Michael Kuelker's Posts
|I'm a veteran KDHX programmer and co-host (with Professor Skank) of Positive Vibrations, every Saturday at 9 p.m. Central. Be sure to visit Reggaestlouis.net for even more reggae 411.|
by Michael Kuelker
From the Caribbean island of St. Lucia comes a package marked “reggae music 501(c)3.” It looks deceptively like a compact disc but it’s really a set of boxes one inside the other inside the other, each opening up to a facet of reggae culture.
Pariah in Transit is the new live album by singer/guitarist/bandleader Taj Weekes, who is directing the proceeds from the project to a registered humanitarian organization, They Often Cry Outreach, which he founded in 2007. TOCO promotes health and sports among disadvantaged youth among its many projects in a wide range of community building efforts.
I’ve listened closely to the artist’s three studio albums and to his band on three occasions (@La Onda and 2720). As a songwriter he is, I think, among reggae’s finest, a penetrating poet who is averse to easy rhyme, platitude and simple didacticism. And his band – remarkably cohesive, tight like a sunburned forehead.
Still, I am not automatically turned on by live albums. Even when it’s artists who are really good live, Marley, the Clash or Howlin’ Wolf, whomever, my go-to selections wind up being an artist’s studio recordings (and usually early or mid-career). Live albums are souvenirs, documents of a time, faithful to a sound (usually), wonderful to behold (sometimes), but in my collection only occasionally at the ‘igher ights. This disc by Weekes definitely skews to the high end of the live album spectrum.
Concise and compelling intro to the artist, Pariah in Transit is crisply recorded sans overdub, a lesson in band dynamics and tasteful restraint, the music coming like good reggae should, light like a feather and heavy as lead.
by Michael Kuelker
Let’s raise a pint and toast The English Beat. They’re back! And in advance of the concert on Wednesday, March 20 at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room, co-founder/bandleader Dave Wakeling spoke to me for an interview that I used in last Saturday’s “Positive Vibrations,” which can be heard (like all KDHX programming) for up to two weeks.
Formed in Birmingham, England in 1978, The Beat (as they are known outside of the USA) were among the shining lights of the 2 Tone movement, which blended ska, reggae-rock, punk and rebel consciousness. Lyrically conscious and danceable, the songs hold up well lo, these three decades later, something Wakeling attributes to a savvy producer who wanted a bedrock sound.
The band issued three studio albums before dissolving in 1983. Wakeling and bandmate Ranking Roger then went on to form General Public, cutting three albums and scoring large on the pop charts. Some of those numbers will surely appear in the setlist Wednesday night, and in my conversation last week, Wakeling took me back to a catch-a-fire moment of one of the biggest of those General Public hits …
From “Liquidator” to “I’ll Take You There”
In the nineties, General Public unveiled one of the great ideas in pop music of the time: “I’ll Take You There,” a brilliant melding of the Jamaican instrumental “Liquidator” by Harry J All Stars with the gospel/soul of “I’ll Take You There” by The Staple Singers. With a punched up tempo, crisp horn line, Wakeling’s keening vocal and Ranking Roger’s spot-on Jamaican toasting, the song was galvanizing and ubiquitous.
The musical DNA behind GP’s “I’ll Take You There” runs back to a pleasant if ordinary reggae pop song in 1969 by Tony Scott called “What Am I to Do.” The producer, Harry Johnson, used the bassline for “Liquidator” credited to Harry J All Stars the same year and then bam! The latter swiftly became part of the collective consciousness among listeners of Jamaican music, including those in the Jamaican diaspora in England.
Tunes such as “Liquidator” were part of Wakeling’s very coming-of-age.
“Skinheads went to soccer games, you know, football games in England, and they figured that a good way to keep them quiet, or quieter at least, was to play skinhead reggae before the game. West Brom, a Birmingham team, used to come onto the field and their theme song at the time was ‘Liquidator’ by Harry J & the All Stars, which was really the basis for the song ‘I’ll Take You There,’ which we covered in the nineties. We mixed up the two songs.
