitably of Bob Marley, but what has to be remembered that when Marley had his international success in the 1970's he was the culmination of a whole musical movement that stretched back into the 1960's and before Reggae to its roots in the earlier musical forms of 'Ska' and 'Rocksteady'.
There were plenty of early exponents of the music and although 'The Ethiopians' were not the most well known they are still recognised as being among the best of the Jamaican artist of this period.
This 1999 CD titled after their best known hit is a compilation of various song they released through their career and should not be confused with the later compilation release 'Train to Skaville: Anthology 1965-1975 in 2002 even though it does include many of the same tracks.
The tracks included are a good introduction to the bands work and to the 'Ska/Rocksteady' genre in general. The main songwriter of the group was Leonard Dillon who was there at the formation of the original line up in 1966 and under various line ups including the new reformed line up in 1999 was there until his death in 2011.
Dillon was an excellent songwriter with a capacity to write simple yet very catchy melodies. Developing the faster tempo Ska dance sound into a slower more laid back Rocksteady groove Dillon was responsible for writing some of the most memorable tracks of the genre like 'Train to Skaville', ' Engine 54' and 'Train to Glory' all of which are included. The music is deceptively light and relaxing have a gentle humming beat, horns and mesmeric high vocal harmonies and yet the subject matter was often far from trivial making political and spiritual statements as to the state of Jamaican society in the late 1960's.
Many of the tracks clearly exhibiting Dillon's Rastafarian sensibilities in the lyrics paved the way for the more socially aware roots Reggae that was to follow in the 1970's and 80's. The original line up was completes by Street corner singing due of Stephen Taylor and Aston Morris.
The stand out tracks are Train to Skaville, Engine 54, You Got the Dough, Train to Glory, Come on Now (with a great horn section) and The Selah which are all perfect examples of the Rocksteady style with perhaps 'The Selah' being the most indicative of the roots reggae music to come.
'Train to Skaville' is a Rocksteady standard and has appeared in many Ska/Rocksteady collections it even made the lower reaches of the UK charts when first released. Its infectious beat and catchy horn refrain perfectly complemented by the falsetto vocals is just about the perfect combination for a Rocksteady track.
An odd addition to the track list is 'Unchanged Love', which originally appeared on the album 'Engine 54' is quite different for the rest. The typical Ska/Rocksteady backbeat is gone and the song sound more like a harmony based spiritual ballad, different but still good.
There are a few weaker tracks on the collection; 'Corruption' and 'Wicked Is Down on Me'
but that is me being picky. As was the way back then the tracks are no more than a couple of minutes long so even in the slightly weaker moments of the album the steady beat and infectious rhythm will quickly take you through to the next one which will be better.
Much of the distinctive sound on the song is due to the pioneering 'Rocksteady' production of Sonia Pottinger and to a lesser extent Lee 'Scratch' Perry who influences can be found on many tracks.
The group had a prolific output through the late 60's and early 70's often changing producers and record labels but Taylor and Dillon were always the constants in the group under differing line-ups. Even later tracks like Gate of Zion and Wondering show that their creative juices still hadn't dried up. Unfortunately due to some dodgy deals and unscrupulous record companies Dillon never received his full share of royalties and the group was always under pressure to release more output just to make a basic living. In the end Taylor and Dillon were both forced to get day jobs and through a cruel twist of fate Taylor was killed was killed in an accident while working in petrol station. That signified the end of the group and this collection is a fair summary of the Ethiopian sound up to that point. There are a few notable exceptions. Tracks like 'Everything Crash' and 'The Whip' should be included in any complete compilation but nevertheless this album is still a great introduction to The Ethiopian's sound. A later line-up of the group was resurrected by Dillon in 1999 including female backing vocalist Jennifer Lara and Merlene Webber, but for the purist it is the earlier line up that will best represent the group.
1. Train to Skaville
2. Engine 54
3. Give Me Your Love
4. Long Time Now
5. Woman's World
6. Unchanged Love
7. Come on Now
8. Love and Respect
10. Gate of Zion
11. I'm Going Take Over
12. Africa Now
13. Wicked Is Down on Me
15. The Selah
18. See Me Go Free
The recent anthology compilation of the same name is more widely available but this version can still be found from specialist stockist of the internet and private sellers. If you've ever wondered what Rocksteady was all about you could do a lot worse than this as an introduction.