Words by Kieran Meadows—
Friday marks what would have been the late Horace Swaby’s 59th birthday. Swaby — better known as Augustus Pablo — was the legendary Jamaican reggae keyboardist and dub producer whose name is practically synonymous with the instrument he popularized the use of in reggae music in the 1970s: the melodica.
For those who don’t know, a melodica is essentially a wind instrument with a small keyboard that makes a sound that’s similar in some ways to a harmonica, giving it an expressive bluesy yet ancient-sounding or “journeying” feel, which is great for soloing. The melodica had been previously used in Jamaica in school music lessons, but wasn’t really taken seriously in the musician community. Pablo changed all that and helped shape the reggae sound that has come to be associated with the 1970s.
To mark his birthday, check out the video below, which features Pablo performing “East of the River Nile ,” “Java” and “Day Before the Riot” live at Japansplash (Japan’s first reggae festival) in 1986, with Soul Syndicate backing him up. Watch how he uses the melodica to both skank and make impressive runs up and down the keyboard. Augustus Pablo sadly passed away in 1999, but his son, Addis Pablo, is carrying on his father’s legacy in terms of melodica prowess.