Saturday, February 9, 2008

Junior Byles & Friends - 129 Beat Street: Ja-Man Special 75-78

Junior Byles & Friends - 129 Beat Street: Ja-Man Special 75-78
Blood & Fire CD BAF023

This Blood & Fire collection brings together some of the crucial, yet relatively obscure, deep roots music released by Dudley "Manzie" Swaby on the Ja-Man label, which, while perhaps lesser known than that from "big-name" producers of the same time period such as Lee Perry, Augustus Pablo or Yabby You, is easily in the same rank as deep, uncompromising yet complex and sophisticated roots music. While there are only 11 tracks here, fewer than on most BAF releases, the majority of them are extended versions made from the vocal and dub sides of original 7"es.

The first 4 tracks are by all voiced by Junior Byles (hence the title credit, although arguably it really ought to be "Manzie & Friends"), who was already well known for his work with Perry, but 2 are in duet with the much lesser known Rupert Reid. "Chant Down Babylon" opens the set with its tough, propulsive riddim and somewhat stereotypical, but passionately delivered, rootsy lyric. There is a nice piano lick and the dub portion emphasises the hardness of the bassline and steppers drum pattern while keeping in a few vocal snippets. (It would have been nice to hear a DJ version of this tune, as the riddim feels especially suited to it.)

Byles's 2 solo tunes which follow are also solid roots, but somewhat mellower; "Know Where You're Going" having a triumphantly celebratory Rastafari lyric and sweetly harmonising backing vocals (and again Ansell Collins's piano expertise in evidence), while "Pitchy-Patchy", with its wryly off-key guitar and syncopated hand percussion, is similarly devotional in the face of suffering and opposition to Rasta. Both showcase the soulful, gospel-influenced side of Byles's expressive voice.

The second Byles/Reid duet, "Remember Me", is probably the deepest roots tune on this set, with a heavy, cyclical-feeling riddim, clashing yet muted cymbals and a powerful, sparing yet insistent piano riff, underpinning a vocal delivered with majestic conviction and a devotional yet apocalyptic lyric reminiscent of the best later 70s work of Yabby You: "Mighty archangels stood right there before I, coming for to carry I away... remember me, when you reach Mount Zion high". The dub uses echo and reverb, judiciously rather than excessively, and a solo from Ansell to further enhance the powerful, righteous dread vibes: a true heavy roots classic.

Reid's solo tune, "See The Dread Deh", is lighter in tone, yet still dread, with playful, joyous horns and a fragile yet assured vocal, somewhat reminiscent of Eric Donaldson.; theistic devotion along with celebration of the cultural visibility of Rastafari again being the lyrical theme. The dub is a particularly nice one, masterfully showcasing each horn part as well as the percussion, with a swirling, echoing feel similar to, yet distinct from, both King Tubby's and Black Ark era Lee Perry's mixing; according to the sleeve notes, it was originally the B side to a Jah Woosh DJ cut, sadly not presented here, to the same riddim.

Pablo Moses's "One People" is another highlight with a dark, brooding deep roots vibe nicely counterpointing the poignant yet optimistic unity lyric, soaked in the same feeling of heartfelt spiritual devotion as most of the material on this compilation. "Be not misled by false prophecy... till we meet in the Promised Land, may Jah hold you in the palm of His hand". Lloyd Parks's heavy, grindstone bass is to the fore in the dub, echoed drumbeats resounding as if in a deep abyss.

Bim Sherman delivers "Mighty Ruler" over a re-cut of the Heptones' Studio One classic lovers tune "Tripe Girl", once again passionately defending the Rastafari movement against its detractors: "men of your type, get out of my sight, you don't know how to unite, you only know to fuss and fight". Collins is on organ instead of piano here, his sweet-sounding riffs perfectly complementing the rolling, head-nodding bassline, with a seamless transition into warm, deep dub that - like most of the extended versions here - makes the vocal and version feel like they were originally intended as a single piece, as for a 12" rather than a 7".

Dave Robinson's "My Homeland", another tune with a warm, joyful horn section, is a poignant repatriation lyric delivered in a style very reminiscent of Dennis Brown's contemporary self-productions: another righteous yet smile-inducing head-nodder, with a strong feeling of depth and interplay between the instruments. The dub again shows Manzie's masterly yet subtle mixing technique. "Wild Goose Race", a very much old school style DJ piece by Brigadier Jerry, is slight yet nice, with some very pleasing dubbing and percussion behind a laconic delivery.

"See A Man's Face", a cover of the Horace Andy tune by Neville Tate, has a powerful uptempo roots feel to complement his vocal, which, while not bearing a particularly close resemblance to Andy's in tone, has the unmistakeable mark of his influence in it, as well as in the structure of the lyric, a pertinent warning against falseness and hypocrisy., advising the listener that appearances are deceptive and things are not always what they seem. The closing track is another DJ track, "So Long" by U Brown, which incorporates elements of horns, percussion and piano into a richly satisfying backing for his effortless flow and well-trodden yet perennial repatriation lyric.

The whole of this set is, while perhaps somewhat one-note lyrically, archetypal roots music of the late 70s period, combining righteousness with subtlety and sophistication in musical construction, and while relatively little-known to those outside the serious roots fanatic scene, will be enjoyable to anyone who likes music of that era. The sleeve notes are well-designed and extensive (as with all of Blood & Fire's releases), with my one criticism being the rather frustrating references to tunes and versions not on this set, at least some of which could have been included given its running time of only 52 minutes. While the label seems, unfortunately, to be on a possibly permanent hiatus, if you are a roots fan find this compilation second hand and buy without hesitation!

1 comment:

DreadStar said...

i like your reviews.

i would like to submit an album for you to review. the album is "Kayamagan" by Midnite and Desmond Williams.

you can hear the entire album on imeem at

you can also find out more about me and my history in music at my blog -