“That’s where I first heard it. It struck me as a rare combination of being happy and blue at the same time. Something really strong about it. I realized afterward that the music’s trying to cheer yourself up during times of deprivation so there was a streak of survival that ran through it. It was not being cheery for jollity’s sake. It was perhaps dinner music instead of dinner, not music for after dinner.
“It moved me from the first time I ever heard it, really, and it combined with my early teenage years, which is your usual first nervous expeditions toward girls, in my case skinhead girls. And so that music meant an awful lot to me because it was wrapped up in my early fumblings, early slappings, early humiliations, that sort of thing. So it was a very potent music for me in many ways.”
by Michael Kuelker
VP Fair – July 2, 1981. The Ozark Mountain Daredevils are performing beneath the Arch on a sunny afternoon, and I am on an outing with my parents and younger sister, witness to the effects upon the masses of music, the natural elements and holiday weekend espirit. The set-closing “If You Wanna Get to Heaven” has the place electrified. Among the dancers catching my eye is a hairy hippie who holds his toddler as an air guitar, bouncing the kid and jamming away through the song. Both are grinning.
And thinking about it now, so am I.
Having been turned on to the Daredevils by my high school buddies on a float trip, I had the band’s records, knew their story and was finally getting to see them for the first time. When you are 17, every rock and roll event is school. My concert experience had been brief but rewarding, the late seventies middle American rock and roll dream, which is to say Aerosmith, Kiss, Black Sabbath, Sammy Hagar, Springsteen, Nugent, UFO, Molly Hatchet and The Who. But I had never been to an open-air daytime show before, and this one had the audience in a fizzy froth. The Daredevils’ albums were the mellowest in my collection – I didn’t know till then they could deliver such a rock and roll power surge.
There are two things to say about it now. One, the fair in those years really was the bomb – Ella Fitzgerald, Loretta Lynn and Atlanta Rhythm Section also occupied the mainstage in ’81. And two, the Dares are coming back.
The Daredevils return to the Argosy Casino in Alton, Il, for performances on March 8 and 9. Both shows are sold out. Springfield, Missouri’s hillbillies with harmonies, celebrating the 40-year anniversary of their stunning debut, the self-titled “quilt album,” are these days doing limited numbers of intimate shows.
It is 1962. Jamaica becomes an independent nation and a new pop music is being invented: ska.
Jimmy Cliff is there – young, fresh, making hits, something that he will continue to do. For fifty years and counting.
It is now 2013. Jimmy Cliff is still here. He has a new album, Rebirth, and sounds as vitalizing as ever. He is also recently the subject of a thorough, concise biography by reggae historian David Katz. In Jimmy Cliff: An Unauthorized Biography (Interlink 2012) Katz compellingly narrates the artist’s journeys across the world and his fascinating musical trajectories.
Katz’s biography is an absorbing chronicle Cliff’s life and career, and he spoke to me recently from his home in London. Let me set up the interview with a gloss of what we’re dealing with in the life of Jimmy Cliff. (On “Positive Vibrations” this Saturday, January 19 (9-11 p.m.), starting in the second hour I’ll devote programming to Jimmy Cliff music and interview clips with David Katz.)
Jimmy Cliff has been consistent and popular for so long that it’s easy to overlook his truly humble beginnings. Born James Chambers in 1948 in the parish of St. James in Jamaica, he grew up in a poor community. But he had a golden voice that got pressed to wax as early as 1962 with songs like “Hurricane Hattie” and “King of Kings” for producer Leslie Kong. Cliff was officially an international artist as early as 1964, when two of his ska tunes were included on This is Jamaican Ska, an anthology for Epic Records in the US. Soon after Cliff went to England and cut some records, singing R&B/soul as well as reggae, scoring with songs such as “Wonderful World Beautiful People” in 1969. A versatile singer, Cliff’s greatest success would be in reggae, and soon he would become an icon.
For Rastafari-inspired roots reggae, Taj Weekes is among the very best we have. The St. Lucian-born artist’s three albums in the last seven years brim with distinctive lyrics and musicianship, and like all great art, one gets deeper into life through the music rather than escape.
He and his band Adowa perform at 2720 on Wednesday, July 18. And for an all-killer/no filler show, St. Louis’ Mario Pascal plays the opening set. It’s a contender for roots reggae concert of the year.
