‘Reggae Ambassador’ and founding member of legendary Jamaican band ‘Third World’, Michael ‘Ibo’ Cooper, passes away

Screenshot of Michael “Ibo” Cooper taken from the YouTube video “Jamaican Music Interview with Ibo Cooper” by “LEZLIE ON THE SCENE.”

On the night of October 12, 2023, Jamaican musician and educator Michael “Ibo” Cooper, who played a seminal role in the development of reggae music, helping to create the sunny, accessible, rock-infused music of the band Third World, died peacefully in his St. Andrew home at the age of 71. His wife Joy had passed away just two weeks earlier; his son Arif, a well-known music producer, deejay and broadcaster, had died suddenly in March.

As a founding member and keyboard player for the band, which was hugely popular in the 1960s and '70s, Cooper helped Third World develop its incomparable “reggae fusion” sound, distinguished by elements of rock and soul. Prior to his involvement in Third World, he was a member of the well-known Inner Circle, joining while still in his teens. Both bands enjoyed considerable longevity; founded in the 1960s, they are both still recording and performing, albeit with several personnel changes. Third World celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

On sharing the news of his passing, Cooper's family (he is survived by three children) emphasised:

Ibo was humble and gave generously to everyone he encountered […] Let us truly honour him by making the world better a place for all mankind and future generations because that was his mantra and he lived it to perfection.”

On Facebook, Third World shared photos of Cooper performing, saying:

💔 🙏🏾 🕯️ 🕊️
Walk Good Brother
God Bless your eternal soul K. Michael “Ibo” Cooper […]
Your music is the soundtrack of our lives 🎹

Former Third World drummer Michael Stewart posted a long and heartfelt tribute, lauding his bandmate as “a man who always remembered the importance of Africa, stood for unity and was always willing to help uplift our minds, souls and spirits to a higher consciousness […] nothing short of a genius, a wizard keyboard player, musical arranger, song writer, producer, vocalist, engineer, musical director, percussionist and a special human being who was sent into this world to make it a better place.”

Cooper was remembered with affection by reggae lovers worldwide. One Ugandan reggae aficionado shared on “X”:

A Jamaican diaspora member recalled the impact of his music:

The UK-based roots reggae band Steel Pulse mused:

Such a sad loss. Ibo was one of the most talented keyboard players Jamaica has ever had, who played a major contribution in developing the music to reach the international status and acceptance.

At home, Prime Minister Andrew Holness paid tribute to Cooper in a thread:

Culture Minister Olivia Grange also shared her thoughts on Cooper's passing, describing him as a “strong and constant voice for the music industry and an exemplary music teacher.” Opposition Leader Mark Golding, meanwhile, remembered Cooper as “a maestro on the keyboards and collaborative composer [who] helped to take Jamaican music to higher levels of sophisticated instrumentation, appreciated and loved the world over”:

Ibo was also a man of ideas with a passion for national development. He recognized the central role of music as a force for positive change, and was always looking for ways to advance the entertainment industry.

Born on January 14, 1952 in the rural town of Spaldings, Clarendon, Cooper grew up in a family of teachers and attended Jamaica College, a well-known uptown boys’ high school. He studied at the University of the West Indies in Kingston and joined Inner Circle at age 18. After the band split up then reorganised itself, he co-founded Third World with guitarist Stephen “Cat” Coore in 1973. They initially played in clubs around Kingston before being signed by Island Records.

Third World's self-titled album was released in 1976 and included a cover of The Abyssinians’ Satta Massagana — which became quite a hit in Jamaica — as did their second album, “96° in the Shade” (1977). The band played at the iconic “Smile Jamaica” concert in Kingston in 1976, headlined by Bob Marley and the Wailers. In the late 1970s and early '80s the band's success took off in the United States — and worldwide. Following Marley's death in 1981, Third World performed at Reggae Sunsplash with Stevie Wonder, who wrote one of their major hits, “Try Jah Love.”

After years of touring worldwide, Cooper left the band in 1997, but in a 2004 interview with Jamaican poet Kwame Dawes, he finally explained how he got his nickname:

I got [it] right as I started with Inner Circle, just after I left high school, because of the fighting in Nigeria. I was skinny, and the Biafran War had pictures of starving children, and you know how Jamaicans tease and rib about things. It became a name because of the Ibos in Nigeria.

From the late 1990s, Cooper followed in the footsteps of his parents. Besides advocating for reggae music as a “Reggae Ambassador” — a name Third World gave themselves in a song — he began teaching part-time at the Edna Manley College for the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston, later joining full-time as head of the Caribbean, Latin American and Jazz Department, now called Popular Music Studies.

In the interview with Dawes, Cooper said of teaching: “This business of passing things on to others is something I have developed a passion for.” In his later years, he became a mentor to many, explaining, “I am doing something that my generation does not do enough. I am listening to the youth. They must not make the mistakes that our generation made. […] They have something to say, and we need to hear it.”

A former student of Cooper's posted:

In 2007, Cooper received a Silver Musgrave Medal, an annual award bestowed by the Institute of Jamaica in recognition of achievement in art, science, and literature, for his service to music:

Both Cooper and “Cat” Coore had received national awards two years prior: the Order of Distinction, in the rank of Officer (OD), for their contribution to the development of Jamaican music. Entertainment lawyer and promoter Lloyd Stanbury went so far as to say:

In my opinion there is no other individual that has contributed more to the development of Jamaican music and the Jamaican music industry.

He will continue to be deeply missed by students, mentees, fellow musicians, and music lovers everywhere.

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