Kush I: Solid Ground

KUSH I

SOLID GROUND

[GLOVER MEDIA]

Looking for a modern-day roots reggae album that offers something fresh and different from the oft-times predictable music coming from yard? Errol “Kush I” Henry sounds a little like Garnett Silk, which is no bad thing except there’s a lighter feel to his vocals that would lend itself just as happily to soul or r & b. He’s a good songwriter too, whether delivering breezy reggae gospel on songs like Conference Table, Frankincense, Living Again and Seek Ye First, or shedding conscious light on everyday concerns, as heard on Be Yourself, Poor Man’s Love and Nothing But Dust, on which he implores us “never to lean upon our understanding” but always seek to widen our perspective.

Organise reveals a more uncompromising side to his oeuvre as urges black people to “organise, sit down, reason and talk, otherwise Babylon gonna kill you off…” Toxic Rain is another hard-hitting roots number – a flash of hard, cold steel in an otherwise unbroken outpouring of Rasta love and principles. Even his more romantic songs like Love Fool, Mother Of Eternity, Run Come Love You and Sweetest Affection never stray from this benign and all-embracing worldview.

By Kush I’s reasoning it’s time for people to prove themselves and he’s done exactly that on this impressive debut. Each and every element – vocals, writing, rhythms and production – is first-rate and borrowing Luciano’s backing singers, the Daffodils, as well as Dean Fraser, Paul “Lymie” Murray, members of the Firehouse Crew and other top-flight JA session musicians was a smart move too! Every track is finely crafted as a result, whilst recording took place at a variety of studios, including Anchor, Tuff Gong, Mixing Lab, Mafia & Fluxy’s and Star Trail.

 

 

Various: Hi Grade Ganja Anthems 3


 

VARIOUS ARTISTS

HI GRADE GANJA ANTHEMS 3

[GREENSLEEVES]

The strap-line screams “18 Blazing Classics!” but the packaging’s even more impressive than the track-listing as Greensleeves cleverly reproduce the Wailers’Catch A Fire Zippo lighter cover on the inside artwork and include a handy pack of king-size cigarette papers, all neatly kitted in marijuana leaf patterns. It’s a marvellous design – one that’s arresting in every sense, despite the selection itself running out of puff towards the end.

High on the most wanted list is Busy Signal’s Spliff Tail for Shane Brown’s Jukeboxx label, Capleton’s Acres, Alborosie’s Real Story on which he mimics Eek A Mouse and Collie Buddz’ former No. 1 hit Come Around – a veritable anthem that put Bermuda’s finest on the map and remains one of the most graphic descriptions of herb dealings ever committed to hard drive. Reggae connoisseurs will delight in Lukie D’s One Cup A Day and Sizzla’s Free Up The Herbs, both voiced over a Maximum Sounds’ cut of I Know Myself, whilst Tarrus Riley’s Herbs Promotionfeatures De Marco and Vybz Kartel and tells the story of surviving a police raid with their precious stash still intact. It’s unbelievable – and not to say an outright injustice – that people are still being harassed and imprisoned because of a plant, whilst more damaging substances like alcohol and tobacco are freely available. That’s why reggae artists like those assembled here continue to man the barricades and sing about marijuana. They are standing up for something they believe in, and calling for an end to the wilful ignorance and no doubt dirty-handed politricks that continue to make criminals of so many good people around the world.

With this in mind every track here’s a winner, no matter whether it’s Ziggi licking out against cocaine on a cut of Tristan Palmer’s Joker Smoker; Inner Circle saying pretty much the same thing in tandem with West Coast reggae rockers Slightly Stoopid, Bushman reviving Peter Tosh’s Legalise It or Morgan Heritage highlighting ganja’s healing qualities on Plant Up The Herbs, which is the kind of well reasoned defence no doubter could refuse.

 

Sizzla: Musical Revolutionary

Bearing in mind the huge sums they get for concerts and voicing specials, it’s easy to think of Jamaica’s leading musical personalities as superstars, living in some kind of tropical paradise and driving around in luxury vehicles. The reality is often far different and in Sizzla’s case, you may as well be describing another world altogether.

He’s an enigma in truth – one who’s banned from performing in certain European countries because of his occasional anti-gay lyrics, and yet who’s honoured by heads of state whenever he visits African countries as on his recent trip to Gambia, where he met with the President, the Secretary of State and other local dignitaries. Such contrasts speak volumes about how a black man calling for equal rights and justice is treated in different parts of the world, and bear an uncanny similarity to what Black Power leaders such as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael went through back in the sixties.

Sizzla’s only rarely engaged with the media in the past, and he’s been widely misunderstood as a result. By his own admission, he doesn’t talk much unless he’s “going to pray and chant, or unless I’m going to sing or have a reasoning.” He doesn’t have much time either, since in addition to being one of Jamaica’s most prolific and influential recording artists [and his output over the past fifteen years has been truly staggering], he also has a great many other responsibilities to take care of.

