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o Yabby You - Dread Prophecy
My first encounter with the music of Yabby You was back in the vinyl days of the mid-80s when I spotted his compilation One Love, One Heart at a small record store in Albany, NY. I'd never heard of him, but I chalked that up to having been only recently bitten by the reggae bug. Besides, no release on Shanachie Records (which this was) had yet steered me wrong. I bought the album, took it home to my basement apartment and had a listen. I was spellbound. The chant-like vocals, ominously biblical lyrics and unadorned pure roots reggae production values made me feel like I was hearing a prophet of old who'd somehow been transported into the modern world. In those pre-internet times, it was hard to find further information on the man who was born Vivian Jackson in Jamaica in 1946 and took his stage name from what he heard as thunder and the voices of angels calling down from on high. But I looked where I could and pieced together some facts about him. He didn't exactly have the happiest of beginnings: Yabby You's younger days were marked by poverty and malnutrition that resulted in a lifetime of crippled legs and fragile health. Notwithstanding, he developed an unyielding spirituality and faith in Jesus Christ. His perspective alienated many of his Rastafarian acquaintances, who mockingly called him "Jesus Dread," a nickname he chose to embrace. As to the rest of his tale- his life as singer, songwriter, producer and figure of absolute uniqueness in reggae music -read all about it in the richly detailed booklet included with Shanachie's excellent new triple CD set Dread Prophecy, subtitled The Strange and Wonderful Story of Yabby You. Indeed, there's equal measure of strangeness and wonder in the way he was able to overcome obstacle after obstacle to create a body of work that never brought him massive fame or fortune but endures to testify to the power of reggae built from ingredients of heart, soul, spirit and commitment. Yabby wasn't a man of great vocal range, but his grainy, take-heed style and inflection gave his songs an authority all their own. Particularly when singing lead over the harmonies of Alrick Forbes and Dada Smith (the other two-thirds of a vocal trio known as The Prophets), Yabby's voice dug deep and bore spiritual fruit in '70s roots gems like "Conquering Lion," "Anti-Christ," "Run Come Rally" and "Chant Down Babylon" all of which are included in this collection. The riches don't stop there, though. Yabby served as producer for a good many artists, putting his foundational stamp on reggae/jazz instrumentals by Skatalites saxophonist Tommy McCook ("Death Trap"), the chatting of deejay Jah Stitch ("Rock Man Soul"), suave crooner Pat Kelly ("How Long"), roots man Michael Prophet ("Love and Unity") and others, and those featured tracks go a long way toward showing just how far the Yabby You vibe extended in reggae circles. Plus, the three songs from Yabby's 1985 comeback album Fleeing From the City demonstrate that he wasn't opposed to modernizing his sound just a bit while sacrificing his integrity not one iota. And of course, no compilation like this would be complete without rarities. Disc 3 is jam-packed with them, including dub plates, previously unreleased new/old discoveries by U Brown, Half Pint and Patrick Andy and similar stuff that will delight hardcore collectors and ordinary fans alike. I lack the journalistic gumption to go into any further details, so just believe me when I say that Dread Prophecy is an absolute treasure chest for the reggae-minded. Yabby You passed away in 2010, but this assembly of his works will forever stand as a sonic testament to his greatness. -Tom Orr
Shanachie Entertainment buy
o Willi Williams - Unification: From Channel One to King Tubby's
Another recent Shanachie release with a Yabby You connection is a disc's worth of long-lost-but-now-found songs by Willi Williams, the vocalist best known for the classic "Armagideon Time." Recorded in the turbulent political days of 1979 Jamaica, Unification: From Channel One to King Tubby's has a dozen tracks laid down at the legendary studios name-checked in the title, with Willi Williams and Yabby You sharing production duties. I recognized many of the riddims (like the arrangement of "Take Five" on the title tune) from corresponding dub and alternate vocal versions that have emerged over the years, but the vocals here give them the blaze of a newly stoked fire. Williams' semi-spoken way of singing brings clarity to the lyrics, never burying the messages in patois or pedantic posturing. These are songs of spiritual awareness, political and religious trickery, African repatriation and hope for a better tomorrow, and it's no accident that the themes ring as true now as they did 36 years ago. Among the musicians involved are The Revolutionaries (under the guidance of Sly and Robbie), The Gladiators and Soul Syndicate, so the backing has just the right sort of roots sharpness. By the time Willi sings "I'm gonna need everyone to rock with me" during the opening "Rock On," you'll already be aboard for this invigorating reggae ride. -Tom Orr
