Following are additional albums released during March 2019—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves. Continue reading
Named one of CNN’s Top 10 Global Stars from Africa and a GRAMMY nominee for “Best Reggae Album” in 2016, Ghanaian artist Rocky Dawuni is the real deal. Rocky is more than a musician, however; his eloquence and passion for activism have led to his designation as a UN Goodwill Ambassador for Africa and a global spokesperson on various causes. It is the experiences he gained while traveling as an ambassador that have helped shape his highly anticipated seventh studio album, Beats of Zion. Continue reading
Following are additional albums released during February 2019—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves. Continue reading
Following are additional albums released during January 2019—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves. Continue reading
Following are additional albums released during December 2018—some will be reviewed in future issues of Black Grooves. Continue reading
Jazz releases include mezzo soprano Alicia Hall Moran’s genre blending classical/jazz project Here Today, Judith Lorick’s Second Time Around with the Eric Reed Trio, drummer Tosin Aribisala’s Áfríkà Rising, and two Grant Green compilations from Resonance Records—Slick! Live at Oil Can Harry’s and Funk in France: From Paris to Antibes 1969-1970.
For this month’s gospel music selections were looking in our own backyard with releases from two Indianapolis-based artists—Judah Band’s sophomore album Gone Fishin’ and Tyscot Records’ own Bishop Leonard Scott’s praise and worship album Jesus Love Legacy. R&B/soul releases include Unstoppable by Candi Staton and Free Me from Burundian soul singer J.P. Bimeni & The Black Belts.
Albums with a Caribbean tie include legendary reggae group Black Uhuru’s new release As the World Turns, the collaboration of reggae musician Winston McAnuff and French accordionist Fixi on Big Brothers, French-Guadeloupian trio Delgres’ debut album Mo Jodi, Snarky Puppy spin-off group Bokanté with the Metropole Orkest on What Heat (featuring Guadeloupian vocalist Malika Tirolien), plus Bokanté member and lap/pedal steel guitarist Roosevelt Collier’s ‘dirty funk’ solo debut Exit 16.
Wrapping up this issue is the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins compilation, Are YOU one of Jay’s Kids? – The Complete Bizzare Sessions 1990-1994, and our list of September 2018 Black Music Releases of Note.
Title: As The World Turns
Artist: Black Uhuru
Label: Black Uhuru Official
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: September 8, 2018
Over the last 50 years, the world-renowned Black Uhuru (Swahili for freedom) accumulated several accolades including a Grammy-award for Best Reggae Recording, six Grammy nominations in three separate categories, and dozens of chart-topping hit songs. To say this band has maintained an active performance career would be an understatement. Their historical trajectory as a band is phenomenal by itself. Moreover, the release of their latest album, As The World Turns, continues their longevity while paying tribute to the legacy of reggae. Continue reading
Title: Big Brothers
Artist: Winston McAnuff & Fixi
Label: Chapter Two
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release Date: September 21, 2018
Inspired by a night of song at a New Year’s Eve party at an immigration camp in Calais, Winston McAnuff and Fixi’s newest album Big Brothers is a testament to human connectedness. Although this album is only the second from Jamaican reggae singer Winston McAnuff (formerly known as Electric Dread) and French accordionist Fixi, the unlikely pair have been making music together since 2005. Their latest project, which features two generations of Inna De Yard vocalists, is a commentary on contemporary society and the power of friendship and love. Continue reading
Artist: Winston Jarrett and The Righteous Flames
Format: CD, Digital
Release Date: August 3, 2018
Classic Reggae can never truly fall under into “out of sight, out of mind” category, but just in case we need a refresher, Omnivore Records has reissued one of the best offerings, Jonestown. Originally released by Nighthawk Records, Jonestown is the work of prolific reggae artists Winston Jarrett and Eggar Gordon (Baby Gee). Obtaining their start in 1965 from locally famous Kingston vocalist Alton Ellis, Winston and Gordon released multiple recordings, were featured on Coxsone Studio One’s many artistic endeavors, and recorded for other producers such as Duke Reid, Lee Perry and Joe Gibbs.
Jarrett’s transition to Nighthawk Records began in 1983 upon meeting the label’s producer Leroy Jody Pierson, who was working on a mix of Justin Hinds’ Travel With Love album. Together with Gordon, who was still performing in the area, Jarrett recorded Jonestown. After nearly 30 years, the album is being reissued along with new liner notes from Pierson and featuring previously unseen photos. Each song is a testament to the combined talents emanating from Jarrett and Gordon, with songs such as the smooth “Hold On To This Feeling” and the regional shout-out “Jonestown” testifying to the unique collaborative relationship dedicated to their quality art.
True legends never disappear, but rather they remain imbedded in our hearts forever. With its lyrical methodology and its definitive rhythmic soundscape, Jonestown lovingly reignites our passion for the reggae genre while simultaneously redistributing the sunshine and peace Jarrett and Gordon’s artistic oneness originally bestowed upon us.
Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi
Artist: Paul Beaubrun
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: May 11, 2018
Haitian singer and multi-instrumentalist Paul Beaubrun—son of Theodore “Lòlò” and Mimerose “Manzè” Beaubrun of the Grammy-nominated Haitian band Boukman Eksperyans—does it again with a sensational and thought provoking album, Ayibobo. Released three years after his acoustic album Vilnerab (2015), and six years after Project Haiti (2012) with Zing Experience, Ayibobo weaves together Haitian roots music with rock and roll and reggae, which Beaubrun refers to as “Roots/Blues” music. While this album demonstrates Beaubrun’s compositional concepts and the socially conscious lyrics that fans have grown accustomed too, Ayibobo feels a bit more personal as Beaubrun recounts his lived experiences while reflecting on the encouraging words his mother instilled in him.
The title track “Ayibobo” narrates the circumstances in 2004 that lead to his fleeing Haiti to New York. Beaubrun reminisces on the comfort and strength he felt while remembering what his mother taught him, ‘ayibobo.’ The Haitian Creole term means ‘hallelujah’ or ‘amen,’ but ‘ayibobo’ also carries cultural connotations that can be interpreted as a form of elation. By using this word, Beaubrun demonstrates how one word can strengthen familial and communal ties within the global Haitian community, while paying tribute to Haitian cultural practices.
On “Rise Up,” Beaubrun leans more towards social activism, calling for people to “rise up and be free” while using reggae—a Jamaican musical genre known for its political commentary—as the musical vehicle for his political activist endeavors. We cannot overlook the Haitian folkloric influences that are heard throughout this album, specifically the Haitian drums (tanbou) on “Naissance” and “Elizi.” Sonically, we hear the Haitian polyrhythmic patterns that provide the underlying foundational groove and pulse. Moreover, these songs echo the mizik rasin (roots music) tradition and Haitian mythological themes that are commonly associated with it.
Ayibobo is a phenomenal illustration of Beaubrun’s artistic brilliance. As listeners, we are treated to the wonderful collage of musical sounds while experiencing the exhilarating spirit and cultural sentiments of the Haitian community. Furthermore, this album serves as an exemplar of music and activism. But above all, Ayibobo is a heartfelt expression of a man’s love for his country and community.
Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste
Title: Forsake Not
Artist: Army Gideon
Label: Uhuru Boys
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: March 23, 2018
Based out of Fort Lauderdale and Jamaica, the reggae fusion group Army Gideon champions equal rights, justice, universal love and Rastafari awareness on their debut album Forsake Not. Calling themselves “musical soldiers,” the band’s militant persona reflects their focus on liberation and commitment.
The album opens with “Mezmur,” a tribute to Haile Sellasie, while “Empress” expresses devotion to a woman with the attributes of Empress Menen Asfaw, wife of Emperor Sellasie. Other more traditional tracks include “Sabbath Peace,” aka “Shabbat Shalom.” Loosely based on Psalm 92, the song features well-known reggae trumpeter Junior “Chico” Chin and has long been one of the band’s signature works. On the liberation song “Chains Dem,” lead vocalist Ras Anbesa Tafari sings on the bridge, “We are out here in our Babylon / look around and there’s nowhere to go / equal rights that’s for everyone.”
The wailing rock guitar of Jassiah “Lion” Boswell on the intro to “Mightly People” signals a turn toward the Reggae rock fusion for which Army Gideon is known, as lead vocalist Ras Anbesa Tafari sings “the gift of Rastafari sets you free.” Boswell also takes over the midsection of the title track, “Forsake Not,” with Tafari contributing vocals as well as violin and guitar. The band is anchored by the “heavy and steady” rhythm section: Steve “Skins” Kornicks, percussion, Dane “Spice” Hutton, and Sheldon “Don Don” Satchell, bass
Forsake Not will delight fans of Army Gideon, who have been waiting a long time for the group to release an album. Most if not all of these tracks have been in the band’s repertoire for several years, and it certainly shows in the tight performances.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss
Title: Lily Of Da Valley
Artist: Jesse Royal
Label: Easy Star Records
Formats: CD, LP, MP3
Release date: October 6, 2017
Artist Jesse Royal, known for his creative ideas and performances, presents his debut album on Easy Star Records, Lily Of Da Valley. This release not only showcases Royal’s vocal abilities and musicianship, but also his knowledge of Jamaican reggae music. His compositions take the listener back to the roots of Jamaican music while highlighting current developments in reggae.
The 14 tracks include previously released hit songs such as “Modern Day Judas,” “Generation,” and “Finally,” as well as new compositions—“Real Love,” “Full Moon,” “Waan Go Home,” and others—covering topics from religion and oppression, to peace and love.
On “400 Years,” Royal tackles the issue of systemic oppression, calling for peace and equality, reparation for the black nation, and the elimination of a system that has kept people of African descent in “shackles.” In addition, the electrifying performance by the rhythm, coupled with a memorable melodic hook and harmonious backing vocals, resonate with the listener.
Royal’s song “Jah Will See Us Through” offers an uplifting messaging of hope that Jah will help us overcome life’s struggles and obstacles. Royal’s usage of biblical references in his lyrics provides encouragement and comfort. Along with his lyrics of hope, the listener is treated to a brilliant musical arrangement filled with warm and lush harmonies, groovy basslines, and a superb soulful guitar solo.
Lily Of Da Valley is certainly an inspiring collection of artistic and musical expression, and contributes to the ongoing legacy of Jamaican reggae music.
Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste
Artist: Wyclef Jean
Formats: CD, Vinyl, MP3
Release date: September 15, 2017
Wyclef Jean released his Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee, highlighting the 20th anniversary of his album The Carnival, and the 10th anniversary of Carnival II: Memoirs of an Immigrant. Like the other albums in the Carnival series, the third installment incorporates music from different parts of the world, offering an outstanding conglomerate of music for the listener. According to Jean, this multi-cultural “genre-bending album is outside the box . . . It’s a celebration of what I love about music: discovery, diversity and artistry for art’s sake.
The first thing that stands out is Jean’s inspirational words, reminding us that “we shall overcome our struggles someday.” His motivational lyrics and usage of biblical references (e.g. Zion, Golden Gates, and Psalm 23) resonate with the listener as symbols of hope, while inspiring them to pursue their goals. Another aspect of this album is Jean’s blending of polyrhythms (“Fela Kuti”), reggae (“Turn Me Good”), Afro-Cuban (“Trapicabana”), hip hop and popular music, creating a multi-cultural experience. Finally, the skillfulness and musicality displayed by each guest artist (including Jazzy Amra, T-Baby, STIX, and Emeli Sandé) adds another layer to the brilliance of this album.
Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee sustains the legacy of Wyclef Jean’s first Carnival album, spreading the message of community, hope, and love while showing the diversity of the world stage through the art within a music compilation.
Reviewed by Jamaal Baptiste
Title: Strictly Roots
Artist: Morgan Heritage
Label : CTBC
Formats : 2-CD deluxe edition, MP3
Release date: December 9, 2016
Family acts in music have always been huge: The Osmonds, Sylvers, Five Stairsteps, Isleys, Carpenters, and of course The Jackson 5/The Jacksons—who recently marked their 50th anniversary. Morgan Heritage is a family act and I’m willing to bet that you’ve never heard of the group. MH is Jamaica’s answer to the J5. Made up a five siblings, their father is reggae singer Denroy Morgan, who had a big hit in 1981 with the single “I’ll Do Anything.”
First released in 2015, Strictly Roots is the band’s 10th studio album and the first on their own label CTBC, which stands for Cool To Be Conscious (they recorded for the label VP during much of their success, but felt it was time to move on). After winning a Grammy Award in the Best Reggae Album category in 2016, the group decided to release a 2-CD deluxe edition, which celebrates the album’s success with previously unreleased tracks and remixes.
The original album (Disc 1) was comprised of twelve tracks in which Morgan Heritage takes the listener through peaks and valleys. In the song “So Amazing,” Morgan Heritage steps away from traditional roots and goes for a more top 40 sound. “So Amazing” could easily be played on a CW series:
In reggae, one always pay homage to Jah and Morgan Heritage sticks with tradition. In “Child of Jah” (feat. Chronixx) they explain the part Jah plays in reggae music and rastas to those who don’t know. On “Light It Up,” featuring Jo Messa Marley, they chant “this is reggae music.” Can’t do reggae without a Marley. After all, Robert Nesta Marley is the godfather of reggae. “Rise and Fall,” which discusses the cycle of life, has the typical drum & bass sound you hear in reggae.
“Celebrate Life” may be Morgan Heritage’s best track on this album. Again, Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved” had to play a major part. “Celebrate the life you love / Celebrate the life you live,” Peetah Morgan & Grampson sing on lead vocals. If the group wanted to get crossover appeal, this would be the track to do it.
Disc 2 includes 3 additional versions of “Light It Up,” plus the pop-oriented “Come Fly” featuring the Celtic punk band Flogging Molly and the more traditional “Lion Order,” among others.
Morgan Heritage has won respect from the reggae community worldwide. Now that they are independent on CTBC, I expect them to take some risks and open it up. After all, they’re royalty. One Love.
Reviewed by Eddie Bowman
Title: Nothing More To Say
Artist: The Frightnrs
Label: Daptone Records
Formats: CD, LP, MP3
Release date: September 2, 2016
This first, and likely, final full-length album by New York band The Frightnrs bears a moving story. Front man and vocalist, Dan Klein was diagnosed with ALS in November 2015 and had experienced his final moments of life during the recording and production of this album. To say he suffered would be an inaccurate illustration. It reduces every complex emotion he felt considering the inevitability of his fate. The Frightnrs—Rich Terrana (percussion and background vocals), and brothers, Chuck Patel (piano) and Preet Patel (bass and background vocals)—were determined to complete the album in support of Klein before he lost his physical ability to sing. Klein passed in June 2016, only a couple months before the album’s release.
Nothing More to Say is the first reggae album released by Daptone Records, managed by Gabriel Roth and Neal Sugarman of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Smooth and with hints of vintage appeal, the album is a reminder of the Jamaican rocksteady sounds of Johnny Nash or Toots and the Maytals. Producer Victor “Ticklah” Axelrod upheld a vision of quality and integrity for the album despite the complicated circumstances that pressured its completion. Quoted from a New York Times interview on the album, Axelrod noted that he needed to select the best takes he could get of Klein’s vocals since he was unable to finish recording in the studio. Roth reflected on Klein’s vocals in the album, “In places he’s a little weak… but he’s singing from the heart.”
A snare cracks into a drum roll at the introduction of the first track, “All My Tears.” The song proceeds with a soulful wail supported by a firm backbeat and deep background vocals—in a way, announcing the band’s fraternal bond. Blended with haunting organ chords and muted electric guitar tones, each song feels fresh, though old-fashioned. Themes of love resulting in letdown, heartbreak, and mistake are prevalent in “Nothing More to Say,” “What Have I Done,” and “Looking for My Love.” In “Trouble in Here,” the Frightnrs maintain their smooth reggae back beat while adopting a blatantly blues style outfitted with harmonica solos and a 12-bar chord progression.
“Dispute,” the final track of the album, could stand alone with its distinctively crisp piano riff mixed with Klein’s reverberating vocals. Another similarly outstanding song is “Hey Brother (Do Unto Others)” for its charming syncopated chorus—“Do unto others, do unto others as you’d have them do, right back to you.” The Frightnrs also included two cover songs rich in R&B and soul flavor: “Gotta Find a Way” originally by Bob & Gene (1967), and “Gonna Make Time” by Saun & Starr (2015), who both record on the Daptone label.
What is especially striking in this album is Klein’s sincere falsetto vibrato and vivid lyrics in “Till Then” (quoted below) and “Purple.” He pries into the pain and anxious confusion listeners can only imagine he felt as his physical body progressively betrayed him:
Every day I wake it’s getting harder just to take, I try to fake a smile but nothing hides my sadness. Pretending that I’m fine, I’m only lying all the time, I’ve crossed the line from melancholy into madness. Till then I’ll wait, till you’ve reached my gate, lying every night, till you’ve blessed my sight.
The Frightnrs respect themselves and respect their audiences, a message Klein advocates. They do not mimic Jamaican accents or dress in their music because they know those actions would be unreflective of their own identity. This album is a testament to the creative power and aesthetic derived from Jamaican rocksteady music. As well, it will always serve to cherish the poetry and memory of Dan Klein.
Reviewed by Jennie Williams
Artist: Michael Franti & Spearhead
Label: Fantasy Records/Concord
Formats: CD, LP, MP3
Release date: June 3, 2016
Michael Franti & Spearhead are known for their brand of upbeat, socially conscious pop and hip hop-infused reggae. In their ninth studio album, Soulrocker, they continue to experiment with genre and beat, introducing electronic music to their repertoire. Though most of their records have been largely self-produced, they worked on Soulrocker with Jamaican producers Stephen “Di Genius” McGregor, known for his dancehall sensibilities, and Swayne “Supa Dups” Chin Quee, who has worked with artists such as Bruno Mars and John Legend. Despite the new producers and beats introduced on Soulrocker, Michael Franti & Spearhead continue to find innovative ways to keep their organic instrumental and reggae sound that fans have come to know and love.
In a single more akin to past hits “Say Hey (I Love You)” and “I’m Alive (Life Sounds Like),” the upbeat anthem “Once A Day” is about unexpected moments in life, whether they are beautiful moments or “unexpectedly challenging.” Featuring Sonna Rele and produced by Supa Dups, this reggae jam is an infectious celebration of life and all its ups and downs. Franti wrote on YouTube that the song originally stemmed from how his family came together in the wake of his son’s diagnosis of a rare kidney disease, and hopes the song and video (below) can help people rise up, sing, and dance:
“My Lord,” “We Are All Earthlings,” and “Get Myself to Saturday” play with heavy EDM beats and synth, inspired by Franti’s love for Kraftwerk since he was seven years old. “Get Myself to Saturday” embodies the main message of the album, that throughout life’s struggles and personal longings for success, true happiness is found in giving back to the community and working for the greater good. The track is full of determination and hope, as Franti sings, “There is a part of me that can’t go on today/and there is a part of me that finds a way.”
Michael Franti & Spearhead have never been afraid of making political statements and being forthright about social issues, true to the messages of peace and nonviolence that come from Rastafari beliefs and from reggae legends like Bob Marley. “Good To Be Alive Today” is an acoustic guitar driven track that tackles everything from climate change and police brutality to drone strikes and ISIS. True to form, Franti infuses this sorrowful song with hope, asking people to remember the little “moments of victory” in life.
A personal favorite on the album is “Crazy for You,” a song about the power of loving someone amidst a seemingly crazy world of violence and political difference. The romantic declaration is accompanied by bright, staccato horns and a full unison chorus, and is made sweeter by Franti’s reference to the song as an ode to his wife.
Though some may be wary of the EDM elements on Soulrocker, Michael Franti & Spearhead have always pushed the boundaries of reggae styles and popular music, and this album is no different. From joyful declarations of love to thought-provoking songs, Soulrocker at once fully feels the weight of a world prone to violence, misunderstanding and hate, while recognizing that joy and hope keep people motivated to create change. Franti’s hope is that everyone can become a “soulrocker,” what he calls someone who “lives from the heart with compassion for all, and who’s got tenacious enthusiasm for music, life, and the planet.”
Reviewed by Anna Polovick
Title: Tek A Ship
Artist: Fidel Nadal
Label: Pelo Music
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: November 20, 2015
In his native Argentina, Fidel Nadal is one of the most famous Afro-Argentine artists in popular music. Nadal’s success began with his band, Hasta Los Muertos—a punk outfit that was popular throughout Latin America in the early 1990s. Since 2001, he has crafted a solo career with a strong focus on reggae music.
In addition to his connection with Argentina, Nadal dialogues with the African Diaspora. Born to Afro-Argentine activist parents—his father was a filmmaker and mother a professor of anthropology—the musician’s Pan-African consciousness and Argentine identity blend throughout the newest of his seventeen albums, Tek A Ship.
For this effort, Nadal traveled to Kingston, Jamaica—the birthplace of reggae—to work with the legendary mastering engineer and producer, Bobby Digital. Joined by a host of Jamaica’s best reggae musicians, Tek A Ship is a groove-heavy performance with solid production. Nadal’s duet with reggae star Jah Thunder on “Ackee Tree” best represents the musician’s dual identities. Backed by a chunky rhythm and sunny melody, Nadal sings:
Soy Argentino/I am Argentine
El (Jah Thunder) es Jamaicano/He (Jah Thunder) is Jamaican
La verdad es que los dos somos Africanos/But the truth is that we are both Africans
But not all on Tek a Ship takes a tone of unified affirmations. The album’s opening track, “Confusion,” speaks of troubled times with images of violence, racism, and destruction from the United States, Chile, Nepal, and Jamaica. Despite the theme of things falling apart, Nadal remains musically focused and rhythmically poised throughout the track.
Much like Paul Gilroy theorized “the ship” in his seminal work The Black Atlantic, Nadal sings of taking a ship back to Ethiopia to see Haille Selassie on the album’s title track. Themes of Rastafarianism are central to Tek A Ship, and appear in “Vinimos para Ganar” (“We Come to Win”) and “Blessed is the Man.”
Throughout Tek A Ship, Nadal shows that the vibrations, melodies, and rhythms of his reggae are a vehicle to connect his identities and socially-conscious ideology. Lucky for our moving bodies and satisfied ears, we can be along for the ride.
Reviewed by Douglas Dowling Peach
Title: Love Herb & Reggae
Artist: Taj Weekes & Adowa
Label: VP Records
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: February 12, 2016
A play on the classic “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” theme, Taj Weekes and his band Adowa’s fifth studio release, Love Herb & Reggae, is an effort to return to the roots of reggae by producing music filled with Rastafarian ideas of peaceful revolution. In this powerful album, Weekes brings his activism to his music, tackling social issues through smart lyrics and a progressive approach to reggae.
The themes of social justice are laid out on the opening track, “Let Your Voice,” which proclaims “let your voice be as loud as your silence.” Other songs include “Bullet From a Gun,” which begs for gun reform; “Life in the Red,” which warns about the destructiveness of capitalism; and “Here I Stand,” a story about the dangers of homophobia, which Weekes discusses in the following video:
There are also some more upbeat tunes on the album, such as the homage to the homeland, “St. Lucia On My Mind,” and the pure love song “Was It You.” While most songs don’t stray far from the more traditional reggae format that Taj Weekes & Adowa have presented before, Weekes claims to have made a breakthrough in his creative process, more carefully choosing chords and jumping from major to minor keys to match the topic and narrative of the lyrics with the melodies.
Reviewed by Anna Polovick
Artist: Easy Star All-Stars
Label: Easy Star Records
Catalog No.: ES-1018
Release Date: April 14, 2009
One of my earliest childhood musical memories was thumbing through my father’s record collection and coming across the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I remember the album cover fascinating me so much that I just had to put the record on the turntable. From the first note of Sgt. Pepper I was hooked, and as each song seamlessly moved into the next I began to imagine the colorful soundscape that the music painted. Heralded as one of the most influential albums of all time, Sgt. Pepper is also considered to be a ground breaking example of the concept album, which is the primary reason that the Easy Star collective decided to re-envision a reggae/dub version of the album. After the success of the collectives’ first two albums, Dub Side of the Moon (2003) and Radiodread (2006), Michael Goldwasser of the Easy Star All-Stars cites the reasons behind the decision to infuse reggae into a Beatles classic: “We’ve focused on re-envisioning concept albums as reggae and it’s really important that the source material works as a whole and is not just a collection of songs. So, what better to take on next than the mother of all concept albums?”
The Easy Star All-Stars is a coalition of reggae producers and performers based in New York on the independent Easy Star label. The focus of the Easy Star All-Stars has always been on the process and the music itself. First, Easy Star co-founders Eric Smith, Lem Oppenheimer and Michael Goldwasser make the decision on which albums will get the Easy Star treatment. Then Goldwasser, the producer, musical director, arranger and guitarist of the group, painstakingly transforms arrangements of the source material into reggae style: the goal is a musical melding at the genetic level, not just a parody with a summery beat. The band itself operates as a collective, with a rotating cast of musicians and artist contributing. At the core of the Easy Star Lonely Hearts Dub Band (ESLHDB) are Victor Rice (bass), Victor “Ticklah” Axelrod (keyboards), and Patrick Dougher (drums/percussion), augmented by Eddie Ocampo (drums). Also involved are active touring members of the Easy Star All-Stars, including Ras I Ray (bass, vocals), Ive-09 (percussion), Jennifer Hill (saxophone), Buford O’Sullivan (trombone), Pam Fleming (trumpet), and Tamar-kali (vocals).
As with the previous records, Goldwasser brought in a who’s who of reggae, dub and dancehall greats to contribute guest vocals. Steel Pulse, Matisyahu, Michael Rose (Black Uhuru), Bunny Rugs (Third World), and Ranking Roger (English Beat/General Public) are the most recognizable names; longtime Easy Star collaborators Sugar Minott and Frankie Paul continue their powerful association with the group; U Roy (a founder of deejay toasting), Max Romeo and The Mighty Diamonds are among the other veteran guest artists sure to generate anticipation amongst staunch reggae fans.
Having tackled the dark complexities of the human condition on Dub Side of the Moon and the depths of the human/computer/alien psyche on Radiodread, basing the next album in the series on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is both a logical choice and a departure of sorts. While it is widely credited as being one of the first concept albums (and therefore the stylistic predecessor of Dark Side of the Moon and OK Computer), Sgt. Pepper stands apart from both of these albums in that it is basically a collection of major-key pop songs. As with the first two albums, Goldwasser stayed true to the lyrics, melodies and chord changes of the songs, envisioning as if the songs had been written by Lennon/McCartney (and Harrison), but had been recorded in Jamaica under the influence of reggae. “With Dub Side, we translated Gilmore’s guitar solos into more traditional reggae elements, like a deejay toasting,” explains Goldwasser. “On “Paranoid Android,” [from Radiodread] we transformed heavy guitar solos into trombone lines. Here, we went the opposite direction. We embraced rock elements such as guitar solos, as well as conventional string sections, and more exotic instruments such as sitar and tabla. In doing so, we pushed the boundaries of traditional Jamaican reggae, just as the Beatles stretched popular music when they made the album in the first place.”
Conceptually, Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band stands alone just as the original album did, and personally I feel it breathes new life into a timeless classic. Since its release, ESLHDB has been #1 on the Billboard reggae charts and The Easy Star All-Stars have embarked on a Lonely Hearts tour.
For over a decade, Easy Star Records has been a trendsetting independent reggae label. Dub Side of the Moon and Radiodread form the backbone of a catalogue that includes progressive albums from John Brown’s Body and Easy Star All-Stars keyboardist Ticklah, reissues of classic materials from Sugar Minott and Linval Thompson, and new recordings from reggae legends the Meditations and Sister Carol. For more information on Easy Star Records and its collective check out their website.
Posted by Heather O’Sullivan
Artist: Heavy D
Catalog No.: FED005
Release Date: Dec 16, 2008
It’s been over eight years since the “Overweight Lover” released an album and it has been worth the weight (pun intended). Silky smooth singer/songwriter and astute businessman Dwight Myers, a.k.a. Heavy D, has re-launched his music career with the reggae album Vibes. Yes, that’s right, reggae! After all, he was born in Jamaica before coming to the U.S. at a young age, and claims “if you go back and follow my career, you’ll see that I’ve always had reggae influences.”
Myers became a household name in the late eighties with his group Heavy D & the Boyz, producing a slew of chart topping singles and gold records. The group was a crossover phenomenon with a style that appealed to both R&B and rap fans. During the nineties, Heavy D continued to pump out the hits while jockeying a record label executive position at Uptown Records. The nineties also saw him transition comfortably to stage and screen, appearing in a number of television programs as well as the Eddie Murphy/Martin Lawrence movie Life (1999) and the Oscar nominated Cider House Rules (1999). Myers acting career has continued over the past ten years, landing him supporting roles on Boston Public (2000-2003), The Tracy Morgan Show (2003-2004) and the Fox television series Bones (2005).
Vibes is an appropriate title for Heavy D’s newest album because the groove never quits. Deep, heavy bass lines, crystal clear one drop riddims, and dub sensibility accentuates his smooth R&B vocal delivery. The ten track CD features appearances by reggae/dancehall icons Barrington Levy and Sizzla, as well as the masterminds behind the scene, producers/mixers Tony Dofat and Warren Campbell. Themes range from love and women, exemplified by the hit single “Long Distance Girlfriend,” to the self-searching lyrical gem “Chasing Windmills.”
Even though he admits that his rhyming skills have diminished considerably, Heavy D’s style fits nicely into the ‘Lovers Rock’ groove. Heavy D’s intention in making a reggae album goes well beyond record sales, he simply wants the music to get more recognition in the U.S. He is currently in the process of becoming a board member for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and intends to use the position to broaden America’s perspective on the genre. Vibes is just the album to make that crossover.
Posted by Heather O’Sullivan
Title: Word, Sound and Power
Artist: Soul Syndicate Band
Label: FOCUSED; distributed by MVD Visual
Format: DVD (5.1 surround, 60 min.)
Catalog No.: MVD4634
Release Date: 2008
Word, Sound and Power is an impressive documentary that captures the essence of Jamaican music and spirit by featuring one of Jamaica’s finest instrumental and studio groups, the Soul Syndicate Band.
Formed in 1963, the Syndicate has worked with all the great Jamaican recording artists, including Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, and Lee “Scratch” Perry. Director Jeremiah Stein combines a mixture of performance and interviews to bring forth the talent and insight of lead guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith, drummer Carlton “Santa” Davis, rhythm guitarist Tony “Valentine” Chin, and bassist George “Fully” Fullwood. The film also features vocalists Earl Zero and Tony Tuff to help round out the performances by leading the band out of the purely instrumental realm.
The film opens by introducing the Syndicate with an ensemble performance in a Kingston yard. After quickly establishing the origins of the group, the film moves to connect roots reggae with Rastafari. Stein employs Jamaican Dallas Rogers to conduct the personal interviews and provide contextual information. The presence of Rogers seems to put the artists at ease and gives the interviews creditability that might have been lost if there were conducted by the American director.
The interviews are shot riverside, in the lush interior of the Jamaican jungle, suggesting a connection to land, to the roots. Blended with acoustic performances, the interviews combine brief lessons on the evolution of Jamaican music with Rasta philosophy. What is truly remarkable about this film is that it captures the connection between the music and the culture that is felt in Jamaica. The shifting back and forth between the Kingston yard and the river locations is representative of the dichotomy of urban and rural life in Jamaica. The music itself exemplifies the connection of African musical roots and post colonial ideology. The film culminates with the performance of None Shall Escape the Justice, a Rasta anthem that expresses the rhetoric and love that a Rasta man must balance in day to day life. Following is a brief promo clip:
Word, Sound and Power was originally filmed in 1980 and has been reissued for the first time on DVD. The documentary has a 60 minute run time that will leave you singing the closing song long after the film is over.
Posted by Heather O’Sullivan
Concha Buika. Nina de Fuego (Wea International, August 2008)
Concha Buika is a Spanish artist of African descent. Born on the island of Majorca, her parents were refugees from Equatorial Guinea. Though extremely popular in Spain, Buika is just beginning to garner international attention for her unique brand of flamenco fusion. Niña de Fuego, her third album, recently received a Latin Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. Possessing a uniquely husky voice, Buika takes on the Spanish copla, then adds some ranchera songs along with several new songs she composed in collaboration with Javier Limón, who has produced some of flamenco’s biggest stars.
Watson is an accomplished fiddler from Louisianna (via Texas) who specializes in reviving old Creole fiddling styles while striving to make this music accessible to new audiences. He honed his skills while playing with Dexter Ardoin and the Creole Ramblers, Jeffrey Broussard and the Creole Cowboys, and most recently the Pine Leaf Boys. On his self-titled new release he offers up a number of new songs that he composed, including “Cedric Zydeco,” “TexaCreole Two-Step,” and “Zydeco du Violon,” along with his own arrangements of traditional tunes such as “La Valse de Grand Basile” and “La Vieille Chanson de Mardi Gras.” In addition to fiddle, Watson also pitches in on accordian and vocals, and is assisted by Jeffrey Broussard on electric bass, Chas Justus on electric and acoustic guitar, and Corey Ledet on scrubboard and triangle, among others.
Black Stars: Ghana’s Hiplife Generation (Out Here Records, May 2008)
This compilation documents the development of hiplife, a hybrid form of hip hop and highlife that emerged in Ghana in the 1990s. The music draws on various international forms- including American and Jamaican hip hop, R&B, Afro-Cuban jazz, dancehall, ragga and reggae- while incorporating indiginous Ghanian languages (rapping in Twi), styles and instruments, such as the two-stringed kolgo. Featured artists include Reggie Rockstone (known as the “Godfather of Hiplife”), Tic Tac, Batman Samini (“King of African Dancehall”), King Ayisoba, and Ofori Amponsah, along with several artists representing the London diaspora.
Burning Spear. Jah is Real (Burning Music, August 2008)
One of the biggest names in reggae roots music, Burning Spear (a.k.a. Winston Rodney) has released his most ambitious record since relocating to Queens, New York several years ago. Most notable are the contributions of Parliament Funkadelic’s Bootsy Collins on bass and Bernie Worrell on keyboards, who add a heavy dose of funk to the mix. The political messages, however, are still at the forefront, especially on “One Africa” and “No Compromise.”
Seckou Keita Quintet. Silimbo Passage (World Adventures, June 2008)
Senegalese-born Seckou Keita, also known as the “Hendrix of kora,” fronts this UK-based quintet, which also features his sister Binta Suso on vocals and his brother Surahata Susso on drums, along with Egyptian violinist Samy Bishai and Italian bassist Davide Montovani. Intent on expanding the traditional range of the kora, Keita experiments here with new tunings while also drawing upon his griot roots and incorporating a vast range of African and international influences.
Title: All Rebel Rockers
Artist: Michael Franti and Spearhead
Label: ANTI/Boo Boo Wax
Catalog No.: ANTI 86906/89-2
Release Date: September 2008
In his sixth studio release, All Rebel Rockers, Michael Franti digs deep into the dub/reggae pocket and pulls out legendary “Riddim Twins” drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare. From the moment the needle drops you can tell that Sly and Robbie produced this project. Franti has collaborated with the Riddim Twins in the past, but this time he “wanted that groove and a toughness to the rhythm” that just simply drips from a full-on Sly and Robbie production. Recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, and in Franti’s home base, San Francisco, this album takes the listener by the seat of the pants and gets your body rocking.
Franti is known for his social political lyrics and, with guitar and microphone in hand, he juggles the identity of singer, songwriter, musician, author, activist, documentarian, and new millennium bard. Born and raised around the Bay area, Franti’s love for music escalated during college at University of San Francisco, when he lived above the college radio station. In 1989, he formed the Beatnigs, an industrial punk band with DJ Rono Tse, and achieved minimal local success. In 1991, Franti continued his collaboration with Tse, forming The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. Adding the guitar of Charlie Hunter, The Disposable Heroes broke through with in-your-face lyrics that dealt with social injustice fused to an industrial/hip hop sound. The success of their first album eventually led to an opening spot on the U2 Zoo TV tour and a project with novelist William S. Burroughs entitled Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales.
In 1994 Franti formed Spearhead along with bassist Carl Young. Spearhead moved away from the industrial/hip hop sound to a more soulful funk-oriented style, while retaining the socially conscience ideology. Franti released Home and Chocolate Supa Highway on the Capitol label before deciding to start his own label, citing differences with Capitol over artistic direction. In 2000, Franti released Stay Human on his label Boo Boo Wax under the name of Michael Franti and Spearhead (necessary because Capitol still owned the rights to the name Spearhead). Stay Human dealt with issues of prison reform, corrupt politicians, corporate globalization, and more poignant issues related to maintaining self respect and dignity. In 2003, Franti released Everyone Deserves Music, which featured songs that he had written in the aftermath of 9/11. This album was both reactionary and therapeutic, with songs that dealt with the shock of 9/11 as well as songs that were written in order to cope with the fear of the changing world.
In 2004 Franti embarked on a documentary project in Iraq, Palestine, and Israel in order to put his “money where his mouth is.” Franti felt if he was going to criticize the U.S. occupation of Iraq that he needed to have firsthand experience. The result of this was the film, I Know I’m Not Alone, in which Franti talked to the culture bearers, the poets, artists, musicians and everyday people, including the soldiers, in order to show the human cost of war. Franti continued to write songs during his trip to the Middle East, which resulted in the 2006 release Yell Fire!. This album had such a distinct reggae feel to it that they were re-classified as a Reggae group. Franti collaborated with Sly and Robbie on this album and it seems only natural that he would continue this relationship on his new album.
All Rebel Rockers features the Spearhead core group: Carl Youngand Dave Shul on guitar, Manas Itene on drums, and Raliegh J. Neal, II on keyboards. Michael is backed by several very special guests including Zap Mama founder Marie Daulne and Jamaican soul/dancehall star Cherine Anderson. The album gets right to the point with the first track “The Rude Boys Back in Town,” a song that requires a decent audio system due to the deep bass and Dub effects that will shake your body to the core. The first half of the album is extremely danceable with themes ranging from social ailment, political injustice, economic woes and lovers’ laments. My personal favorite is the track “Say Hey (I Love You),” a song that is so catchy it will stick with you for days. Following is the promotional video from Anti Records:
The album also features several songs that fuse a heavy rock style with reggae/dub rhythm, which seems reminiscent of Franti’s early work with the Beatnigs. He has been quoted saying that he wants to give the revolution a dance party soundtrack, and he clearly states this on the track “Soundsystem.” Franti has taken the protest song to the next level by giving it a “beat you can rock your soul to.” He then shows a very personal side with “I Got Love for You,” a song that he wrote as his eldest son was preparing to go out on his own for the first time. As with most of Franti’s albums, the last track is one of hope. “Have a Little Faith” does not disappoint, and seeks to reassure the listener of the commitment Franti has to his audience.
Franti’s music is always in a state of evolution, from punk to funk to reggae/dub, it seems to really represent the complex fusion of identities in the growth of the musician and the man. His commitment to humanity led him to organize the annual Power to the Peaceful festivals in San Francisco and Brazil. He has also been named an Ambassador of Peace by the World Health Organization. “At six-foot-six, he’ll grab the mic, and take you to another level.”
Posted by Heather O’Sullivan
Title: Reggae Nashville: Deep Roots Music Vol. 1-3
Label: Dist. by MVD Visual
Format: Color, Compilation, DVD-Video, NTSC
Region: All regions
Catalog No: MVD 49-51
Deep Roots Music, an extraordinary documentary on Jamaican reggae music that was originally filmed in the early ’80s as a six part series for the BBC, was recently released on three DVDs (each including two of the original segments). Director Howard Johnson takes us on a musical journey through the complex history and culture of reggae music. Included are countless interviews and vintage footage of some of Jamaica’s most prolific musicians, producers and cultural icons. What is remarkable about this series is that it deviates from the customary documentary format and instead is filmed with a process oriented theme that gives the viewer a fly-on-the-wall perspective to Jamaican music and culture. The series is narrated by the late British reggae icon Mikey Dread, who provides the minimal commentary tying the segments together. Each DVD contains two thematic 50 minute segments skillfully blending the music and culture together:
Revival, explores reggae’s roots and stylistic influences, including Kumina, Poco, Burru, Mento, and Ska. Featured is archival and never-before-seen footage of the Skatalites, Toots and the Maytals, and Count Ossie, along with interviews with cultural historians that help bridge the gap from African music to reggae. Ranking Sounds unveils the origins of dee-jaying and toasting by introducing the mobile sound system and the birth of the Jamaican recording industry. Featured in this segment is Count Matchoucki, U-Roy, Prince Jammy, Prince Buster, and a rare interview with Duke Reid’s widow.
Bunny Lee Story is an intimate look inside legendary producer Bunny Lee’s studio plus conversations with Prince Jammy, Delroy Wilson, Jackie Edwards, and Wayne Smith. Black Ark looks at the influence of Rastafari on reggae music, featuring rare footage of His Imperial Majesty Haile Salassie 1 during his visit to Jamaica, as well as Nyahbinghi drumming, the Mighty Diamonds and Bob Marley. Also provided is an in-depth look into the creative cosmos that is Lee “Scratch” Perry and his Black Ark studio.
Following is an excerpt from this segment, including opening and closing credits:
Money In My Pocket shows the connection between politics, commerce and music. Featured in this segment is the footage of the infamous Bob Marley & the Wailers concert where he united rival political candidates during the bitter and violent campaign of 1978. Also highlighted in this segment is a close look at the “prince of reggae,” Dennis Brown, in his studio. Ghetto Riddim examines the process of finding new talent by showcasing street corner auditions, including an afternoon at Jack Ruby’s as he holds his weekly auditions outside the gates of his studio.
Deep Roots Music is a crucial series that provides much greater depth than most documentaries on Jamaican music. The interviews and rare footage alone make the series one of the most definitive resources on reggae music to date.
Posted by Heather O’Sullivan
Title: Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley’s Wailers
Author: John Masouri
Publisher: London ; New York: Omnibus Press
ISBN: 978-1-84609-689-1 (582 pp.)
John Masouri, a veteran reviewer of reggae and related music as well as a journalist and a frequent contributor to radio and television documentaries, presents the story of Bob Marley’s band, the Wailers, in a work of particular importance to readers interested in the present state of reggae music and Bob Marley’s legacy. After the Wailers’ signing to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records led to the departure of longtime partners Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, Marley turned increasingly to bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett for collaboration. “Fams” and his brother Carlton, the band’s drummer, had developed the drum and bass technique at the heart of the Wailers’ sound while playing in Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s house band, the Upsetters. The Barretts and the rest of the Upsetters promptly left Scratch’s employ when given the opportunity to become Marley’s permanent band.
Masouri details the whirlwind events of the ‘70s as Bob Marley and the Wailers introduced reggae music to the world. In a relationship often characterized by spiritual concerns relating to Rastafarism, the band, and especially Family Man, entered into contracts and agreements with Marley, many of which were never written down or vetted by lawyers. Marley, “Fams,” and all involved believed in what they were doing and when Bob pledged to take care that all of the proceeds were shared and all contributing musicians would be generously remunerated, there was no reason to think differently. Then Bob died of cancer.
Unfortunately, in the intervening years, the aging Wailers have fallen into poverty and poor health. Even before Bob’s untimely death, there were signs that financial considerations promised by Marley were not necessarily forthcoming from Island Records, which now controlled the flow of money to the band. Signing with Island had given Bob Marley and the Wailers far better distribution, publicity, facilities, and management than other Jamaican bands, but it also introduced accountants and lawyers into the band’s lives. Sadly there was also no assistance to the band members’ plights forthcoming from Marley’s estate, now controlled by Bob’s widow Rita and his eldest son Ziggy.
The first half of Masouri’s book is an exhilarating biography of a band reaching worldwide acclaim, at once promoting reggae to the world, and all but eclipsing the rest of the reggae artists trying to reach the mainstream pop music market. The second half tells the long, twisted tale of the legal pursuit of the benefits “Fams” and the rest of the Wailers felt were due them according to far-reaching understandings, but pitifully few signed, legal documents. Similarly, though Masouri presents a comprehensive look at the situation, his book does not offer the convenience of a bibliography, although he does include a one-page list of acknowledgements.
Masouri’s attention to detail is admirable, and in his hands the legal rigmarole that is at the heart of the story reads tolerably well. But the real story here may be the unkind portrait it paints of Rita Marley and her disinterest in living up to the spiritual message associated with Bob Marley, his life and music, despite her current (and very successful) efforts to market all things Bob. The Marley estate is now worth many times what it was worth when Bob died, thanks in large part to constant reissuing and repackaging of the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers. This negative report of how Bob’s legacy is working out may complicate the ongoing marketing of his music by casting doubt on the spiritual aspect of the whole operation. But whatever happens in the contretemps between Bob’s former sidemen and the Marley estate and Island Records, Masouri has contributed a much needed look behind the music.
Posted by Mike Tribby