Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Chantells & Friends - Children Of Jah 1977-79

The Chantells & Friends - Children Of Jah 1977-79
Blood & Fire CD BAF028

"Children of Jah" brings together some of the finest roots productions of Roy Francis, released on his Phase One label in the late 70s. While there are only 10 tracks here, unlike most Blood & Fire compilations, they are all 12" discomixes, and thus all well over 5 minutes (the longest reaching 8 minutes), meaning that this release is better value for money than that would imply, with over an hour of music here.

The harmony trio The Chantells, despite giving their name to the compilation (as perhaps the best-known act on it), only provide 3 tracks here, as opposed to 4 by the solo singer Lopez Walker, the first of which, "Children of Jah" is extended with its DJ cut, "Time To Unite" by U Brown. "Children of Jah" has sweet yet raw harmonies, somewhat reminiscent of Israel Vibration, but also of older "country style" groups such as the Maytones, the lyrics on the classic Rasta theme of survival of the righteous and innocent despite suffering and exploitation. U Brown picks up the theme and runs with it, and while his lyrics may be somewhat clich├ęd, his effortless delivery is still a pleasure to listen to, and the riddim is a warm and sweet head-nodder with a lazy Ansel Collins organ lick.

Lopez Walker (oddly often described as "Spear-style", despite a greater vocal similarity to someone like Prince Alla) delivers "Jah Jah New Garden" over a similarly warm and blissful, downtempo yet still powerful riddim, with passionate conviction in his voice aided by floaty piano and strong yet subtle echo in the dub portion of the tune.

Errol Davis's "Path I Have Taken" is a re-titled "Free Speech and Movement", originally by the Royals, combining liberation theology with condemnation of the "heathen", yet uplifting rather than doom-laden in tone, with a punchy horn riff and mellow, rolling guitar work. The dub contains nicely worked echoed vocal snippets along with reverb to keep the vibes mellow yet complex enough not to be dull.

"Assemble Not Thyself" by The Terrors, however, is one of the true highlights of this set, a beautifully anthemic piece of "country style" roots in which the relatively unknown vocal group bring the great Jamaican art of harmonising to one of its undisputable pinnacles. A stern lyrical warning against associating with "sinful people", laced with Biblical imagery of destruction, it nonetheless transcends its arguably conservative message to produce something genuinely moving and timelessly powerful which could as easily be seen as a slightly veiled astute observation of the inherent hypocrisy of "democratic" state politics. While less rich and multi-layered than Scratch's work on that album, the riddim is reminiscent in its ancient-feeling dignity combined with blissful transcendence of "The Heart Of The Congos", and the Terrors nearly equal that group in the beauty of their vocals. A track every reggae harmony fan needs to own.

Walker returns with "Send Another Moses", another cut to the same riddim as "Jah Jah New Garden", again on an Old Testament-inspired theme of repatriation, but this time calling for a revolutionary saviour in much more martial terms, "to whip them [the "heathen" again] with the rod of correction, to throw them in the pit of destruction". The dub is choppier and more kinetic than the first cut.

Steve Boswell & Jah Berry's vocal/DJ combination piece "Cool Rastaman Cool" is the most uptempo track here, with a propulsive, syncopated riddim (Sly Dunbar in "metronomic" style on drums), equally suited for head-nodding or energetic stepping, and a righteous lyric warning against deception and violence, accompanied by complementary solos on both guitar and piano. Berry's toast is in the tough late 70s style which foreshadowed the transition from roots to dancehall, punctuated by charismatic whoops and yelps, and keeping on going for a full 4 minutes, equal in length to the vocal.

The Chantells return with "Desperate Time" (re-using the riddim from their previous lovers hit "Waiting In The Park"), the sweet riddim combining with the stark lyric to produce a tune which manages to uplift while testifying to harsh, bitter reality. Franklin "Bubbler" Waul's fluid, tinkling piano is showcased on the lazy, mellow dub.

Lopez Walker's "Trial Days" has a similar message of injustice and suffering, combined with wry proverbial condemnation of the oppressors who punish without thought: "the horse who gallop on the track no care what him back foot say". Again the depressing tone of the lyrics is mitigated by the sweetness and warmth of the music and the subdued yet blissful feel of the mixing.

The Chantells' last tune, "Natty Supper", is the other highlight of this set, a powerful, passionate testimony of community and celebration as resistance, and of the divine power to be found in the natural cycles of growth and life, providing a bounty of food for all; an ethos deeply rooted in the understanding that food and therefore agriculture is essential to human life, and, despite the obfuscations of politics and economics, the only true key to survival. Anthemic horns and an inspired dub mix drenched with swirling reverb and echo confirm this tune's status as a roots classic (and probably one of the best tunes possible to cook or serve a meal to).

"Fly Away", Lopez Walker's final track, is the only one in which his vocal style is in any way similar to or imitative of Burning Spear, but he still does not sound like a Winston Rodney copyist, just someone using the same kind of rootsy, semi-improvisatory vibe. The wistful lyric again draws on the concept of a transcendent "promised land", far beyond everyday sorrows, and is complemented by a bluesy guitar and another laid-back, head-swaying riddim.

Like 129 Beat Street, this compilation profiles artists who are relatively unknown (at least outside serious reggae collector circles), but entirely comprises top-quality, sophisticated yet authentic roots to rival anything by more familiar artists. Another compilation which, while perhaps likely to be overlooked due to its lack of a "big name" and its short number of tracks, is certain not to disappoint fans of classic 70s roots and harmony.

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