Shanachie Entertainment buy
o Chuck Foster - Easy Street
Noted Southern California reggae DJ and author Chuck Foster has lately been making an additional mark as a singer, songwriter, producer and player of reggae music. His latest album may not put him on Easy Street from a financial standpoint, but he's got a good feel for what makes genuine reggae tick and an equally attuned knack for singing it. Songs like "Working People," "Freedom Calls" and "What Are We Fighting For" show just how much consciousness he's absorbed from decades of spinning reggae on the air, interviewing reggae artists and writing about the music in various magazines and books. Bask in these 15 selections of unpretentious, head-bobbing reggae, and be sure to check a couple of other noteworthy works on the Foster front. First up is Righteous Dub, the dub version of Easy Street mixed in classic style by Foster and bassist Mike Irwin and played by a sharp crew of L.A.-area musicians who call themselves Rough Sounds. Then there's Jamaican Journey, a disc credited to the Rough Sounds band with the Irwin/Foster team once again twisting the knobs. It's a superb selection of dub-and-jazz-laced instrumental reggae. -Tom Orr
Catch Me Time Records buy
o John Brown's Body - Kings and Queens in Dub
Been a long time coming, but one of America's premier reggae bands has finally put out their first full length dub album. It's their return-to-form release Kings and Queens that's dubbed here, and JBB do it in their trademark "future roots" style, accentuating real instruments with echoey, cutting edge production that brings equal measures of techniques gleaned from Jamaican studio greats and sounds made possible by modern technology. The mix masters here include 10 Ft. Ganja Plant's Dubfader, Easy Star All-Stars Michael G, UK legend Dennis Bovell, Yesking, Lord Echo of the Black Seeds, Ticklah, Dubmatix, Jay "Double Tiger" Spaker and former JBB guitarist Nate Silas Richardson. Each brings their own touch and contributes to elevating this CD to the level of a modern dub classic. -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o Stevie Face - My Time
Stevie Face has got a smiling face on the front of this album and a more pensive look on the back. And so it goes with the music: it's reggae that'll make you feel lighthearted most of the way but still give you some things to think about. Possessor of a soul-drenched voice that rings out strong on love songs and engages the mind in praise of Jah or criticism of gun violence, Face leans a little too heavily on cover versions (there are five of them on the disc), but his originals make it worthwhile. Among the latter, particularly good are "Paper Soldier" (featuring Jack Radics), the unity-promoting "I Dream of the Day" and "Da Lovin' Yah Nice," which combines modern and classic sounds to good effect. Much of the instrumentation and production is by Computer Paul, with notable players like venerable sax man Dean Fraser providing some organic seasoning. Despite the album's title, I sense that it isn't quite Stevie Face's time yet. Yes, the disc is enjoyable and well worth obtaining, but Face has got the vocal chops and songwriting skills to create works that could be truly outstanding. -Tom Orr
VP Records buy
o Joe Ferry - Big Dub
Having done bass and production work with a vast number of musicians including some in the realms of ska and reggae, Joe Ferry now brings to the table Big Dub, a little five-track slice of jazzy, trippy, dubby reggae with superior horns, tasty keyboards, solid drums and bass and just enough vocals to make you feel like you've got company on this wicked space journey. Impressive. -Tom Orr
Joe Ferry Music buy
o Rocky Dawuni - Branches of the Same Tree
Born in Ghana and presently a denizen of Los Angeles, Rocky Dawuni's status as a musician and activist has been solidified through his support of many a worthy global cause and collaborations with like-minded mainstream pop stars. Though he's essentially a reggae artist, his music often reaches well beyond Jamaica and Africa for inspiration and is stronger for it. Branches of the Same Tree catches your ear instantly with "Shine a Light," a New Orleans-style shuffler that sets things in motion for the variations-on-a-positive-theme that follow. "Black Star" and "African Thriller" make it clear that Dawuni's connections to the Motherland are both conscious and celebratory, while "Children of Abraham" pleads for an end to the sort of religious violence that sadly only begets more of the same. A pair of Bob Marley tunes are covered, one of which- "Get Up, Stand Up" -is known worldwide, and the other- "Butterfly" -decidedly more obscure. Dawuni does justice to each, but the real stars of the album are such originals as the Afro-funky "The Sign" and "Nairobi," a hearty yet serious tribute to Kenya's capital. Sounding like a youthful rebel one moment and a wise village elder the next, Dawuni sings atop a mixture of reggae, African and global-infused grooves that give the words and music the necessary weight. Even so, it's both a nod to the man's versatility and a sweet final touch that he ends with "Island Girl" a love song accompanied by ukulele and melancholy keyboard sounds. A fitting conclusion to an album that's surprising, accessible and all-around good. -Tom Orr
