Monday, October 22, 2007

Junior Delgado - Sons Of Slaves

Junior Delgado
Sons of Slaves: Rebel Anthems from a Roots Legend
Trojan TJACD288

Junior Delgado, famed for his gruff yet warm voice, was a roots singer with a long career of both singing and producing, in his native Jamaica in the 70s and in the UK in later decades. "Sons of Slaves" is one of several retrospective compilations of his works which appeared after his death in London in 2005.

This compilation opens with "Africa We Are Going Home" by Time Unlimited, the group for which Delgado sang lead vocal on several tunes recorded for Lee Perry. "Africa" is an early Black Ark tune with a typically Upsetter skanking riddim and weird sound effects including scat vocal howls and screams. Delgado sounds strangely detached, yet delivers the repatriation lyric with conviction. (Some editions of this compilation apparently also include another Time Unlimited tune, "Reaction"; however, the one I have doesn't...)

The first solo Delgado tune included is the Rupie Edwards-produced "Run Bald Head", one of many Rasta-themed denunciations of the news of Haile Selassie's death as "baldhead"-spreaded false rumours, sung over the riddim of Slim Smith's "I'm So Proud". Also produced by Rupie is "Mi Nuh Matta", a DJ cut recorded by Delgado under his toasting pseudonym of El Cisco, also over Smith's "My Conversation", with Junior extolling the melody in a youthful yet old school style reminiscent of I Roy, with little hint of the stridency of his singing voice.

"Sons Of Slaves", however, is quintessential Delgado, and one of the heaviest of all Black Ark classics. Scratch's mixing is at its wildest and deepest, and Delgado at his most powerful and impassioned as he testifies to the living reality of slavery's legacy. "Are we not the children that run away from plantations?" he asks, before demanding freedom and justice and proclaiming the people of the African diaspora "like a roaring lion". Truly heavy roots, in a nearly 7 minute 12" mix complemented with sublimely deep and echoing dub. Following is a mellow yet righteous rendition of the 23rd Psalm, also recorded at the Black Ark with double-tracked sung and spoken vocals and upbeat yet evocative keyboards, showcasing the devotional side of Delgado's Rasta militancy. Perry's multi-layered mixing is nicely in evidence.

The rather sparser-sounding "Tition", produced by Earl "Chinna" Smith, is another of Delgado's best-known roots classics, a condemnation of political gang violence over a simplistic yet highly effective piano, guitar and bass backing, delivered with stern yet warm dignity. On the same riddim is the self-produced "Jah Jah Say", in which the depth and warmth of Delgado's uniquely gruff-yet-sweet voice is brought to the fore by ethereal backing vocals. The 12" version adds a beautiful, soaring trumpet solo, unfortunately uncredited, plus playful echo and percussion - guaranteed pure niceness.

The remainder of the tunes on this album are all self-produced. "Devil's Throne" is a joyfully triumphant cut of the classic "Creation Rebel" riddim, Delgado returning to his theme of affirming the identity and mission of the African people and proclaiming the inevitable victory of righteousness over evil. "The Raiders" (aka "No Warrior") is an upbeat anti-war tune, declaiming contemporary gang violence in the same breath as historical colonialism with customary warmth and conviction. This 12" version is not as long as the others, adding about a minute of toasting (uncredited, but presumably Delgado himself), rather than a full-length dub or DJ version - once again the theme of the toast is music as sound and power, sold as a panacea in ebullient huckster style with claims like "this ya sound make the cripple them walk, this ya sound make the dumb them talk"; a questionable hyperbole, but clearly delivered with affectionate, tongue-in-cheek intent.

So ends the 70s selection: the rest of the tracks on this set are UK self-productions dating from 1988. "Born To Be Wild" and "Gimme Your Love" are nice, yet unremarkable, lovers tunes, the latter enlivened somewhat with a slight hip-hop influence to its fast-paced, semi-digital beat; however, the lyrics are uninspired. "Hypo", however, is the equal of any of the 70s tracks here, a fiery, militant heavy steppers tune with real horns and Junior on top form, uncompromisingly chanting down the hypocrisy of the global political and economic system - "them feed Ethiopia, yet destroy South Africa... true them no know say rebel a destroy the city". The righteousness is not diminished by the slightly amusing image conjured up by the titular abbreviation. "Kill Nebuchadnezzar and let Babylon fall!"

Most of the remaining 1988 tunes are, however, somewhat lacklustre, with the majority being lightweight lovers lyrics over (sometimes slightly funk-influenced) digital riddims, with little to distinguish between them. The two which somewhat stand out are "Look At The Trees", a vaguely Pablo-ish feeling paean to nature with a bass-heavy riddim somewhat resembling early UK digi steppers, and "Mr Fix It", a lovers tune in a rather atypical mellow, crooning style which is an updating of the rocksteady classic "Do It Sweet", showing the surprising versatility of Delgado's voice, beyond the gruff, wailing style he was often typecast to. However, the rest suffer from a lack of sufficient distinguishing features to make them stick in the mind after listening.

