The Life and Death of Hugh Mundell: Teenage Reggae Prodigy

With the social changes that took place in Jamaica during the 1970s, youth like Hugh Mundell were inspired to write songs that better days for his countrymen and people of colour. Mundell was a protégé of one of the period's visionaries, music producer Augustus Pablo, whose Rockers label nurtured the talent of fledgling artistes such as Earl Sixteen, Junior Reid and Yami Bolo. Unlike most of his contemporaries who were from tough urban areas, Mundell had a middle-class upbringing. His father was a lawyer and he attended Ardenne High School, but like his mentor he had a passion for black consciousness and roots music. Pablo had produced a series of hard-hitting songs by another young vocalist, Jacob Miller, in the early 1970s. Later that decade, he did the same for Mundell.

The most potent of the singer's sessions for Pablo can be found on the album, Africa Must Be Free By 1983. Driven by the title song, it was an underground hit in Europe. Though it never caught on with Jamaican disc jockeys, Africa Must Be Free By 1983 was an inspiration for budding roots artistes like Anthony Wilmot (later Billy Mystic of the Mystic Revealers) and the Waterhouse-born Reid Mundell and Reid shared a special friendship. They first met in 1978 at the legendary King Tubbys studio in Waterhouse when Mundell was 16 and Reid only 13. Mundell was reportedly so impressed by the youth's voice that he took Reid to Pablo's August Town studio where he recorded Speak The Truth, Reid's first song. Although Mundell was only three years older, Reid says he was a major influence on his life.

"Him was mi brethren, mi godfather. Mundell used to encourage mi everyday," Reid recalled during a 2007 interview. Hugh Mundell was murdered by a gunman in the St Andrew community of Grant's Pen Avenue in October, 1983. Eighteen year-old Junior Reid, who was in the vehicle, witnessed his friend's death. He was only 21 years old. Locally, his name is mentioned only in roots circles but in Europe, Hugh Mundell is regarded as a major force. Africa Must Be Free By 1983 is still one of the most sought roots-reggae albums on that continent, testament to a talented youth with an age-old message.

The day is coming up so soon, When there shall be the falling of all capitalists,  When I and I people shall go home and vanquish Pope Paul down inna Rome, On the Day of Judgment it’s sure gonna be dread!”

Hugh Mundell wrote and sang the opening verses of “Day of Judgment”   when he was just fourteen years of age.  The words hit hard – a one-two punch to capitalism and the vampire of Babylon.  The words are especially relevant to the economic conditions the world’s been experiencing for the past six years – an unprecedented recession with little hope of significant recovery on the horizon.  It’s the same story we’ve been hearing for more than 75 years in the folk songs of Woodie Guthrie, the soul spirituals of Stevie Wonder, the rootical vibrations of Bob Marley, and yes, the post-roots era reggae songs of Hugh Mundell.  The rich get richer while the poor get poorer.  Reggae is at its best when people are suffering the most.

The great Rockers stalwart Junior Delgado describes him most appropriately as “a blessed singer, a blessed child” because his gift was pure and true.  What came to many Jamaican vocalists through years and years of relentless vocal rehearsal came to this“blessed youth” like the sunrise that greets every day, almost as if he was divinely ordained to deliver the message.  Like those who came before him – Marley, Garvey, Malcolm – this prophet and poet of the black struggle was given little time to deliver his message in this realm, however, he used every second, every minute, every hour of that time to speak directly and unapologetically to the injustices of his world. While he was not the greatest singer or songwriter of his time, he was, without a doubt, the best messenger – capable of delivering Jah message with an ease, efficiency and sincerity that we haven’t seen since.

Hugh Mundell is a classic study in the dichotomy of the individual, the struggle within.  While he sang with the voice of an angel about unity and the universal notion of ‘one love’ among all men, he was by all accounts a rather difficult person to get to know. Upon meeting Mundell for the first time in 1981 at the Karnac House, a Caribbean Community Centre in Westbourne Park, London, music journalist Roz Reines described the 18-year old artist as a “human iceberg.” As she reported in the November 1981 issue of New Musical Express: 

“We exchange greetings, at least, the road manager and I exchange greetings, while Hugh glares fiercely at a point just behind my head…’Hi’ replied the roadie, smiling equally warmly.  What follows is a scene straight out of a Marx Brothers movie, or a Japanese businessman’s convention.  Every time I try to engage Hugh in conversation, he just glares at me and his roadie is forced to respond.  Meet Hugh Mundell, the human iceberg.”

