Alpha Blondy Brings His Revolutionary African Reggae to B.B. King’s
Ivory Coast bandleader and songwriter Alpha Blondy has built career that ranks with the work of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. Through decades of censorship and repression, he toiled on, a crusader for peace whose rage began to boil over even before the Jasmine Revolution began in Tunisia and then started its inevitable spread around the world. Like Tosh, especially, Blondy is a big-picture guy with a gift for metaphor that cuts to the root of whatever he’s going up against. Many of his albums are roots reggae classics, beginning with his early 80s collaborations with the Wailers. NY Music Daily’s sister blog Lucid Culture ranked his massive 2007 double album Jah Victory as one of the thousand best albums of all time, a spot-on state-of-the-world account that skewers dictators, genocidal regimes and hypocrites of all kinds. Now, in what has been a considerable coup in the reggae business, VP Records has released Blondy’s new album Mystic Power, an often caustic, sometimes epically powerful album that’s as valuable a historical document as it is for its infectious grooves. He’s playing B.B. King’s at 8 PM on July 2; advance tickets are $30 and still available as of today.
Blondy sings in French, English, Arabic and his native vernacular. The albums opens uncharacteristically with a nod to current African autotune pop, a weirdly worrisome tune featuring a Beenie Man cameo, then closes with a brief coda from a gospel choir. In between, the riddims are an eclectic mix, from seriously oldschool roots reggae with rippling organ, layers of guitar, real bass and drums, to high-tech, artsy anthems with all kinds of synthesized orchestration.
With its fuzzy P-Funk synth riffage, My American Dream takes the ominous and tragic point of view of an African immigrant whose experiences here were anything but dreamy. If you’ve ever wondered what I Shot the Sherriff would sound like in French, you need to hear J’ai Tue le Commissaire – and the music is remarkably close to the original Marley classic, something Blondy no doubt learned from working with Marley’s band.
With its gospel gandeur, Crime Spirituel is sort of Blondy’s Masters of War: “Mohammed isn’t a terrorist prophet, don’t connect him with your wars,” Blondy intones in French. La Bataille d’Abidjan begins with a viciously sarcastic surf rock quote but then offers hope for a post-revolutionary future, as does the Middle Easterm-flavored Ouarzazate, and also Reconciliation (a collaboration with fellow African roots reggae revolutionary Tiken Jah Fakoly).
The snidely catchy France A Fric (one of Blondy’s signature Peter Tosh-style jokes, a pun on “French Africa” and “France Has Big Bucks”) – is a warning to any wannabe imperialists. Woman, sung in English, is a Burning Spear-style shout-out to the strength of women around the world – much as you might not expect a feminist anthem from a guy from the Ivory Coast, that’s what this is. Danger Ivoirite looks at the terror Blondy’s fellow citizens have had to deal with in the last few years, even if they have to go online to get the real story about war atrocities. There’s also a French Mediterranean ballad done as roots reggae, and a gospel anthem, as well as a couple of bouncy tracks in Blondy’s own dialect. Like so many Africans, Blondy shifts easily between languges: in concert here in the US, he adjusts the set list to include a lot of stuff in English, including his haunting, plaintive cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here.