The roots harmony vocals of Bernard Collins, Donald
Manning, and Linford Manning brought a unique quality of Rastafarian majesty to some of
the most important tracks ever recorded in Jamaican reggae, including "Satta
Massagana" (a.k.a. "Satta"), "Declaration of Rights," and "Y
Mas Gan." When the Abyssinians went to the studio for a session, it was as though the
musicians were no longer doing work but rather on a mission to make music that would last
through the ages. The Abyssinians music has influenced nearly every reggae artist,
because of the deeply spiritual lyrics Bernard Collins and the Manning brothers sang and
the original rhythms the group utilized.
In recent years, group co-founder Donald Manning has performed
internationally under the name The Abyssinians with his brother Carlton Manning (of
Carlton & The Shoes) and singer David Morrison. In Jamaica, Bernard Collins has long
been known as The Abyssinian and performed on stage shows with longtime
associate George Henry. In 2004, Donald Manning & Bernard Collins reunited on stage
for the first time in over ten years, performing on tour across Europe and at
Colorados Reggae on the Rocks.
In the late 1990s, Donald Manning collected many of the last recordings of the original
group and released 19.95 + Tax (Artists Only). In 1998, Collins oversaw the CD
release of his first solo album, Last Days (TABOU.1). The album collects tracks
recorded over a span of twelve years, including the balance of the last recordings of the
original line-up not included on 19.95 + Tax.
Until Heartbeat Records reissued Satta Massagana (a.k.a. Forward Onto Zion)
in 1993, few groups in reggae were more of an enigma than the Abyssinians. Only in the
past five years has a solid picture of this key trio emerged. Bernard Collins and Donald
Manning have given thorough interviews, and the Mannings family version of the Abyssinians
began touring the US in 1997.
"Satta Massagana," recorded at Coxson Dodds Jamaica Recording Studio in
1969, has been referred to as "reggaes national anthem." The recording
session that yielded "Satta" was arranged and financed independently and clearly
marked a turning point for reggae -- lyrically, rhythmically, and spiritually.
Donald Manning explains how the song was born. "Carlton [Manning] wrote
Happy Land [b-side to Love Me Forever] with lyrics, There is
a land far, far away, where theres no night, theres only day. Look into the
book of life, and you will see that theres a land far, far away."
"Satta Massagana" (meaning give thanks) is obviously notable for
its use of Amharic, the language of Ethiopia (Abyssinia). The Amharic is a result of
Donald Mannings Rastafarian influence on the group. The study of Amharic in Kingston
in the 60s was a function of the post-colonial, Pan-African identity and Rastafarian
awareness sweeping the ghetto after Haile Selassies 1966 visit to the island.
Collins recalls how Donalds brother Neville used to teach Amharic in the Jonestown
area of Kingston. "[He] was a man who used to . . . have classes around there, where
we could all go and learn the language, cause he used to get books from Ethiopia through
England -- Ethiopian opinions. And those books contain all literatures that we need . . .
Thats how come we get acquainted with the Amharic . . . Bredren from all about used
to come there and learn."
Donald Manning explains the Amharic in some of the groups well-known
compositions. "Tena Yi Stillin. Dina Igzhabhier Y Mas Gan. Satta Massagana.
When I say Dina means good, Igzhabier means
God, Y Mas Gan, [means] he may be praised, so I
correct the mistake that I made by singing Satta Massagana [to God].
Tena Yi Stillin means greetings. It means good
morning. It means good bye. It means good afternoon. It
means health, may He give for thee."
The legendary "Satta" recording session included Leroy Sibbles on bass, Fil
Callendar on drums, Eric Frater on guitar, Robbie Lyn on keyboards, Vin Gordon on trombone
and Felix "Deadley Headley" Bennett on saxophone. "That tune really, no one
specially [gave] a specific arrangement to that song," recalls Bernard Collins.
"We went there singing the song on our guitars. Cause we had like the melody
progression. So we went there playing the chords and everything on the guitar, and while
we play, everybody just came in. Cause these men were professional musicians . . . You
haffe say they did all the arrangement really, Leroy Sibbles feel out his own bass line,
Deadley Headley . . . cause we didn't go in there with no special arrangement -- just the
basic chords and the progression of the song and the melody. Is just a vibes tune.
"[We] released it first on Clinch, it was released as Far Away Land.
