Reggae & Ska:
    Jamaica and Beyond


Prince Malachi
Jah Light
Ras Records

This is a pretty average freshman performance from a new reggae soloist with the best songwriting appearing on the rootsier tunes. Listen, for example, to the Jah praise song "Deliver Us," or to "Nothing Nah Gwan," with its echoes of Black Uhuru, or "Chronic," a nice ode to the international herb with some fine toasting and a suitable dose of brass. Malachi's mainstream pop efforts are flat, uninspired and overburdened with synthetic rhythms, the exception being the ballad "Place to Be," which though well written and produced is about as Irie as a loaf of Wonder Bread. - Craig Tower


Peter Broggs
Progressive Youth
RAS Records

Gospel singers, Qawwali singers and Tibetan chanters are all evangelists in one way or another. It is important to them to share their faith experience. Broggs is an evangelist for Reggae and Rasta. This is a re-release of his first album. He pleads and cajoles the listener to go to the land of Jah, to know Jah and to love Jah.

The music has the relaxed, easy feel of early reggae. It is recorded with a minimum of effects, except for an overused, ancient echo machine, which seems to cover a lack of new ideas and guitar playing. But Peter Broggs' voice comes through on "I Don't Know" and "Never Forget Jah". Heavy beats carry "Cool Down" and "Forward Natty" as Broggs calls for an end to hatred and brutality, reminding us of the Jamaica of the 1960's and 70's. "Having a Party" foreshadows the best of Reggae dance music.

Broggs uses missed beats and slightly off tune singing to show how comfortably the music fits him. This look at early reggae (the date of the initial release is not listed) shows what has not changed in reggae music - the loping beat, the easy-going vocals, and the fervor for Jah. - Brian Grosjean


Ronnie Davis and Idren
Come Straight
Nighthawk (www.nghthwk.com)

John Brown's Body
Among Them
Shanachie (www.shanachie.com)

Reggae music, and the Rastafarian religious movement with which it is so inextricably associated, has been extant and widely known long enough to have spawned traditional orthodoxy as well as stereotypes, influenced other musical styles, and even become more than a bit hermetic, both in mystical (after Hermes Trismegistus) and inward-looking terms. These two recent releases highlight differing approaches to reggae, united in a common commitment to booming bass and a largely unsyncopated rhythmic structure with heavy emphasis on the second and fourth beats of each common time measure.

Ronnie Davis is a veteran Jamaican singer, his phrasing smooth, precise, and clear whether in the service of the Rasta righteousness lyrics which dominate Come Straight, or the soul romance of "Won't You Come Home." Instrumentation is grounded in deep, booming bass and calm percussion, the two-four rhythmic emphasis provided mostly by electric piano, fills and flourishes emanating from tasteful synthesizers, the general feel light and skipping despite the deep bass. But "Come Straight" is primarily about vocals, Davis' leads tightly supported by the falsetto harmonies of Roy Smith, Lloyd Ricketts, and Robert Doctor, collectively known as Idren ("EYE-dren"), a Rasta term for brethren which emphasizes their notion of unity in individuality, that "we" are really "I and I." "Road of Tradition," one of the slower and heavier tracks on the recording, forces the harmony vocals to the fore in a religious anthem, while "Move On Oppressor" is lighter and bouncier, graced with interesting percussion and occasional synthesized brass.

The reggae presented on Among Them, while plainly related to Ronnie Davis' more rootsy concoction, is considerably more lush and secular. John Brown's Body, a large New England ensemble, adds a horn section and strings to nearly overwhelming bass, as well as a pervasive dub subtext resulting in an exciting yet trancy experience. Vocals are also less meditative than those of Davis. The dense, bouncy "Love Is a Fire" integrates violins and R&B brass as a counterpoint to pleasant vocals, and "Orange and Gold" makes great use of a driving brass figure atop complex percussion, a haunted organ, and a lead vocal calling from a deep reverberant cavern while flutes trill past in the dubosphere, a multi-leveled and arresting sound.

Ronnie Davis remains closer to reggae and Rasta roots than does John Brown's Body, but both honor the bass and the beat, and should interest reggae stalwarts and general music fans alike. - Jim Foley (John Brown's Body web site: www.uprise.com)


Mad Professor
Dubtronic
Ariwa-RAS (www.rounder.com)

The Mad Professor (born Neil Fraser) is a hugely prolific dub mix-master and record producer who out of his London-based Ariwa studio and label has produced over 200 releases. He continues to define the heavy dub sound first laid down by Lee Perry and King Tubby. As on Dubtronic, the Professor is noted for his electronic effects-laden dub plates. But as his work continues to mature, one hardly notices the gadgetry-unless you carefully pick them out of the song. As we hear on the opening innocuous conversation, there is truly nothing good on the radio anymore. That's when the Mad Professor whips out his mind-bending exploration of the deep beats of pop-radio tracks, and bends them into imperceptible electronic doo-dads. The soothing Rasta rhythm is as meditative as musical wallpaper, as layer upon layer of effects are spread upon a tight groove. Tired of listening to the radio jukebox at work, put this album on instead. -Wayne Whitwam


Studio One Showcase: Volume 1
Heartbeat (www.rounder.com)

In the early Seventies, after the Wailers left Studio One for Chris Blackwell's Island label, Coxone Dodd turned to The Heptones to as his hit making vocal trio. Led by the charismatic Leroy Sibbles, the group embraced American soul with its AM radio-friendly tunes. They quickly became one of the hottest names in Kingston, just as the music was evolving away from the tepid pop-reggae and into a more religious and political medium. During this time also, producers began experimenting with dub plates. By splicing the dub version into the proven hit song, an extended play single was created lasting five to seven minutes. These were originally released as a 12-inch maxi-single, featuring a small collection of various artists-namely the Heptones-under the "Show Case" (sic) title on Studio One. Heartbeat has compiled the 12-inch singles, remastered for the first time onto CD. Along with the Heptones the set includes Alton Ellis (Treasure Isle was not his only label), Ernest Wilson, Johnnie Osbourne, the Bassies and Cornel Campbell. The Tonettes, a Jamaican girl group, sing the catchy "I'll Give It To You," that has been added as a CD bonus track. All the tunes are great, but the Heptones shine on "Baby" and "Hard to Confess" with crisp harmonies that stand out above the crowd. The old adage, 'They don't write songs like they used to,' certainly applies here. The material is timeless. -Wayne Whitwam


Souled on Reggae - 15 Soul Classics in a Reggae Style
Music Club (www.musicclub.com)

One only need listen to a Maytals classic to realize that Jamaican reggae was influenced as much by American Black music as by Rastafarianism. Today it's rap and hip-hop, but in the 1960s and mid 70s, as ska gave way to the slower rock steady and then reggae style, the American soul of Memphis and Detroit pervaded nearly Kingston song. Souled on Reggae is a re-issue compilation of some of the most obvious examples. All songs were made during reggae's golden age, when Jamaican studios produced singles by the truckload. Notable artists featured here include Dennis Brown, Toots Hibbert, John Holt, Ken Boothe, and the Heptones. It also highlights others who have been relegated to obscurity: Slim Smith, Janet Kay, the Maytones, and the Chosen Few.

Most of these selections are covers of the hits, songs more famous than their original artists, like Al Brown's version of the Marvellette's classic "Here I Am Baby," or the Chosen Few's take on the Main Ingredient's "Everybody Plays the Fool." But there are originals, like Derrick Harriott's, "The Loser," delivered with as much sickly sweetness as a Temptation's ballad. Part of the charm on this album lies not with just the chopping backbeats and Creole English, but with the comparatively primitive studio production in Kingston at the time. Janet Kay's sparse version of Minnie Riperton's 1975 classic "Lovin' You" misses the luster of the original, and Kay certainly lacks Riperton's vocal range, but then again she brings a sensuality that seems faked by Riperton's rendition. Also Bobbi Houston gives a nod to Aretha Franklin as she uplifts the white-bread original of David Gates' "Make It With You." Listeners wishing for the originals should not be dissuaded. The reggae-stylings add a warmth to the covers, making these versions just as fresh as the originals.-Wayne Whitwam


Gregory Isaacs
Maritime Hall Live

Yellowman
Live at Maritime Hall
both Maritime Hall Productions (www.maritimehall.com)

Two new live albums from reggae veterans Gregory Isaacs and Yellowman come our way courtesy of 2b1 Records and Maritime Hall in San Francisco, the self-proclaimed "Reggae Palace of the West Coast."

Both live sets feature a broad mix of covers, classics, and medleys, but in the end, 'lover's rock' fans have more to cheer about than dub/dancehall fanatics. Isaacs, or "Mr. Love," croons his way through 53 minutes of smooth romantic reggae with his Calabash Band, including great editions of "Night Nurse," "Sunday Morning," and "Border." With the notable exception of the lead off "Overture Intro/Medley" and "Storm (Hang On)/Medley" Isaacs' set tends to lack contrast from song to song. At the same time, if you're planning a seduction, the lack of distraction might be to your advantage.

Yellowman's latest live effort, however, might not be the best musical choice in a romantic situation. The toasting "Godfather of Dancehall" and his Sagittarius Band put in fine efforts on signature hits like "Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt" and "Two to Six, Supermix." Unfortunately, the focus of the rest of his mongrel 67 minute set is erratic, and the sound is somewhat muddy to boot. Switching between roots, dancehall, and dub styles, Yellowman hits sporadic highs, such as "Yellow Like Cheese," and "Keep on Moving" from the "Romie" medley. And then there are the lows - the incongruous cover of Fats Dominoes' romantic "Blueberry Hill" seems particularly contrived amidst the sexual bombast of dancehall throughout the rest of the set. - Craig Tower


Various Artists
Easy Star Volume One
Easy Star Records (www.easystar.com)

This reggae collection gathering up new work made over the last two years from twelve acts including Sugar Minott and The Meditations retouches the spirit of real-time and dub style recordings from 70s Jamaica though with far less 'rustic' fidelity. The Easy Star recordings issue one single at a time from three Brooklyn studios and totally eschew the use of rhythm machines and other electronic glorp that have come to glaze many productions coming after the mid 80s. The higher art of dub effects appear in the mix of some tracks but otherwise, the palette is familiar: piano, organ, horn charts, bass - trebly rippling or bottom heavy, polyrhythmic drum kit and occasional vocal harmonies. The clean fuzz of guitar on Ossie Dellimore's "Time Has Come" is a notable exception, exemplifying some welcome new sounds. The vibe is mostly up-tempo and there is a conspicuous absence of the heavier, slower styles associated with weed worship. The set remains overall a rich profile of voices submitting the full gamut of roots rocker sentiment from Rastafari testaments to urban laments to wisdom toasting. If reggae is now an international phenomenon, the varied talent and consistently unblemished professionalism of this strong compilation will surely keen for the ears of righteous followers in the hinterlands. The real thing would seem to be alive and well though we know it's the 90s when the echoplexed voice at the end tells listeners where the website is. - Steve Taylor


Alpha Blondy and the Solar System
Yitzhak Rabin
Tuff Gong (www.angelfire.com/al/tuffsframe/index.html)

Unfortunately for Alpha Blondy, his reputation precedes him. Yitzhak Rabin would be an outstanding album for an emerging reggae artist, but for Blondy it is only very good, not as rootsy as you'd expect with a mostly Jamaican (as opposed to Ivorian) Solar System. There are a few excellent tunes on Rabin, but it doesn't have the all around strength to make it the next classic Blondy album. It kicks off with the bouncy love song, "New Dawn" - referring also to the passing of the Ivory Coast's longstanding President Felix Houphouet-Boigny - which will make you sway before you know it with its pulsing rhythm and throbbing bass. Next is "Yitzhak Rabin," another catchy roots song which will hopefully get some attention, both for its politics and fine melody. "Rabin" reprises Blondy's fascination with the Middle East and Israel in English and Hebrew: "Yitzhak Rabin no dead/ Rabin is alive/... Don't cry, Israel, don't cry."

From there, the album becomes less interesting musically, and more interesting politically. Backed by the Solar System and the I-Threes, Alpha's sound is as identifiable as ever, full of jazzy horns and catchy melodies, sweet but not as powerful as Jerusalem or Apartheid Is Nazism. And in classic Blondy style, the lyrics are a linguistic potpourri - French, English, Dioula, Hebrew, etc. But this is his first album since the death of the longtime president of the Ivory Coast, Houphouet-Boigny, to whom Alpha frequently paid homage ("Jah Houphouet," "Jah Houphouet Nous Parle," etc). As a result, it is arguably his most political album to date. On Yitzhak Rabin, Blondy attacks, among other things, presidents who cling to power and ethnic domination ("Guerre Civile"), and, in another nice roots tune, the French army's presence in Africa ("Armee Francaise"). While Houphouet-Boigny - who was known for his enthusiastic support of the French, his life presidency, and nepotism - might have enjoyed the sweet roots music, he might also have gotten a little steamed by some of the lyrics. Take this for example, from "Guerre Civile," which may be the best song with its urgent melody, excellent vocal backup and punchy horns (originally in French): "Absolute power corrupts absolutely/ The elected president can't be indefinitely elected/ One day or another the people will want a change/ And then it'll be civil war." And on "Imbeciles" Blondy lays the blame for the shortcomings of post-Independence Africa squarely on the continent's own doorstep (also in French on the album): "All changes, / all evolves/ Only imbeciles,/ don't change/...The enemies of Africa/ are Africans."

The low point of the album is the ballad "Les Larmes de Therese" ("Theresa's Tears") which is completely out of place between the bright "Saraka" with a nice Fulani flute and voice workout and the patiently driving "Lalogo." All told, Yitzhak Rabin is a nice and catchy album with a few powerful political message songs, but is probably not likely to do as well as Rainmaker, Majek Fashek's recent African reggae release. - Craig Tower


Itals
Modern Age
RAS (www.rounder.com/ras/)

Reggae is one of those genres of music unfortunately vulnerable to formulaic tedium, a rigid, cookie-cutter adherence to the same old thing, heard one, heard 'em all. One way to rise above the tedium is to innovate, to cross styles, to add something new. Another is to pick a rootsy approach to the music and simply excel. The Itals follow this latter road, adhering musically to stately, rocksteady reggae, and thematically to devotional Rastafarian lyrics on "Modern Age."

"Render Love" exemplifies this, piano chords and bass establishing a hypnotic beat, percussion, guitar, and keyboard tastefully embellishing. The main attraction with the Itals, of course, is vocal, Keith Porter's compelling, slightly nasal lead supported by the high, keening chorus of David Isaacs and Kada Porter. "In a Dis Ya Time" follows a similar path, biblical imagery and a whiff of syncopation suggesting gospel music. A greater swing enhances "Happen Before the Time," a celebratory song of impending salvation, playful dublike instrumentation bouncing merrily as Porter's vocal occasionally sneaks up on a toast. And there are a few secular numbers, such as "Give This Love a Try," an R&B feel permeating the reggae beat. The production of "Modern Age" is also a contemporary wonder, clean, sparse, sometimes playful, a fitting context for the vocals of the Itals. - Jim Foley


Various Artists
Black Star Liner: Reggae from Africa
Heartbeat

First, a precision: this is not a pan-African compilation. A better subtitle would be: "Reggae from Anglophone West Africa." In fact, it's mostly from Nigeria, with a few tunes from Sierra Leone and one from Liberia, and it's all from the late 70's and very early 80's. That said, it's one of the finest records I've ever heard, African, reggae, or otherwise.

The biggest name on Black Star Liner is Sonny Okosun of Nigeria, whose "Third World" and "Fire in Soweto", which was a minor international success in the late 70's, serve as bookends to this excellent compilation. In his talkative singing voice, Okosun pleads for the sufferahs in long reggae anthems. His are the most political pieces on this disc; perhaps significantly, he is the only artist pictured in the excellent liner notes with dreads. For none of these bands were exclusively reggae bands, but rather chose reggae from a variety of contemporary styles such as rumba, highlife, or juju, for example.

The most popular message is one of encouragement. In the eerie, mesmerizing, bass-heavy "You Can," Cloud 7 of Nigeria insist that "You don't have to wait / For manna to fall from heaven / all you have to do / Is go out and get it," noting that "Jah is gonna help you." The sheer power of the bass, with the soaring synthesizer puts punch behind the lyrics. Even if you don't buy this album, find someone who has it and listen to this song. It will blow you away. Another good example of this thematic style also comes from Nigeria, this time on "Destiny" by Sir Victor Uwaifo and his Titibitis (the use of royal indicators is common among Nigerian musicians - where the "Titibitis" come from I don't know). Uwaifo features lots of secondary percussion and cascading synth horns on this piece; it's probably the least reggae-sounding on the album.

A few numbers are romantic ballads. Two songs by the Sierra Leonian group Sabanoh 75 fall in this category. "Leaking Heart" compares an unfaithful lover's heart to a sieve that won't hold water. The whooshing synthesizer, wailing sax and crooning lyrics make for a song that sounds more like a disco-ska tune, but it's good. The same could be said about "Carry On," which actually sounds like a lover's encouragement song. "Kokolioko," by Liberian Miatta Fahnbulleh, compares her lover to an allegorical rooster crowing ("kokolioko" is the sound a rooster makes to a Liberian) early in the morning for a willing hen. A straightforward upbeat number, it highlights Fahnbulleh's voice to good effect.

This is an altogether diverse collection that demonstrates that the generation before Majek Fashek, Alpha Blondy, Ismael Isaac, et al., there was great reggae in Africa. The only downside to this collection is that the promised series that was to develop on its heels never materialised on the Heartbeat label, though Shanachie and Hemisphere seem to have picked up some of the slack. - Craig Tower


Manu Dibango
Gone Clear
(Mango)

Manu Dibango, born in Cameroon but raised from the age of 15 in France, can't really be tagged with the "crossover artist" label. But he does produce integrated music from African and European roots, and he does it well - the recent Wakafrika album attests to his ability to coax the best from his partners from around the globe. Gone Clear is a much earlier example of this uncanny gift of Dibango's. One of several albums recorded in Jamaica in 1979 with the legendary Geoffrey Chung at the controls and the formidable rhythm section of Sly and Robbie of Black Uhuru, it was a definite success artistically, if not commercially. Dibango was one of the first Africans to physically "cross over" to Jamaican reggae, and he set the bar high.

Musically, Gone Clear presents a 'kool' form of reggae, low on lyrics, high on sax (Dibango's ax) and brassy backgrounds, a very subtle blend of his mellow makossa and island style. And while the Jamaican contingent provide their fair share of sound effects, Sly and Robbie don't drown Dibango's composition in whistling rockets and other aural gewgaws; instead, they provide a light textured background that keeps the simple, catchy compositions of Dibango moving along. A good example of this is found on "Doctor Bird," where the persistant artificial sparrow chirps sparkle in the mix of vocals, sax, xylophone, and clean, percussive guitar and drum chops.

Although there are no pure instrumentals on this album, the vocals are really a part of the mix. The wordiest song is the last, "Tek Time": "Take, take time / To face reality / Take, take time / To know, to know, etc." In other words, there's no complicated political or social message being served up here along with the sax musings and punchy brass. Just very fine, smooth, reggae with an Afro-jazz lustre. The tone is laid-back but not sluggish. To prove it, the band lets loose on "Reggae Makossa" which has definite funk elements without getting lost in slavish imitation to New York avant-funk. All in all, Dibango and his Jamaican compadres do an excellent job of blending makossa and reggae into a seamless and distinct sound all its own. - Craig Tower


Skatalites and Friends
At Randy's
VP Records (vprsocks@aol.com)

In the early Sixties when ska was big in Jamaica, few producers could bring in the entire Skatalites ensemble for a session. Even big names like Coxone Dodd, Duke Reid, and Justin Yap had to supplement the house-band with additional players. Vincent "Randy" Chin was one such producer. Like others in the industry-Yap, Leslie Kong and Byron Lee-Randy Chin was a Chinese-Jamaican who owned and operated Studio 17 in downtown Kingston. Chin later went on to form VP Records in New York. But at this time in history, he was in the business of making 45s.

Don't let the name or label fool you. This is essential ska from the earliest days of Jamaica's independence. The US r + b influence is quite indelible on these tracks, especially on "Rum Bumper's" and, one of my favorites, "Going Back to JA." But it was a time when R + B was all over Jamaican radio. While the Skatalites are on this album, the members may not all be in the studio at the same time. That's where the "friends" come in. But with friends like guitarist Ernest Ranglin, trombonist Rico Rodrigues, and Charlie Organaire on harmonica (with solo on "Royal Charlie"), it doesn't really matter. The remastered material is as good as anything found on Foundation Ska. Instrumentals like "Black Joe" and "Malcolm X," are as terrific as, say, "Eastern Standard Time" or "Guns of Navarone," but until today remained virtually unknown except to collectors of the 45 rpm. Future editions of Chin's productions are promised to appear on VP. - Wayne Whitwam


Ras Kimono
Oracle of Jah
(Mossaic Music MMCD 0102)

Nigeria is the home to a number of great reggae artists, including Majek Fashek and the Mandators, and there are a number of perennial stars, such as Sonny Okosun, Cloud 7, and Prince Uwaifo, who have produced excellent cuts or albums without dedicating themselves exclusively to the style. Among them, Nigerian reggaeman Ras Kimono has a long history in the music business preceding this 8 song disc on Mossaic Records, recorded in Lagos. After a couple of decades in the biz, he became a star in the early 90's following the smash album What's Gwan.

Kimono's sound is basic and international, and all the songs are in English. The sound is straightforward roots/dancehall reggae, and Kimono's vocal takes precedent over the background mix of keyboards and simple percussion. Unfortunately, it's hard to pick out anything particularly unique about Kimono's sound. He loves Jah and hates injustice, but hasn't got much else to say. And while it's not fair to compare his music technically to the well-funded efforts of Majek Fashek, the compositions are not very compelling. Musically, the percussion is bland at best, and Kimono has a tendency to push his voice beyond its limits at times.

Oracle of Jah opens with "Tyrant," a bouncy tune in which Kimono vaguely attacks the powers that be. It's danceable and catchy but not very memorable. The second tune, "Lucifer," begins with a nice brass intro, but then drops into monotony. And so on. The best song, "Rastaman," is buried in the seventh position on the disk; it's got sweet horns and a good, but short, guitar solo. Overall, Kimono does a good job of producing upbeat modern reggae, while failing to set himself apart. - Craig Tower (Mossaic, 1600 Broadway, Suite 1006, NY, NY 10019)


Sly, Robbie, Gitsy & The Taxi Gang
La Trenggae
VP Records

Sly + Robbie (featuring Sly & Robbie & The Taxi Gang)
Mambo Taxi
Island Jamaica

Bassist Robbie Shakespeare and his partner, drummer Sly Dunbar, have pioneered the rocker sound of reggae, a thundering groove of bass and electronic drums. Both started formally in Peter Tosh's band, Word, Sound and Power, then formed their own group The Revolutionaires. They went on to form their own label in 1978, Taxi Productions, producing legendary recordings for reggae greats, like Black Uhuru, Gregory Isaacs, Prince Far-I, Maxi Priest and the Wailing Souls, and non-reggae artists, such as Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Grace Jones, and Joan Armatrading.

On occasion the two have produced self-titled Taxi compilations, featuring their studio band and guest singers and DJs. Their two recent albums are on Island (released September 1997) and VP (released December 1997), introducing their signature sound of digital pop fused with a machine-like calypso; a sound that's infectious initially, but irritating soon after. Both albums are virtually identical, covering every song imaginable, from "Watermelon Man" (VP), themes from Mission: Impossible , The Good, Band and the Ugly, The Apartment, and Alfred Hitchcock's television series (Island). Even Eryka Badu's "On & On" gets the techno treatment (VP). If you enjoy fusing Sly and Robbie's electronic mambo into your own party mix, these are the albums to buy. However, unless your home five-CD changer is set to random play, this selection of Muzakian calypso gets plenty irritating. - Wayne Whitwam


The Skatalites
Ball of Fire
Island Jamaica Jazz

Stretching Out
ROIR

cd cover The Skatalites, in their new incarnation, are back with their third album, now out on Island. Meanwhile, ROIR has remastered for CD their 1986 cassette-only release of the group performing live at a 1983 Kingston gig. With their Island release, the Skatalites distance themselves from their more popular cross-overs on the Shanachie label, in favor of jazzier cuts, typical of their live performances. A theme is set, and then each instrumentalist takes his turn for an extended solo. One can just picture a kyphotic Roland Alphonso on alto sax or Lester Sterling on tenor sax taking turns in the soloist spotlight. Guitarist Ernest Ranglin has been invited aboard, adding an even greater respectability to the whole session.

From 1963 to 1965, this band set the standard of ska, the new music of an independent Jamaica. They were formed from the pool of musicians able to play for any producer or any live gig in Kingston. But they recorded primarily at Studio One for Coxone Dodd and Duke Reid at Treasure Isle, producing hits like "Man in the Street," "Phoenix City," "Eastern Standard Time, " "Occupation" and "Confucius Ska." After their successful hit "Guns of Navarone," the group disbanded, forming two house bands, The Soul Vendors for Studio One, and The Supersonics for Treasure Isle. Ska quickly evolved into rock steady, and then into reggae. With the rise of the British Two-Tone movement in the late seventies, the Skatalites were once again on everyone's lips. The band reformed at the end of the eighties, finding venues across the globe for the brand of music they practically invented.

With their appearance on Island, the Skatalites have had the opportunity to rework their greatest hits in a state-of-the-art jazz studio. Ball of Fire as a live-studio album features a few clinkers, but it also captures some inventive solos by Ranglin, Alphonso, Sterling, as well trombonist Will Clark, trumpeter Nathan Breedlove and keyboardist Bill Smith.

For fans of the retro sound, ROIR's remastering of their 1983 concert performance may be the ticket. It's available as a 22-track, two-CD set, with five previously unreleased tracks. In contrast to the Island album, Stretching Out was originally recorded live onto nonprofessional equipment, giving it a rougher sound. This recording, however, features McCook, Mittoo and Getty with the band. Several tracks have vocals by MC Lord Tanamo. It's nice to hear the original members in their renditions of "Eastern Standard Time", "Occupation," and "Guns of Navarone," compared with the newer group. While the sound may be substandard, ska fans for years have grown used to the pop and clicks of the Skatalites on aging vinyl. - Wayne Whitwam
(see also:
Skatalites)


Ernest Ranglin
Memories of Barber Mack
(Island)

Add guitarist Ernest Ranglin to the list of gray-haired musicians who are getting a new lease on life in the 1990s. Like Cuba's Cachao and Ruben Gonzalez, Jamaica's Ernest Ranglin is enjoying a renaissance for his reggae-jazz guitar playing.

Barber Mack is entirely instrumental and has a smooth jazz swing that is steeped with varying amounts of reggae rhythm. Although the music has an easy-going ambiance, Ranglin occasionally shows some amazing dexterity as his fingers fly across the fretboard. But he doesn't just depend of flashy runs; he also knows how to carry the melodic load, changing textures and styles as he solos.

With reggae's forays in recent years into the hard rhythms of dancehall and dub, it's nice to hear the island's sweeter, melodic side. - Marty Lipp

see also: Ernest Ranglin


Coyabalites
Unhinged
Shanachie

Ska music has taken off in the past couple of years. My favorite story was how the Skatalites managed to swing through my home of Sioux Falls, South Dakota (USA) in 1995, only to have about 20 people show up for the performance. These days, the club would be packed. Ska is high-energy, Jamaican-styled, big-brass, dance music that's also fun to listen to. It's made names of groups like the Toaster's, the Bosstones and MU-330. It's brought the Skatalites out of retirement to an enthusiastic audience (forget the Sioux Falls experience). It's also inspired a lot of imitators and wannabee bands. Some are good, some not. But there are plenty of them being signed to the big labels.

So with skeptism, I approached the debut release from the Coyabalites as another one of those wannabees in an already burgeoning market. What I received was great music from, of all things, a Jamaican tourist band, playing straight-forward, roots-style rock steady, reggae, and ska.

They play their own tracks along with the classics penned by Don Drummond, Toots Hibbert, Byron Lee, and Jackie Mittoo. It is surprisingly good stuff, if not one of the best roots albums ever.

The Coyabalites are group of session men who have become mainstays at the Coyaba River Garden & Museum in Ocho Rios, a tourist mecca along the northern coast of Jamaica. While the electronic-fueled dancehall stylee has bedded down in the clubs of Kingston, the old men of the by-gone days of Jamaican music have set up camp in Ocho Rios. Guys like guitarist Ernest Ranglin , keyboardist Harold Butler, trombonist Vin Gordon, sax-man Glen DaCosta and David Madden on trumpet. It's these musicians who display a solid foundation for vocalist Justin Hinds. Singing is usually a weakness in a lot of ska-bands. But Hinds' vocals are never thready. He provides the necessary punch to master a solid brass section. Judy Gordon sings on the cover of "My Boy Lollipop,"an old Jamaican hit.

Tight musicianship and crisp production carry Unhinged. As this is the first of a four-album contract, perhaps the band will venture with more original songwriting on subsequent releases. Nevertheless, this album quickly establishes itself as a torchbearer for the traditional styles of Jamaican music. –Wayne Whitwam


Various Artists
Fly African Eagle
Shanachie

Along with Hemisphere's African reggae collection, Shanachie has rekindled the roots spirit with a distinctive collection of African reggae hits, spanning the years 1977 through 1997. As Jamaica turned to the dancehall ragamuffin, African artists continued to perpetuate the classic roots sound as their inspiration. With the deaths of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, worldwide attention focused on the songcrafting of South Africa's Lucky Dube and Ivory Coast's Alpha Blondy. Both artists became major stars; Lucky Dube is currently the biggest-selling living reggae star in the world.

Shanachie's collection opens with Blondy's classic "Cocody Rock," an international hit that celebrates the music scene of Abidjan, Ivory Coast's capital city. This arrangement was recorded with Bob Marley's band, the Wailers, with whom Alpha Blondy went on to record the Jerusalem album. Lucky Dube's contribution is his big hit "Prisoner;" politically charged anti-apartheid rhetoric, fused with Dube's trademark sound of lush keyboards and female chorus.

"Africa Unity" is the new release from Majek Fashek (Nigeria), now found on Rainmaker. However, it receives better company on this compilation. Senegal's Toure Kunda turns in a reggae-flavored number. There's also Sonny Okosun's (Nigeria) controversial hit "Fire In Soweto," that became a big seller in most of the continent, but was banned in South Africa. The album also includes Nigeria's Ras Kimono, Ivory Coast's Jah Leak Roy, and a great tune from South Africa's O'Yaba, "Fly Away" from which this compilation takes its name. "Sweet Reggae Music" from Harley and the Rasta Family is the only duplicate from the Hemisphere collection.

World music often challenges pre-conceived notions. Reggae music this good, from Africa? It is music that has penetrated nearly every corner of the continent, and music with a conscience. The rhythms are smooth. The words are inspirational. Best of all, this is music that's fun to listen to. -Wayne Whitwam


Various Artists
Reggae Africa
Hemisphere-EMI-Metro Blue

In 1993, Jamaican studios were turning out dancehall and ragga-style reggae by the truckload. This rap-style music was at its sales zenith, infecting also the British reggae, as well as the music from the neighboring Caribbean islands. Meanwhile, Gerald Seligman of the English label Hemisphere produced a compilation of the finest roots reggae; music culled from the best groups in Africa (at least Côte d'Ivoire (or Ivory Coast) and South Africa). It's forward-thinking concept may have been a bit too early for this market. But it would be a big seller today. For lovers of the roots reggae sound, this is a must-have collection. Whether it's music with a message or music with a great back-beat, every selection on this album stands out as a winner.

From South Africa, Senzo Mthethwa and the underrated group Harley and the Rasta Family combine reggae with local mbaqanga. Unfortunately, fellow countryman Lucky Dube was omitted from this record, but can be found on another compilation released in 1997 by the Shanachie (USA) label. Soft-voiced Alpha Blondy, and his protegé Ismael Isaac and Serges Kassy, lead the Ivory Coast contingent that also features Solo Jah Gunt, P.I. Ray, Ice T Cool, Lystrone Kouame and Tangara Speed Ghoda. Koko Dembele, from Mali and the Bobo people, turns in two tracks for the album. All told, the reggae on this African collection clearly demonstrates a virility that was seriously lacking on Jamaican product throughout most of the Eighties. Hemisphere promised other volumes of Reggae Africa, but none have been produced to date. See instead the compilation on Shanachie that includes different songs and other artists. -Wayne Whitwam


Majek Fashek
Rainmaker
Tuff Gong-Lightyear

How many times have I heard from my acquaintances that they don't like reggae music because...it all sounds the same after awhile. Certainly, the incessant back-beat and tireless messages of ganja, Rastafarianism and African Unity must grow a bit tiring even for the most devoted fan. Good albums seem to sidestep the cliché with clever production. Fashek sidesteps it by lifting Western rock 'n' roll. On Rainmaker, we're treated to yet another cover of "Hotel California" (the Reggae Cowboys did it last year), and an uncredited shoplifting of "Sympathy for the Devil," in not one song, but two ("Sailing" and "Prostitute Destitute"). Three, if you count "I wanna know," except that the hooks have been diluted down past the point where the Rolling Stones' attorneys would even notice.

The Nigerian born guitarist, and one of the more successful African reggae artists, clearly aims this album at an American audience. Obviously the reggae festival summer crowds of White American 'Earth Mothers' and 'Earth Fathers' must have taken to his wailing guitar solos and his rock 'n' roll covers---there's even a rendition of "Hey Joe" on the album---because Fashek plants this CD in the middle of American popular culture. Some may call it good marketing. I call it bad music. Try instead earlier solo releases on Interscope or, better yet, hard-to-find releases with his original band, The Mandators. -Wayne Whitwam


Majek Fashek and the Prisoners of Conscience
Spirit of Love
Interscope

Majek Fashek has always skirted the edge of pop-reggae, never committing to a modern groove completely, as if nervous it might swallow him up. As a result, his recordings, while musically and politically devoted, were always edgy and a little unsatisfactory to my ears. So it is strange that the
first album to really appeal to me is his most determinedly pop oriented, high tech and produced recording. My first impulse is to say that this is what Marley would sound like today, a full blown modern rock band with a message from Africa and the Caribbean to the rest of the world. This is
less a reggae album than an album of the African continuum, with soukous guitars, rock drums and reggae bass lines flowing like so much water over the "genreic" dam. It is a superb, mostly acoustic production that uses west African percussion and north African oboe lines as integral elements rather than cute additions to a "world music" sound. There are almost no tracks not to recommend, but try "Religion is Politics" for the message, "Majek Fashek In New York" for the groove, and "Spirit Of Love" for inspiration. - CF


Askia Modibo
Wass Reggae
Stern's Africa

Wass Reggae unites two cultures of music in the Western African nation of Mali. It melds together the traditional pentatonic music of the Wassoulou (also the Tamachek, Bambara and Songhai) with the music of the Youth, reggae. The result is desert blues with a reggae back-beat. Wass Reggae comments on social ills, like bad traffic jams in Bamako and the devaluation of the Franc CFA. Meanwhile, the quiet complexities of dancing guitars, popping percussion and sensual vocals keep the music interesting. Askio Modibo started his career first in an offshoot of the Mailian supergroup Les Ambassadeurs, then as a guitarist with Alpha Blondy's pre-Solar System line-up.

A wealthy woman agreed to be his patron and sponsored his solo career. Three releases beginning in 1988 with his band Tjiladeh was enough to give Modibo enough recognition to record with West Africa's premier producer, Ibrahima Sylla, inside a Paris studio. The result, Wass Reggae, is a timeless piece that defines all that is great about African Reggae. This album became a favorite among the world music staff at KAUR throughout 1995. Liner notes partially translate the lyrics into English. However, knowledge of the French language would be helpful. - Wayne Whitwam


Alpha Blondy & The Wailers
Jerusalem
Shanachie

Blondy's fourth album, recorded and released in late 1986, may not be his best, but it is his most legendary. This album was recorded with Bob Marley's old band, The Wailers. After Marley's untimely death in the early Eighties, Alpha Blondy was tagged a s his natural successor. While there were several artists who stepped forward to fill the void, Blondy was the only one whose song writing talents, devotion to Rastafarianism, and international appeal allowed him to champion the cause. Blondy was the first African artist who dared tackle such taboo subjects as police brutality and abuse of power. The street kids of Treichville (ghetto neighborhood of Abidjan, Ivory Coast) could identify with the music, and he became a legend among his people.

After the hugely successful Apartheid is Nazism album in 1985, the reggae crown was handed to Alpha Blondy, an opportunity to record an entire album at Tuff Gong studios in Kingston, Jamaica. Although the production is a bit sparse and the sound is hollow (some roots fans truly appreciate the "syncopation and silence"), the lyrics are what sets Alpha Blondy apart from the pack. His ability to sing in his native Dioula, then English, French, Hebrew and Arabic is uncanny, often combining several languages in the same song. He sings "I Love Paris" in Engish. He sings "Kalachnikov Love" (the love-hate relationship with an AK-47) in French. The title track, "Jerusalem," combines Hebrew with English and French. When the lyrics don't rhyme in one language, they will in another.

This broad use of language and reggae make Alpha Blondy a true international superstar; music with which many audiences can identify. Said Blondy: "I give my crowd in America what I give them in Africa, the same menu." -Wayne Whitwam


Alpha Blondy and The Solar System
Dieu
World Pacific

A truly mixed bag is the latest from Alpha Blondy and The Solar System. Unfortunately, I have a hard time getting into a recording that starts with the message that "abortion is a crime." Dieu (World Pacific) follows the tried and true Paris Afro-pop formula, with a few nice touches of kora, steel drums and a great, funky rhythm section. Everyone's entitled to their opinions, I suppose, and there's opinions aplenty here, with songs on economics, colonialism and even the
middle east. Even the opening track takes aim at the system of poverty and repression of women as part of its justification. But I'm compelled to say, contrary to Mr. Blondy, that... ABORTION IS NOT A CRIME! - CF


Ismaël Isaac
Treich Feeling
Misslin (France)

Ismaël Isaac was born Issiaka Diakite in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) in 1966. He was also born to sing. The death of Bob Marley in 1981 inspired the young man to listen to reggae, and lots of it. Also about this time, Alpha Blondy made his debut appearance on a TV talent search show called "Premirère Chance." Isaac formed his own reggae group hoping to reach national fame. That moment didn't arrive, however, until 1986 when Isaac made his TV appearance on the very same show. Three cassette tapes and two CDs later, Isaac signed with Misslin, a Paris-based label, to produce Treich Feeling, an album dedicated to the people of Treichville.

Isaac is often dismissed as a young protégé of Alpha Blondy. He does sound a lot like Blondy. And while it's true that his fellow countryman was a definite influence---in fact, members of both Alpha Blondy's and Salif Keita's band appear on the album---Treich Feeling is a product that stands on its own merits. What international audiences may miss on Isaac's candid lyrics---sung in Mandingo and Dioula---they won't mistake the reggae groove that seals this record. The 'Paris' sound provides a solid foundation without smothering. There is no pan-African closet of instruments: no kora, no talking drum or mbira. And there is no gross attempt at pandering to Western audiences. Treich Feeling is pure African reggae, a work of passion for the singer and his band, highlighted rather than compromised by production of sound. Isaac's voice sails high above the bass line. It's a rich falsetto that preaches the evils of polygamy on "Faden Kèlè, the importance of the farmer on "Magouille Production," the corruption of youth in the big city on "Abidjan Sigui," or the corruption of political office on the opening track "Babylon Hypocrite."

For those fans of reggae, or even of African music, Treich Feeling is worth tracking down. Ismaël Isaac's music may be relatively unknown to Western audiences, but this recent release proves his talents are well within international boundaries. - Wayne Whitwam


Lucky Dube
Taxman
Shanachie

Lucky Dube, the South African reggae maestro, has returned to the arena with Taxman (Shanachie). As never before, Dube's voice crackles with positive vibes throughout the entire set. But, though still clinging close to roots reggae as it was in the days of Peter Tosh and Bob Marley, Dube has deliberately tamed the rough edges with deft piano openings, injecting female chorus and slowing things down to a heartbeat. On the track "Kiss no frog", Dube touches down in the township with fiery drums, heavy bass and a jaunty beat. Meanwhile in "Taxman" and "Take it to the Jah", the rasta man is mellow, slowly breathing meaning into the lyrics and, in the process, taking fans to the promised land of reggae ecstasy. In all likelihood, this is the best roots reggae
anywhere in 1997. - Opiyo Oloya


Lee "Scratch" Perry
Arkology
Island

"This is dub revolution, music to rock the nation," says Lee "Scratch" Perry at the onset of the new 3 CD, 52 track set, Arkology. The collection nicely sums up Perry's work as producer and singer at his Black Ark studio in the mid to late seventies. The set includes hits like Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves", unreleased tracks from The Congos and others, and extended mixes, alternative versions and other rare treats. In a few cases there are several songs with the same foundation, but different singing or versioning.

Perry is known nearly as much for his antics and cryptic conversations as his music. Early this June he played at the Free Tibet concerts in New York, where he made a sincere statement on human rights then proceeded to moon the reporters. His costumes of fetishes, crowns and iconography are as confounding as his claims, like speaking on Bob Marley, who he produced for a while, "I was singing through him actually. I lent him my voice... No correction about that because it does compute."

