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Roots Reggae, Black Uhuru Style

 

Monday, September 17, 2007.

 

By Mtume ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

 

This week, I want to drop a few Black Uhuru classics on you. I also want to talk a little about Black Uhuru’s distinctive sound, particularly the sound they perfected during the early 1980s, when they teamed up with Sly & Robbie, signed to Island Records and became an internationally-known band.

The first thing I noticed when listening to Black Uhuru back-to-back with other reggae — especially classic-style roots reggae — is how much faster Black Uhuru’s songs sound.

 

I’m not saying Black Uhuru’s tempos actually are faster than most other reggae, but it certainly feels that way. A lot of that is in the drums. On all the Black Uhuru music you’ll hear this week, the drummer is Lowell ‘Sly’ Dunbar, one half of the legendary production team Sly & Robbie.

 

So what is it about Sly’s drumming?
 
First, Sly’s drums are almost always mixed in the forefront. Listen to classic roots records like Burning Spear’s “Marcus Garvey,” Dennis Brown’s “Wolves & Leopards” or The Heptones’ “Book Of Rules” .

 

Instrumentally, the dominant thing you’ll hear is a deep, throbbing bassline and a skanking electric guitar, or sometimes, piano or electric keyboard standing in for the guitar. The drums are always there, but after the opening breakdown, the drummer is usually just keeping time.

 

Sly is the drum equivalent of a rhythm guitarist: a necessary, but by no means featured, part of the mix. And, by the way, if anyone can explain to me why something like 99.9% of all roots reggae songs has that drum breakdown in the intro, please write in to let me know.

Now listen to a Black Uhuru record such as “Youth Of Englinton” or “Whole World Is
Africa.”
 Those were entirely different aesthetic. The strong bassline is still there, but now the drums are much more forceful and pronounced. It’s almost as though the drums and bass are locked together to form something we might call a ‘drum-and-bassline.’ Neither sounds as though they could be separated from the other.

 

With Sly, you also tend to get two strong drum-licks per bar instead of one or none as you might hear in an earlier roots record.

 

This combination - the drums being placed upfront in the mix along with the double-time drumming - gives many of Black Uhuru’s records a marching or skipping feel. Particularly in contrast to the slowed-down, trippy feel of roots reggae, Black Uhuru’s songs always seem to be pushing forward. It’s as if the songs themselves are trying to quicken their own pace.
 
Without the soothing effect of the Black Uhuru vocalists — Michael Rose, Duckie Simpson and Puma Jones — that constant excitability might be irritating. As it is though, Uhuru’s music presents an interesting contrast. There’s Sly & Robbie’s drum and bass pushing the rhythm forward, while Rose, Simpson and Puma’s cool vocals pull back. There’s a sense of musical tension in Black Uhuru’s best songs, a tension created when the vocals meet the rhythm.

Listen to the vocal part of “Sinsemilla.” There’s Rose on lead vocals, singing powerfully but smoothly, extending every word he can.

 

“I’ve seen doctors saaaaaay / It heals naturallyyyyyyy.” And, Rose takes long pauses between his phrases; he isn’t in a rush to do anything. He’s like a preacher who knows the congregation is in the palm of his hand. They’re waiting for his every word; why should he hurry?

 

Meanwhile, Simpson and Jones are near-perfect accompanists. Their two-part harmony is so flawless; they usually sound like one voice. The backing duo is always good, but on “Emotional Slaughter” they’re at their best. “Emotional Slaughter” is the rare Black Uhuru song that actually does sound mellow. Even on background vocals, Simpson and Jones carry the record. When I think of the song, what I remember most isn’t the lyrics or the rhythm; it’s the background harmony – Simpson and Jones chanting over and over, “emotional slaughter!”

No overview of Black Uhuru would be complete without at least a brief mention of Michael Rose’s lyrics. Over the years, Rose has proven himself to be a master of economy. Lyrically, none of his songs are particularly dense, but Rose picks his words with care. His best work means a lot more than it says.

 

His memorable phrases — “the youth of Englinton won’t put down their Remington,” “the whole world is Africa, but it’s divided in continent states,” “I’ve seen children downtown, begging everyone they see” — stick with you long after you’re finished listening.

 

The ‘sufferer’s lament’ is a standard concept of roots reggae, but Rose did it as well as anyone and also, by the early ‘80s, Rose was carrying the torch virtually alone. By then, the rest of the world had turned to disco while Jamaicans had turned to dancehall.

One last thing. There are other and earlier examples of roots reggae that emphasizes the drums over the skank and cranks up the tempo. I’m thinking of Bob Marley’s “Jamming” or “Exodus.” Or maybe Bunny Wailer’s “Rockers” or Peter Tosh’s “Stepping Razor.” 

 

By the early ‘80s, I think reggae artists had finally become tired of playing in the same style. After all, it had been well over a decade since rock-steady slowed into reggae, which begat roots; that’s a long time to play what must have felt like the same thing.

 

Surely, today we go back to listen and we realize that reggae was never so good again as it was in the 1970s. But back then, the new synthesizers and drum machines weren’t ‘cheesy’ and ‘over-processed.’ No, they were revolutionary and cutting edge.

 

What artist doesn’t want to progress, change, and grow? It’s only in retrospect that we think of the ‘70s as a glory age.

 

But it isn’t that Black Uhuru was doing something that had never been done in reggae. It was more that they took an existing aesthetic and ran with it, creating a signature sound that even today remains one of the most distinctive in the history of the music.

 

Main picture: Island Record

 

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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