Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Jah Rastafari - devotional reggae

Here are some artists whose output was largely motivated by their Rastafarian faith. They are, in order - Ras Michael & The Songs Of Negus; Ijahman Levi; Israel Vibration; The Wailing Souls and Bunny Wailer....

Ras Michael & The Sons Of Negus - Rastafari (1975)

Ras Michael (Michael George Henry) is best known for his distinctly roots, Rastafarian-inspired reggae recorded in the seventies at the legendary Black Ark studios. He released many albums, but this was the one that constantly crops up on lists of recommended reggae. This underrated, little-known album is one of the pioneering roots reggae albums. It is different from the deep, dubby, heavy rhythms of some of the subsequent roots recordings from 1976 onwards. It is a completely Rastafarian devotional album, and is based fundamentally around the intoxicating Nyabinghi chanting style of vocal, backed by addictive bongo drumming. However, several more "mainstream" (in that they were not from the strict Rastafarian discipline) reggae musicians were also employed such as Robbie Shakespeare on bass, Earl "Chinna" Smith on guitar, keyboard player Robbie Lyn and Peter Tosh also on guitar. It has to be said, though, that Ras Michael's groany, unexpressive voice is not the best around. Despite that, though, the music is top notch and the album is full of atmosphere. Incidentally, the front cover is an image of a young Emperor Haile Selassie.

None A Jah Jah Children (No Cry)
 is a rumbling, insistent Rastafarian devotional song, with some suitably "chanty" monotone vocals from Ras Michael. 
The sombre rhythm continues on the brooding Glory Dawn. Give Love has a traditional Rastafarian-style bongo drum backing, but its also employs some sumptuous saxophone, which was pretty unusual for a roots reggae recording. It has an infectious piano underpinning it too. Michael's vocals are deadpan and devout. It has an almost soulful groove to it that washes over you like a warm bath. It is the album's most catchy number.

It Is No Secret has a delicious bass introduction and continues with an almost funky wah-wah guitar. 
Sufferation uses the same guitar sound as well and the rhythm is once again just so good. as with the other tracks, though, it is the vocals that let it down. Imagine what a voice like Junior MurvinMax Romeo or the harmonies of The GladiatorsThe Mighty Diamonds or The Abyssinians could do with these songs. Mr. Brown gives us the bass line of the album, a big rumbling monster. The beat is a trance-like hypnotic one and the vocal is one of the better ones, far more lively, animated and confident, showing a real fervent commitment. 

Birds In The Treetop is a melodic, pleasant workout. Truth And Right is a horn-driven insistent chunky number. Ok, we've had eight tracks now and I have enjoyed my forty minutes or so, but that is probably my fill of Ras Michael for any one sitting. Add a track or two to a roots reggae playlist, though, I would recommend Give Love or None A Jah Jah Children (No Cry), or maybe Mr. Brown.

Ijahman Levi - Haile I Hymn (Chapter 1) (1978)

Ijahman Levi was born Trevor Sutherland in Jamaica in 1946, but moved with his parents to the United Kingdom in 1963. I was always under the impression that he lived up in Jamaica's Blue Mountains, as his music seems so authentic. The albums he released, were, however, recorded in Jamaica. In the midst of punk and the roots/punk "crossover", this 1978 release was quite an unusual one. Yes, it is a Rasta devotional roots album, but it contains only four extended tracks, which differentiates it from much of other roots reggae albums of the time.

The music on the album is of a melodious, easy feel, despite its Rasta message and rootsiness. There is no speaker-shaking dub rhythm, more of nice deep, rumbling bass and slowly skanking guitars. On the opening track Jah Heavy Load, there is some rock-style lead guitar as well as an infectious rhythm and some crystal clear cymbal work. Levi's voice is surprisingly light and tuneful. He is certainly no Prince Far I or Big Youth growler. He sings as well, as opposed to "toasting" semi-spoken vocals, which was common on many contemporary roots tracks.

Jah Is No Secret
 is over ten minutes long. It once again has a catchy melody, an attractive vocal and a lively but seductive backing. Levi and his band just get into a groove and off they go - bass, lilting guitar, horns and percussion. It is very much a different approach to roots reggae. There is nothing of the prophetic warnings of much roots material. This is all about celebration and joie de vivre. Despite its devotional message, it never sounds preachy or doom-laden. About half way through the track, Levi introduces the Rivers Of Babylon verses into the song, as the guitar continues to skank enjoyably along. Its ten minutes positively breeze by.

Zion Hut is over thirteen minutes long. It has a traditional Rasta drum rhythm to it, such as found on Bob Marley & The WailersRasta Man Chant. The vocal is never grating and the effect of the track is that of a smooth balm, its subtle bass massaging your ears. This beautiful bass drives the song along effortlessly. 
I'm A Levi is shorter than the previous two tracks at a (comparatively) paltry six minutes plus! It is a lively, upbeat number and it goes without saying that the bass is superb. This is a highly recommended, different roots reggae album. 

Ijahman Levi - Are We A Warrior (1979)

Are We A Warrior is a five track work of beauty, featuring some of the most tuneful, addictive, uplifting Rasta consciousness ever laid down. A look at the album details one might easily be led to believe that this is a thumping, dub-heavy impenetrable slice of late night at Notting Hill Carnival roots. Not quite true. Yes, the Rasta devotion is there but the backing is light, affectingly melodious and Levi’s voice is equally melodic and appealing.
Are We A Warrior
is a lovely, seven minute piece of atmospheric and catchy piece of roots reggae with a hauntingly attractive vocal and light skanking rhythm with tuneful horns leading the track along. One of the great, underrated reggae tunes from the glory years of the punk crossover, 1976-1980. It is both devotional yet cheery and singalong at the same time. 
Moulding A Version is heavier, but similarly likeable. A mid-paced bassy beat and an insistent rootsy rhythm. These really two of the finest Rasta-inspired songs from the genre.

The Church is more of the same, with some harmonious backing vocals and impressive organ swirls. The backing on this album is excellent throughout, is is the sound. It doesn’t shake the floors but is certainly bassy enough. Miss Beverley is a delicious, laid-back romantic groove with some seductive guitar parts, particularly at the end. 
Two Sides Of Love is so slowed down there is barely a reggae beat, just a moving, bassy backing and Levi’s yearning, heartfelt vocal. This is no Rastaman praising Jah song, it is just a man proclaiming his love for his girl. It is beautiful. A totally different vibe for a roots album. This is a rarely mentioned, but really enjoyable album. Highly recommended. If you like roots reggae you will enjoy this, especially as it is slightly different in that the tracks are extended.

Israel Vibration - The Same Song (1978)
This was one of the most refreshing, exciting debuts from a reggae band in the roots era of the mid-late seventies. It had a lively, airy, upbeat feel to it. Yes, it had a Rasta message, but it was delivered with a highly melodious, carefree vitality to it. They were a vocal trio and the vocals had a quavering, light quality about them, a bit Jacob Miller-ish. There is also something of The Wailing Souls about them, but lighter. The music had to avoid being too deep and thumping in order to allow the vocals to flourish. Notably, all three of them had suffered from polio in childhood and had disabilities. Their slightly sad-sounding vocals are not linked to this, but you can't help but feel a poignancy, somehow. Their backing musicians on here included Sly DunbarRobbie ShakespeareAnsel Collins and Augustus Pablo. The music is top quality as is the sound reproduction. Nice and bassy, but not speaker-shaking.

The album is totally a Rastafarian "conscious" one, with warnings and messages abounding. Don't let that put you off, though, it is all delivered in a most winning fashion. It is one of the most accessible but genuinely authentic Rasta roots albums. It may lack the preachy fire of Burning SpearBig Youth or Black Uhuru, but it is no less convincing.        

The Same Song is a beautifully lilting skank, with some fetching saxophone. Weep And Mourn has another infectious, toe-tapping rhythm with a bit of a Burning Spear style vocal dishing put the Rasta warnings of "great tribulation". It has a sumptuous guitar skank throughout as well. Walk The Streets Of Glory has an insistent, bass beat and a wobbly but appealing vocal. Ball Of Fire is just lovely, full of feeling in its vocals and driving along on a most attractive rhythm. Great stuff.

I'll Go Through is another laid-back, peaceful skank that just draws you in and envelops you. Why Worry is a more muscular, solid chugger. Lift Up Your Conscience is in the same vein but slightly less heavy. Back to a heavier, more typically late seventies roots groove is Prophet Has Arise. The last few tracks have indeed been slightly deeper in their sound, but this is lifted by the subtle skank of Jah Time Has Come. It reminds me a lot of The Mighty Diamonds. A deep bass and saxophone backs the hard-hitting Licks And Kicks, which is the album's only political song, detailing an act of police brutality. Even then, the act is explained as a "fulfilment of holy prophecy". This is a devout trio.

The Wailing Souls - Wild Suspense (1979)

The Wailing Souls were one of the more underrated and melodic of the roots reggae "boom" artists from the mid-late seventies. I have covered two of their many recordings here. This was The Wailing Souls' debut album, from 1979, and it is a most appealing one. Released as it was at the height of deep, dubby roots consciousness it is actually quite commercial, almost poppy in places, with musical-vocal echoes of Gregory Isaacs, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Aswad and Bob Marley in plentiful supply throughout. It is lively and energetic and is a bit of an undiscovered little gem. 

Row Fisherman approximates its title from The Congos' Fisherman, but it is a much lighter, livelier number than that song, with a very Gregory Isaacs-esque vocal and a delightfully melodious skank. For a 1979 song it is noticeably fresh and breezy as opposed to deeply rootsy. Slow Coach is a staccato, bassy groove with harmonious hints of The Abyssinians, The Gladiators and The Mighty Diamonds about it while We Got To Be Together is a very later era Marley-esque number. Feel The Spirit is the rootsiest cut thus far, but it is a captivating upbeat one featuring more Marley vibes.

Bredda Gravalicious has some appetising percussion riddims on it and a righteous Peter Tosh-style feel to it. It also brings to mind the lesser known material on Bob Marley's Exodus album like So Much Things To Say and Guiltiness. Wild Suspense is another appealingly lively and melodious groove and They Never Know has a brassy poppy swing to it with another Marley-influenced vocal. The "ba-ba-ba" vocal bit sounds almost like a sixties pop song.

Black Rose has a fine bass line and another catchy vibe while Something Funny has an infectious, rootsy beat. It has a bit of a Third World sound to it. The lengthier and rootsy Very Well ends this enjoyable reggae album in similar devotional fashion. Check out that brass and bass. Great stuff. There is nothing particularly earth-shattering about this, in the broad scheme of things, but it is well worth half an hour of your time all the same, every now and again. I really like it.

** The non-album dub bonus material is excellent too.

The Wailing Souls - Firehouse Rock (1982)

This album dates from 1982, which was considerably late in the game for the cultural roots consciousness sounds that it gives us. Bands like CultureThe GladiatorsThe Mighty Diamonds and Burning Spear had been putting out laid-back, organ and brass dominated righteous material since the mid-1970s. Even by 1980, bands like Black Uhuru were coming out with a heavier, more militant, more thumpingly bass-heavy style. Either that or there was the lyrical “slackness” of General Echo. So, it is surprising that The Wailing Souls released what was really, even by 1982, such a comparatively “retro” album. It somehow already sounded delightfully nostalgic.

Either way, it is excellent. Backed by The Roots Radics rhythm section, the vocal delivery is as harmonious as you would expect. The rhythms are peerless, full of brass backing and a big full, melodic bass sound. The lyrics are devotional, as you would expect, but the ambience is laid-back and chilled. Firehouse Rock is a strident, brassy opener with a great vocal. The soulful Run Dem Down is even better and Oh What A Feeling is incredibly catchy, with a stark, bassy dub-like rhythm. 
Kingdom Rise Kingdom Fall is a big, bassy piece of devotional slow-paced, almost dubby groove. A Fool Will Fall is quite Marley-esque in places. 

