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Tony Chin’s “Jah Army” Backpack: A Piece of Jamaican Music History

By Stephen Cooper

When Tony Chin, who history will record as one of the greatest rhythm guitar players ever, told me I could borrow and photograph the contents of a grey backpack he owns – one with “Jah Army” stitched on its front in thick, royal lettering – I knew this was an important duty, one I needed to undertake with competence and care; because, as Tony told me upon handing me the bag: “That’s a piece of Jamaican music history you’re holding.”

Tony had brought his “Jah Army” backpack to a pre-arranged interview with me at the Golden Sails hotel in Long Beach, California. He plays there each Sunday as part of a dynamic band led by legendary bassist George “Fully” Fullwood; it features cameos by talented local and international-level reggae musicians.

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Photos courtesy Stephen Cooper

Often Tony and Fully are joined by also-legendary drummer Carlton “Santa” Davis – when he’s not touring with Ziggy Marley. Reggae lovers, especially those familiar with the still mesmerizing and spiritual 1980 documentary “Word, Sound and Power” know that Fully, Tony, and Santa, together with guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith, comprised the nucleus of “The Soul Syndicate,” the top studio band in Jamaica during the 1970s.

This era was viewed by many as reggae’s “Golden Age,” and because Soul Syndicate played for all of the top Jamaican producers – like Bunny Lee, Lee Scratch Perry, Niney the Observer, and Joe Gibbs – they also recorded and played live with all of reggae’s biggest luminaries, including but not limited to: Bob Marley, Dennis Brown, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, Big Youth, Johnny Clarke, Ken Boothe, Gregory Isaacs, The Mighty Diamonds, U-Roy, Jimmy Cliff, Freddie McGregor, Judy Mowatt, Max Romeo, John Holt, and Horace Andy.

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Photos courtesy Tony Chin

So what treasures were in Tony’s “Jah Army” backpack? And, what about my interview of Tony? Well the interview was extensive and fascinating, and it’s still not complete; I intend to begin releasing it in parts sometime in August. As for the contents of Tony’s bag: It includes the vest Dennis Brown wore onstage and on the cover to his album “No Man Is an Island,” a small collection of vinyl records, and a scrapbook Tony’s kept for almost half a century. The scrapbook memorializes awards Soul Syndicate won, press they received, and shows they performed. These items, particularly Dennis Brown’s vest and Tony’s scrapbook, belong in a thus far non-existent “Jamaican Music (or Reggae) Hall of Fame,” a long overdue endeavor/improvement project recently written about with great aplomb, in a series of persuasive blogs, by esteemed Jamaican writer Emma Lewis.

But for now, for the love of Jamaican music – its rich roots, history, and culture – please enjoy the following photos I took of the contents of Tony Chin’s “Jah Army” backpack; a short video of Tony discussing Dennis Brown’s vest and its provenance; a very cool collection of photos of Tony taken with Hollywood personalities and music superstars; and finally, photos and video of George “Fully” Fullwood’s band performing at the Golden Sails, on June 30 and July 7.

About the Author: Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveCooperEsq