Saluting the Ethiopians - Riding into Posterity on Engine 54
Updated: Dec 28, 2021
Rarely mentioned among the pantheon of Jamaican music greats, the Ethiopians have left an indelible mark on the music landscape. Appearing around the time that the music was transitioning from Ska to Rocksteady, the Ethiopians became one of the finest vocal groups in Jamaica. They made numerous hits, including 'Feel The Spirit,' 'Hong Kong Flu,' and 'Woman Capture Man'.
They were formed by Leonard Dillon, who grew up singing in the Seventh Day Adventists' Church and moved to Kingston as a teenager. He met Steven Taylor and Aston Morris while working on a building site, and they named themselves the Ethiopians after the Ethiopian Reorganization Centre, where they rehearsed. Morris soon left the group, and Dillon and Taylor continued as a duo.
Sadly, Stephen Taylor died in a traffic accident in 1975 while working his day job. Dillon would try to reorganize the group two years later with Melvin Reid, making a handful of recordings, but eventually would tour the UK as a solo act until he died in 2011.
The Ethiopians are among the many groups and solo acts that are not mentioned readily during conversations about the greats of Jamaican popular music. This omission must be corrected as the Ethiopians have contributed significantly to Jamaican popular music. Here, we feature some of their landmark songs.
I Am Free
A rare recording from the Ethiopians, done in the late Ska era, was done for Coxsone Dodd's Studio One. The trademark horn section is absent on this track, reportedly due to discord between Coxsone and the musicians. Whatever the case, it is a critical transition piece between the horn-heavy Ska music and the piano and bass-driven Rocksteady
The World Goes Ska
In almost a derisive taunt, this song at first seems to praise the success of Ska, but this clever tongue-in-cheek commentary is done on a Rocksteady beat (which they are quick to point out), serving to highlight the waning popularity of the ska genre.
Train to Skaville
In 1967, a builder named Lee Robertson gave Dillon £115 to pay for studio time at WIRL Records, figuring that it would be enough for ten musicians to receive £15 each (you do the math). The resulting recording was an adaptation of the Ring Of Fire horn riff, originally by Johnny Cash, and heard on '(Music Is My) Occupation' by Tommy McCook and Don Drummond. This song's legacy is far more enduring, as the riff was itself adapted by the Jamaicans in their 1967 Festival Song winner, 'Ba Ba Boom'. The bassline was used in the hit songs '54-46, That's My Number 'by the Maytals and 'Feel Like Jumping' by Marcia Griffiths. Further to that, the 'Feel Like Jumping' riddim that arose in the 1980s gave rise to songs like 'Boops' by Super Cat.
Probably their most recognized song, 'Everything Crash', was done in 1968 when the post-Independence euphoria was wearing off in Jamaica. Many felt that the promises of Independence were not being realized, which led to widespread demonstrations across the country. Reports are that the government even tried to stifle its airplay. This was one of the first social commentary songs of Reggae, which helped to shape the conscious direction of Reggae, for which it would be known through Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Burning Spear, among others.
This song is not well known but is a potent message of rebuking capitalist oppression for the 1960s and neo-colonialism. The song's message is even more relevant than in the sixties. Riding the Hot Milk riddims for this two minutes long, which was unusual for the time.
Reggae Hit The Town
Another relatively unknown gem that celebrates the newly emerging genre reggae with lyrics such as 'full-time right time. The Ethiopians were cutting edge in embracing the genres as they occurred during that golden age of Jamaican popular music.