Text by Anderson Muth

Artwork by Irie Design

A rarity amongst the most versioned riddims, the Abyssians’ “Satta Massagana” (plus a myriad of similar spellings) has also been regularly covered by other artists. Driven by powerful horns that give way to entrancing vocals, the original song is instantly recognizable. Retrospectively, it’s certainly a leading contributor to the deeply orthodox strain of reggae music – where Rastafarian hymns take root on slower, more meditational instrumentals.

For non-Amharic speakers, what does this mystical song title mean? Founding member Donald Manning recalls, in Thibault Ehrengardt’s Reggae and Politics in the 1970s (p. 100), “when you say ‘satta amassa gana,’ it’s not to give thanks to God, but to someone who do something for you, like giving you a lighter or something. To thank the Father, you fe say ‘dina igzhabier yim mas gan.” The author then explains that “this mistake doesn’t ruin the song; on the contrary, it makes it even more moving.”

With a multi-year delay before public release, “Satta Massagana” was well worth the wait, and the Abyssinians’ confidence was clearly correct: this has become regarded as their masterwork. While the precise history is a bit murky, it seems the song was composed in 1968, recorded at Studio One in 1969, and then sat on by famed producer Coxsone Dodd, before it was finally self-released in 1971/1972 (there are multiple early releases on 7”). Rootsworld explains why: “the somber, slowed-down groove and the obscure spiritual references made Dodd think the results would leave Jamaican audiences cold. Undeterred, the Abyssinians bought the master, released it on their own, and proved Dodd wrong; indeed, ‘Satta Massagana’ entered the devotional canon of Rastafari
congregations around Jamaica.”

Carlton & The Shoes – Happy Land [Coxsone Records, 1968]

The Youtube commenters have been verified by reggae historians Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton in The Rough Guide to Reggae: “‘Happy Land’ was to act as template for the Abyssinians’ ‘cultural’ anthem, ‘Satta Massa Ganna,’ recorded the following year at the same studio, though not released until two years later
and on the trio’s own Clinch label. Both records shared the same concern, the Rastafarian dream of repatriation to an Arcadian paradise in Africa, and also employed similar minor-chord melodies and dread-slow rhythms” (p. 141). It’s well worth noting the overlap in members between Carlton & The Shoes and The Abyssinians: the Manning brothers.

The Abyssinians – Satta Massagana [Clinch, 1971/1972]

Given the importance of this song within the reggae pantheon today, Stephen Davis’ perspective in the well-regarded 1983 book, Reggae International, demonstrates the fame already achieved within a decade of release: “… the advent of reggae seemed to bring out more chant-like, message-oriented singing. When the Abyssinians recorded ‘Satta Amassagana’ in the late ‘60s, the almost modal, wailing harmonies found little favor. Yet, by the early ‘70s, the booming bass line and akete-style drum patterns of the rhythm became one of the most widely used rhythms in reggae. Its hymn-like lyrics about Africa (‘there is a land, far, far, away…’) became an anthem. All this reflected the growing influence of Rastafarianism and Africa-consciousness in general.” (p. 96)

A seminal recording, it’s a standout track on the devastatingly impressive 1975/1976 LP, also featuring “Declaration of Rights,” titled Satta Massagana. This riddim, this song, and this album ought to be in any reggae collection. Amongst other recordings by the Abyssinians themselves, a more soulful take is available (clearly recorded several years later), which gives top billing to singer Bernard Collins. A full dub LP finally saw release in 1998, and was extended out to 33 tracks in 2017; naturally, the potent “Satta Amassa Gana Dub” is the opening song. It’s worth mentioning that unlike many a popular riddim, where it’s the instrumental getting all the attention, the original song has been covered by the likes of Ken Boothe, Cedric “Im” Brooks, Earth & Stone, Creole (as a b-side to “Beware,” which itself birthed the Kunta Kinte riddim), Johnny Clarke, and Dennis Brown; even Santana has covered it in a reggae style, on an obscure release with The Carribean Allstars!

As highlighted by Barrow and Dalton (p. 192), once the original had quickly obtained “classic status,” it soon allowed the group to release further versions of it on their Clinch label, “such as Big Youth’s ‘I Pray Thee,’ Dillinger’s ‘I Saw E Saw,’ Richard Ace’s ‘Charming Version’ [the b-side to the Dillinger 7”] and the Abyssinians’ own inspired talking cut, ‘ Mabrak ,’ on which all three members recite biblical phrases in the Ethiopian language, Amharic.”

Augustus Pablo – Pablo Satta [Rockers, 1975]

As the Rockers style emerged, championed by famed melodica player and producer Augustus Pablo, the instrumental “Pablo Satta” is certainly a logical interpretation. As is the acoustic version featured during the introduction to the 1978 film Rockers, which relies on traditional Nyabinghi drumming; the soundtrack also features a take by Third World.

Big Joe – In The Ghetto [Live & Love, 1977] & I Roy – Satta [Monica’s Records 1975]

Big Joe’s deejay cut, to the Johnny Clarke version of the original vocal, is perhaps the first nod to how this riddim was emerging from the shadow of the tremendous vocal. The b-side dub, The Aggrovators on “Satta Dub,” is certainly a top-shelf take of that original vocal, though it shows that deejays were the added excitement, akin to analog dub in a way. Likewise, a few years earlier I Roy took the Ken Boothe recording in a wilder, but still deeply devotional, direction.

Nitty Gritty – Down In The Ghetto [Greensleeves, 1986]

Oddly, the 1980s did not produce the rubadub, digital, and proto-dancehall revisitings that might ordinarily be expected. Neither did the early 90s, aside from a few oddities (most notably the album-only “Promise Land” from Charlie Chaplin). One solid mid-80s update did emerge from Jammy’s studio though, with Nitty Gritty riding it in a mournful fashion.

Bobby Digital – Raggy Road Riddim [multiple releases on Brickwall, 1997]

In firm contrast, the late 90s saw a proper re-versioning, with the Raggy Road Riddim taking Satta forward. Capleton contributes the title track (nicely performed live in 2012 at Tuff Gong Studios for BBC 1Xtra), while Cocoa Tea’s “Wicked Man,” Shabba Ranks’ “So Jah Say,” and Morgan Heritage’s “Live Up” are
all strong conscious songs. Or, for ease, enjoy this Banton Radio riddim mix:

Capleton / Jah Mali ‎– Dislocate / Corner Stone [Blood & Fire, 2004]

Produced by Bernard Collins of the Abyssinians, and with writing credits given to the original members – none of which should be a surprise given the reputation of the Blood & Fire label – this 7” (with two potent vocals) represents an extensive exploration, available as the Tree of Satta album, only on CD. Luciano with Anthony B, and Yami Bolo with Natural Black, also split 45s.

For many years that was arguably the most recent full take on Satta Massaganna, although that doesn’t quite do justice to the 2017 Satta Rebirth Riddim. However…

Various Artists – Satta Massagana Rebirth Riddim [Manatee Records, 2021]

Released and produced by Manatee Records, this sprawling eighteen track compilation opens with an emotional Winston McAnuff. Fidel Nacho’s “Mucho Por Hacer” is a tough cut, though there are a lot of enjoyable tracks throughout – including Sgt. Remo’s “Hear The Trumpets Blow.” For the complete tour, there’s this official mix from DJLass Angel Vibes:

Other intriguing versions from within the past decade include: