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Date: 24/10/15

Augustus Pablo - "Ozone Reversal" (1993)

I have four musical instruments in the house.

The first is a Melodeon which belonged to my old man. He could get a tune out of it; I can only make it imitate an asthmatic.

The second is an old harmonica. Ditto and ditto.

The third is a Fender Squier acoustic which I bought in March 2003 (I think) because I was getting tired of having to sing a capella at the folk club. I've never learned how to play it, and haven't even touched it in a couple of years. My fingertips seem to be too broad for the fretboard. I might come back to it some day.

The fourth is a Hohner Melodica Soprano. This was purchased for me by my parents when I was about ten years old.

I say 'purchased' rather than 'bought', because it wasn't 'bought' in the usually-understood meaning of the term.

It is a sign of how long ago all this was that they got the Melodica for me as a result of saving coupons from my father's Embassy Gold cigarette packets. These were, I suppose, the cancer-ward equivalent of trading stamps, only Green Phlegm rather than Green Shield. If you saved up enough, you could go into the Embassy gift catalogue and redeem your coupons for merchandise (I don't recall how many coupons you had to have to buy the respirator, but I think it was out of reach of all bar the determined).

It is, therefore, the supreme irony that they got me a wind instrument by such means.

It remains the only musical instrument I ever learned to play to any degree of proficiency. I first learned on my junior school's Melodica and with a specific purpose in mind. Our bumptious headmaster, Tom Adams-Jones (of whom more here) was retiring, and a small presentation was being planned. Part of the proceedings - instigated by Mr David Pritchard, who was my class' teacher that year - was the performance of an arrangement of Greig's Notturno scored for piano, xylophones, glockenspiels, a small bass drum...and Melodica, which would carry much of the melody of the piece.

We rehearsed quite assiduously ahead of the occasion, and I still have a recording of part of one rehearsal (only 'part' because I inadvertently taped over the first ten seconds or so of it only a few hours later) which, alas, I can't play because I don't have a working reel-to-reel machine.

It all went off pretty well, and I think we were quite nicely together throughout. From that, I just had to have a Melodica of my very own.

And so it came to pass. I still have it. I could probably (if I thought very hard) play my part of Notturno even now, and I can certainly play the melody line from Ravel's Boléro on it to this day (although that is complicated by the fact that said melody covers more than two octaves, which the Melodica Soprano doesn't; it involves a sudden leap up an octave at one point in the tune).

The Melodica - in its various forms - has not featured greatly in the known musical world (although I was intrigued to read whilst doing what I pompously call 'research' for this piece that one of my heroes Steve Reich composed a piece for it. I'll have to see if I can track that one down).

The most famous exponent of the instrument in popular music was undoubtedly the Jamaican musician Horace Swaby, better known as Augustus Pablo, in whose work it featured prominently for over twenty years. Here's a piece I first heard via John Peel's show, and it comes from Pablo's 1993 album Heartical Chart. As we descend into winter (with the clocks going back just a couple of hours from now), let's warm ourselves a little with this engaging and laid-back number: