Nelson Mandela

Apologies for the lack of posts recently, unfortunately the university workload leaves little time for blogging! Having said that, posts will still keep on coming, just perhaps less regularly.

The death of Nelson Mandela has sent shockwaves through the world, tributes have been emerging from all corners of the globe for the anti-apartheid icon, and it has become even more clear just how influential this man really was. His astonishing work as a statesman and as an icon was naturally hugely admired in Jamaica, indeed his struggle against apartheid embodies the very message that the best reggae identifies. There are many tributes from over the years to the man.  I thought I would pick out a couple of my personal favourites.

The first is a classic 1980s stomper from Sugar Minott,  whilst the second is a joyful instrumental of the Abyssinians ‘Satta Massagana’, triumphant horn blasts paying tribute to Mandela’s spirit despite the fact he was still in prison at the time of recording.

Mad Professor- Rasta Movement

An obscure track from the appropriately named album ‘The Dubs That Time Forgot,’ this smooth dub exhumes the kind of effortless elegance that marks Mad Professor as one of the leading figures in the history of dub.  The strong, purposeful beat counteracts the faded, blurred feel of the rest of the instrumentation, highlighting one of Mad Professor’s best traits- his ability to incorporate digital sounds such as that powerful electronic drum whilst also keeping an organic, natural feel to the track. The horn hook feels so natural, and sits so comfortably with the rest of the track that you would stop noticing it if it didn’t sound so good.

The Wailing Wailers- I’m Gonna Put It On

Recorded in 1965, just as ska was beginning to calm down and ease into the mellow swing of rocksteady, this early Wailing Wailers release incorporates the best of both worlds. The instrumentation of ‘I’m Gonna Put It On’ is classic ska- featuring the incessant bounce of guitar and piano strokes on the offbeat. The slow, gentle vocals however give the track a layer of depth associated closer with rocksteady, combining with the energetic backing to allow the record to seem both excitable and relaxed. Lee Perry would later go on to reimagine the song in 1970 in the ‘Soul Rebel’ album, however whilst he brings forward the spiritual lyrics and tight harmonies, his production lacks the raw innocence of the original.

Skatalites- Fugitive Dub

In 1975 the remaining members of the 60’s supergroup the Skatalites came together in session at Lee Perry’s Black Ark studio to record a number of tracks which would go on to be mixed at King Tubby’s.  ‘Fugitive Dub,’ taken from the album ‘the Legendary Skatalites in Dub,’ is  exactly what you would expect from a combination of Jamaica’s best musicians, best recording studio and best engineer during a golden age of Jamaican music.  It somehow manages to incorporate an astonishing collection of influences, and yet still sound like a unique and radical piece. It has the propulsive groove synonymous with the Skatalites’ earlier work, the hazy mysticism associated with Perry’s Black Ark, a spine tingling funk rarely associated with dub, and finally the deft, masterful touches of engineer King Tubby, whose mixing is, as always, brilliant- balancing the instruments in such a way that a crazy, erratic piece is able to simultaneously sound precise and whole.  A triumphant product of the combination of the some of the greatest figures in Jamaican music. 

Mighty Threes- Rasta Business

The Mighty Threes’ impact on Jamaica’s music scene was nominal to say the least. Whereas most artists and bands developed an extensive catalogue of singles and albums over the years, Mighty Three’s contribution was limited to solely one album. Perhaps this was a good thing, as what we are left with is an untainted masterpiece, free from the potentially corrupting influence of later unsatisfactory releases. This track is the jewel in the crown- a driving beat, heavy stomping percussion and eerie, spectral vocals combine to make a dark brooder of a track that stands as, amongst collectors, one of the most sought after obscurities from the roots reggae period. Tense, menacing and foreboding, reggae doesn’t get moodier than this.

The Silvertones- Rejoice Jah Jah Children

A grooving roots track from one of the many bands to successfully make the transition from ska and rocksteady to roots reggae. Produced in 1972 by Lee Perry, ‘Rejoice Jah Jah Children’ is symbolic of the rising Rastafarian and militant influence that was beginning to creep into Perry’s productions and into reggae music in general. The deep, pulsating bassline gives the piano and guitar licks a weighty standpoint upon which to crackle, whilst Delroy Denton’s vocals and the supporting harmonies give the tough instrumental a spiritual edge.

Barrington Levy- Shine Eye Gal

One of the best things about Barrington Levy is his diversity. Whereas on one hand you have his heavy, militant steppers such as ‘Bounty Hunter’, on the other you have pure bliss such as the hit ‘Shine Eye Girl.’ The stalwarts of early dancehall were all in place for this one- producer Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes and studio band Roots Radics provide a backing track dripping with dubby effects- hazy percussion flitters away as subtle guitar strokes and a plodding bassline fill the space, providing a tranquil soundscape upon which Levy shows off his astonishing vocal range. Levy’s voice is, as per usual, brilliant, bouncing off the Radic’s light rhythm with ease before reaching a phenomenal crescendo in the chorus, willingly assisted by the joyful blast of glowing horns. It is hard to find music more relaxing than this.

Mighty Diamonds- Right Time

Recorded at Channel One, ‘Right Time’ is the title track from the album that marked Sly & Robbie’s arrival on the Jamaican reggae scene, and what a track it is. From the very beginning, as the percussion eases in followed by that mellow bassline, you can tell that this is a different sounding roots track- the heavy, militant instrumentation synonymous with roots reggae is nowhere to be found here, or indeed anywhere on the album, instead replaced with a disarmingly tender backing that remains to this day utterly unique.   Sly Dunbar’s percussion is pure genius- through his mastery of rim shots he is able to somehow sound casually unhurried yet energetic at the same time. Robbie Shakespeare’s bass is similarly impressive, grooving away at the forefront of the song without ever getting obstructing the beautiful vocals of Donald Shaw,  who is ably supported by some stunning harmonising. Majestic, dignified and graceful, ‘Right Time’ is worthy of its place at the pinnacle of Jamaican roots music.

Ini Kamoze- Wings With Me

Guided by the eye of production wizards Sly and Robbie, Ini Kamoze announced his arrival on the roots reggae-dancehall transition phase of the early 1980s with his masterful self-titled debut album. This track is a personal favourite- the instrumental backing is yet another demonstration of Sly and Robbie’s skill as both musicians and producers– a punchy bassline and initially subdued percussion are counteracted with the gradual introduction of dubby effects until by the end what at first appeared to be a straight up dancehall thumper has evolved into something far more intricate.  Kamoze is able to work magic with this glorious instrumental. His vocals are melodic, varied and powerful, somehow managing to capture the seriousness of roots music whilst still maintaining the light hearted, slightly more tongue in cheek nature of dancehall. Great stuff.

Sly & Robbie- Riding East

A fantastic dub, made so much better by the fact that it was recorded and released only last year in the brilliant album ‘Blackwood Dub’. The heavy roots vibe the pair mastered with Black Uhuru is on full display here, some 30 years later. That deep, incessant bassline is typical of Robbie Shakespeare in his full groove, whilst those deliciously sharp rim shots show Sly Dunbar is still capable of playing at his devastating best. Phenomenal stuff, and conclusive proof that in an age of reggae wannabes (I’m looking at you Snoop Dogg,) it is the veterans that still do it best.