Hugh Christopher Mundell was born and died in East Kingston, Jamaica.  Born the 14th of June 1962, Mundell is the last of four children and the only son born to Theresa  and Alvin  Mundell. Unlike many who entered the reggae sound business in the 1970s, Mundell is blessed to be born into a tight-knit middle class family. His father Alvin Mundell was a successful and well-respected attorney who moved his family often. It isn’t until the early 1970s that the family settles in the Red Hills area of St. Andrews parish.  Hugh  attends St. Margaret’s Preparatory School, Kingsway Preparatory School, and enters the Ardenne High School on Hope Road in 1976, the same high school that graduated Shower Posse boss and notorious drug kingpin Michael Christopher Coke AKA “The President” AKA “Dudus.” It is at the Ardenne High School, at the age of twelve, that Hugh Mundell starts writing his first lyrics and singing. Mundell’s older sister Joanna, a student at  the Excelsior High School along with a host of other youths from the neighborhood, including Wayne Wade, Winston McAnuff, and Earl Daley (Earl Sixteen). Mundell strikes up a friendship with the three youths and they are often seen hanging in and around the Mundell house.

As Winston McAnuff recalls “the Mundell family lived in the house opposite to that of my sister, with whom I lived at the time. Wayne lived the next house down from Mundell.”
As a youth, Mundell spends much of his time running races with other neighborhood boys of his age. He is so competitive as a runner that many think he will develop into an athlete. However, as he enters puberty he discovers his voice and he begins spending countless hours on the street where he lives in the early mornings singing some popular songs. It isn’t at all strange that the youths show an early interest in music, as the reggae music coming from “down a yaad” was the reigning newspaper of the day to Jamaican youths, who exhibited little interest in the rumours and hearsay published in the politically-influenced Star, Daily News, and Gleaner. The boys spend their class time writing lyrics and arranging the next hit tunes in their head while the teacher drones on about white English writers and poets with names like Keating and Yeats. 

“From when I was about 12 or 13 years of age I started writing lyrics in school and I was also living in an avenue with two artists – Wayne Wade and Winston  – and we used to play and sing together taking turns” explains Mundell in a November 1980 interview with Sounds magazine’s Edwin Pouncey.  “So as from a youth I used to love singing in front of an audience and I would admire the singers around.”

Mundell delves a bit deeper into his roots as a singer in an interview with Penny Reel, published in Black Echoes, November 8, 1980: 

“From I’m a youth,very young, I say I love to sing, do some singing out there.  I used to love singing from a youth and my father love singing.  My mommy sing and wash.  More time me used to pick up the habit, not really the habit, the vibration of singing.  I used to take in some stage shows and say, ‘boy one day I like deh deh so an have the mic in front of an audience and let them know what’s going down.  When I start going to school now, high school, I start write my own lyrics.  I used to sing my own lyrics.  I used to write and I used to sing in what them call a soul way, but when I really check it that wasn’t the right way.  I say boy, me come from Jamaica, me shoulda really make some reggae music, cultural music, my own yard music.  Also among Pablo started jamming little reggae and thing.  I say that is the kind of music I really have to go into.”

One of those aspiring singers, Wayne Wade, is the first to gain access to the tightly controlled recording studios, laying down his first track during his senior year at Excelsior titled “Black Is Our Colour” for producer Vivian “Yabby You” Jackson’s Prophets label in 1976. His debut album, Black Is Our Colour  is released in 1976, and is followed by further hits with cover versions of The Paragons’ “Happy Go Lucky Girl” and “On the Beach.”