Cumbancha buy
o Bobby Hustle - It's the Hustle
This Seattle-based artist clearly loves his herb; it's a recurring theme throughout the 11 tracks on his debut CD. He's no slacker, though. Active in reggae music since 2007, he's performed in places as far-flung as Russia and Japan and, as songs like "Life is What You Make it" and "Defend Them" show, he's got other concerns in mind. Straddling roots, dancehall and pop reggae, It's the Hustle is no milestone but has a lot of satisfaction to offer. Hustle's well-developed singjay style is a cut above many who harness the same method, never coming across as forced or trying to squeeze in more words than necessary. His lover's rock tunes sound sincere, as does his musical mission in general. While I'm not sure what the overall reggae scene in Seattle is like, Bobby Hustle seems to be a capable and committed ambassador of it. -Tom Orr Dynasty Records/ Tom Orr
Bobby Hustle Music buy
o Nico Marks - The California - Jamaica Sessions
I had to educate myself as to Nico Marks' musical background. Turns out he's a Californian who got pretty far on "American Idol" and has an interest in combining reggae with pop rock. The California-Jamaica Sessions was recorded in part at Tuff Gong Studios, no less, and even though it's only sampler length, good vibes are evident throughout its 6 tunes (8 if you count the brief intro and outro). Mixing acoustic with electric, rock with riddim, balladry with bass and California with Caribbean, Marks scores on an unassuming batch of songs that won't burn down Babylon but will put a smile on your face and a swivel in your hips. He's got a sweetly sturdy voice that he puts to good use and his musical aims come to fruition, though I do wish the album had something more in the way of liner notes or other information chronicling the specifics of his Jamaican odyssey. -Tom Orr
Santa Juanita Records buy
o Spred the Dub - Coming Home Drunk
This band from Florida specializes in what they call "Good Time Reggae," and despite the goofiness implied by the way they spell their name, the title of this CD and its none-too-serious cover art, they're, well, pretty good. Mixing reggae, ska, dub, rock(steady) and a party attitude, they're the kind of band that can get away with a rhyme like "let's make a record/like Desmond Dekker" and not sound pretentious. Don't bother with these guys if it's strictly roots you're after: they're more along the lines of third wave ska or reggae rock with frequent emphasis on the latter. But if your lifestyle and musical tastes aren't so ital that you don't enjoy some booze with your ganja, go ahead and check 'em out. -Tom Orr Tom Orr
Spred the Dub buy
o Rusty Zinn - The Reggae Soul of Rusty Zinn
After establishing himself as a blues artist, Californian Rusty Zinn made a very impressive turn to roots reggae with his album Manifestation, recorded largely down inna yard with some of Jamaica's finest players. That one was a tough act to follow, but he's done so with style and spirit on his latest, which is aptly proclaimed "A journey to the soul of Lovers' Rock Steady." So are we talking about love of the romantic sort, or the love of early reggae music? How about both? The positivity of the opening "Rise Up" gives it an anthemic quality that makes for a best possible start, and matters of heart and spirit prevailing from there hold to the standard. Zinn's high-reaching, ringing voice permeates and inspires on ska and rocksteady-grounded tunes that encourage perseverance, make gentlemanly overtures to the fairer sex and do more than ample justice to backing tracks provided in part by such players as drummer Sly Dunbar, keyboardist Robbie Lyn, bassist Boris Gardiner, guitarists Hux Brown and Mikey Chung and Stepper on sax. Some of the riddims echo classic ones, as on the Jimmy Holiday/Slim Smith oldie "Turning Point," but apart from that and respectable covers of "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" and "Is There a Place," Zinn keeps it original. And his originality rings true, even though the '50s style of "Do I Stand a Chance With You" sounds like it belongs on a different album. Great to see and hear that Zinn isn't going to restrict himself to one style of reggae. It's the soulful side he's bringing forth here, and it's a thing of great beauty. -Tom Orr
Rock Beat buy
o Candela Roots - Hungry
Good, solid roots reggae on this 5-song EP by a female-fronted band from (near as I can tell) Valencia, Spain. The lyrics are all in Spanish apart from some deejay breaks on one song, but the riddims need no translation. All real instruments (drums, bass, guitar, keys, percussion) are given their rightful piece of the action in a clean, forward-moving mix that will please the reggae massive anywhere on planet Earth. Lead singer Estel Navarro's vocals wail and pierce convincingly, and the players have obviously done the homework needed to play reggae right. Well done. Can't wait to hear the full-length album that I hope is in store. -Tom Orr
