Music World Mourns a Pair of Pioneers

Two distinctive and influential musicians passed away this week: Jamaican ska pioneer Desmond Dekker and Egyptian musician Hamza el Din. Dekker's 1969 hit "The Israelites" helped introduce Jamaica's vibrant music scene to the world. El Din's work on the oud (a six-stringed lute) highlighted traditional sounds of North Africa. In 1978, he helped arrange a performance of the Grateful Dead at the Great Pyramids.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Before Bob Marley, there was Desmond Decker, propelling the sound of Jamaica to the top of the British and American pop charts.

(Soundbite of The Israelites)

Mr. DESMOND DECKER (Jamaican ska pioneer): (Singing) Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir, so that every mouth can be fed. Poor me, the Israelite.

BLOCK: Desmond Decker died yesterday of a heart attack at his home in England. The 64-year-old was born in the Jamaican capitol Kingston and was orphaned as a teenager. He worked as a welder before turning to singing and songwriting. This 1969 single, The Israelites, was Decker's biggest hit. It got airplay when the songs Sugar, Sugar, Take a Letter, Maria and Build Me Up Buttercup were in heavy rotation.

Mr. TOM TERRELL (Music journalist): When I first heard it I was like what the heck is that?

BLOCK: Music journalist Tom Terrell.

Mr. TERRELL: Like nobody knows the words to Louie, Louie? Quite right and nobody really quite knows the words to Israelites. I mean it sounds like gibberish, but it was such an amazing, amazing record with that wake up in the morning, cooking for breakfast or whatever the heck he says. And more than enough and be free. You know, I mean, it's an incredible, and, oh, the Israelites. It's very much like a chain gang song to me. I don't think there's anybody who doesn't love that song.

BLOCK: The Israelites cracked the top ten in the United States and made it all the way to number one on the British singles chart. This was five years before reggae took off in the U.S. Tom Terrell says while Desmond Decker wasn't as big as Bob Marley, his music helped tune listeners' ears for reggae.

Mr. TERRELL: Desmond Decker's main importance is that he opened the door. He gave Jamaicans finally a profile in the world of pop music that they never had up until that point. He proved that the Jamaican root sound could be a sound that could travel further than just Kingston.

(Soundbite of The Israelites)

BLOCK: Desmond Decker died yesterday at the age of 64.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: World music lost another pioneer this week. Egyptian composer and performer Hamza el Din. He focuses attention on ancient traditional songs of North Africa by singing and playing the oud, a six string instrument similar to a lute.

Hamza el Din's music also evoked a sense of spirituality. In 1999, he told NPR that God was the source of his music.

Mr. HAMZA EL DIN (Musician): Maybe I'm a little bit spiritually inclined so I am, so my music also calls out to a spiritualism, but to tell the truth, I didn't intend to do it this way because I believe I am not a musician. He is the musician. I am just the instrument holder.

BLOCK: Hamza el Din drew the attention of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead in the 1960s. He got a recording contract in the U.S. and he eventually moved here.

He died Monday in San Francisco. He was 76.

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