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ON BLACK UHURU'S "GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER”

 

 

By Mtume ya Salaam of kalamu.com

 

 

Saturday/Sunday, July 5-6, 2008.

 


If you can name five dreadlocked musicians whose last name isn’t Marley, you’ve probably already heard  of Black Uhuru and the group's  record “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.”

 

For those who haven’t, it’s a 100% stone-cold roots reggae classic. Meaning, all of the trademark 1970s elements are there: the gut-scrambling bass, the hypnotic guitar skank, the wailing ‘sufferation’ vocals, etc. It is also deeply steeped in Rasta polemics. If you’ve ever heard a true believer talk about " 'ital ways of living," "the book of rules," or "the joys of the good herb," then you could probably write most of these lyrics yourself.

 “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” actually dates back to 1977 when Michael Rose cut it as a solo artist for legendary Jamaican producer Winston ‘Niney The Observer’ Holness. As you’ll hear, Rose’s original version is slower, heavier and much more mellow than the version he later did with his Black Uhuru compatriots. I can’t say I like the original better than the remake, but I’d understand if someone else—especially a hardcore roots fan—did. The original is available on the decently-priced Trojan Roots & Culture box set.

Around 1978, Rose became the new lead singer of Black Uhuru -a vocal trio that had already been in existence for several years. A year later, the band’s lineup changed again with an American singer named Puma Jones joining Rose and founding member Duckie Simpson. Around the same time, Rose, Jones and Simpson also linked up with super-producers Sly & Robbie.


With Jones and Simpson (and Sly & Robbie), Rose reprised his hit record “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner”; the rerecorded track became the centerpiece of the new lineup’s ‘debut’ album. For Jamaicans, the album dropped in 1979 and was more of a compilation of singles than a new release. The selling point of the album was that the dubs were linked to the vocal tracks; appropriately, the Jamaican issue of the LP was called Showcase.

“Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” has everything you could ever want in a reggae classic, but one thing it doesn’t have is anything in common with the movie of the same name, whether it be the Sidney Poitier original or the Bernie Mack/Ashton Kutcher remake (which was actually kinda funny, believe it or not). There’s no culture clash here. The tune is more instructional than confrontational.

 

“Suffering,” sings Michael Rose, “made me realize what it takes and how to be a natty dreadlock.” The Black Uhuru lead vocalist then spends the balance of the song explaining exactly “how to be a dreadlock.”

Given that my lifestyle is anything but ‘ital,’ I sometimes wonder why I spend so much time listening to roots music. And I suppose I’m talking more about the lyrics in particular than the music in general. From an instrumental perspective, the reason I listen is readily apparent: I love bass and I love drums.

 

Obviously, roots reggae is nothing if not bass and drum overload. Plus, in the case of Black Uhuru specifically, and in the case of the Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner LP even more specifically, the sound mix is just so damn brilliant. These are showcase versions, meaning the regular vocal track is butted up against the dub version. The moment (in two of the three previously-mentioned songs) when the track abruptly flips back to the beginning gets me every—and I do mean every—time.

 

And then there are the things like Rose’s “Africa-ca-ca-ca…” echoing through something like three bars before finally fading out, and there’s that weird liquid effect that bubbles throughout “Guess Who’s Coming.” I never get tired of listening to these records because there’s always something fresh in the mix to focus on.

But the lyrics:  Honestly, I’m not buying the politics behind songs like “Shine Eye Gal” (as in, “…is a trouble to a man”) or “Leaving To Zion” (a fantasy about leaving
Babylon for either Africa or heaven or both). Still, I know by heart and love deeply the lyrics to all of this music. For me, these records are perfect examples of the maxim that argues one doesn’t have to agree with a position to be inspired by it.

 

When I listen to Rose singing about “coming in from the woods” or “leaving to Zion,” I hear a proud human being proclaiming his right to be who he is and how he is and all on his own terms.

 

When I listen to “Shine Eye Gal,” I can hear what Rose really wants: a relationship based on authentic feelings rather than superficialities. I may not agree personally with the decision to live one’s life in a near-permanent state of marijuana intoxication, but the spiritual positivity of the average Rasta is undeniable.

 

I listen to them sing about going to a better place and think to myself that maybe there’s a better place, somewhere out there for me too. Maybe even right here and right now.

 

Mtume ya Salaam is a published writer and an expert on contemporary Black music. He lives in New Orleans, USA and can be reached at mtume_s@yahoo.com.

 

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