Mesdemil buy
o The Expanders - Hustling Culture
You'd have to set the bar very high to determine which is the finest reggae band to come from Los Angeles, let alone California or the whole of the United States. But make no mistake- the Expanders are contenders on all three counts. I've never been able to go very long without revisiting their eponymous debut CD from a few years ago, and the follow-up Old Time Something Come Back Again, on which they covered some of the classic reggae tunes that inspired them, is as good as that sort of thing gets. Now the Expanders return with Hustling Culture, their third full length release and second comprised of original material. And from the moment the groove of the opening title track kicks in, you'll be feeling that hell-yeah vibe of genuine reggae music. Supremely skilled players and singers, the Expanders level many a conscious angle, including concerns like maintaining such consciousness in reggae ("Hustling Culture"), not judging others unfairly ("People Business"), changing attitudes toward ganja ("Top Shelf") and giving women their due respect ("Thanks for Life"). Unlike a lot of American reggae outfits, this band's chops are focused solely on keeping the roots alive. Front man/rhythm guitarist Devin Morrison makes every lyric count and his mates (including new keyboardist Roy Fishell) unfailingly nail the mix of classic Jamaican finesse and understated edge that the music demands and the handy production values deliver. Plus, now that the Expanders are under the guidance of the renowned Easy Star Records label, their profile is bound to increase. That fact and the very high quality of this album (which you need to obtain as soon as possible, in case I haven't made that clear) are reasons to rejoice. -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o Akatz - Vuelta Y Vuelta
It's quite marvelous; the way Jamaican ska, rocksteady and reggae have caught on worldwide. The Basque region of Spain might not be the absolute last place you'd expect to find a band that exemplifies such a thing, but it's certainly not very close to the top of the list either. The band I'm referring to is called Akatz, and despite being together for nearly a quarter century, they haven't released many recordings. They're known more for live performances, and the energy and good cheer of this rare long player from them indicates that those shows are likely quite good. The lyrics on Vuelta Y Vuelta are all in Spanish and Basque, and the liner notes are likewise not translated into my tongue of choice. No matter. Authentic, Iberian-spiced ska and early reggae rhythms jump and dance the way they ought to, and though the subject matter of the songs is a mystery to those who don't speak the lingo, the disc gets the job done. One might take issue with the rather frothy production (the bass could certainly be harder), but the picked guitar in particular has a nice crinkle to it, the all-important horns blaze and purr and the vocals are obviously from the heart. Yup, the Jamaican sound is alive and well in Basque Country, and Akatz connects it sturdily to its point of origin, particularly on the nyabinghi-powered closing track "Vacio De Ti." -Tom Orr
Liquidator Music buy
o Next Level Sound Station - Sunken City Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
I haven't seen the movie, which reportedly has elements of stoner comedy, crime thriller and noir spoof in its Southern California-set plotline. But the soundtrack is excellent, a 70-minute odyssey of roots, dub, instrumental and vocal reggae selections. The opening melodica instrumental "Chilatron" hints at the many riches within, including lively singjay stylings from plentifully represented Nuby Dan, serious reasoning by Black Shakespeare, hauntingly funky arrangements and playing courtesy of trumpeter/musical mastermind Todd Simon (who, along with Shakespeare, has helped make L.A. reggae band The Lions one very fine outfit) and the deft guitar chops of Jared Meeker. There are no concessions to the demons of dancehall, and the music certainly doesn't suffer from the lacking-without-visuals syndrome of many soundtracks. I may get around to seeing the movie at some point in my fleeting life, but in the interim this very fine cycle of authentic reggae sounds is providing pure listening satisfaction. -Tom Orr
Sunken City LLC buy
o Arise Roots - Love and War
