The Abyssinians consisted of longtime friends Bernard Collins and Donald Manning, with Manning's brother Lynford in tow. When the group first formed, in 1968, in Kingston, Lynford was already in the music business, singing with the eldest Manning brother Carlton's group, Carlton and the Shoes. In fact it was a song that recorded by this group—an early reggae b-side called "Happy Land"—that provided inspiration for what would become the Abyssinians greatest hit, and one of the most famous songs in the entire reggae cannon.
That song was "Satta Massagana"—a revolutionary step forward in the development of reggae. Penned by Collins and Donald Manning, and sung in dubious Amharic (the title was thought to mean "Give Thanks" in the language), the song extolled Ethiopia as the Rastafarian promised land, explicitly forging a link between reggae and Rastafari at a time when no respectable Jamaican producer wanted anything to do with the movement. But what really made the song a classic was the tension between the soaring, church-ified vocal harmonies, and the spooky, minor key "dread" sound that lent the song an air of orientalist mystery.
Though the song was first recorded in 1969, for legendary producer Clement "Coxsonne" Dodd, it wasn't released until 1971. Dodd, who had also recorded the original "Happy Land," felt that the public wasn't ready for such outspoken Rasta material. He was proved wrong after the Abyssinians bought back their track (at no great expense) and released it on their own Clinch label. It was an immediate hit, and Dodd soon scrambled to release his own version on his Studio One label—sparking a flurry of deejay versions that soon turned the Rasta anthem into a genuine folk rhythm.
The Abyssinians released three more hit singles in 1971 ("Declaration of Rights," "Jerusalem," and "Let My Days Be Long") and more as the decade wore on (including classics "Leggo Beast" and "Ya Mas Gan"). But it wasn't until 1976 that the group cut it's first full-length LP, Forward Onto Zion, which combined this earlier material with newer songs to create one of the most enduring masterpieces of the roots reggae era.
Forward Unto Zion won the Abyssinians an international audience, and they followed it up with 1978's Arise, recorded for Bob Marley's newly launched Tuff Gong label.
The album yielded the hit single "Hey You," but was an overall disappointment, and Collins quit the group soon after its release. He was replaced by Carlton Manning, come full circle and turning the Abyssinians into a family unit. The new trio made one final, notable appearance at the Reggae Sunsplash festival in 1979, before taking a final bow that same year. But the posthumous Forward album was released in 1980. Full of previously unreleased gems and domestic-release only singles, Forward was a final revelation from one of the greatest roots reggae acts of all time.
See You in Jamaica