It wasnt till after a time, Donald Manning say we should call it Satta
Massagana, and then we actually register the song as Satta Massagana,
[with] all three members owning the copyright. All three of us rallied around to help get
it pressed, get to the record shops, and everything.
"We record that song [Satta] in March 1969, and it wasnt till
about 1970 that [producer] Joe Gibbs actually [remade] a recording of it. He was the first
one who did a rerecording version, [which] he called A So, an instrumental
with the Destroyers. That him do [with] Tommy McCook, Bobby Ellis, and him come by some
other hornsmen. And it playin on the radio. It [was] just an instrumental. But . . .
instrumental versions just bring back the record right back to the people, because when it
[was] released first, it used to just play in the dancehall. Because Satta is
really a dancehall tune in those days. Home buyers never have it. It was just sound system
people, but it wasnt until Joe Gibbs bring out this version that everybody start
going at this song."
The original "Satta" recording was versioned (remixed and/or
re-voiced) more than a dozen times, including the Abyssinians own remake
"Mabrak," a direct response to Joe Gibbs "A So." Instrumentals
included "Thunderstorm" featuring Bongo Herman, and several Tommy McCook/Vivien
Hall horn overdubs including "Mandela." Collins later re-voiced the song as
"Satta Me No Born Yah." Prince Far I, Big Youth, Dillinger and others also took
shots at the rhythm. Since its debut in 1969, nearly every producer in reggae has remade
"Satta," and literally hundreds of remakes of the song exist.
Collins says that "Satta" is at the root of modern dancehall and dub.
"[Satta] was like the first dancehall song. And the first dub,
Satta Massagana. . . . if you listen to the flip side of Mabrak,
same Satta version . . . is drum and bass. Because we record that tune on
two-track [two-channel tape recorder]. When I was at the studio one day, cutting a pure
stamper, one of my bredren just put it on single track [one channel], and we just get the
drum and bass. And him say, but wait, this sound good mon! And we just release
the flipside of Mabrak, which is Issat -- pure drum and bass. And
that used to play in the dancehall, regular. Cause we used to sell a lot of dub plates,
like a special to sound systems -- Sir George, Tubbys, and all them ready soun
(soundsystems). Cause we get the dub wax of it right in the dancehall, and from there on
you find the dub and version start springing up. From 1970 come down . . . Version
The Abyssinians were featured performing
"Satta" in a capella style in the film Roots, Rock, Reggae in 1976 and
again in Rockers in 1978. These are the only known film appearances of the original
Carlton Mannings key role in mentoring the Abyssinians is comparable to the
role Joe Higgs played with the Wailers years earlier. Not only did Carlton Manning coach
the trio in the minor chord harmony singing that would define its style, but he taught
Donald to play the guitar. Donald Manning recalls his brothers efforts. "Most
of the harmony that we sing, Carlton teach us, because me and Bernard was singing together
and Carlton told me that because I was playing the guitar, Bernard will sing [more] leads
than I do . . . so I must sing the harmony."
Carlton Manning explains how the minor chord harmony style that he developed with The
Shoes characterized The Abyssinians. "[My] harmonies are mainly minor chords on a 7th,
9th, 13th [tertian (3rds)] harmony. If you know the [guitar], you
deal with the chords and formulate the harmonies from there if the artists can take it.
Minor chords are intricate. The scales are not the regular scales. You have to know what
youre doing musically. [Thats how] you get the Far East sound."
From the early to mid-70s, the Abyssinians recorded sparingly, but the quality of the
groups work was remarkable. Bernard Collins returned to Studio One in 1970 (without
the Manning brothers) to record "Declaration of Rights" with George Henry and
Leroy Sibbles singing backing vocals. The recording featured an essential arrangement and
organ melody by Jackie Mittoo and rhythm by Leroy Sibbles on bass and Leroy
"Horsemouth" Wallace on drums. Notably, the song was one of Bob Marleys
favorites, and a lyrical influence can be heard on The Wailers well-known "Get
Up, Stand Up" recorded in 1973.
The next Abyssinians recording sessions yielded "Let My Days Be Long" and
"Poor Jason Whyte," both released as 45s on the groups Clinch label.
Another of the groups most enduring tracks was "Y Mas Gan," recorded for
Lloyd "Matador" Daley in 1972. Other singles, including "Reason Time,"
"Leggo Beast," and "Love Comes and Goes" followed by the mid-70s.