No second time slump here. Los Angeles' Arise Roots follow up their debut CD Moving Forward with another solid outing of simmering reggae that's got both roots and lover's rock covered. And even when things are mellow lyrically (as with "Cool Me Down," featuring sensual chime-ins by Hawaiian reggae artist Hirie), the playing, singing and overall feel are sharp and authoritative. Credit due to Karim Israel's wary vocals, under which the drums and bass team of Ron Montoya and Rodolfo Covarrubias lays a concrete foundation while the guitar jabs of Robert Sotelo Jr. and Todd Johnson's keyboards see to it that the fire stays hot. There's a higher quotient of guest artists this time (including Rootz Underground, E.N. Young, Matthew Liufau of Seedless and Fortunate Youth's Dan Kelly) plus more horn section sweetening and an increased dub sensibility. Intact from the first album are the band's penchant for timely messages ("What a Shame," "Fear Factory") and knowing when to lighten the mood with more popish fare. These gents are still on the rise and sounding great on this independent release. -Tom Orr
Arise Roots buy
o Various Artists - Monterey Or Bust
Pretty good selection of primarily American reggae here, though New Zealand's always-worthwhile Katchafire is also in the lineup. What they all have in common is having played at Monterey's California Roots Music and Arts Festival that takes place every Memorial Day weekend. Most of the artists I was already familiar with, and among those with whom I wasn't, Marko's "Principles" and the loopy "Chicks Can Dub" by Papafish are particularly ear-opening. Not really any bum tracks, though some may lean a little too poppy for roots enthusiasts. Still a solid collection you can enjoy from start to finish, with ample standouts including The Simpkin Project's anthemic "If You Really Want It," Maoli's "Get Right," Stick Figure's opener "Vibes Alive" and the well-chosen closing track "Vibes Love & Revolution," a nyabinghi-enriched parting blessing by Fear Nuttin Band and Sara Lugo. If the title of this disc is some kind of multiple choice, choose Monterey, 'cause this ain't no bust. -Tom Orr
Rebel Sound Records buy
o Marty Dread - Upcountry Boy
I'm no great fan of reggae cover versions and this album didn't make a convert of me even though it has some good moments. Okay, A lot of good moments. Hawaii's Marty Dread has long been interested in the connections between country music and reggae music, so much of what he re-does inna reggae style are songs originally by country artists. But not all. Some that were pop tunes from my younger days, including "Still the One," "Love the One You're With" and "Have You Ever Seen the Rain" all work just fine in the reggae context, though "Cats in the Cradle" (the disc's only true dud) sounds perfunctory and falls flat. As for the ones that were first recorded by country stars like Kenny Chesney, Vince Gill and Eddie Rabbit, well, it's probably best that I'm not familiar with the originals and thus have no existing notions of how they should be Jamaican-ized. Marty's got a warm, friendly voice that enables him to put just enough twang into the country remakes and emphasize the pop hooks of the others. Also to his advantage is a first rate crew of musicians, including bassist Fully Fullwood and guitarist Tony Chin from the legendary Soul Syndicate, plus pedal steel wizard Marty Rifkin, who injects the proper down home vibe and splits the difference between Kingston and Nashville. Upcountry Boy grabbed me from the start with its particularly strong take on "Walking in Memphis" and grew on me as it went along. Even if you're a longtime reggae fan with doubts about projects of this sort, give this one a go. There's a good chance you'll be as pleasantly surprised as I was. -Tom Orr
Five Corners Music buy
o New Kingston - Kingston City
Interesting dynamic here: a reggae band comprised of a father and his three sons, with the dad playing bass and the progeny singing and playing guitar, drums and keyboards. New Kingston is based in New York City, which may not be a center of reggae on the same level as the original Kingston, but it's still a hotbed. The moderately funky contemporary roots sound on this, their third album, reminds me of San Diego's Devastators, and that's good thing. The riddims are primarily solid reggae, while the soul and spirit (including vocals that are rapid-fire as often as meditative) are progressive and forward-thinking. New Kingston has many of the right bases covered, including a pro-herb tune ("Who Tell Them"), great guest artists (Sister Carol, the Wailing Souls, the late Sugar Minott) and feel for the conscious ("Mystery Babylon," "Conquer Dem"). They go a bit awry when they get too hip-hoppy, as on "Can't Stop a Man," and the canned voice that murmurs the band's name during the intros to about half the tracks is annoying. But for the most part New Kingston does an impressive job of helping to carry the torch for modern reggae. Enjoy, and expect this band to have many good works yet to come -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad - Steady