Born and raised in St. Lucia, now a resident of New York City, the singer/guitarist has a small but impressive body of work. From Hope and Doubt (2005) to Deidem (2008) and A Waterlogged Soul Kitchen (2010), Weekes has set his sights on the most pressing issues of the day through keening vocals, disarming lyrics and potent one drop riddims.
Weekes is a walking, singing and ideologically seamless blend of music, spirituality, activism and 501©3-certified progressive works.
To say that Weekes takes on dread topics like terrorism, environmental destruction and genocide makes him sound like an ambulance chaser, only worse. But as a Caribbean folk artist and as socially conscious Rastafarian, Weekes is following in a long and honorable tradition of making society the focus of art.
“People are really moved by what it is we are saying,” Weekes told me in a phone call in early July. “The thing of it is, I say as an artist, our sole job is to be a town crier, to bring to light things that people may not think about as much or things that people may not have heard about.
“Whether it be what happened in New Orleans or the earthquake in Chile or the earthquake in Haiti or what happened in Japan, we need to bring it out. I mean, with commercial radio and corporate media, all they tell us about is who killed Frankie’s girl on the corner or everything that doesn’t concern us. So it is my responsibility to let the people know what is happening, and maybe we can respond accordingly.
“Salone” means “Sierra Leone” in Krio, one of six languages on the new album by Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. Radio Salone is a thrilling tour through reggae, soukous and cross-cultural polyrhythms, as well wrought and mood-enhancing an album as I’ve heard thus far in 2012.
SLRAS’s story is by now well known among those who follow contemporary world music, a narrative that bridges from refugee camps in the wake of Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war (1991-2002) to the international stage. Only Malian desert blues band Tinariwen can be included in a conversation about musical refugees who have broken through to the world renown. The band members’ lives as refugees and musicians were chronicled in a 2005 documentary which found a wide, responsive audience. Their debut, Living Like a Refugee, followed in 2006.
And shortly, they will bring their hothouse of African music into St. Louis. SLRAS will be nine dates into a long summer tour when they perform on Wednesday, May 30 at 2720 (2720 Cherokee). Loyal Family Promotions is taking great pains to inform everyone that this is an early show, with SLRAS going on from 9 – 10:30 p.m. Mario Pascal plays at 8 p.m. and Vladimir ‘The Mad Russian’ Noskov brings his Iron Curtain Hi Fi for an hour of roots reggae vinyl starting at 7 p.m. and as much as he can get between sets.
On Saturday, May 26, Mario Pascal will be my guest on “Positive Vibrations” for music and conversation. The program will feature as much SLRAS music as the FCC will allow as well as other African reggae, classic Jamaican roots and a sprinkle of brand new tunes. “Positive Vibrations,” co-hosted by Professor Skank & the I, airs every Saturday from 9-11 p.m.. Mario will be on the mike at 9:15; later the same evening, he plays at The Pulse (2847 Cherokee).
A St. Louis-raised son of Haitian parents, Mario Pascal is a reggae/world beat artist whose original music and vision are a perfect blend for the May 30 show. He says that the May 30 event is at heart a concert about pan-African unity.
“Definitely, it’s a blessing to be a part of this show because in my opinion it brings forth the whole purpose and reasoning behind reggae music,” he told me in a telephone interview this month.
“Staying with Rastafari culture in general, to me it’s a gateway to the infinite pool of African consciousness, you know what I’m saying? Reggae music is a bridgeway because it is at a riddim and a pace that everyone can feel. And through that, especially with a band like Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars, it brings you into a whole nother sense of being in terms of understanding their struggle and where they came from and how they even came together to make music.
“And when they came together to make music, what is the music they chose to play? Reggae music. That’s a testament of the art form of reggae; it’s a testament to what it does as far as liberating the people in terms of mind; and it’s a testament how culture really, to me, is where the true battlefield lies. How can we liven ourselves up? It’s not through technology, it’s not through drugs, it’s through the music.”
by Michael Kuelker
Bringing their trademark luminous harmonies, The Mighty Diamonds return to St. Louis on Friday, May 25 at 2720. The evening also features Zion & the Lion Roots Band plus The Iron Curtain Hi Fi with The Mad Russian and guest Michael Kuelker.
You might be unaware of the show or vacillating on whether to get off your couch or take off of work and go and if this is so, you are being put on notice.
1. The Mighty Diamonds represent reggae at its finest.
Roots knotty roots. Donald ‘Tabby’ Shaw, Fitzroy ‘Bunny’ Simpson and Lloyd ‘Judge’ Ferguson joined forces in 1969 in the Trenchtown section of Kingston, Jamaica – in other words, at the epicenter of reggae very early in its development.
They hit with a few singles before entering Channel One studio, which became a frothing source of bubbling riddims anchored by Sly & Robbie, aka The Revolutionaries. Some of the most memorable riddims in reggae came out of Channel One between 1976-84, and The Mighty Diamonds were one of many artists who did career-defining work, with I Need a Roof (1976), to name just one album, standing solid in the annals of roots reggae as a classic.
Catch the Channel One Mighty Diamonds action in a brief documentary film clip 1 and clip 2, and dip a few times into their mighty catalog through the years, then let’s hustle to the next point in my argument.
1976 – “Shame and Pride”
1978 – “Brothers and Sisters”
This year marks fifty years of Jamaican independence. Let us commemorate properly by recognizing that one of the foundation artists of the first four of those decades is Justin Hinds (1942-2005), whose 70th birthday was in May. As a ska and rocksteady singer in the sixties, Hinds was an early and innovative practitioner of things that would famously pervade reggae music in the 1970s and beyond – communicating lyrically through Rasta imagery, spiritual revelation and proverbial wisdom.
When we delve into the Justin Hinds songbook, we trod into many dimensions of Jamaica and what it means to be human. Culture gets embedded in many a verse. “After a Storm” is a Biblical parable with a reversal of fortune for a “snake in the grass”: “you think you were wise but now you realize … there must be a calm after a storm.” One of Justin’s biggest numbers holds that “the higher the monkey climb is the more he expose” – an observation about social climbers which the singer follows with this preacherly caution beginning with a passage from the New Testament (Luke 14:11):
“He that exalteth himself shall be abased
grief always comes to those who love to brag
meekly wait and murmur not
you better hold on to what you have got.”
“Jump out of frying pan [only to] jump inna fire” is a proverb used in a ska tune (“Jump Out of Frying Pan” on Treasure Isle, 1965) which quotes heavily from the traditional African American spiritual “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep.” Justin was a master at making old things evergreen.
The trajectory of Justin Hinds’ life finds parallels with that of the island. He was born on May 7, 1942, in Steer Town, a village nudged on Jamaica’s north central coast. This was not long after the island-wide strikes of 1938 which produced Jamaica’s two modern political parties. Jamaica gained its independence from colonial England in 1962; Justin’s first song came a year and a half later, the immortal “Carry Go Bring Come.” When Justin was born, Ocho Rios was a lovely albeit anonymous town. At the time Justin began singing on the beaches in Ochi and Mammee Bay in his late teens, Ochi was newly becoming a magnet for foreign visitors. After that, of course, the town went on to become an overripe locus of resort tourism having a renown, like reggae and like Justin, the world over.
Hinds’ recordings in the post-independence years of ska and rocksteady were done exclusively for Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle and associated labels. The great producer’s decline and death were mirrored by the Justin’s own dropoff in output and early retirement. During reggae’s boom in the mid-seventies Hinds recorded a small but memorable body of new work and then retired a second time. He cut two more albums but remained largely under the radar until the mid-1990s, when he staged a resurgence as a solo artist and as member of Jamaica All Stars and Wingless Angels.
Today, Justin’s presence in Steer Town remains palpable. Many members of the Hinds family and circle of friends live in the area, and they speak plainly of how much Justin is still loved and missed.
The third of three children, Justin Hinds was born to Edith Macbean, who had Maroon heritage, and Alphonso Hinds, a lumberjack, balmyard healer and Revival preacher at his own Steer Town Macedonia Revival Church. Hinds’ youth was filled with music, beginning with the songs he heard in his father’s African-Christian church.