Deep Roots from the Nazarenes

by delarue

Is it overkill to have reggae on the front page here for three days in a row? It’s reggae season, after all – back when reggae bands started finding an audience outside Jamaica, they’d typically go on tour in July and August when the tourist season is at a low and it’s really hot down there. So in honor of Bob Marley, Burning Spear and all the great ones who came before, today’s band is the Nazarenes, led by two Ethiopian-born brothers, Medhane and Noah Tewolde. They’ve got Rasta cred that’s hard to beat – their father worked for H.I.M. Haile I Selassie I, Jah Rastafari! Their new album Meditation is just out on I Grade Records. What they do is minor-key reggae: towering, and anthemic, and just as intense as it is catchy. These guys are dead serious about their message, familiar as it may be: respect for mother earth, bun down Babylon, love Jah, there’s strength in numbers, etc. “Watch how I survive today,” they sing on the album’s balmiest track, Love Jah: they go for the big picture evey time. A lot of this you can stream on their youtube channel – the production and arrangements are strictly oldschool roots with swirly organ, jangly guitars, pulsing bass, laid-back beats and clever dub touches. It’s a lot like what Israel Vibration were doing around the turn of the century but a lot more epic and ornate.

The title cut, which opens the record, sets the tone. “I’m flying higher, higher, I’m in paradise.” Hmmm….The second one, simply titled Food, has some deliciously creepy backing vocal harmonies that contrast with the song’s bouncy, upbeat tune. They rhyme “globalization” with “United Nations,” and take care to remind that’s where the similarity between the two ends. It’s Too Late, featuring Lutan Fyah, paints a cynical picture of what happens when so-called leaders get careless and self-indulgent: “It’s been so many years since you’ve been in power, but you couldn’t fulfill the basic needs on time – the youth are frustrated, they are out of control…equality and justice are the urge of the mob, not George Bush bling bling showing off to the rest of the world.” By contrast, a big, bright horn riff opens Mother, an optimistic tribute to Mother Africa – and are those ringing, pinging tones a steel pan, or a synthesizer?

They bring to mind both classic, early Steel Pulse with the jazzy guitar and Israel Vibration with the vocals to On My Way, a defiant on-my-way-to-Zion anthem, then chronicle Bible verses in The Lord Said, featuring St. Croix reggae stars Midnite: that one’s like an oldschool American soul song as Marley or the Mighty Diamonds would have done it. Mamy Blues begins with a couple of suspenseful, lingering piano chords and follows with a jazzy solo – it’s a prime example of how artsy a band can get, spiraling hammer-on soul guitar mingling with melodica, and still be true to their roots. It wouldn’t be out of place in the Lucky Dube songbook. Alive, a stoner existentialist lament and then Everlasting, with its catchy minor/major changes are the next two tracks, followed by Politrickcians, pulsing along with a murky but catchy bassline and sarcastic, conspiratorial synth: “Powertripping control freaks, they give me the creeps.” Amen to that!

There are three more tracks here. Get Together is kind of skeletal, with more of a dancehall vibe, a call for world unity. Destiny chronicles our “mysterious journey, fighting day to day,” with echoey, majestic electric piano and artsy rock guitar. Another track in the style of early 70s Marley is Lonesome Lady, an unexpectedly sympathetic portrait of a hooker. Play this for anybody who thinks that all reggae sounds the same – it’s a welcome change from all the lovey-dovey pop and tedious smalltime criminal tales on reggae radio.