The Abyssinians first full album was recorded in 1976 and is regarded as one of
the greatest in the history of Jamaican music. The sessions were supervised by Clive Hunt
and resulted in the album known both as Forward Onto Zion and Satta Massagana.
Every track exudes the spiritual essence of the Abyssinians. Regrettably, the tapes were
pirated, and the album didnt see legitimate release until Heartbeat (US) and Blue
Moon (France) released it in the mid-90s.
Collins recalls the sessions for the album. "Its a really original album.
Everybody put themself in it. I know I put myself deep in that album. And I figure the
other bredren also.
"The story is . . . you have a company at that time here name Sound Tracs [run by]
Pat Cooper. You had guys like Clive Hunt, Geoffrey Chung, Mikey Chung -- all of the top
notch [musicians] working with the company. Donald told me these people would like to
record the album, so we went there and lay down ten tracks. . . but before the album
finish is like . . . something went wrong within the company. I don't know what go wrong,
but the director of the company actually went away to the States. Clive Hunt had the
tapes, and when we check Clive Hunt fe find out what going on with the album, he told us
that everybody gone, and the most him can do is take the tape and try and make some money
for himself. So him start printing the records here [in Jamaica]."
The groups deeply spiritual, africentric lyrics were crystallized on virtually
every cut on the album, and it featured remakes of "Satta," "Declaration of
Rights," and "Y Mas Gan." Donald Mannings masterpiece "African
Race" is one of defining compositions of the album and of the groups career.
After a seductively beautiful acoustic guitar solo by Mikey Chung, the song erupts into a
chilling roots anthem. The lyrics speak with pride of African heritage and survival of
slavery. Donald Manning explains the inspiration. "I went to the movie theater in
Jamaica name Tropical. And them was showing a movie . . . them was bringing slave from
Africa, and the movie make I cry . . . when I see what them do to the slave them. When
them was rowing the boat, the man beat the drum for them to pull the oar . . . and when
them could not row the boat anymore, them throw them overboard and some of them die. Some
of them jump overboard and a lot of different, wicked, evil things happen. That's why I
make that song, 'we are the slave descendent from the African race. We are proud, it's no
Despite the illegitimate release of the Clive Hunt sessions, the success of the
"Tenayistillin" single in England gained the Abyssinians enough credibility with
Virgin that the group became one of the crop signed to the UK giant in 1978. The fruit of
the Virgin deal was the Arise album, a good effort but certainly not the
cornerstone that the group needed for international commercial success. The underexposure
of the Clive Hunt sessions was one of the major tragedies of the Abyssinians career.
The group gained some exposure through its performance at Sunsplash II in 1979,
although the performance was not included on the documentary film of the event.
Forward, released in 1982 by Alligator in the US, collected some early tracks like
"Jerusalem" (b-side to the original "Satta" 45), "Mabrak,"
"Peculiar Number," several superb Bernard Collins solo cuts, plus "Forward
Onto Zion" and the remake of "Satta," both from the Clive Hunt sessions.
The Abyssinians were inactive during the mid-80s, because Linford Manning left Jamaica
in 1980, and Donald left in 1984. Bernard Collins went to New York in 1986 to work on an
album at Phillip Smarts HC&F studio on Long Island. Many of those tracks would
be used for the Last Days album. The Abyssinians would play Sunsplash in Jamaica in
1989 and in Europe in 1990, and then Linford Manning left the group for good. The group
performed again on Sunsplash 92 in Montego Bay.
During the 90s, the Forward album was released on CD (Musidisc), as well as set
called Best Of (Musidisc), which features many hard to find singles from the early
years of the group. Satta Dub (TABOU.1) and Declaration of Dub (Heartbeat)
feature Karl Pitterson dub mixes of many tracks from the Clive Hunt sessions alongside
other selected dubs. Virgin reissued Arise on CD in the early 90s.
Collins understands the struggle the Abyssinians still must endure to ensure the name
is known and remembered. "In Jamaica here now, the Abyssinians do have a name, yes,
in a certain area. If you call upon Satta Massagana, Declaration of
Rights, everybody knows those songs, but if you say Abyssinians to most
of the young youths, they dont know. Sometime them dont even know what the
word Abyssinian mean. They never hear that word before. But if you say
Satta Massagana or Declaration of Rights, they know the
by Carter Van Pelt. Originally written in 2001, updated Winter 2005.