As a Rastaman, Sizzla follows the example of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, who he and other cult members revere as the Messiah. This doesn’t involve mere lip service, but a lifetime spent helping others less fortunate than themselves. It’s here where the lines between commerce – i.e., the music industry – and religion or social conscience begin to blur, since Sizzla is also a fully qualified priest within his chosen Rastafarian Order, as well as their treasurer.

With the money earned from his best-selling Da Real Thing and Overstanding albums, he built a tabernacle and 24-track recording studio in his home community of August Town. It’s there, in this rundown outpost several miles north of Kingston where you’ll find Judgment Yard – a Rasta enclave some have described as Sizzla’s personal fiefdom, but which clearly doesn’t even begin to explain what really happens there. More than just a modern-day equivalent of Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong [now a museum], it’s also a place of worship and learning, where acolytes can join together in pray or religious studies, and discuss how best to help alleviate the suffering of Jamaica’s underprivileged. If that sounds grandiose, well so be it, because it’s actually the truth.

“From we praise Rastafari, certain things must happen,” Sizzla explains. “Rastafari is a man and a King, and the King is supposed to take responsibility for the country. He’s supposed to look after the people and give them what they need, so if we praise the king, then we should be doing the same thing. Because if His Majesty wouldn’t be here, just walking about. Are you joking? No, we’d have to be doing what we can, building something to help the King lead this beautiful nation…”

As part of their everyday reverences, many Rastafarians say, ‘Let the hungry be fed, the naked be clothed, the sick be nourished and the aged protected.’ Sizzla takes such matters seriously and uses his earnings to fund a wide range of projects, whether it’s helping local people with their everyday struggles, or establishing a communications centre that’ll provide the international Rastafarian fraternity with a direct link to what’s happening in Jamaica.

“That is why I make so many songs,” he says, speaking on the phone from Jamaica. “I don’t only make songs to give people inspiration. I make songs to trap money also, so I can help people with their lives. We need to step out of this bad influence where people say, ‘Why is Sizzla making so many songs?’ It’s just that the youths are catching on to the music so fast, and if they’re going to come to me to record for them, then what am I going to do? Am I going to turn them away? No, I just record straight, and I never stop recording. If today they bring five rhythms, by next week I’m on them, and if the week after that they bring ten, then I’ll record on them as well. That’s the way we do it, because we need money to buy computers, laptops, mobile phones and all the things that can be of benefit to the people. The law says we shouldn’t steal or kill, right? And yet some people can’t see how they’re going to survive without doing those things. If the government were to provide more jobs and more opportunities for the youths, then you might see a decrease in the crime rate, but that’s why so many youths turn to music, because they see it as a way to get what they want, without having to steal or kill for it. They see how Sizzla sing a beautiful song like Thank You Mama and it comes like a gift to every one of them, because it give them the inspiration to start doing the music for themselves, and it was the same thing for me too, because from I hear artists like Bob Marley and Peter Touch – singers who see the people suffering and decide to help – then I decide I want to do it too. I want to do songs that give a vibes to the people and make things easier for them.

“Every morning in my community, I stand out in the road and all the kids come to me for lunch money. They come running, saying, ‘Dadda!’ and I give them what I have. To them, I am always rich, and so it’s up to me to keep finding the money so that I can give them something because it’s not my family alone who lives in the community; other people live there too. We are there with other Rasta people like ourselves. We sit and reason, and I don’t have just one family or one set of parents; I have a whole community of them so you share the spirit with them, and also the tribulations because they’ll say, ‘Dadda, I’m hungry and can’t feed my family…’ They’ll weep and moan with you, but when there’s a time of praise and joy, let them share it, y’understand? That’s what keeps me balanced, and that’s what living in the community does for me. I don’t hide the music either. If I’m going to do a stage show and they’re going to give me $3 million to do it, I let them hear it and they say, ‘What? Dadda get that kind of money to do one show?’ From there, they start singing and take their responsibilities seriously now. I use my life, my money and my higher self to inspire these people to do righteousness. That’s how I do it, but the government should give these youths work, instead of leading them into crime. A lot of countries like Jamaica have land that’s left unused, so they should build properties on it; teach the people to make clothes, shoes, tents, anything… A lot of people are quick to criticise the youths after someone gets convicted or becomes wanted, but why can’t they do something for them instead? Because the youths we have here are carrying too much, and it’s them getting all the lynching, the persecution and the beatings. The system’s not doing anything for them. All they can do is think of how to survive, and their only way out is to sell drugs and to rob or kill, because if they don’t eat, they’re going to die and so they’ll do anything to get that food to put in their mouths. The problem keeps adding up on us, and the government should have been thinking about this from a long time, but that is why we keep saying how we need more jobs, more schools and more training centres, and that is why you find the music is being flooded with so many young youths today. Whether they’re singing conscious songs or not, the music is a channel through which they can eat something without robbing or killing for it, so it’s just simply that my father.”

If you assume that singing for money lessens the power of his music, then it’s time to think again. People are already describing his latest album, Ghetto Youthology, as his strongest in years and with good reason, since tracks such as Black Man In The White House, Tax Payers’ Money, Gwaan Bear and Ghetto Yutes Dem A Suffer articulate what’s happening in the world around us with unflinching accuracy, and no small measure of compassion. By way of balance [and just like those classic Bob Marley and Dennis Brown albums of old], Ghetto Youthology also includes its share of love songs; most notably I Am Loving You and a gorgeous duet called What Am I To Do Baby? Sizzla’s far from one-dimensional and he’s loyal too, since he shares production credits with the Firehouse Crew, who’ve backed him on innumerable hits over the years – ever since he first appeared on a scene as a precocious young sing-jay back in the early nineties.

“Firehouse Crew were Luciano’s band originally,” he reminds us, “and I’ve been travelling with that band all this time, ever since I took my first trip off the isle of Jamaica, and I’m still not through with them. We get together and say, ‘you know something? We’ve been through all these changes, and so we should come together and do an album,’ and we’ve been doing it for a while; recording one song here or in Europe, then we get back and write another song. We might do one for Bobby Digital or Fatis, but from we get back then I do one with the Firehouse Crew as well. That’s how we did it, and the tracks add up until we get an album. I’ve got a whole lot of songs like that though. Currently, I’ve got about ten albums of unreleased material; we’ve got a lot of other projects going on.”

The closing track on the new album is called Babylon Ease Off. It’s a sufferers’ lament, chanted over Rasta drumming, and Sizzla’s demonstration of where this music originates from will stay with me forever.

“Right now I’m going to go by the nyahbinghi and let you hear,” he says, opening the door of the Judea Coptic Church next door to where he lives. “You hear that?” he asks, as the sound of Rasta chants and drumming begins to drown out his voice.

“That’s the real music right there and no matter which Rastaman in the world, whether it’s Bob Marley, Jacob Miller or whoever; that’s their churchical music. Those aren’t young boys playing either. Those are the priests and the music band from one of the churches of His Majesty, and they’re here at the tabernacle, where they practise and chant and they reason on certain matters before going out in the community.

“People listen to reggae and thinks it’s only music, but reggae is an inspiration,” he says, with just a hint of sadness. “It’s a musical route to educate the world; to make a money and to make a living. It’s a part of our culture and we don’t let it go. We maintain it, and people say ‘One love’ yes, but they don’t know about this nyahbinghi, yet it’s the same music that crowned His Majesty. It’s part of an ancient Order, and we’ve been tracking it, coming right down from even before Christ. It’s just one lineage, yeah? And from I wake up in the morning, I can hear the Rastamen reading their Bible and giving thanks and praises. I’m very active in the Rastafari community, y’know? I spend four years studying the Melchezidek Order. What I do, I just take care of the yard, build the fences, fix the drum, get the robes, get the turbans, get the shirts and everything… I just maintain that; I don’t need to be running down the altar and stuff like that. I let the elders take care of that, but I’m a reader at the Judea Coptic Church, and I’m a treasurer for the Ancient Order of Nyahbinghi, so I’m not just an artist. I’m registered to teach the foundation of Rastafari, and I got a lot of history…”

John Masouri

 

Originally printed in Echoes, May 2009

UB40: Collectors Edition

UB40

SIGNING OFF: COLLECTORS’ EDITION

[VIRGIN]

 

It’s been thirty years since the release of UB40’s debut album and the band are celebrating by touring some of the smaller venues they first headlined back then, and also playing a two-part set that includes Signing Off in its entirety. That’s going to stir up a few memories. UB40 didn’t fit in easily with either Jamaican reggae or 2Tone and yet that first album, wrapped in an unemployment benefit form as if dressed for class war, was ubiquitous at the time.

A mix of reggae, dub and even a little jazz, it sounded unlike anything else from that period and left us in no doubt they were serious about both their music and political stance. Opening with a protest song about a black man imprisoned unfairly for murder in a Louisana state jail saw to that, and also the tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King that asked, “King. Where are your people now?” Other tracks like Food For Thought, which lambasted politicians for their cynical attempts to take advantage of Third World suffering and the class conscious Little By Little again reinforced this multi-racial band’s raison de entre.

Recorded during the initial stages of Thatcherism and then released just in time for the riots that erupted throughout Britain’s mainly black inner city communities, Signing Off was a rallying cry for everyone who knew or sensed that the country was in danger of becoming a police state. Civil liberties and workers’ rights were under siege, and the liberal advances of the sixties and seventies being attacked by an increasingly repressive right-wing rearguard action. Whilst it was King, Food For Thought and the Randy Newman cover I Think It’s Going To Rain Today that appeared on 45, it was Burden Of Shame that provided the album with its moody, atmospheric centerpiece. “I’m a British subject and not proud of it while I carry the burden of shame,” lead singer Ali Campbell laments, after announcing how “bloody deeds have been done in my name.” It was the National Front, not the BNP or EDL who were spouting race hate back in 1980 and the band’s opposition to such shameful ignorance remains undiminished to this day, as underlined by their support for Love Music, Hate Racism.

The remainder of the original album was taken up by instrumentals like 12 Bar, 25%, Adella and the title track. Whilst clearly inspired by Jamaican dub, these added something different to the genre. At no stage were UB40 trying to compete with or pass for their yardie peers. Right from the start they made it clear they had their own sound and like them or not, that’s still true all these years later. Just to make the package even more enticing, the bonus CD contains 12” versions of several tracks – including another 1980 single, The Earth Dies Screaming b/w Dream A Lie – additional material such as Reefer Madness, Madam Medusa and Strange Fruit, as well as live radio sessions recorded for John Peel and Kid Jensen.

 

 

UB40: 30th Anniversary

Has it really been thirty years since UB40’s Signing Off? UB40 have become the best-selling reggae band in the world in the meantime, with more than fifty chart hits and sales of over seventy million albums to their credit. That’s an extraordinary achievement for a close-knit group of friends from Birmingham, who set out to make music they believed in and are still doing so all these years later. This autumn, to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of their bestselling debut they’ve not only reissued the album with all kinds of extras, but also decided to play the same size venues they did back in 1980 – this after decades of headlining stadiums and huge auditoriums around the world.

“I like gigs with chip shops next to them or a bus stop outside,” says Brian Travers, whose lonely sax was such a key ingredient of UB40’s early sound. “Gigs like that have a completely different character because the people who come to them tend to live locally. They can get a bus or taxi home afterwards, which they can’t when we play in these huge places that are out of town and are very sterile by comparison. There’s no sense of community. You drive into a car park, are searched coming in and have to pay a tenner for beer in a plastic glass. Those audiences feel a bit separate but at a gig in the middle of town, you’re playing to the back of the room and there’s a sense of us all being in it together. We love that.”

The band will be performing that first album in its entirety during this tour, as well as a set of latterday hits. To some, this will herald a welcome return to the band’s more political repertoire – UB40 having become synonymous with covers of Jamaican reggae classics in recent years. This is only part of the story however and their reputation for political commentary is still richly deserved, as Robin Campbell explains.

“A lot of people think we stopped being political in 1983 and stopped listening to us after that,” he says, ruefully. “We gained a whole new audience, but I think we lost a lot of people after Labour Of Love. Some of the hardliners became disappointed and thought we’d lost our edge, but if they listen to some of the later albums they’ll realise we hadn’t so it’ll be nice to see some old faces who bought the first album.”

Robin’s brother Duncan had replaced Ali Campbell as UB40’s lead singer by the time they recorded TwentyFourSeven, released in 2008, yet songs like End Of War, Securing The Peace and Instant Radical Change Of Perception left us in no doubts as to the band’s stance. Its predecessor Who You Fighting For, contained its share of uncompromising lyrics too, underlining how the band’s original remit remains undiminished, despite thirty years of unbroken success.

The first time UB40 played venues like Leicester’s De Montfort Hall John Lennon had just been assassinated, Ronald Reagan was US President and Britain was bracing itself for ten years of civil unrest and race riots under Margaret Thatcher. This was the climate in which UB40 emerged but their journey had begun two years earlier, when Ali, Jimmy and Earl had started up a branch of the Claimants’ Union. They, like Brian, had attended Moseley School Of Art in Birmingham’s Balsall Heath.

“When we started it was the beginning of Thatcherism,” says Brian. “We’d left school to no work but the choice of reggae was even more political because all of my black mates were forced to be part of white culture. There was no black television. There were no black role models and the only times you saw black people on television they were being made fun of and subjected to all kinds of racist behaviour. That’s why we were all a bit political as young men. You couldn’t help it because we had the National Front marching through our cities and we were all naturally opposed to that. The most political thing we could do wasn’t to write songs about how wrong-headed the right wing was, but to support black culture. That’s how it came to be ingrained in us. Everyone was doing something, and the Campbells were very political too. Their father was a Communist who belonged to the CND movement and so it was a natural thing for us to head down that route.”

Fortune smiled upon them when Ali was awarded £4,000 compensation for an eye injury he’d sustained in a pub brawl. He spent some of it on instruments and he, Earl and Jimmy started rehearsing at the Cannon Hill Arts Centre. Robin saw them, thought they were terrible and declined to join them! Next, they commandeered the cellar below Earl and Brian’s flat in Moseley. Brian had started to learn the saxophone; Jimmy Lynn joined them on Stylophone and Yomi Babayemi played percussion. Norman of course was already a regular, having been a friend of Ali’s from childhood. Anchored by Earl and Jimmy on bass and drums, the band gradually became more proficient and by Christmas 1978, Robin was impressed enough to buy a secondhand Fender Stratocaster and join in.