Bandits Taking Over is probably the most addictive and catchy number on the album. Great vocals on it and some tenor (?) saxophone, it would seem. Who Lives It has a soaring, powerful "woh-yoy" vocal and some sumptuous brass parts, swirling organ riffs and a lovely dubby bass right at the end. Busnah is an excellent, rumbling, upbeat groove, as also is See Baba Joe, which has some intoxicating bass work near the end. Check it out. This is possibly one of the last great “roots” albums. As with the group's debut album, it is always a half-hour well spent when I re-visit it.

Bunny Wailer - Blackheart Man (1976)

Bunny Wailer (Neville Livingstone) was best known, of course, for his many years as part of Bob Marley & The Wailers. Here I have covered a couple of his solo albums - one very rootsy and crically-acclaimed, the other re-covering some of his early work with The Wailers. This album from Bunny Wailer, his debut solo work, from 1976, has many overtones of his work with Bob Marley & The Wailers (Catch A Fire and Burnin’). Although the music’s foundations are roots, Rastafari and black consciousness, its rhythms are light, airy and melodic. It was very much in step with work of other artists from the roots reggae boom of 1975-1979, including The Gladiators, The Mighty Diamonds, Aswad and Burning Spear. Wailer’s voice is medium high in pitch and he has a fine instinct regarding carrying a melody. The backing is largely easy skanking, with horn backing, as was very much the trend at the time.

The opener, the lengthy Blackheart Man, is a mid-paced, intuitive skank telling of a mythical evil man feared by Wailer in his childhood. Apparently this man was a rastaman, and Wailer was warned to keep away from him by his mother. Basically, warning him not to become a Rasta.

Fighting Against Conviction has an emotive, soulful vocal from Wailer, a catchy refrain and a lovely brass backing. A flute appears near the end, to great effect. The issues on this album are pretty clear - social oppression, hope for a better future and a religious devotion. Themes pretty common to most roots reggae albums. This album, though, is one of the most commercial, almost poppy at times, of most of them. 
The Oppressed Song is a slowed-down number, with an acoustic guitar opening that kicks into a captivating song, with some impressive guitar licks. It is more than a bit bluesy in places. there are several musical diversifications here, away from straight reggae. Fig Tree uses some saxophone effectively as well, reinforcing that this is no regular roots album. Dream Land takes one right back to the Bob Marley & The Wailers material from the early seventies, with a delicious vocal from Bunny that sounds almost like a rock ’n’ roll ballad at times. 

 is a homage to all Rastamen in history and I’m sure it greatly influenced I’m In Love With A Rastaman by South African township band Mahlathini & The Mahotella Queens. Reincarnated Souls is another saxophone-enhanced number, while Armagideon is a more traditional roots, lyrically, but, that said, there is unique keyboard and also some melodica and what sounds like an accordion. Once again, considerable musical variety. 
Bide Up is almost soulful in its execution. The final track, as on so many other roots albums, is a devotional number, introduced by Rasta drumming. This Train is a holy piece of praise - “This train is bound to glory”, like a spiritual. An influential and interesting roots album.

Bunny Wailer - Bunny Wailer Sings the Wailers (1980)

This was an interesting album that saw Bunny Wailer taking on some of his old band's early numbers. However, without Peter Tosh and Bob Marley alongside him, the songs don't quite match up to the originals. They are given a new life of their own, though, despite Bunny's comparative vocal limitations (tough competition, I know), largely due to the presence of the now legendary Sly & Robbie and Earl "Chinna" Smith on backing music duties.

The album can therefore be listened to in isolation as a pleasant enough skanking collection, and, although there are dubby and roots undertones, particularly on Hypocrite and Rule This Land, they are not heavy or rootsy enough to detract from the songs' melodious appeal. The rootsy Burial is probably my favourite on the album and that too has a dubby but also very accessible feel to it. Unfortunately, listening to cuts like Marley's Keep On Moving and Tosh's I'm The Toughest only serve to reinforce the view that the songs were done better by those artists. 

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