It is actually through Mundell’s friendship with McAnuff and family friend Boris Gardiner that he is able to break into the business in 1975. In early 1975, record producer Joe Gibbs set up a new studio and record pressing plant at Retirement Crescent and started working with sound engineer Errol Thompson, who used to be at Randy’s Studio.  Together they are known as “The Mighty Two,” and along with his studio band The Professionals (including bassist Robbie Shakespeare, drummer Sly Dunbar and guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith) they produce hundreds of singles, including the hits “Money In My Pocket” by Dennis Brown, “Ah So We Stay” by Big Youth and “Eviction” by Black Uhuru. As McAnuff explains in a 2004 interview with Peter-I at Reggae Vibes: 

"[w]e’re talking the 70’s. Yeah. And then I went to Kingston and I was living near to Hugh Mundell, coincidentally. I started checking some producers to see if I could record some songs. I went to Joe Gibbs one day and I was there playing the guitar, waiting for Errol Thompson. And then Flabba Holt heard the song ‘Malcolm X’ and then he ran to call Errol T to tell him ‘this youth have a wicked song’, an’ t’ing. So he came and he listened so he say we should come on Thursday. I used to work out that time with a keyboard player, from Black Uhuru, called Franklyn Waul (aka ‘Bubbler’ ). We used to go to high school together so we worked out the songs early in the morning before devotion, on the school piano, y’know.  So I decided… I was doing a little recording then with Derrick Harriott too, and then I found out he was playing better than the (other) musicians so I carried him to play on that song ‘Malcolm X’. So I bring about Hugh Mundell as well, y’know. So he did a song about (sings) ‘natty dread is not on First street, natty dread is not on Third street, nowhere is natty dread…’, Hugh Mundell, y’know? I have never heard the song released. After – I tried to sing the song, but it wasn’t up to standard, so I went to Earl Sixteen and he sang the song. Then I was waiting to hear the song released yunno?  And then we saw the song came out with Dennis Brown, they (The Mighty Two) gave the song to Dennis Brown.”

Joe Gibbs takes note of Mundell’s voice during this initial meeting involving McAnuff and the recording of the song ‘Malcolm X.’  Gibbs offers to produce and record the little song that Mundell sang in the studio that day – a song which eventually is titled “Where Is Natty Dread?” (the song was seemingly never pressed to record). During one of his first visits to Joe Gibbs’ studio, Mundell has a chance run-in with devout Rastafarian and dub maestro Augustus Pablo. Pablo steps up to defend Mundell when one of the session musicians commented that Mundell should leave the studio and come back when he hits puberty. It’s the sort of hazing that occurs regularly in the studio, however, Pablo is unimpressed. Pablo’s gesture cements a friendship that will alter the course of Mundell’s personal, spiritual, and professional life forever, and place him among the truly elite Jamaican artists of the golden age of reggae.

Mundell runs into Pablo once again several weeks later at Aquarius Studios, where studio owner and producer Herman Lin Choy chastises the young boy for skipping school. Mundell explains in his November 1980 interview with Sounds magazine’s Edwin Pouncey: 

“I did one recording for Joe Gibbs for Errol T Records which was not released called ‘Where Is Natty Dread’ and one day I was at the studio and [Pablo] saw me at the Joe Gibbs session ‘cos he used to run around and check it out y’know. And he asked me to come and do some recordings for him so I said ‘Yeah!’ So I went by his house and started rehearsing and he create the rhythms. The following Saturday we went to the studio where we recorded my first two songs for release called ‘Africa Must Be Free’ and ‘My, My.’”

In an interview with Lol Bell Brown and the Rootsman (Dub Catcher #8), Pablo talks about meeting Mundell:

“Well, I know Hugh from when he was likkle, y’know, likkle bit ‘im and Earl Sixteen. Through I saw ‘im in the studio [Joe Gibbs] one day an’ some musician was ‘andle ‘im a way, so I kinda defend ‘im an’ tek ‘im away from them, an’, y’know, ‘im say ‘im sing, an’ when he mek me ‘ear ‘im music, I say ‘Wha!’ ‘Im mus’ ‘ave to do some music for Errol T [Gibbs’ resident engineer], ca’ Errol did like ‘im voice, but them wasn’t really showin’ that much interest. So I jus’ tek ‘im on from them, an’ ‘im songs were some dangerous reality. An’ I jus’ came an’ rehearse one time an’ from I rehearse ‘im, he was goin’ school still, y’know, ‘im was 11 plus, an’ he jus’ stop goin’ school an’ start recordin’. I think it Stratch [Lee Perry] studio me carry ‘im record firs’, ca’ them time I still ‘ave a vibes with Scratch an’ ‘im jus’ gi’ me some free studio time [for] ‘Let’s All Unite’, y’know? It was a nice tune to bring ‘im on the scene. Then we recorded ‘Africa Must Be Free’ down at Channel One. I really made that riddim before as an instrumental, an’ I jus’ had it there, I never knew what I was g’wine do with it all time, an’ ‘im hear that riddim an’ say, ‘Yeah’, ‘im can fit in the lyrics ‘pon it. To me that was his hit to the world, although it wasn’t a number one tune in Jamaica, but it was jus’ a number one to the world, the people in the world, the roots people too…………Junior Reid was in the car that day he died, y’know? Junior Reid jus’ sittung inna the back an’ the bullet pass Junior Reid an’ hit Mundell in his head back.” 

