His influential approach, which permeates the landscape of classic reggae, can still be felt today with superstar Ziggy Marley. Santa’s secret? The perfect blend of tradition and experimentation.
The first drummer to record at the legendary Channel One studio in Kingston, Jamaica, Carlton “Santa” Davis is one of reggae’s true godfathers, with credits as broad as Bob Marley, the Aggrovators, Augustus Pablo, King Tubby, and Peter Tosh. Davis was in Tosh’s home when the reggae star was assassinated in 1987, and he remembers the event with difficulty.
“It was a terrible experience,” Davis recalls. “That happened because of some greedy cats who didn’t want to work. It was tough to see your good friend getting killed right in front of your eyes. I was shot through the shoulder. I’m still walking with a bullet in me, real close to my spine. I’m like a bionic man walking around with a nine-millimeter bullet in my back. That was meant for my head. By the grace of God I shifted my head. I did it so violently I broke my collarbone.” Davis’s “bionic” status certainly hasn’t hindered his feel. Manning Ziggy Marley’s drum throne since 2003, Davis has an approach that comprises a fat pocket, staccato tom fills, and the “flying cymbals” hi-hat style he created with the famed reggae producer Bunny Lee. Santa released a solo album, Da Zone, in 2008, and is currently working on a follow-up.
MD: How did reggae’s accent on the third beat of the bar come about?
Santa: It all came from ska, which is more of an up-tempo, jazz/blues kind of thing, then it slowed down to rocksteady. And the accent changed to match the guitars. In rocksteady it was more 8ths on the hi-hat, and then it turned to 16ths, and that is what gave the music the reggae feel.
MD: The “flying cymbal” sound that began with the Aggrovators, striking the hi-hat for an open and closed effect, is an important ingredient in reggae drumming.
Santa: I was the one that recorded that first, but it was originally part of soca. When I played that in the ’70s it became popular because of the attitude I played with—it was more open and pronounced. I didn’t name it the flying cymbal; that was Bunny Lee. I played it on “None Shall Escape the Judgment” by Earl Zero. But for years it was played in calypso, where the accent was a little different. I played it more aggressively.
MD: You recorded Bob Marley’s “High Tide or Low Tide,” “Sun Is Shining,” “Africa Unite,” “Shout Down Babylon,” and other tracks. But your groove on Peter Tosh’s Mama Africa album is much different, more laid back.
Santa: You can’t play the same way for everybody, even if you’re playing reggae. You have to identify the attitude of the leader. If I am working with Peter Tosh, I recognize his attitude and I play with that attitude. I don’t go hell for leather. I listen to the song, his singing, then I play with the attitude of that song. You have to adapt. Mama Africa has that laid-back vibe, but if you hear Augustus Pablo, I’m pushing.
MD: The tom rhythms you played on intros of early reggae tracks sound like gerbils running across the music.
Santa: [laughs] It’s funny. One of my favorite drummers was Billy Cobham. He did these aggressive rolls across his toms. I was in Jamaica, but I listened to Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Billy Cobham, Tony Williams, Max Roach—all the masters. A lot of those fills that you hear are coming from all these influences. That’s why I would play 16th rolls and triplets. Sly [Dunbar] did that too.
MD: What are the different reggae styles?
Santa: You have roots rock reggae, which is what Bob Marley did. It’s the way it swings. Then you have lovers rock reggae, the energy of Gregory Isaacs or Dennis Brown. Revolutionary reggae is that harddriving thing with cutting horns, like Sly Dunbar would do. We used a lot of tape on the drums back then. We’d remove the bottom head. It was easy to take the bottom skin off and put some tape on the top head so you get that flat, dead sound. Later I realized I couldn’t keep doing that, so I learned how to tune both skins.
MD: Were click tracks used in the ’70s in Jamaica?
Santa: No, straight-up playing. It was hard to be restricted to that clicking at first. Back then the LinnDrum was just coming in. Now I play with the click all the time. It’s easier to match things to the grid that way.
MD: When rimclicking, are you using the butt end or the tip?
Santa: I used to use the butt end; now I use the tip. I used to go through heads. So I returned to the way I played in drum corps. It feels better. Nowadays you don’t have to play as hard—the equipment is better. When I play easier now it turns out better sonically. And I can still swing the music.
MD: Are you playing hard in the studio on the classic ’70s recordings?
Santa: You play as hard as you can, but not too hard or overly aggressive. If you play too hard you will have a lot of leakage. You play just hard enough to lay down enough signal, but you still have to play controlled.
MD: Has the pulse in reggae changed?
Santa: In the ’70s, you would create something around the artist. In Jamaica right now, drummers are playing to click tracks, so I don’t hear that freedom. Everything has a sameness. Even the way a lot of guys tune their drums. They want them to sound like Carlton Barrett’s drums. When I was recording in Jamaica everybody had a recognizable sound. Everybody had a different style. Nowadays these guys play the same drum fills. They don’t have any originality. They have a drum-machine mentality. They haven’t figured out how to be free with the music.
MD: What tips can you give to a burgeoning reggae drummer?
Santa: Do the research by listening to ska, rocksteady, and then early-’70s to mid-’80s reggae. Listen to Bob Marley, because his style was a sound of his own. It’s different from Peter Tosh or Burning Spear. Listen to the music from Channel One. That will give you an idea of how all the elements are put together. Reggae is simple, but there are certain nuances and certain feels. It’s all about putting your own thing to it. It’s not real difficult, but if you think about it too much it will be difficult. Reggae music is all about being free.
Santa Davis’s Flying Cymbal and Heavy Reggae Pulse
Transcribed by Eric Novod
Tommy McCook and the Aggrovators, “Dance With Me,” King Tubby Meets the Aggrovators at Dub Station
This is an example of Davis’s famed “flying cymbal” groove. The open hi-hats sustain longer than they usually do in reggae music, creating a floating feeling. (0:00)
The Aggrovators, “Ethiopians Rock,” Dub Attack
Here’s a clean, classic 16th-note reggae groove. Be careful to accent just the “&.” (0:56)
Peter Tosh, “Coming in Hot,” Complete Captured Live
This trickier-than-it-looks 16th-note groove alternates between the rack tom (measure 1) and the floor tom (measure 2). (0:21)
Peter Tosh, “Mama Africa,” Complete Captured Live
Here’s one more classic upbeat groove, with a single rack tom played on the “a” of beat 3. (1:28)