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Sugar Belly and his Bamboo Sax

 

Page last revised: 9/22/13

 

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Background

Sugar Belly (William Walker) was an anachronism. This player and maker of bamboo saxophones recorded music featuring this instrument spanning the 1970s into the beginning of the 1990s. This is despite the fact that by the end of the 1960s, the bamboo sax had vanished from mento recordings. Recording mento bands of the 1970s and beyond opted instead for professional woodwinds, or, more frequently, no woodwinds at all.

   

Yet, perhaps as a novelty, or as a symbol of the past, Sugar Belly recorded at least three LPs and at least sixteen singles (though probably more), typically on a Coxsone imprint, such as the samples to the left, staring his bamboo sax. These recordings would span mento, calypso and reggae, and the songs came from a wide variety of sources.

As the article below explains, Sugar Belly's band started playing mento with traditional mento instrumentation. But over time, the instrumentation, style and repertoire changed. Though the recordings described on this page span genres and instrumental accompaniment, Sugar Belly's mento instrument is always in the spotlight. These recordings were often instrumental, as Sugar was not a singer.

Accounts such as the one below credit Walker as having
invented the bamboo sax in Jamaica. I do not know that
this has ever been validated. Also unknown is whether he
played on any mento recordings other than the material
that bears his name.

     

     

     

     

 

Video Clip
 

The 1979 Canadian television series, "The Music of Man", featured an all too brief segment on Sugar Belly. In it, the construction of his bamboo sax is discussed, followed by a short performance of Sly Mongoose.  Making up for the fact that Sugar is not referred to by name (though his name does appear in the credits), is a chance to hear him play a bit of mento, backed by off-screen acoustic guitar and shaker.

Video of this clip can be downloaded here, in Real file format:

Sugar Belly - Real 160x120 (239 KB)

Sugar Belly - Real 320x240 (3,079 KB)

Windows Media file format downloadable files:

Sugar Belly - Windows Media 176x144 (393 KB)

Sugar Belly - Windows Media 320x240 (2,416 KB)

 


This clip came courtesy of David Badagnani of Kent State University. David includes mento in his teaching at the university's Center for the Study of World Musics.

 

Here is a
YouTube
version
of the clip:

 

 

 


Article

Here are excerpts and pictures of a 1993 article on Sugar Belly and the instrument he created, with the permission and courtesy of Bart Hopkin of Experimental Musical Instruments. The entire article can be seen at http://www.windworld.com/emi/articles/sugarbel.htm.

William Walker, known to all as Sugar Belly, developed on his own the instrument he called the bamboo saxophone, and played it with facility, style, passion and joy. At the height of his popularity in the late 1950s Sugar Belly was one of the important figures in the Jamaican music scene, turning his homemade saxophone into a natural vehicle for a distinctively Caribbean musical style.

THE MAN
Sugar Belly was raised in Kingston. In music he was entirely self-taught. Just where he got the idea to create a bamboo saxophone is a bit of a mystery, since there is no traditional bamboo reed instrument in Jamaica, and no one that I have spoken to can recall seeing any other locally-made saxophone-like instrument in the island. Sugar Belly's instrument seems to have been entirely his own in conception and design. In its construction the instrument might seem simple and crude, but you know the tree by its fruit: from it Sugar Belly managed to bring the most fluid, warm, agile, and unquestionably sax-like music you could wish for.

In the early days Sugar Belly played in talent exhibitions at Victoria Park in downtown Kingston, where years before Marcus Garvey had addressed the crowds. With increasing recognition he moved on to night clubs, such as the popular Glass Bucket located uptown at Halfway Tree. The leading popular music style in Jamaica at that time was mento. Sugar Belly's band originally used a typical mento instrumentation of banjo, guitar and shakers, with the big bass kalimba known in Jamaica as a rumba box providing the bottom. Later he incorporated electric guitar and bass. Through the 1960s mento gradually faded in popularity. Sugar Belly brought popular songs from a broader range of local and international styles into his repertoire; still, as time passed, he and his band were heard from less and less. He later moved to the parish of St. Anne on the island's north coast, and it was there that he died circa 1990 following a long illness.

THE INSTRUMENT
Sugar Belly did make a fair number of bamboo saxophones over the years, keeping some to play himself and selling others. The main segment of his bamboo saxophone is a straight section of bamboo, an inch or so in diameter and something over a foot long. Into this at one end is inserted a mouthpiece of a few inches long, made from a smaller piece of bamboo sized so as to fit snugly into the main segment. Where a commercial sax has cork to ensure a leakless fit between the mouthpiece and the main tube, Sugar Belly put several rounds of masking tape to provide an adequate gasket.
 


At the other end of the main bamboo tube, Sugar Belly placed a conical commercial thread spool made of heavy cardboard. Once again, masking tape serves as a gasket to ensure a snug fit and a leakless joint. The conical spool in turn leads to a wider-angled funnel of tin. Sugar Belly had this one metal part fabricated for him by a tinsmith.

