by Michael Kuelker
It’s 2013 and so much has changed in roots reggae music, but some things remain the same: The Itals mashing it up in St. Louis.
Keith Porter, lead singer and prime mover of The Itals, returns for a performance at BB’s Jazz Blues & Soups on Wednesday, August 21. Porter will be backed by Yard Squad of St. Louis, and his hand-picked backing vocalists will be St. Louis’ own Irie Trinity – Sherita Edwards, Desirae Dobbins and Franny Taylor.
Sav-la-Mar, Jamaica native Porter headlines, but the St. Louis-based artists behind him and on the undercard are well worth the trod on their own terms: Aaron Kamm & the One Drops, Mario Pascal, Konchus and in a separate opening set, Irie Trinity, who are also producing the BB’s concert.
Longtime reggae fans know that The Itals’ relationship with St. Louis stretches back more than 30 years, when the St. Louis-based Nighthawk label began working with three singers from Sav-la-Mar on Jamaica’s southwest coast. Since forming in 1976, Nighthawk had released 10 blues reissues but in the late seventies it delved into reggae-Jamaica. Wiser Dread, the first Nighthawk reggae release (1981), was a potent various artists anthology which contained The Itals’ “In a Disya Time” and “Don’t Wake the Lion.” The Itals would soon be Nighthawk’s flagship artist. New original reggae would quickly eclipse pre-WWII blues as the label’s focus.
It bears noting that Yard Squad and Irie Trinity are singers and players of instruments whose talents have been tapped recently by a host of artists including Zion, Everton Blender, Frankie Paul, Kenyatta ‘Culture’ Hill and Warrior King. Yard Squad backed Porter for a series of dates in spring 2013 and he called again for shows this month in Missouri, Texas and Louisiana. In September Dobbins will fly to Phoenix, Arizona to do a solo set on a bill with roots legend Don Carlos. An Irie Trinity album is in the works.
And how about the other talents on this bill and the fine music they are making for any ear which will hear. Aaron Kamm & the One Drops are among the region’s hardest working and most popular jam bands, playing the reggae in a very satisfying post-Sublime; AK1D’s music is also very blues-infused and ultimately quite original. Mario Pascal plays original compositions, too, a reggae/world fusion. His 2012 song “Stand Ya Ground” gets a lot of airplay on my radio show because it’s topical and timeless – it definitely pertains to the Trayvon Martin case but it’s ultimately about more than perpetrator/victim; it’s about consciousness itself and how we educate ourselves. Mario Pascal is building a catalog of noteworthy songs. The only one in the mix I haven’t yet seen perform is Konchus.
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.”
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.
Reggae artist Matisyahu has made a name for himself through speaking on a platform of positivity and personal change. His uplifting message shines through on “Spark Seeker.”
When he first caught mainstream attention in 2004 with the single “King Without a Crown” he wore a yarmulke and waxed poetic over reggae rhythms and his own beatboxing skills. Since then, Matisyahu has gone through some personal and musical rebirth. Where there was a yarmulke is short blond hair. And on “Spirit Seeker” he explores electronic music and mixes it with his lyrical storytelling and percussive vocal technique.
The album starts off with “Crossroads,” a track that rings like an opening piece of a musical epic poem or a primer of some sort. Where before the tone of many of Matisyahu’s songs was inspiring from beginning to end, “Crossroads” is a substantial song of determination and conviction. It picks up and carries the momentum that might fade out with the more lightly-optimistic tones of other tracks on “Spirit Seeker,” such as “Sunshine.”
The first few seconds sound like a low Hebrew warble that could be heard in the streets of Israel. Coupled with a sprinkling of traditional instrumentation and sounds, Matisyahu declares that “I’ve been searching for my bite/They say I inspire but I’m still looking for my fire.” It’s clear on “Crossroads” that though his music may be inspirational to listeners, Matisyahu works to also inspire himself through his songs.
Matisyahu cannot be pigeonholed, especially when it comes to “Tel Aviv’n.” With a heavy hand on the synthesizers, Matisyahu’s vocals merge with the electronic beats and melody as he sings “I’m feeling easy/The ocean brings me/Carrying me, I’m Tel Aviv’n/And now I’m seeing and I’m believing/Because these streets got melody in them.”
The song has a distinctly groovy feel and carefree attitude; it’s not hard to imagine “Tel Aviv’n” oozing out of the speakers in discotheques and clubs lining the streets referred to in the song. It’s no coincidence that part of “Spark Seeker” was recorded in Israel, as well as Los Angeles. “Tel Aviv’n,” especially, captures an urban-noir atmosphere.
For seasoned listeners that fancy Matisyahu’s reggae music “I Believe in Love” is the quintessence of that sound on “Spark Seeker.” Anchored by a slow, rocksteady beat, the softly-frazzled, bouncy guitar work and Matisyahu’s echoed voice, “I Believe in Love” is a sweet slow space on “Spark Seeker” that allows listeners to take a break from the more heavy, electronic tracks.
“Spark Seeker” doesn’t lack any opportunities for Matisyahu to show just how well he can make music, regardless of its genre. The album’s production locales parallel some of the music influences, and while there are elements of Matisyahu’s previous work, the album doesn’t feel remotely recycled or repetitive as far as creativity goes. Rather, the album simply attests to Matisyahu’s impressive ability to explore different musical landscapes.
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”
by Michael KuelkerCedella Marley, the first child of Bob & Rita Marley, is the CEO of Tuff Gong International. A recording artist best known for her many years as a vocalist in Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers, Cedella Marley has also established herself as a designer, entrepreneur and philanthropist through her clothing line, books and 1love.org. She is married with three sons.
Ms. Marley spoke to me from her home in Miami, Florida, on Friday, April 13, a week before the opening of Marley, a new documentary film about her father. Drawing on new interviews and using hitherto unreleased video, director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) explores the artist who emerged from small circumstances (born in 1945 in the village of Nine Mile, Jamaica) to become the first Third World superstar, one whose presence continues to shine brightly in the 21st century.
Marley opens on Friday, April 20 at The Tivoli Theatre in University City. Check local listings for show times.
MK: First of all, maximum respect for the musical work, the cultural work and the charitable work you are involved with. I want to ask about all of that, but let’s go first with the new documentary. What about the film do you like best, and can you point to something that director Kevin Macdonald does especially well in your view in his handling of the material?
Cedella Marley: It takes you on a journey. You start off laughing, and you enjoy the cast of characters [Cedella chuckles] as they appear. For me personally, I came away with a better understanding of the last couple of months of Dad’s journey. I think with Kevin what was great is that he found people that we’ve never heard from.
My auntie Constance, we’re always in touch. [Constance Marley and Bob Marley have the same father, Norval Marley, whom Bob barely knew.] But I have never really asked her what was the relationship like with Dad, if any, because I knew there was never was really one when they were growing up. To hear her and how she felt about how the Marley side of the family even treated her and Dad … it was good to hear her.
It was also wonderful that Kevin found the nurse in Germany. [Bob Marley was treated for cancer in Germany in the months before his death in May 1981.] I couldn’t believe … How? How did you actually go and find that lady? It was good to hear her talk about Daddy, the person we knew; he was a nice person. So I thought [Macdonald] did an amazing job.
I’ve always wanted to know what kind of sense of humor your father had. What kinds of things made him laugh?
[Cedella chuckles.] He would laugh at anything. I think too that having always having all these different people walk into Hope Road every day, you would definitely see some characters. [Bob Marley lived at 56 Hope Road in Kingston beginning in the mid- 1970s. The residence has since become the Bob Marley Museum.]
I remember him telling us this story – let me see if I can remember it properly – this lady who just kept coming back to Hope Road with different-different stories. She was crossing the street and a car hit her in the leg. That was her one day. Then she came and said a bus came and lick her in the other leg, and then that was the story for that day. Then the third day she was crossing the street [Cedella begins to laugh] and somebody inside of a vehicle threw something and it hit her in her head
And when he would tell you these stories, we were like cracking up. People would actually come to Hope Road with different-different stories … and of course he would always give them something to leave with.