After a while, Yomi was deported back to Nigeria and keyboard player Mickey Virtue replaced Jimmy Lynn. The band then started playing their first gigs and recruited Astro, who’d been the MC with Duke Alloy’s sound-system. They were known by various names, including Jeff Cancer & the Nicoteenies before a friend suggested UB40, since most of them had those yellow unemployment cards by then. Their first proper gig was at the Hare And Hounds in King’s Heath, at a friend’s party. Word soon got around there was an exciting new band in town. This led to Jerry Dammers offering them a deal with 2 Tone Records, which they turned down as they wanted to explore their own brand of dub reggae, rather than rehash old ska numbers.

It was a brave decision, since money was scarce and most of their gigs badly paid. Local butcher Dave Cox lent them money to record demo tracks, which led Island supremo Chris Blackwell to declare that UB40 had “no commercial viability whatsoever.” Eventually they struck a deal with Graduate Records, who agreed to pay the costs of recording and manufacturing an album. The label and band would then share royalties between them. Graduate’s choice of producer was Bob Lamb, who’d been the drummer with Steve Gibbons and was well known in Birmingham for making demos with up-and-coming bands.

“David Girr [of Graduate] went to Bob Lamb and said if he recorded the album in his studio, then he’d pay the bills,” recalls Robin. “It was only later that we discovered he’d offered to share his split with him. That’s how Bob Lamb ended up with 25% of that record. Lucky man!

“Basically he’d retired from being in a band and set up his studio in this flat just off King’s Heath High Street, but he was a great engineer and absolutely loved what we were doing. We just went in there and recorded every song we had. We’d go in there in the mornings and him and his girlfriend would be still in bed. They’d climb down the ladder, she’d go and make everyone a cup of tea and he’d be sat there in his dressing gown…”

“Bob lived in a tiny flat in one of those old Victorian houses with tall ceilings and he’d built this bed on stilts,” adds Brian. “All his studio gear was kept underneath and there was an electricity meter that took fifty pence pieces. We used to joke how the album cost fifty pence to make, because we just booted the lock off and had it so the same coin kept going through over and over! Bob was groaning about it but we said, ‘don’t worry. When this is a hit we’ll sort it out.’ We were never in any doubt that our first record would be successful…”

The sessions started during autumn 1979 and despite Bob’s limited resources, the sound of the record has stood up remarkably well. The band had a full set of originals by now, although they’d still play the odd cover such as Randy Newman’s I Think It’s Gonna Rain Again and Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit. Burden Of Shame was among their first recordings and it’s probably the finest-ever song written about post-colonial guilt. “Bloody deeds have been done in my name,” they announced. “Our children will bear the blame. I’m a British subject and not proud of it, while I carry the burden of shame.”

Tyler was an appeal to the Governor of Louisiana on behalf of Gary Tyler, an African-American jailed for involvement in a murder he swears he didn’t commit. King was another highlight, and written in tribute to American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King. Food For Thought, deriding politicians who make money from other people’s suffering and Little By Little, which is a song about inequality, continued in similar vein. The rest of the album was comprised of instrumentals – mainly because Ali was a reluctant front man and had originally wanted UB40 to be a dub band. Brian’s jazzy sax playing gave this material a different sound to anything else around at that time, either in Britain or Jamaica. UB40 were unique, and a number of influential DJs were quick to recognise the fact.

Robin Valk was the first to play tracks from the album (on Birmingham station BRMB), and then Radio 1 favourite John Peel followed suit in December 1979. This session’s now included on the 30th Anniversary edition of Signing Off, which also includes UB40’s appearance on the Kid Jensen show from February 1980. Shortly afterwards the band embarked on a mini-tour of London, which is when Chrissie Hynde stumbled across them and invited UB40 to support her and the Pretenders on a forthcoming UK tour.

Graduate released UB40’s first single Food For Thought mid-way through that tour and it went to No. 4 in the charts. This was in March 1980. The band were now stars in their own right and so once the tour was finished, they rebooked the same venues with themselves as headliners and then released their second top 10 hit, My Way Of Thinking. To describe their debut album as “eagerly awaited” is an understatement. British audiences couldn’t wait for it to reach the record stores and when it finally arrived in September, Signing Off immediately became one of those albums you heard everywhere – in clubs, bars and at friend’s houses… First pressings were accompanied by a 12” EP containing three extra tracks – Madam Medusa, Strange Fruit and another captivating jazzy, dub/instrumental, mischievously called Reefer Madness.

The band had recorded these tracks at the Music Centre in Wembley, where they had access to 24-track facilities and would soon begin work on their follow-up album, Present Arms. Their inclusion on the 30th Anniversary edition – together with rare television footage, filmed by the BBC as part of the series Rock Goes To College – is guaranteed to delight long-time admirers, as well as shed light on the band’s early history for younger fans.

Signing Off would stay on the UK album charts for nearly eighteen months in total, peaking at No. 2. It sold 100,000 copies within the first few weeks and would soon sell over a million. All of a sudden, that 50% split with Graduate seemed over generous. By the end of 1980, even as The Earth Dies Screaming became their third straight UK Top 10 hit, UB40 and Graduate parted company; not over money disputes, but after Burden Of Shame had mysteriously disappeared from the album in South Africa.

