New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: classic reggae

It Takes a Lot of Nerve to Call Your Band 10 Foot Ganja Plant

Oldschool dub reggae connoisseurs 10 Foot Ganja Plant celebrate the release of their thirteenth album, Skycatcher, with a rare live show at the Sinclair in Boston on Sept 20. The band plans to have the record “in all good record stores” by Sept 24. One thing that distinguishes 10 Foot Ganja Plant from the other dub groups is that they encompass the entire world of classic dub, from the tail end of the rocksteady era through Lee “Scratch” Perry, on forward to King Tubby and then their own main group, John Brown’s Body. The other is the songwriting: the tracks here are all actual songs, not just two-chord vamps where everything drops down to just the bass, or the keyboard, or the drums…you know the drill. Unless you’re high, that stuff gets old fast. This draws you in and keeps you there all the way through, an eclectic mix of oldschool Jamaican riddims and riffs, instrumentals and vocal numbers.

The first two tracks set the stage: instead of doing the song and then the version, they open with the version and then follow with the fully fleshed-out song so you can see the whole thing coming together. It’s a cool idea. As with the best dub, it’s the little touches that keep it interesting: wisps of melodica, a rattle, reverby conga hits and even wah synth like in the old days of John Brown’s Body back in the 90s. Jay Champany, whose raspy voice has sung many of this group’s songs over the years, carries the song, which doesn’t neglect crafty little elements like the echoey snare riffage in the background, and a fat bass break.

The anthemic Collect the Trophy sounds like Harry Chapin Cat’s in the Cradle done as dub reggae – and is this about the Cannabis Cup? Like most of the tracks here, Sounding Zone is anchored by a wicked bass hook, set against a casual, emphatic sax vamp, punchy brass in and out against woozy synth. State of Man has JBB founder emeritus Kevin Kinsella’s falsetto channeling the Congo’s Cedric Myton all the way through. The title track makes a stark contrast with its ominous minor-key harmonica and distantly austere, spacious vibe, then gets fleshed out with Kinsella on the mic.

Champany sings the angry, biting, minor-key Hypocrites in Town , “a warning to all deceivers,” the full band nimbly weaving in and out. The poppiest track here, Sometimes We Play reminds of vintage Marley, circa Kaya – again, it’s the bass hook that drives it. Champany returns to take the album out on a high note on the lively rocksteady of Sing and Dance. As is this band’s custom, there are no musician credits: these guys like mystery, in the real world as well as the musical sense.

Some Memorable, Surreal Barrington Levy Tracks from the Archives

Barringon Levy is one of the hardest working men in the reggae business, a familiar face on tour year in, year out. For those who know him as a teddybear crooner, that persona is some distance from Levy’s much more eclectic early years in Jamaica, right at the point where dancehall started to break away from roots and become its own style. The folks over at VP Records – who’ve been putting out Strictly the Best compilations since the 80s – have just released the mammoth 40-track compilation Barrington Levy: Sweet Reggae Music 1979-84. It’s good inspiration for anybody putting together a playlist, not to mention a fond look back at a time and place gone forever.

Ironic that the Roots Radics, who back Levy on most of these tracks, would be instrumemtal in the development of early dancehall to the point where they inadvertently put themselves and other bands like them out of business, more or less! A cynic might say that these tracks sound like they were thrown together on the fly, which they undoubtedly were. By the same token, it’s amazing how much imagination went into making them interesting, and giving them an individual flavor, especially considering how slapdash these singles were assembled.  If you want to hear a fifteen-year-old youthman from Kingston who sounds stoned out of his mind, crank up the opening track, Collie Weed: if the lyric is to be trusted, his mom sent him out to buy some. He’s a little older on the album’s last track, the early dancehall classic Under Mi Sensi: “Babylon yuh na like ganja much, but it bring foreign currency pon de island..”.

On the 38 tracks in between, the production and riddims are refreshingly organic: fat bass, echoey acoustic piano, biting skanky guitar, real drums and percussion. And it’s interesting to hear Levy’s singing style developing – as fine a crooner as he became, there’s a raw, hungry quality to many of the vocals here that’s absent in his more polished, mature material. And the songs are a microcosm of late 70s/early 80s Jamaican reggae history. Levy’s Bounty Hunter sounds like a prototype for Israel Vibration’s Mr. Consular Man, and is his song Sister Carol a shout-out to the Brooklyn dancehall sister…or did she take her name from it? On one of the relatively rare tracks, Soldier, did Bingy Bunny or whoever’s playing the guitar nick the exaggerated echo effect from the Clash,. or did Mick Jones steal it from him?

Levy and band take Black Uhuru’s brooding, bitter Shine Eyed Gal and transform it into a surrealistically sunny anthem. The rest of the collection alternates between gnomic Rasta rambles like Trod with Jah Jah and somewhat less mystical numbers like Mary Long Tongue, whose subtext remains amusing after all these years. The first of the two discs focuses more on songs, the second more on dub, although there aren’t any versions, per se, of any of the hits. Many of these songs are funny, many are pretty weird, and they show how many diverse directions Levy was willing to go in just to put himself on the reggae map. Thirty years later, he’s still here, testament to a rare brand of persistence.

Taj Weekes & Adowa – The Best Thing in Roots Reggae Right Now

[republished from New York Music Daily’s older sister blog Lucid Culture]

Taj Weekes is just about the best thing happening in roots reggae right now. The world is full of acts who claim to be inspired by Bob Marley, but the St. Lucia-born bandleader is really on to what Marley meant to reggae. On his new album Waterlogged Soul Kitchen with his band Adowa (named after the famous 19th century battle where the Ethiopians crushed an incursion by Italian imperialists), what Weekes takes from Jah Bob is a tunefulness that goes beyond the usual two-chord vamps, and the kind of arrangements that made the golden age of reggae in the late 70s so unforgettable and fun: layers of sparse, thoughtful Chinna Smith-style lead guitar, melodic bass, the occasional spice of horns and the slinky one-drop from the drums. While Weekes has a similarly high, penetrating voice, his style is hardly a ripoff – it’s a lot closer to the dreamy warmth of Dennis Brown in his more contemplative moments. Weekes’ lyrics range from gently optimistic to scathingly aware: while he resists the categorization of “socially conscious artist,” his insights are all over the place. Weekes has his eyes open, and he doesn’t shy away from trouble.

The album opens with Just a Dream, a defining moment: “Fear, fear, go away, you will come another day,” Weekes sings, not unsarcastically. Likewise, the song’s intro echoes a spaghetti western theme.Yet it’s an upbeat song, an anthem to hold on for better days ahead. The second track, Janjaweed has a catchy rocksteady hook but a chilling lyric about the “malignant seed” that’s terrorized Darfur for what seems like decades now.

B4 the War is a sad, evocative look back “before I was a puppet, before I killed for profit,” lowlit by Chris Laybourne’s vivid flute and a sarcastic bit of a march to end it. Weekes follows with Rain Rain, a pretty, Marleyesque lament, and the requisite ganja tune, Two Joints, an indomitable road trip tale.

You Ain’t Ready for the Heavy has a fat, catchy groove that underplays the defiant challenge of the lyrics and a biting guitar solo that’s like Al Anderson gone to the Middle East. With its simple, swaying mento-flavored acoustic guitar and organ, Anthems of Hope is sort of Weekes’ Redemption Song, a reason to carry on in spite of war on all fronts, the catastrophic effects of global warming and “color coded fear.” Weekes ends up the album with two more evocative antiwar numbers, one with a Jammin-style organ melody and another with the feel of a vintage Toots & the Maytals tune – except that this one’s told from the point of view of a child born of rape in a war somewhere in the third world. The album ends up on a powerful note with Drill, which broodingly and sarcastically riffs on John McCain’s “drill baby drill” mantra. If roots reggae is your thing and you don’t know this guy, you’re missing out. Weekes plays frequent NYC shows, and they are always excellent: watch this space for upcoming dates