 

LPs

Sugar Belly recorded a series of LPs in the 1960s and 1970s. "Linstead Market" by The Sugar Belly Combo is the best of these, and the only one that can be called mento. The jacket is bordered by the text, "Authentic Mento & Calypso" and features an illustration of rural mento instruments. It is mento (with a touch of calypso and Latin), though the instrumentation is somewhat less rural than the jacket would lead you to believe. The instrumentation consists of trap drums, electric guitar, bass, flute, vocals (on some tracks), and, of course, Sugar's bamboo sax. (The mento line up with banjo and rumba box that Sugar describes in the article above does not appear to have recorded.) One instrumental track sounds reminiscent of Chin's Calypso Sextet, one track has a reggae rhythm and other tracks featuring a calypso rhythm played on the electric guitar. The track "Soldering" is actually the LP's second rendition of "Rucumbine". Sugar is not heard on this track.

Because this LP is not in print, here is a song clip of John Tom from the "Linstead Market" album. The arrangement of this old folk song is typical in sound to the rest of the LP. [Click here for notes About the Audio Clips On this Site.]

Unfortunately, being on the Studio One label, Port-O-Jam, it's at the cusp of Studio One collectors and mento collectors, and subsequently sells for more than it's probably worth. Perhaps it will be re-released on CD, as "Sugar Merengue", described below.

Thanks to Studio One expert Rob Chapman for a recording of this LP and and for placing its approximate release date at 1966. Thanks to Olivier Albot (with an assist from Laurent Pfeiffer) for the scans below.
 

   



Here's an autograph "From Sugar Belly"
to "Tamara Queen" from another copy of
Linstead Market.

   There's (mostly) reggae and calypso, and some mento songs, but, regrettably, no mento music on this Studio One CD re-release of Sugar Belly's LP, "Sugar Merengue". Thanks to Olivier Albot for placing the release at 1974.

"The Return of Sugar Belly - One of The Legendary Mento and Rumba Giants"

  
 
reads the cover of this LP on the Techniques label . Calypso rhythms played by reggae musicians (and some reggae sounds). Some familiar mento songs, but, again, no pure mento music. Thanks again to Olivier for placing the release date at 1986.

Singles
 

Sugar recorded a variety of singles featuring his bamboo sax as the lead instrument. Some are
pictured at the top of this page. Here are some others.

On the Kalypso label, a single by Calypso Champions featuring Sugar Belly and His Bamboo
Sax
, with vocals by Lord Composer:  "A Talk With The Doctor"       b/w:     "Sally Brown" 
    
  

This record is the sole connection between Sugar Belly and
the golden age of mento and seems to be his earliest
recording session.

These sides are the same recordings as "Doctor" and "Sally
Brown" that are commonly attributed to Count Lasher as
seen here (along with an audio clip). But the expert ears of
Dan Neely did not accept this as fact. The discovery of this
record may finally solve the mystery of the singer involved.



(A thank you to Richard Noblett of London for the second of the four scans above.)


 

   On Coxsone Dodd's Port-O-Jam label, a 1972 single by Sugar Belly and The Canefields:

"Skokian"        

   b/w:

"Mother's Eyes"   


"Skokian" is a reggae-mento instrumental. Its actually a cover of "Skokiaan", a popular Zimbabwean song by  August Musarurwa. (Thanks to Jurjen Borregaard for point this out.) Sugar shares the lead with an organ player on this track.

"Mother's Eyes" has the sound of an old standard, and does not sound at all Jamaican, except for Sugar's versatile bamboo sax playing lead. Rey Foster emailed me in 2008 with the probable origin of this track:

Duke Reid, the Jamaican record producer - Treasure Isle label, used to have an extremely popular Jamaican radio show  in the 50's called Treasure Isle Time. He used an alto saxophone instrumental for the introduction and ending of the show. The title was " My Mother's Eyes", by the late Tab Smith, an American artist.

    On Sonia Pottinger's label, Sky Note, a 12" single by Sugar Belly and King Vup:

"Rukumbine"         b/w:
"African Book"   

Both tracks are disco mixes with Vup doing a vocal version sans Sugar Belly, segued into an instrumental version with

Sugar's bamboo sax taking the lead. Both tracks are mento-reggae, with the b-side also adding a bit of calypso into the mix. King Vup has also recorded another version of "Rukumbine" in a calypso-y style backed by reggae musicians.

  Jurjen Borregaard is another Port-O-Jam reggae single:

"Solder Bolt" by Sugar Belly
     b/w:
"Welding" by Ital Sound

Jurjen reports that the A side is Sugar doing "Soldering". The b side is a melodica version.

   

 


From the collection of Ray Templeton of the UK (see below),
here are four more Port-O-Jam label Sugar Belly 45s:

"Wonderland By Night" and "Jr. Jive" are from 1974 and credited to Sugar Belly and The Canefields.

"Over Dub A" and "Over Dub B" are from 1972, credited to Sugar Belly and C. Dodd takes the writing credit.

Book featuring Sugar Belly

Sugar Belly and his bamboo sax were featured in the 1996 book and CD release, Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones: Experimental Musical Instruments by Bart Hopkins. The book described 37 inventive and unusual musical instruments. The companion CD compiled 17 tracks featuring these instruments, including "Shake Up Adinah", a Sugar Belly reggae recording originally released in 1972 on Port-O-Jam.

Also see...

Ray Templeton of the UK has a web site called "Music of the African Diaspora", which
includes a photo of Sugar Belly and additional label scans of his 45s.  It can been seen at:
http://members.lycos.co.uk/dubcitizen/jamaica/index.html. The photo comes from a 1986 performance at the Commonwealth Institute in London which Ray remembers as an amazing evening.
 

email me at:
mike@mentomusic.com

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