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Observer senior writer—


ONE of the quiet pioneers of reggae, Ken Khouri earns his place among the music’s visionaries. He established the first modern recording complex in Jamaica — Federal Records.

Ken Khouri

Ken Khouri

Khouri’s father was among the influx of Lebanese merchants who came to Jamaica in the early 20th century, and eventually opened a business in St Mary. In a 2002 interview with the Jamaica Observer, his son Richard recalled how he set up his first studio at his furniture store at King Street, downtown Kingston.

Ken Khouri took his ailing father to Miami for medical treatment in the late 1940’s and bought a recording machine by chance. On his return to Jamaica, he began recording calypso and mento songs by artists like Lord Flea.

Eventually, the business grew, and by the late 1950’s his engineer was an Australian named Graeme Goodall who also worked with the shrewd Khouri when he launched Federal Records in 1961.

Tuff Gong was once home of Federal Records

Tuff Gong was once home of Federal Records

Khouri was also distributor in Jamaica for major American record labels such as Decca, Capitol, and Brunswick. When he died in September 2003, legendary music producer Clement Dodd paid tribute to him.

“I was one of the earliest persons to record at his studios. Through me and him use to move so good, people would say, I was his little black son. As a matter of fact, he usually had the rights for labels such as Decca, Capital, and Brunswick, and he would allow me to scratch off the labels — which would give me a jump on the market ahead of competitors before he would release them.”

In 1980, Khouri sold Federal to Bob Marley who renamed it Tuff Gong Records.

Ken Lazarus recorded on Federal Records label in the 70s

Ken Lazarus recorded on Federal Records label in the 1970’s

The company was a powerhouse during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Ken Lazarus, Ernie Smith, Ken Boothe and Pluto Shervington were just some of the acts who recorded hit songs there.


In 2003, Ken Khouri was finally recognized for his contribution to Jamaican music. In July, he received an award from Kingsley Goodison’s Tribute To The Greats; the following month, he was named a recipient of the Silver Musgrave Medal from the Institute of Jamaica.

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