Under the watchful eye and guiding hand of Pablo, Mundell commits his life to music and Rastafari, spending days and nights in the studio recording and reasoning. It is during this period from 1975 to 1979 that Mundell cuts his teeth at the dance deejaying for Pablo’s Rockers Sound System. Taking on the pseudonym ‘Jah Levi,’ Mundell toasts over Rockers riddims selected by Pablo’s brother Dougie Swaby. Pablo protojé and friend of Mundell ‘Jah Bull’ explains in a 2000 interview with Ras Salvador Navarette for Small Axe:
“I met [Mundell] around 1975. He was a very young youth at the time but a very serious youth. When I say serious I mean he was like a likkle man, not a likkle boy. When me remember that youth deh some times it makes me feel like… like pain, yunno? I felt anger and sadness when they killed Hugh Mundell. Hugh Mundell is the one who introduced me to Augustus Pablo. Pablo was living in somewhere Garden Town by Grove during that time, and I was living in Tavern. So that was very close by. We first meet at his house, I didn’t know where he lived so Hugh took me there to meet him. I don’t remember what occured the first meeting but through the powers of Jah we ignite. We became good friends, we get good vibes from each other right from the start. Then he introduced me to the studio just like that. I used to go by Pablo’s house everyday, we used to eat, cook food together, praise Jah together and smoke the hola communion together, which is herb and give praises to the most high Jah Rastafari. Pablo used to run his sound with him brother Dougie. Dougie was the selector. You see Pablo was the star, he would just come, say about 10:00 and select. Yuh know, like the special selector, but it was Dougie whose job that.  When I get fe know Pablo I would just be like a guest on his sound. Me not really play on Pablo’s sound deh.  Me and Hugh Mundell be deejaying on his sound. Then Pablo would play his melodica live, play it live on stage, live deh! Live in the dancehall! Hugh Mundell was the resident deejay. And maybe sometimes Dillenger. Mundell used to deejay as Jah Levi and sing as Hugh Mundell, just like how George Nooks would sing as himself and dj as Prince Mohammed, seen? At first Hugh would sing on the sound but because he used to play his own records he would sing less because the version would have some of his vocals, so he start to deejay on the sound. After that Pablo record him as Jah Levi.”

Between 1975 and 1977, Mundell voices several sessions with Pablo at a handful of recording studios including Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Black Ark, Channel One, Harry Js, and Joe Gibbs with foundation session players including drummers Ben Bow, Carlton “Santa” Davis, Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, and Jacob “Killer” Miller; bassists Robbie Shakespeare and Leroy Sibbles; and guitarists Clayton Downie, Geoffrey Chung, and Earl “Chinna” Smith.

Carlton “Tetrack” Hines talks about those Pablo sessions during a recent interv iew with Reggae Vibes: 

“Budget was always tight. And no matter how tight the budget was, when you go to the studio with Pablo, some of the budget, that studio time (laughs) always go in the way of some herb smokin’, y’know, the chalice haffe bu’n. Going to the studio with Pablo was a whole t’ing in itself. It’s like ‘three or four cars’. Tetrack drive up an’ Pablo come with two taxis. You’d have man like Ricky Grant with a container with some irie Ital stew, you’d ‘ave Jah Bull come out with a chalice, you have Mundell, another man come out with some jelly coconut an’ cane [sugar cane] an’ orange, an’ some other people jus’ there to support the whole thing. And when we got together it was just a irie vibe, idren and idren. We used to use Harry J’s studio a lot. Pablo never had the money to really finance studio sessions the way he would have liked. The good t’ing is that Pablo was a musician, so he was able to get good work done very quickly. And part of the reason is that, when Pablo came to the studio to do a recording, he already had the chords worked out. He also had the bass and drum track set, y’understan’ wha’ I’m sayin’. So the riddims get straightened out real fast. Sometimes we record a song and we would like to make a lickle change here an’ there, but we couldn’t do it because the funds jus’ wasn’t there, so you have to do the bes’ you can. When we did the ‘Let’s Get Started’ album, wow, we voiced like the majority of those songs in one session!  One session, song after song after song. There was no opportunity to do several takes of the song. You have to just rock it, run it, jus’ like that.”

It is during these sessions that Augustus Pablo invites two neighborhood kids, an eleven-year old Wycliffe “Steelie” Johnson and a fourteen-year old Cleveland “Clevie” Browne, to play their first session. As Clevie explains in an interview at the Red Bull Music Academy:

“Yeah, our friendship goes back to the early ’70s. He had just started playing keyboards at that time, I was just learning drums. We found out we had similar tastes in music. The songs he liked, I liked. We just started jamming together. Everyday we’d go into this room where I had my old battered drum kit and a little keyboard. We just jammed together but we didn’t know then we would have a production team. We were invited to play on a recording, our first ever, by Augustus Pablo, to play on a Hugh Mundell session and some songs with a singer called Earl Sixteen.”

Steelie also talked about his involvement with the Africa Must Be Free sessions during the same interview:

“I actually have the track here, the Hugh Mundell. ‘Africa Must Be Free By 1983 Dub.’  This was when I was 11 and [Clevie] was 14, I’m playing keyboards.”

The very first song that Mundell and Pablo collaborated on after the initial two singles is a stunner, and one that would forever have a stake in the social movement to abolish apartheid in South Africa. “Africa Must Be Free By 1983,” which features a bubbling rhythm so good, so well-produced by Pablo, that he should have kept it for himself. All of the songs recorded during these sessions were written by Mundell when he was between the age of 14 and 16 years of age. Each track was arranged by Pablo, with the exception of two songs. “Let’s All Unite” and “Why Do Black Man Fuss & Fight,” were laid down at the Black Ark and supervised and mixed by Lee Perry. “Lets All Unite” is initially released on Pablo’s Rockers International label in 1977. It sees a subsequent release in the UK in 1978 by Greensleeves and another Jamaican 7” pressing on the Rockers label. The song “Book of Life” is released as a 7” on both the Rockers label and the Rockers International label in 1977. “Let’s All Unite”, “My Mind,” “Africa Must Be Free By 1983,” “Why Do Black Man Fuss And Fight,” “Book Of Life,” “Run Revolution A Come,” “Day Of Judgement,” ”Jah Will Provide,” “Ital Slip." Of course, these nine roots reggae tracks make up the entirety of Mundell’s groundbreaking 1978 album Africa Must Be Free By 1983, the title of which comes from a speech given by His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I. 

“Africa must be free from colonialism and all kind of various ism and schism. A lot of changes is taking place now as everyone can see.”

Hugh Mundell's Second Album...

Hugh Mundell's Fourth Album...

The sister of slain Reggae pioneer, Hugh Mundell, suffered a similar fate to her brother. Andrea Mundell-Bowen was killed on her coffee farm in Golden Spring, St Andrew by one of her former employees in 2015. Early reports indicate that the slain woman was raped before she was brutally murdered and her body hidden under bushes. In October 1983, her brother Hugh Mundell was shot and killed while sitting in a car along Grants Pen Avenue. Also in the vehicle were Mundell’s wife and his protégé, Junior Reid, who survived the attack.Reid was introduced to the world of Reggae by Mundell and to this day speaks highly of his mentor. In 1985, 25-year-old Ricardo Codrington, a labourer of Above Rocks, St Andrew, was sentenced in the High Court to 10 years at hard labour for Mundell’s murder. Codrington was charged with murder, but the jury convicted him of the lesser offense. 

The Life and Times of Hugh Mundell originally appeared on Midnight raver blog

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