Count Ossie and the Birth of Reggae

David Katz explains how a single drummer became one of the most important figures in Jamaican music history

Reggae has been shaped by a handful of innovators, pioneering figures that have given the music its distinctive contours. Count Ossie holds a particularly special place in the genre’s history. The late night sessions held at Ossie’s encampment during the late ’50s were crucial to the spread of Rastafari amongst the Jamaican musical fraternity, the end result being a uniquely Jamaican form of music that surfaced just as the island’s independence movement gathered steam.

The Count was born Oswald Williams in 1927 and raised in a quarrying village called Bito, located a few miles east of Kingston in the hills above Bull Bay. Young Ossie played drums in the Boy’s Brigade and in a local marching band before his family moved to Slip Dock Road, an underdeveloped patch of east Kingston, near Bellevue Mental Hospital. Ossie soon became a regular figure at a Rasta camp in Salt Lane, a particularly infamous west Kingston slum, where he was taken under the wing of Brother Job, a Burru man who was himself taught by Watto King, one of the island’s most prominent drum makers.

The Burru were shunned by Jamaica’s Eurocentric mainstream, but they found kindred spirits in the Rastafari.

Historically, the Burru have been among Jamaica’s most defiant people, and music was a major component of their rebellion. These lowly outcasts from rural Clarendon retained the drumming traditions of the Ashanti, from whom they are descended, their music revolving around a trio of hand drums: the huge bass drum is pounded with a rounded stick and the funde keeps a steady two-beat rhythm, while the smaller kette or “repeater” drum takes the melodic, improvisational lead.

The Burru were shunned by Jamaica’s Eurocentric mainstream, but they found kindred spirits in the Rastafari, another group of outcasts whose adherents dared to proclaim that God was a living black man. As the Rastafari movement grew, notably in Kingston’s sprawling ghettos, a fertile intermingling took place between both groups, with Count Ossie emerging as the most important figurehead of this merger.


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