Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Black Uhuru: Red

In 1984 (Jesus, that was almost 30 years ago!), a friend asked if YHB would go to a concert at the Pacific Amphitheater in Orange County featuring two performers that were completely unknown to said blogger.  One was Nigerian juju legend King Sunny Ade and the other was reggae band Black Uhuru.  World music was completely foreign (pardon the pun) and the only reggae heard to date was Bob Marley and the Wailers' masterful compilation, Legend, issued the previous year.  Being almost completely beholden to alternative rock at that time, there was more than a little uncertainty about how this concert was going to go.

Turns out that the show was easily one of the best concerts every experienced.  Black Uhuru took the stage first and, being in the third row, the sensation of having the concrete floor and seats vibrate with the powerful and deep bass of Robbie Shakespeare (a.k.a. Basspeare) and the crisp snare snaps from drummer Sly Dunbar (a.k.a., Dunbar), otherwise known as the Riddim Twins, was a marvel.  Frontman Michael Rose was a natural, singing in his unique keening style with a passion and energy the revved the crowd up.  The spliffs were lit, the bass and drums were booming, a particularly searing guitar solo stands out, and Rose's skanking and singing kept everyone in a good, mellow mood.

The headliner had something like a 28-piece band and that part of the show began with one hand drummer, then another, and another, and yet another, followed by dancers, a bass player, a drummer, a rhythm guitarist, saxophonists, trumpeters and etc.  Finally, as the large ensemble established a tight, rhythmic and danceable groove and stayed on it for several minutes, a tall, thin figure, resplendent in white, ambled onto the stage, plugged in his white guitar and began an agile, nimble, clean and compelling guitar solo before singing a song that included the usual call-and-response elements with his backup singers.  King Sunny led the group through a stellar performance that had the crowd on its feet and dancing the entire time.

What a show from both King Sunny and Black Uhuru, artists whose new albums on Island Records were being somewhat heavily promoted at the time.  In advance of that show, YHB picked up the LPs, which were Aura by King Sunny and Anthem by Black Uhuru.  These were fine recordings, but nothing could match the immediacy, power and intensity of the live shows, especially from that awesome third row seat.

Not long after the concert, other Black Uhuru albums were quickly snapped up, all of which will be featured here, including Sinsemilla, Tear It Up (Live), Red, Chill Out and The Dub Factor.  Of these the 1981 record, Red, is probably the standout.

Formed as Uhuru in 1972 in Kingston's Waterhouse District, the group initially featured Garth Dennis, Don Carlos and Duckie Simpson, with the latter being the sole mainstay throughout the band's long career.  Carlos soon left for a solo career and Dennis joined the well-known Wailing Souls.  Simpson found two other singers, including Errol Nelson and young Michael Rose, and, in 1977, the first album, Love Crisis, was released.  After Nelson departed, South Carolina native Puma Jones joined and lent the first female voice to the group, then known as Black Uhuru.  A second album, Showcase, followed in 1979, but some successful singles and concerts led to a signing with powerhouse Island Records and the debut for that label, Sinsemilla, was issued in July 1980.  More importantly, the trio began working with Sly and Robbie, whose playing and production skills transformed the group, which already had an excellent songwriter in Rose, who used strong political and social commentary in his lyrics.

Red, however, followed quickly and established the group as a major player in reggae.  The opening track is the fantastic "Youth of Eglington," which highlights the specific type of melody and harmony that defined the Black Uhuru sound, along with incredibly tight and inventive rhythms from Dunbar and Shakespeare.  Cannily, Rose tied the violence of youths in Kingston, an ongoing reflection of chronic poverty and dislocation, with problems in England, specifically the heavily West Indian populated area of Brixton in London.  This acknowledged the growing popularity of reggae in the UK and broadened the band's audience.

Following is another tremendous Rose track, "Sponji Reggae," which highlights that specialized vocal style of his with some very cool keyboard and percussion effects that used new technology, such as synthesizers and syndrums, and pointed the way, for better or for worse, toward the future movements of dancehall and dubstep.

In truth, all eight of the songs are strong pieces, five by Rose, two by him and Simpson, and the latter contributing the excellent "Journey," which is this blogger's third favorite track as it invokes true Rastafarian beliefs, including the fear of Babylon's "scientifical advancement" corrupting the mind.  "Utterance" praises the rasta's faith and reminding that "it's not what you do but how you do it / it's now what you say but how you say it."  The closer "Carbine" used a synth effect to drive home the point of keeping unity in the face of numbing violence which rocked Jamaica in the late 1970s and into the 1980s.

Red is a triumph of the uneasy merger of country-based roots reggae, spiritual and political concerns, and the emerging technological and production techniques that would eventually overwhelm the other two, to the detriment, IMHO, of reggae. 

Still, for a brief years after the staggering blow of the loss of Bob Marley to cancer in 1981, Black Uhuru seemed the one reggae group that could maintain an international appear and stature anywhere near that of the great Tuff Gong.

The excellent Chill Out followed, along with the incredible dub record, The Dub Factor.  A 1980 recording known as Black Uhuru was repackaged as Gues Who's Coming to Dinner and is another quality album, even featuring a blistering repeated guitar line by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones  By the time Anthem appeared in 1984, however, the cracks were beginning to show, as Rose and Simpson feuded, especially concerning Rose's importance as singer and songwriter.  Rose left and was basically away from the music scene, tending to his country farm, for several years. 

Simpson and Jones continued on with Sly and Robbie, but the recordings weren't as strong and Jones left the group when she developed cancer, from which she died in 1990.  Simpson even reunited with his original comrades, Carlos and Dennis in the mid-90s, though this line up soon disbanded.  Though there hasn't been a studio album released in over a decade, there have been periodic tours, even a reunion in 2004 with Rose that lasted two years.  Simpson has recently brought a new lineup out, though the glory days of the first half of the 1980s are long past.

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