Words by Saxon Baird
Rico Rodriguez, a founding father of modern Jamaican music and prolific trombonist, has died at the age of 80.
Born to a Cuban father and a Jamaican mother, Emmanuel “Rico” Rodriguez grew up in poverty-stricken area of downtown Kingston. At a young age, Rodriguez would first cut his teeth on the trombone at Jamaica’s now famous Alpha Boys School — a Catholic charitable institution that has trained some of Jamaica’s most famous musical legends. Rodriguez’s classmates included other key players in the development of Jamaica music including Tommy McCook and fellow trombonist Don Drummond. Rodriguez would graduate to become a mainstay in the Kingston’s burgeoning, pre-ska music scene in the ‘50s, where R&B and Jazz still ruled. But ska would soon take over. It was also around this time that Rodriguez also converted to Rastafarianism and began working with a fellow Rasta, drummer Count Ossie.
Rodriguez became much sought after for his unique, improvisational flourishes, seamlessly transitioning in and out of bands with the rise of ska, while becoming a staple session player in Kingston’s growing recording industry before relocating to England in the early 1960s. He worked for every big-name Jamaican producer up until that time, such as Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid, The Kong Brothers and many more.
In David Katz’s Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae, Rodriguez noted that the sound of ska which Rodriguez and his contemporaries helped shape was rooted in their humble beginnings.
“People who don’t suffer like us can’t play this sound,” noted Rodriguez. “It’s a ghetto sound we play out of instruments, real suffering ghetto sound. It sounds happy, yes, but it’s for relief!”
Following in the footsteps of many Jamaicans in search of work and opportunity, Rodriguez traveled to the UK where he began recording for Island Records’ Chris Blackwell and recording singles for fellow expats Laurel Aitken, Prince Buster and later Dandy Livingstone. Not content to remain in the foreground, Rodriguez cut a number of excellent solo records including 1969’s “Reco in Reggae Land,” 1970’s “Blow Your Horn” under Rico and the Rudies, and the jazz-laden reggae masterpiece “Man from Warieka” featuring a young Sly and Robbie.
Rodriguez continued to stay active through the ‘70s, supporting Bob Marley during his 1978 European tour and cutting tracks with Linton Kwesi Johnson and Steel Pulse in the UK. Rodriguez was also featured on the first two albums from second-wave ska revivalists The Specials, including their signature single, “A Message to You, Rudy.”
In the ‘80s, Rodriguez returned to Jamaica where he continued to record, cutting two LPs: That Man Is Forward (1981) and Jama Rico (1982). Eventually, Rodriguez returned to the UK where, in 2007, he was awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire). He also served as a member of Jools Holland’s Orchestra from 1996 until 2012.
Rodriguez played a foundational role in Jamaica’s rich musical heritage. To celebrate his life and body of work, we’ve singled out some celebrated tracks as a testament to Rodriguez’s legacy.