Overall, "Sons Of Slaves" is something of a mixed bag, feeling unbalanced as an overview of Delgado's long and fruitful musical career (which also included experimentation with Indian-influenced, acoustic and trip hop styles); it could have profitably included some of the classic deep roots tunes that he recorded for producers such as Dennis Brown, Sly & Robbie and Augustus Pablo in place of the lesser 1988 tunes. The sleeve notes also frustrate somewhat by mentioning many crucial tunes not included on this compilation! However, it contains enough undisputed "rebel anthems" to be worth purchasing, if perhaps with a little caution exercised over its latter half...

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Lee Scratch Perry and Friends: Open The Gate

Lee Scratch Perry and Friends: Open The Gate
Trojan CDPRY2

"Open The Gate", sadly now deleted (although still fairly easily available second hand, albeit often at inflated prices), is a collection of some of the dreadest, wildest and deepest roots 12"es produced by Lee Perry at the legendary Black Ark, at a time when it had matured into its full potential as a place of hitherto-unparalleled experimentation and multi-layered, psychedelic Afrocentric esoterica. Almost everything on this compilation is difficult to talk about without resorting to an exhausting number of superlatives...

CD1 opens with Anthony Sangie Davis's revisited version of the earlier Perry production "Words", setting the mood nicely with its propulsive, percussion-charged riddim and righteous vocal, followed by Perry's alternately absurd and menacing toast, punctuated by trademark yelps and howls, while guitar and horns build again and again into manic crescendos. "Righteousness is a must, I and I gwan squeeze them pus..."

Devon Irons and Dr Alimantado's "Vampire" (a very different version to the 7" version by Irons alone, which can be found on Island's "Arkology" box set) is even wilder and deeper, probably one of the most magnificently intense productions of the whole Black Ark era. Biblical horns and chanted female backing vocals swirl around in the mix, everything overlaid with multiple layers of reverb and echo, while Irons delivers his dread warning to occultists, hypocrites and parasites. Dr Alimantado delivers one of his most rhythmic and authoritative DJ performances, seemingly picking up on Perry's own apocalyptic, stream-of-consciousness vitality, while the backing singers (probably Full Experience) chant in something which vaguely resembles Hindi. Bizarrely, the fade-out at what seems to be the end of the tune is followed by a repeat of its last few seconds, then the dub from the (much more sedate) 7" mix (apparently this is from the original 12", and therefore Perry's responsibility rather than Trojan's), extending the track time to over 10 minutes.

The 2 Heptones tunes which follow are relatively tame in comparison, but still fine examples of roots harmony, featuring different lead vocals. "Babylon Falling" is an uptempo tune with a joyful, celebratory mood despite (or perhaps because of) its apocalyptic lyrics, squelchy keyboards complementing the bouncy bass and percussion and ??'s raw, soulful lead voice. "Mistry Babylon" has a more wistful, elegiac tone, Leroy Sibbles taking the lead and sounding weary yet defiant: "I know your schemes, I know your plan, can't hold the Rastaman", the dub showcasing the trademark Black Ark swirling, mystical sound.

Sibbles's solo tune "Garden of Life" is next, another determined repatriation anthem with an aching, heavily soul-influenced feel to the vocal and an understated, delicately jazzy piano floating in and out of the foreground. The lyrics equate Ethiopia (albeit not explicitly named) with a paradise of harmony with nature; the dub (like many of Perry's, incorporating large portions of cut-up vocals) emphasises the metronomic drumbeat as well as the interplay of the piano and other percussion.

Carlton Jackson's "History", another undisputed classic, poignantly tells the story of African enslavement and personal survival through self-education, conflating the individual "I" of the narrator with the collective "I" of the African-Jamaican people. "Since 1655 we have been working on the same plantation, chanting the same recitation". Jackson condemns the trickery of the capitalist system (using one of the best examples of the universally popular metaphor of Israel's exile in Babylon) while joyfully proclaiming that "the Rastaman first bring civilisation". History indeed. In one of his most subtle yet strong riddims, Perry envelops the listener in warm, uplifting keyboards and bass.

The tune that was the other side of the same original 12" follows, Junior Delgado's magnificent "Sons Of Slaves", taking the same message and converting it into one of the dreadest, most impassioned deep roots anthems ever recorded. Delgado's raw, gruffly militant hollering vocal charges the lyric with an inimitable urgency, while the wildly, elliptically swirling mix and the dark, insistent bassline are among Perry's (and thus reggae's) deepest and heaviest, pouring all the pain and transcendence of the African diaspora experience into a fiery black ocean of sound, demanding both recognition and liberation. "Are we not the children who ran away from plantations?"

The final track on CD1 is Watty Burnett's "Open The Gate", a fantastic eschatology of repatriation which matches any of the previous pinnacles reached on this compilation. "A time will come when every fig tree will find its own vine" - Burnett's deeper-than-deep bass voice carries an authority bordering on the terrifying, and the martial horns sound like they are blowing down the walls of Jericho (one of the greatest epic, cinematic horn riffs in reggae). The mix is another deep, esoteric wild one, with clashing cymbals, super heavy Tubby's style echo and strange, fuzzed-out background noises all adding to the psychedelic intensity.

On CD2, things are a little less intense. The Mighty Diamonds' "Talk About It" starts as a laid-back love song with a curiously melancholy feel to it, over a typical Upsetter skank, before mutating in the second half of the 12" mix into one of Scratch's truly odd experiments, with a speeded-up, distorted sample of (apparently) Perry's children chanting nonsense phrases overlaying an oddly stop-start, minimalist cut-up of the mix. Eric Donaldson's "Cherry Oh Baby" is an endearing update of the lightweight 60s love song into one of those light-yet-complex skanking tunes which show the mellower, more nostalgic side of the Ark.

Watty Burnett returns in a mellower mood for "Rainy Night in Portland", an adaptation of ??.s soul classic "Rainy Night in Georgia", with the US place names appropriately replaced by JA ones. The sweet eccentricity and the comforting side of Perry's deep, warm mixing form a counterbalance to the anguished intensity of much of the rest of the set, music melted down as finely as on tunes like "Sons of Slaves" or "Open The Gate" it is charged up.

Horace Smart's "Ruffer Ruff" is a different kind of intense, a poignant tale of sufferers' reality presented with stark simplicity against a backdrop of subdued piano and swirling percussion that testifies to pain while acknowledging hope; one of Perry's most moving downtempo tunes, the dub emphasising the bluesy vulnerability and simplicity of the just-slightly-off-key melody.

"Nickodeemus" by the Congos is a tune which was left off the original LP release of the incomparable "Heart Of..." album (although included as a bonus track on the Blood & Fire CD re-release). Little needs to be said of the perfection of the harmonies or Cedric Myton's angelic, soaring falsetto. This is a shimmering, downtempo tune with an ecstatic feel, syncopated drumming which rolls along in an improvised-feeling way giving it an almost jazzy feel. The lyrics derive (somewhat unusually for a Rasta group) from the New Testament, but are rendered almost immaterial by the gorgeousness of the delivery and of the mixing.

"Know Love" by The Twin Roots is another tune with a familiar religious theme and sweet, if rather more understated, harmonics. The groove of this one, punctuated by staccato trumpet, stays in the background for the most part, but gets developed a bit with some, again rather jazzy and improvised-feeling, keyboard parts and lots of multi-layered reverb and echo in the dub (one of the longest on the album at over 9 minutes).

Perry's own "City Too Hot" is a change of pace, with the original madman half-singing. half-toasting his warning of the evils of the city over an effects-heavy, elephantine skank that is indeed "too hot", with a lazy yet passionate trombone solo adding emphasis before getting deconstructed, like everything else, in the reverb madness, along with typical Perry scatting and distortion making cymbals sound like industrial pipes hissing and snare drums almost like tablas. "I and I a go cool out upon the hilltop..." Perry continues in a sing-song fashion, with Full Experience returning on backing vocals, for "Bionic Rats", another gleeful condemnation of exploiters and hypocrites. "Jah Jah set a super trap to catch all you bionic rats..." Perry almost acts more like a bandleader than a producer/vocalist, interacting with the players of instruments in a way that feels simultaneously spontaneous and incredibly tightly planned, and dubbing out his own vocals with joyful abandon while mixing Biblical with comic book imagery in a way that effortlessly blends the sublime and the ridiculous.

Junior Murvin's "Bad Weed", a return to the "Police And Thieves" riddim which Murvin voiced with different lyrics at least 3 times, closes the album (in a longer version than that on "Arkology"). Murvin's occasionally grating falsetto is probably at its most pleasing to the ears here, counterbalanced with the heavy, fuzzy bass as he uses the evergreen gardening metaphor for yet another lyrical attack on hypocrisy, aided by Perry's famous cow sound effect and floaty bass backing vocals somewhere far back in the mix.

This is a collection of some of the most perfect music ever to come out of Jamaica, and just about the only Perry compilation not to have a single dull or misconceived track on it: just pure, distilled transcendent genius from the depths of the Black Ark. For those who cannot get hold of it, the majority of its tracks are available (if not always in exactly the same forms) on other LPs or compilations; however, it is definitely time for a campaign to get Trojan to reissue this one soon!