Sunday, June 24, 2007

Black Uhuru - Black Sounds Of Freedom

Black Uhuru
Black Sounds of Freedom (Greensleeves GREWCD23)

Black Uhuru have a justified reputation as one of the darkest and most uncompromising of the internationally successful roots groups of the late 70s and early 80s. They went through several different vocal line-ups, but most of their most crucial works were produced with lead singer and prime lyricist Michael Rose, a man whose very personal blend of spiritual militancy and dread paranoia gave the classic Uhuru a unique and unmistakeable, almost gothic and industrial vibe, creating (aided by the inimitable drum and bass duo of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, who were essentially part of the band) some both rock-audience-friendly and truly deep and dark roots.

"Love Crisis" was their first full-length album, recorded for Prince Jammy in 1977 with the vocal line-up of Rose, Duckie Simpson and Errol Nelson. After the group achieved international popularity with their Island albums such as "Red" and "Sinsemilla", Jammy remixed the album and re-released it in 1981 as "Black Sounds Of Freedom", by which title it is more widely known. This CD reissue from Greensleeves collects both versions of the album, along with DJ cuts to 3 of the tunes by U-Black.

The original version of the album opens with "Crisis For Love", which despite its lyrics is surprisingly cheerful and upbeat, more resembling a mellow Wailing Souls or Israel Vibration track than the typical Black Uhuru sound. The mood soon gets sombre again, however, with the moving, elegiac feel of the anti-war classic "Satan Army Band", a powerful lament showing Rose can do "understated" vocally as well as he can "strident" (although its ambience is somewhat broken by the rather puzzling lyric mentioning a "hot cross bun").

"Tonight Is The Night To Unite" is one of the tunes on this set most typical of what would become the familiar and unmistakeable Black Uhuru sound, with Rose's trademark scats and vocal interpolations getting their first proper airing, on a prescient lyric of determination in the face of suffering. "Eden Out Deh" (presumably a mis-spelling of its intended title, as the lyrics refer to "heathen", not "Eden") continues the militant theme: despite the enemies everywhere, "our revolutionary spirit has come a long long way". Sly & Robbie's rhythm section (a massive, if often uncredited, influence on electro, industrial and similar movements) ensures the dread mood is kept up.

On "Sorry For The Man" Rose turns his hand to relationship matters, but of course keeps things dark in tone with his pitying condemnation of an ex-lover: whether you regard the lyric as misogynistic or just angsty, it's a long way from standard "lovers rock". "I Love King Selassie" is probably Uhuru's best-known early hit, a devotional song to the Ethiopian ruler which (in one of the great paradoxes of the Rastafarian movement), despite the irrationality of its own basic premise, produces some great attacks on religion and superstition: "Useless praying to the spirits, for the spirit is within the flesh of I and I". Sly's metronomic drumming is particularly impressive here.

"Natural Mystic" is a nice cover of a tune whose lyric, in Rose's hands, sounds like it was written for Black Uhuru; he also admirably refuses to attempt to imitate Marley vocally as too many artists do when covering his songs. The horn section of the original is replaced by a nice piece of organ courtesy of Winston Wright.

"Hard Ground", one of the standout tracks of the album, has one of the darkest, most powerful sufferers lyrics in the whole of Jamaican music; a tale of homelessness and hopelessness that even dares to question the faith in God that infuses Black Uhuru's (and so many reggae artists') entire body of work: "All my life I've only known misery - it seems as if Jah Jah really has forsaken me". Guitar, organ and piano enhance the mood, and Rose gives one of his most characteristically doom-laden vocal performances: a stunning, uncompromisingly dread tune that easily cements Black Uhuru's reputation as the darkest and most daring band in roots reggae.

"African Love", a song first recorded by UK band The African Brothers, but significantly lyrically retooled by Rose and Simpson (to include typically Uhuru references to Satan and revolution), is another effective transformation of an existing song into the Uhuru style; without knowing the African Brothers version, it would be hard to tell it was not an original. The closing "Willow Tree" is a partial adaptation of Rose's earlier "Born Free" (recorded for Yabby You), a plea for an end to ghetto violence that shows how Rose can make even the words "peace and love" sound foreboding of doom.

The remixed version of the album (presented first on this CD) is not in fact vastly different from the original: the track order is changed so that it begins with the big hit "I Love King Selassie", and the general feel is slightly slicker and less raw, but the biggest change is the overdubbing of Johnny Osbourne's harmonica, which, while not as intrusive as, for example, the rock guitar overdubs on the remixed version of The Wailers' "Catch A Fire", clearly sounds like it was not part of the original recording, and changes the mood of some tracks slightly, adding urgency but removing some of the depth and seriousness; there is little to choose really between the two versions, but IMO the original "Love Crisis" is slightly superior.

U-Black, a toaster with a somewhat U Roy influenced style, contributes versions to 3 of the tracks from (presumably the later version of) the album, "King Of All Time" ("I Love King Selassie"), "Crocodile Style" ("Hard Ground") and "Love You Girl" ("Sorry For The Man"), which are fairly unremarkable but nice additions for any selector wishing to extend the riddims, "Crocodile Style" with its dubby echo and ebullient lyric condemning hypocrites in politics, music and love being probably the best of the bunch.

Overall, while the relatively small difference between the two versions of the album makes this CD feel rather repetitive, it is still an essential purchase for allowing the listener to decide hir own preference of the available versions of one of the strongest and deepest late 70s roots albums, and making both easily available in good sound quality for the first time. None more Black.

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