The Tune That (Almost) Got Away

#music #reggae

Being a music addict has its disadvantages - and as long as I can remember, I've been one - with a big one being the songs that elude identification. The one you hear on the radio and it starts squatting in your brain. But all you have left by way of tangible clues are a stray vocal shout here, a guitar lick there, perhaps a drum roll or maybe a synth squiggle. Small pickings to start a quest.

The task, however, is much easier these days, given that a) so much information is online (most radio stations and sites publish their playlists) and b) there are sites and systems designed to help you find your music. For example, I recall coming across query by humming search engines (in fact, our research group back in grad school published a paper on this in 1995) and I know there are systems which allow you to hold up your cellphone to the music as it is playing and will identify it for you. All well and good if you hear your anonymous earworm in the immediate present. But what about those from twenty years ago when all this nifty technical stuff didn't exist? What about the track you heard on a small transistor, faintly tuned to some station in the desert? Or perhaps piped through the headphones plugged to the seat socket in an airplane, sandwitched in between endless replays of REO Speedwagon and Wham?

The task is made even more difficult by the intervening years. Was that really the lyric in the song? How fast was the tempo? Slowly but surely, though, I've been tracking down some of those lost tunes from my adolescent years. What I've found to be the most useful is a like minded group of people searching for the same exact little clues and remembering the same little hooks that stayed with them all those years and posting to bulletin boards. Courtesy search engine thoroughness, the right combination of terms finally yields up the treasure. This is one of them. A bouncy, sunny pop reggae track from 1980 by Black Slate, a UK group. I give you "Amigo":

More on Black Slate:

Black Slate formed in 1974 in London, with members hailing from multiple countries. Keyboardist George Brightly and bassist Elroy Bailey were originally from London. Vocalist Keith Drummond, guitarist Chris Hanson, and drummer Desmond Mahoney came from Jamaica, and rhythm guitarist Cledwyn Rogers hailed from Anguilla. The group received their earliest work backing touring Jamaican acts, such as Delroy Wilson. In 1976, they hit the U.K. reggae charts with Sticks Man and landed a pair of hits in 1980, "Boom Boom" and "Amigo."

All these years, I'd heard the lyrics of the song in my head as "I know/I know/I know who..." Searching yielded nothing. Yesterday, somehow, I thought, why not try "amigo"? I don't know why I'd made that leap. The last time I physically heard the song was in Ithaca in the mid '90s, on the Ithaca College radio's weekly reggae program. I ran to the nearest phone and called up. But between the time I tracked down the station number, that DJ's shift had already ended and I was left to wander around in the wilderness for fifteen more years. Until now. Trying "amigo" on Rhapsody yielded a plethora of Spanish songs, as you'd expect. Nothing reggae. So, knowing many people are using YouTube to store their music, I tried "Amigo Reggae" and boom! There it was. A small personal victory and all it took was for me to retry with a different term and for the people of the world to get organized and upload terabytes of data. One more track crossed of my list. Thanks YouTube!

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- September 26, 2009 9:51 AM // Music