“I was doing an interview with a South African journalist and he said to me, ‘how come you’ve taken Burden Of Shame off the album?’” Robin explains. “I said we haven’t and told him that no one would do that without us knowing about it and believe me, if there was one place in the world we’d want Burden Of Shame to be heard, it was South Africa. But what happened was, Graduate had sanctioned the track to be dropped without consulting us, and we couldn’t stay with them after that.”

UB40 was and still is a democracy, with each member receiving an equal share of the band’s earnings and having an equal say in the decision-making process. Whilst the world is a very different place to how it was back in 1980, it’s reassuring to know that some things never change except believe it or not, Signing Off sounds even better than ever…

Luciano: United States Of Africa

 

LUCIANO

UNITED STATES OF AFRICA

[VP RECORDS]

 

Dean Fraser’s best efforts aside, this is the most satisfying Luciano album in a long while. His singing is strong, soulful and committed, and his writing focussed throughout. In essence, United States Of Africa is a concept album, and driven by a vision of African unity that whilst rooted in awareness of colonial injustices, resolutely steers clear of blame, bitterness or self-pity.

“Ethiopia set the golden rule. I cannot chant my songs in a strange land,” he sings on Footstool, whilst Unite Africa opens with an extract from one of Emperor Haile Selassie I’s speeches and finds the Messenger pleading on behalf of the Motherland with the line, “Don’t let the system destroy our people.” Songs like these, King Of Kings and the title track leave us in no doubt of his broader cultural and spiritual remit. As a Rastaman, Luciano’s bond with Africa stretches back to the beginning of time and yet never once does he descend into empty rhetoric. That’s partially because he’s been touring the African continent for more than a decade now and therefore has plenty of actual experience to draw upon. Yet it’s also because in Frenchie of Maximum Sound, he has a producer capable of coaxing the best from him, and who knows what Luciano’s legions of fans want to hear.

Generally speaking, the singer hasn’t benefited from a cohesive “house” sound and style since leaving Xterminator in 1998. His output since then has suffered from sloppiness at times but the fact that these fifteen tracks could easily pass for Xterminator productions may explain why Luciano has again hit renewed heights both vocally and lyrically. Tracks like the autobiographical I Will Follow and Invasion [a cut of Ernest Wilson’s I Know Myself] would have sat well on any of his albums for Fatis Burrell, but the same attention to detail that distinguished his Xterminator productions can be heard here too, and especially in Frenchie’s choice of rhythms, his insistence on good song construction and impressive use of harmonies.

Highlights are plentiful, but include the tales of everyday struggle heard on Be Aware and Recession; also Welcome To Jamrock cut A No Like We No Like Them and Hosanna, which he’s voiced over Bunny Lee’s slice of Creation Rebel. Nor should we overlook Murder And Thief, with its references to “bad men shooting it out with the police.” If this song sounds especially heartfelt it’s no wonder, since a wanted man was gunned down at the singer’s home only months ago, after attempting to use two of his children as a human shield.

Life in Jamaica isn’t easy except you’d never know it listening to the tender Nubian Queen, or the gospel-infused Only Jah Can Save Us Now. That’s the magic of this particular artist though. He’s a joy-bringer, and United States Of Africa deserves a place among his very best work of the past decade.

 

Luciano: Man Of Africa

Luciano

Luciano always seems to enjoy his trips to London. Island Records were here whilst he was signed to them; early television appearances on The White Room (backed by Sly & Robbie) and Later With Jools Holland were both filmed in West London and who could forget that first Brixton Academy show, where Luciano gave the performance of his life, backed by the Firehouse Crew dressed all in khaki? London was also where he voiced the Great Controversy album over a single weekend and in the midst of heated contractual disputes. His popularity’s fluctuated since then, but was given a welcome boost by a headline performance at the One Love concert and a brilliant new album for “Frenchie” – a Frenchman based in London who learn his craft behind the mixing-board at Dub Vendor’s Fashion studios, where a procession of JA and UK reggae stars strutted their stuff throughout the nineties.

Released on VP Records via Maximum Sound, United States Of Africa shares many qualities with Luciano’s classic output for Xterminator. The weight, attention to detail and musicianship are all there, as is the professional standard of production and mixing. It’s not often you get class and roots authenticity in the same package, but this blend – together with the more disciplined approach it entails – appears to suit Luciano well.

“What I admired in Fatis was his requests for originality,” he says, peering into the hollowed out gourd he carries on his belt. “Some producers just take whatever you give them but not Fatis and this is what I love about Frenchie too. Most producers, you can pass by the studio, sing a little something for them and they’ll say, ‘Alright Luchy, respect,’ but Frenchie’s not like that. He’ll listen and say, ‘boy Luchy, I don’t like that second verse because it sounds flat…’ You have to come good and I love that! He’s outspoken and I like that about him too. There’s a spirit in him and he has a deep knowledge of this music. You can see where his heart is from his rhythms and I really admire that about him. He’s deep, I tell you.”

Africa has been a recurrent theme throughout his career, beginning with songs like Back To Africa and One Way Ticket. Luciano is no separatist however. He’s a Rastaman who believes in love, peace and harmony, and celebrates his African roots as the source of his religion, as well as race. This latest album isn’t called United States Of Africa by accident, as it reflects his continuing involvement with Africa to greater extent than ever. Several of the tracks on it refer directly to the Motherland, whilst the remainder explore themes such as political corruption, greed, gun crime and the corroding effects of capitalism. Even the autobiographical I Will Follow reads like a parable, whilst the album’s only love song is addressed to his Nubian Queen.

It’s a concept album in essence, led by songs like Unite Africa and the title track, and another milestone in a lengthy career decorated with some of the most enduring hits of the post-Bob Marley era. Luciano says he may well record another album for Frenchie but fans of the Messenger should note that further album releases loom on the horizon – two for producers with Atlanta connections and the other a self-produced effort intended to win over international audiences.

“Yes, I’ll be concentrating on making a different kind of album in future,” he promises. “I want to make a softer, more meditational album because I play flute and I play drums… You’ll hear me playing guitar more on it too, because I don’t get to use my guitar much if you notice. I just get to use it for my hobby or when I do a little unplugged show like in Jamaica or on 1Xtra. Nothing on a major scale, so I need to utilise this more, and show people another side of me.

“I’m searching for something that’s more universal, and I want to hear different instruments in my music that’ll take it further than ever before. I’m thinking so much about things like that right now, and I’m looking to make my music more accessible too, just like how Burning Spear has done to a certain extent. Yes man, so all those who say that me a done, they’ll see that me just a come!”

By his own admission, Luciano’s been a little over-prolific at times. People talk about all the mouths he feeds back in Jamaica but according to him, he just wants to get the message across and leave a decent legacy of what he calls “beatitudes” – i.e., songs that address how people live. Making records is his way of reaching people, and what’s said on them is more important to him than the business side of things. This may be why he’s not signed to a major label, because he’s not had anything like the exposure his talent deserves since leaving Island.

He was signed to Chris Blackwell’s label when making his first trip to Africa back in 1997. He, Sizzla and Mikey General travelled to Senegal with Xterminator, whereupon Luciano shared a track with Baba Maal called Africa Unite. A decade later and he expresses regret that his meeting with Baba Maal didn’t blossom into something more far-reaching. He’s performed in Africa on numerous occasions since and whilst nothing gives him greater pleasure than returning there, he feels there’s still a cloud hanging over his visit to Zimbabwe a while back.

‘How did you come to visit Zimbabwe?’ I ask him. ‘Did you get an official invite?’
“Yes, actually they sent a Rastaman as a middleman and he came to me with talk of putting on a big show and everything but he wasn’t what he seemed. It was Mugabe’s government who sent him and he came with some of the money as a deposit and all that but when we went there, we should have all gone together and carried on with the mission, which was to promote the music but it turned out he wasn’t ready for it and that meant the government had to take it over, once they realised we nearly didn’t go to Zimbabwe at all.”
Because you didn’t have your band with you…

“Well he talked to me about carrying the band, so we had all of that in mind at the planning stage because we’d just gone to Ghana to perform with John Legend, so the band was very close by. A brethren from England named Doctor Quenzi called my office in Jamaica and said he was still interested in me doing the show in Zimbabwe, and that the government wanted me to come. It was at that point the government took it over but in all honesty, they used the opportunity for their political endeavours. They had ulterior motives and if I hadn’t have been careful, brother Mikey General and myself would have got drawn in to this land scraping thing. I nearly get caught up in all of that so I have to say thanks to the Almighty because I almost get in one whole heap of trouble down there, I tell you!

“And then somehow the musicians get stalled somewhere because instead of going straight over to Zimbabwe from Ghana, they were sent back to Jamaica before coming out again. After they got back, it’s like they start to worry about things, like their safety or something like that. People try and talk them out of it too. Anyway their tickets were bought for them but somehow they came off the plane. I didn’t know what was happening with them at the time but that’s when this man from the cultural department of Zimbabwe seized the opportunity to gain some political mileage by going on the news and telling people it was the British authorities who took the band members off the plane and didn’t allow them to come, which just wasn’t true. It turns out that two of them never had visas but the Zimbabwean government had their agenda, blamed the British and I couldn’t stand for that. I really felt away about it and I’m glad to have this opportunity to explain because it was wrong to blame the British authorities, and I really couldn’t support the man and his theory…”
I remind Luciano that in 1991, Robert Mugabe gave asylum to Mengistu, leader of the Deng who deposed Emperor Haile Selassie I and is even reputed to be his killer, thereby bringing to an end the world’s oldest surviving monarchy.