Arkology will tune you in to the genius of the Upsetter and infect your mental processes with the rhythms of the dub revolution. - Paul Harding


Lee "Scratch" Perry
Upsetter In Dub
Heartbeat

The co-founder of dub reggae Lee "Scratch" Perry has a new, old album out. Upsetter in Dub is the first release of some rare cuts of his early works in his own Jamaican studio, the Black Ark. Perry sang and produced records starting in the late sixties and played a key role in the development of reggae as it evolved out of ska and through rock steady. He produced many early reggae greats including Bob Marley and the Wailers (until he sold their tapes in the UK and kept the profits). In the late seventies, the Black Ark burnt down (rumor has it by him) and Perry was institutionalized, later moving to Europe and working with the second wave of dub mostly in Britain.

This collection of versions and songs that never made to any of the albums he released in the late seventies (or since) belongs in any Perry or dub collection, but pales in comparison to the tracks that did make it on the records of the time. Perry has lately only been visible through a continuous stream of Mad Professor (who Perry has dubbed a "false image") jungle/dub collaborations, but these lack any of the innovation he showed in the past. So, hearing the old Upsetter is more than a small treat. - Paul Harding


Mutabaruka
Melanin Man
Shanachie

Probably the most Africa-conscious of reggae's stars, Mutabaruka has spent the last decade mixing African, reggae and high tech into a politically potent potion that beckons and threatens. He is one of reggae's most acerbic wits, one of its most powerful poets and one of its most creative arrangers. Melanin Man is no exception, and in fact may be one of his best yet. Songs like "Columbus Ghost" and "People's Court" put the Columbus myth and the whole of west Euro-centric culture on trial. "Beware" is the prize track of the album, a call for Azanian freedom that mixes hard rhythms from Sly and Robbie, sweet choruses from Muta and Cocoa Tea and techno-samplings that include pygmy chants. Message and medium are one in Mutabaruka's art, and Melanin Man puts it all on the line. - CF


Horace Andy
Roots And Branches
Ariwa/RAS (ARICD 125)

Horace Andy is a legendary reggae singer whose high, strong voice has changed almost not at all since his glory days in the early seventies. Last year Blood & Fire reissued the uneven (but still essential) "In the Light" album, and he reemerged on Ariwa around the same time with the similarly imperfect "Life is for Living" (ARICD 106). This year's effort is a huge improvement over the last one.

Backed by the rock solid Ariwa posse (Mafia and Fluxy on bass and drums, Black Steel on gits, Dean Fraser on sax) and produced by the inimitable Mad Professor, Andy comes on strong with a nice mixture of roots and lovers rock, his tenor voice soaring here with religious fervor, quavering there with romantic ardor. The song titles will make your cliche detector buzz ("Chant Them Down," "Repatriation Is a Must," etc.), but since he's one of the architects of modern reggae he can safely claim them as his own -- as he does on "Repatriation," as well as such other highlights as "Holy Mount Zion" (buzzzzzz) and the imploring "Sugar My Coffee." In the weird covers department, we have "Betcha By Golly Wow" (which works better than you might expect) and "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" (which works about as you'd expect). It wouldn't be a Mad Professor joint without a rendition of "Kunta Kinte," and danged if Horace doesn't ride away with the sucker like it was all his. Some of the tracks spin out dubwise, lending a nice variety of texture to what is, overall, a highly satisfying album. - Rick Anderson


Burning Spear
Appointment With His Majesty
Heartbeat

Burning Spear comes through with another enigmatic group of songs on Appointment With His Majesty (Heartbeat). Who else can get in political activism like "Weapons makers, it's a money making thing... a political thing" and then in the next breath sing a tune about a Grateful Dead encampment and the memory of Gerry Garcia. There's nothing surprising on the album, just the usual mix of roots reggae grooves, pop tunes and Spear's incomparable mix of topical themes and weirdness. - CF


JazzJamaica
Skaravan
Rykodisc

Summer's reaching its peak here on the third floor at world-roots central in New Haven, and since the air conditioner is browned out, I needed something cool to get through the day. JazzJamaica's Skaravan is truly cool; a little ska, a little mento, a little reggae, and a whole lot of groovin' jazz. The root of the matter are some smooth revisions of jazz classics like the title track (Ellington's "Caravan" goes Caribbean), Parker's "Barbados," and one of the jolliest, breezy versions of "Peanut Vendor" to be cut in years. There are also some fine Jamaican classics as well, given a sultry jazz treatment. Founding Skatalite trombonist Rico Rodriquez offers a prime example of how cool it can be, in a slow building, neo-classical-psychedelic jazz pop beauty, "Africa." There IS a cure for the summertime blues, and this crew has a gallon of the serum. - CF


Michael Rose
Dance Wicked / Dub Wicked
Heartbeat

As a former front-man for Black Uhuru, one of reggae's greatest ensembles, Michael Rose continues his blazing comeback following a twelve year hiatus with "Dance Wicked." Rose's greatest hurdle is to be stylistically current, and even more problematic, have an eye to the future. Hired guns Mafia and Fluxy, one of the UK's newest production duos, clearly respect and accentuate Rose's Uhuru past, but in turn blend what Heartbeat calls "modern, roots-dancehall with a UK lovers rock twist." For dub fans, Heartbeat has wasted no time in releasing the companion piece "Dub Wicked." Mafia and Fluxy, clearly influenced by Lee Perry, leap over the banality of many modern dub records by stripping every "Dance Wicked" track to its frame and weaving a swirling cloud of echo and bass. - W. Todd Dominey


Pablo Moses
Mission
RAS Records

I am not the most universal reggae fan, but once in a while there are recordings that grab me sercurely by the ear. Pablo Moses has one of the most unique sounds in reggae, and aural pallette that uses all the cliches in fresh new ways. Mission is an exemplar of this ability to make it all new again. Add his sharp eye for news, for message that rises above medium, and you have a CD full of sharp sensibilities and concious perspectives. Track to "He Was Bad," it has it all. - CF

Back to the top

return to rootsworld