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On Michael Rose's “No Burial” and other Popular Roots Tunes

 

By Mtume ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

 

What is Roots reggae? What’s the difference between a ‘real’ Roots tune and any other reggae song? Is it conscious lyrics? Is it pulse-pounding bass?

 

The heavy, slowed-down skank? The piercing wail of the lead singer? The anthemic, sing-along quality of the choruses? Or is it the time period? Is there any such thing as a ‘real’ Roots record that wasn’t recording during the Seventies? What about one that was neither recorded in Jamaica nor performed by a Jamaican musican?

 

Sure there is. Follow me now.

Ini Kamoze – “World-A-Music” – Available on
16 Vibes Of Ini Kamoze (Sonic Sounds, 1992)
 
It took me a while to track down this first one. It’s the original source of the song made famous by Damian Marley’s 2005 scorcher “Jamrock.” Damian’s track wasn’t the first time someone had major success with the ‘World-A-Music’ riddim, Dennis Brown hit big with 1985’s “Joy In The Morning."

 

But Damian brought it to that whole next level. On the original, which was first released on the out-of-print 1984 Ini Kamoze LP, the subsonic throb of Robbie Shakespeare’s electric bass merges perfectly with Willie Lindo’s echoing guitar work, the combination providing a nice backdrop for Kamoze’s spaced-out warbling.

 

Trivia note for Damian Marley fans. When Kamoze sang that famous line (“Out in the streets, they call it murder…!”), he was talking about killing the rhythm, not his brethren. The rest of the line is, “…when riddim’s spacing out your head.”


      
     Ini Kamoze

 

Michael Rose – “No Burial” – From African Roots (M Records, 2005)
 
Michael Rose’s career started way back in the early Seventies, but he’s best known as the lead vocalist for the second (and most famous) incarnation of the reggae supergroup - Black Uhuru.

 

Today, Rose has been performing without Black Uhuru longer than he performed with them (he left around 1986), but his solo career—if you want to call it a career—has been beset by sporadic recording, cheesy instrumentation and indiscriminate songwriting.

 

In fact, I’d argue that Rose never released a good album until last year’s African Roots…and with a title like that, it better have been good. The new album finds Rose leaving behind the feather-weight rhythms and corny lyrics, hopefully for good.

 

Musically, “No Burial” is deep, deep in the pocket—it stands up to anything Rose ever did with Uhuru (and that includes some bona fide classics). Lyrically too, Rose comes with it, dropping that peculiarly Rastafarian blend of wit, wisdom and paranoia.

Alpha Blondy – “Jerusalem” – From
Jerusalem   (EMI, 1986)
 
These days, Alpha Blondy’s “Jerusalem” sounds like a fantasy. Blondy sings: “You can see Christians, Jews and Muslims living together and praying, Amen.”

 

But between the ongoing war in Iraq, the continued occupation of Palestine and the religion-fueled madness in full swing in several parts of Africa, it’s hard to see how that statement makes any sense today, if it ever did.

 

The message might be a bit fantastical, but the music—courtesy of The Wailers Band—is as real as it gets. The Wailers Band locks into one of those hypnotic grooves they perfected back in their Marley days; and once they get it right, you know they’re not going to let it go.

 

If Blondy’s message fails to persuade, it isn’t for lack of effort. Whether in English, Hebrew or Arabic, Blondy’s call for religious peace is impassioned and heartfelt. Jerusalem was the Ivory Coast reggae star’s fourth international release, and if there was any doubt about his status as a ‘real’ reggae artist, the Jerusalem album settled it.
          
          The Ivorian reggae star, Alpha Blondy.

 

Nengo Vieira e Tribo D’Abraão – “A Vida” - Mata Atlântica (2002)
 
Now that we’ve established that Roots doesn’t necessarily have to come from
Jamaica, here’s another question. Does it have to be in English?

 

If asked, I’m sure that Bahian reggae specialist Nengo Vieira would answer with an emphatic não. The truth is, there’s a large audience for Roots reggae in Brazil. Frequently, when I’m surfing Brazilian sites looking for new music to check out, I come across whole pages of listings dedicated to not only well-known Jamaican reggae artists, but homegrown reggae musicians as well.

 

I haven’t heard Nengo’s entire album, but with this track, “A Vida,” he acquits himself well. Nengo and the band work up a nice, mellow skank and have the good sense to simply let it ride, Roots style.


The usually reliable Wikipedia defines Roots reggae as:

The name given to Rastafari-movement reggae music from Jamaica which evolved from Ska and Rocksteady and was made famous outside the Caribbean by the legendary singer/songwriter Bob Marley. Roots reggae is an inherently ’spiritual’ type of reggae music, the lyrics of which are predominantly in praise of Jah Ras Tafari Makonnen — Haile Selassie (1892–1975) the Emperor of Ethiopia (1930–1974).

 

But that’s as much a definition of reggae as a whole as it is a definition of any particular type. Excluding dancehall and lovers rock, just about all reggae would fall under their definition, right?

Encyclopedian.com says Roots reggae is:

A type of pure reggae which combines the traditional ska sound with American rock and roll, R&B and pop music. It is the most accessible form of reggae, and the most popular globally, primarily due to the success of superstar singer Bob Marley.

 

Which made me curious. If that was their definition of Roots, how would they define reggae itself? ‘Reggae,’ they say, is:

An African-Caribbean style of music which developed on the island of Jamaica and is closely linked to the religion Rastafarianism, though not universally popular among its members. The origins of Reggae can be found in traditional African-Caribbean music as well as US Rhythm & Blues.

 

Is there a substantive difference in those two definitions? I don’t think so. So what’s the problem? Why is it so hard to say what exactly ‘Roots reggae’ is?

 

Part of the problem is words are words and music is music. It’s often difficult to even describe music well, let alone define it.

 

I do know this: I own hundreds of reggae albums; some of them have that authentic Roots vibe and some don’t. I may not be able to define Roots, but when a song with a real Roots feel comes on, I know it right away. I know it because I feel it.

 

So, whether the source is Bahia, Brazil; Dimbokoro, Ivory Coast; or 21st century Jamaica, I’ll just say Roots is Roots. I know it when I hear it.

 

Main Picture: Michael Rose

 

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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