“Yes! And that’s why so much curse is taking them down there man!” he exclaims. “The only reason I went to Zimbabwe was for my fans, because they really loved the show when I performed for them but I could not support Robert Mugabe. I am not for that and never could be. I’m hearing that it’s changed a bit since then and it’s less of a monopoly now, or rather monotony. You have to be so careful man, because after I go there I start to get some threats… Mikey General and I were in a press conference when a man stand up and say, ‘Luciano. Do you realise that people are planning to assassinate you?’ Well Mikey General, his eyes almost pop out his head, I tell you! I have to keep my composure and say, ‘No, I’ve never heard of that. That’s news to me,’ but after the meeting finish I immediately pull him to one side and ask him where he got that kind of information from. The organisers rough him up bad and take away his tape… All these years I avoid politics in Jamaica, only to get caught up like that in Zimbabwe. Needless to say I haven’t been back there since, as the situation there is way too delicate and whilst I’ve been getting requests, I don’t let them touch me again. I have too many fans there from the white communities, as well as the black… As an artist I have to appeal to the minds of all conscious people. I believe in the Rainbow Nation, and want my music to reach people from right across the world – people who have good intentions, and who are willing to come in and be a part of this.”

Whilst costly, his Zimbabwean adventure hasn’t dissuaded him from getting involved with various projects involving Africa, including schemes to educate and employ young people.

“Yes, because you can only do so much in Babylon,” he says. “Alright, you can set up youth clubs and use your talent and popularity to bring about certain things – projects promoting more unity between youths in the garrisons but how much can you do really, in Babylon? I think this kind of exercise is best carried out in Africa and this is what I’m looking forward to right now.

“Certain places like Ethiopia are way behind. Maybe it’s because they don’t speak English or French, and that’s why reggae hasn’t taken off there. They might know Bob Marley but first they need the infrastructure, because everything is more advanced in places like Ghana, Gambia and Senegal. What I find is that the more people get into the music, the more likely government spending will follow. The President of Gambia, he has his own sound-system now, can you believe that? When he saw how many thousands of people came out to watch us, that’s what encouraged him to start investing in the music and send for artists like myself to come and perform there. What you have to look out for though is the middlemen, because you have some of them who are real crafty and they are the ones who cause problems all of the while.”

Whilst Africa is clearly a priority, Luciano also took time out to speak of matters closer to home. Last year police were called to his home in St. Andrews where a gun battle raged for two hours. One of his baby mothers was there with their two children, aged fifteen and five years old. Reports suggest the gunman held Luciano’s family hostage and used his children as a human shield. They escaped unscathed but three policemen were injured, one seriously, before the gunman, Andrew Senior, also known as “Conqueror,” was cut down in a hail of bullets. Luciano wasn’t at the house at the time of the incident, but was later arrested and charged with harbouring a known felon, which he refutes.

“You see what happened … my gate is always open to Tom, Dick and Harry,” he told the Gleaner. “But I’ve learned that that is to my own peril. Out of the kindness of my heart, I open my home to people, but not everyone that comes in has good intentions. That’s the situation I found myself in.

“This was someone I started helping from years ago. He was trying to change his life and yes, he was wanted by the police but he wasn’t advertised as a wanted man, so the way the security forces went about handling this situation was really barbaric. They (the Jamaican government) acknowledged me as a man who was worthy of being given the Order of Distinction; a man who has respect in the community so when they learned that I had a wanted man at my place, they should have approached me better than they did, rather than accosting my property the way they did.

“Even an inspector told me that after the case is over, I could sue the authorities for the way they damaged my property and defamed my character so I know my rights but for now, I just swing low and take it easy. They have nothing on me. My record is clean. They’re accusing me of harbouring a fugitive but it wasn’t like that. The brother was looking for a safe haven and unfortunately, he came to me.”

A song on the new album, Murder And Thief, has the line, “even on a common street, there is no peace with shoot out between bad man and police.” Luciano lives in a quiet Kingston suburb, and yet still trouble reached him.

“That’s the thing; people who need help aren’t going to go to the government because the police will lock them down or kill them so that’s the position that a lot of artistes find themselves in; people come to us for help. Look at Dudus and that pastor. People say he’s mixed up with drugs and some other things but it seems he was a good man and had a good heart. All I know is that from the community’s point of view he was working as a leader, helping people cope from day to day and he was also keeping order because from he became President, a lot of the slackness was stopped. A lot of those doing wrong had to change up their plans because he wasn’t going to tolerate things like robbing people in the street anymore. It’s just that the governments of the world don’t want to see a man like that, loved by the people and keeping the place under order. When people start looking after themselves, then they don’t need any government and that’s the danger for these politicians. Also, it’s the same politicians in power now who helped start the corruption in the first place. It was they who brought the guns into the communities and set up their own garrisons and so it’s they who have to deal with it. It’s like the corruption swell up upon them now so they try and stifle and oppress the very same people they start with…”