Biography: The Abyssinians

The roots harmony vocal trio, the Abyssinians was formed in 1968 in Jamaica by founding members Donald Manning, Bernard Collins and Linford Manning. In 1969, they released “Satta Massagana” recorded on Coxson Dodd’s Studio One label—a Rastafarian hymn speaking of Ethiopia. “Satta Massagana was a hit that has become an anthem worldwide and launched The Abyssinians into the ranks of International stardom. “Satta Massagana” has became one of reggae’s most popular songs. It has also been covered by many other top artists such as Third World and Don Carlos. What followed was a string of hits including "Declaration of Rights," "Yi Mas Gan." and “Let My Days Be Long”. The early albums were collections of singles recorded throughout the 1970’s on their own label, Clinch. From the early to mid-70s, the Abyssinians recorded sparingly, but the quality of the group’s work was remarkable.

The Abyssinians’ first full album was recorded in 1976 and is regarded as one of the greatest in the history of Jamaican music. The sessions were supervised by Clive Hunt and resulted in the album known both as Forward Onto Zion and Satta Massagana. Every track exudes the spiritual essence of the Abyssinians. The group’s Africentric lyrics were crystallized on virtually every cut on the album, and it featured remakes of "Satta," "Declaration of Rights," and "Y Mas Gan." Donald Manning’s masterpiece "African Race" is one of the defining compositions of the album and of the group’s career. After a seductively beautiful acoustic guitar solo by Mikey Chung, the song erupts into a chilling roots anthem. The lyrics speak with pride of their African heritage and of their survival of slavery. Regrettably, the tapes were pirated, and the album didn’t see legitimate release until Heartbeat (US) and Blue Moon (France) released it in the mid-90s.

Despite the illegitimate release of the Clive Hunt sessions, the success of the "Tenayistillin" single in England gained the Abyssinians enough credibility with Virgin that the group became one of the crop signed to the UK giant in 1978. The fruit of the Virgin deal was the Arise album. Forward, released in 1982 by Alligator in the US, collected some early tracks like "Jerusalem" (b-side to the original "Satta" 45), "Mabrak," "Peculiar Number," several superb Bernard Collins solo cuts, plus "Forward Onto Zion" and the remake of "Satta," both from the Clive Hunt sessions. In the late eighties, Donald, Bernard and Linford spent three years in serious recording sessions. The result of this work was another big album - $19.95 + TAX . In 1998, Artists Only! Records re-released this album as REUNION.

In the late 90’s Donald Mannings did some major US and European tours with his brother, Carlton Mannings and David Morrison. In 1999, Donald, Carlton and David did a thirty seven city North American tour with three of Donald’s sons, Judah, Prince and Andrew on bass, drums and keyboards. These same sons have gone on to become some of the top reggae musicians in the business. The shows were well received and well executed, but some people still longed to hear the original Bernard Collins voice.

In 2004, Donald Manning & Bernard Collins reunited after a ten-year hiatus along with David Morrison, on a European tour. Later that year they did Colorado’s Reggae on the Rocks a two-week tour along the California coast. In February and March of 2005 they did an extended tour of Europe, and in the summer of 2005 they toured the western US again. They also performed that year in the US with Bernard Collins at the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, the Monterey Bay Reggae Festival and the Soul Rebel Festival.

Until Heartbeat Records reissued Satta Massagana (a.k.a. Forward Onto Zion) in 1993, few groups in reggae were more of an enigma than the Abyssinians. "Satta Massagana," has been referred to as "reggae’s national anthem. ‘There is a land far, far away, where there’s no night, there’s only day. Look into the book of life, and you will see that there’s a land far, far away.’ "Satta Massagana" (meaning ‘give thanks’) is notable for its use of Amharic, the language of Ethiopia (Abyssinia). Donald Manning explains the Amharic in some of the group’s well-known compositions. "Tena Yi Stillin. Dina Igzhabhier Y Mas Gan. Satta Massagana.’ When I say ‘Dina’ means ‘good,’ ‘Igzhabier’ means ‘God,’ ‘Y Mas Gan,’ [means] ‘He may be praised. ‘Tena Yi Stillin’ means ‘greetings.’ It means ‘good morning.’ It means ‘good bye.’ It means ‘good afternoon.’ It means ‘health, may He give for thee.’"
The legendary "Satta" recording session included Leroy Sibbles on bass, Fil Callendar on drums, Eric Frater on guitar, Robbie Lyn on keyboards, Vin Gordon on trombone and Felix "Deadley Headley" Bennett on saxophone. The original "Satta" recording was ‘versioned’ (remixed and/or re-voiced) more than a dozen times, including the Abyssinians’ own remake "Mabrak," a direct response to Joe Gibbs’ "A So." Instrumentals included "Thunderstorm" featuring Bongo Herman, and several Tommy McCook/Vivien Hall horn overdubs including "Mandela." Collins later re-voiced the song as "Satta Me No Born Yah." Prince Far I, Big Youth, Dillinger and others also took shots at the rhythm. Since its debut in 1969, nearly every producer in reggae has remade "Satta," and literally hundreds of remakes of the song exist. The Abyssinians were featured performing "Satta" in a capella style in the film Roots, Rock, Reggae in 1976 and again in Rockers in 1978. These are the only known film appearances of the original trio.

Carlton Manning’s (Donald’s older brother) key role in mentoring the Abyssinians is comparable to the role Joe Higgs played with the Wailers years earlier. Carlton Manning coached the trio in the minor chord harmony singing that would define its style, and he also taught Donald to play the guitar. Donald Manning recalls his brother’s efforts. "Most of the harmony that we sing, Carlton teach us, because me and Bernard was singing together and Carlton told me that because I was playing the guitar, Bernard will sing [more] leads than I do . . . so I must sing the harmony." This minor chord harmony style characterized the Abyssinians unique sound. "[My] harmonies are mainly minor chords on a 7th, 9th, 13th [tertian (3rds)] harmony. If you know the [guitar], you deal with the chords and formulate the harmonies from there if the artists can take it. Minor chords are intricate. The scales are not the regular scales. You have to know what you’re doing musically. [That’s how] you get the Far Eastern sound.”
The Abyssinians have a distinct sound that is special and beloved. Fortunately for the world, Linford Mannings has been replaced for the live shows with an exceptionally talented replacement in David Morrison, so the trio is in top form to this day representing the roots of reggae music. “Glory to Jah, let him be praised.”