They've weathered personnel changes, taken a risky sideline into a different genre (on 2012's Americana-style Country) and hail from Rochester, N.Y., hardly the first place you'd affiliate with reggae music. Regardless, Giant Panda Guerrilla Dub Squad remains a very popular outfit that melds roots reggae with the sort of jam band aesthetics that can greatly expand a band's fan base. I've liked these gents since their 2001 debut for numerous reasons: they're top notch musicians, their vocal skills match their instrumental ones (including great harmonies), they know how to make catchy songs, they understand that substance doesn't have to be sacrificed in order to make the songs catchy and they have a knack for crisp production values. That last point ensures that there's an equitable spark to each and every one of the guitar riffs, clavinet jabs, dubby echoes, quirky percussion accents and ganja-mellowed verses that make this album another gem in GPGDS's body of work. Steady is a handy balance of seriousness and whimsy, putting forth the mindful messages of tracks like "Solution" and "Whatever Cost" while also taking on such subjects as marijuana and gun control with disarming humor. The presence of Ranking Joe is a bonus on "Take Your Place," where he inserts one of his most tongue-tripping toasts ever, and the combination of a rocksteady beat and banjo riffs makes "Home" flat-out wicked. The band reportedly has another Americana album standing by for release, but for now enjoy them in reggae mode on this, quite possibly their best to date. -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o Backbeat Soundsystem - Together Not Apart
Cornwall-based Backbeat Soundsystem has a hard-hitting modern roots sound laced with horns, synths and cutting edge production that puts them across as the British equivalent of John Brown's Body and makes them attention-grabbing contenders on the international reggae scene. The title Together Not Apart couldn't be more timely, and this is indeed reggae for our times. There are roots at the core, but these guys don't hold back when it comes to funk, dancehall breaks, electronic ambiance or goosed tempos. Vocalist/synth player Dean Forrest is the producer and main composer of the band and he keeps things varied, from the concerned stances of "Against it All" and "Words are the Weapon" (the latter coming across more than a little UB40-ish) to more introspective fare like "Losing Faith" and the lovers tune "Share With You." A trifle strident at times (particularly in the vocals) but infused with ample soul and goodness that more than offsets a few harsher moments, what we have is a strong showing from a group that reggae fans all over the world should keep their eyes and ears on. Seems like it's been a while since a good reggae band emerged from the U.K., so cheers to this lot. -Tom Orr
Easy Star Records buy
o Lek Sen - Jaam Dong (Only Peace)
Coming at me out of the clear blue with accompanying promotional information that was only in French, I needed some additional online research to set me straight on both Senegal's Lek Sen and his latest album. While hailed as an upcoming force in reggae, probably because of his Capleton-like vocal style and the fact that he has been endorsed by Clinton Fearon and Harrison Stafford of Groundation, Lek Sen also works in elements of Afro-pop, hip hop and griot tradition for a sound that reaches far and wide but likely won't be entirely satisfying for fans of undiluted reggae. He nonetheless certainly has good intentions backed up by some strong statements he offers on Jaam Dong, including the nyabinghi "Brave Man," "Don't Give Up" (on which he tonally resembles Joseph Hill), a combination of fire and somberness on the title track and the assertive swagger of "No Man Can Stop Us." Not a bad album by any means, but a little too much of a mixed bag for my taste. -Tom Orr
Jahsen Creation buy
o Rebel Tumbao - Rebel Tumbao
"Dis a rebel music" sang Bob Marley 40 years ago, and how very true the words remain. Sometimes that rebel spirit lies in reggae music's power to impact social, cultural and spiritual norms, sometimes it lies in the way the music itself is presented, and sometimes, as in the case of Rebel Tumbao and their self-titled debut album, it's both. Rebel Tumbao was co-founded by Matt Jenson, who teaches both keyboards and a course on Bob Marley at Berklee College of Music, and master percussionist Jose Claussell, longtime member of Latin jazz pianist Eddie Palmieri's combo. Rebel Tumbao isn't the first band to mix reggae and Latin music, but they are trailblazers as far as taking a specific Latin genre- Cuban son -and intersecting it with reggae. They call it AfroLatinRootsReggae, and I do believe Marley would have approved. Granted, opening track "The Story" (a stinging indictment of mankind's consumer-driven cluelessness) is pretty much all Latin and no reggae, but the version of "Natural Mystic" (one of six Marley tunes expanded upon) that follows is what really sets the tone, sliding easily from skanking riddim to polyrhythmic Afro-Cuban groove and wielding equal conviction in its English and Spanish lyrics. Likewise, the melding of John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" with Marley's "Exodus" syncopates and meditates its way to a higher plane. Original songs like "Masters of Greed," "Spare a Nickel" and "Your First Million" explore the disparity between the haves and the have-nots with a combination of reggae consciousness and Latin fire while the remaining Marley re-takes (including risky-to-mess-with "Sun is Shining" and "Rebel Music") have a sizzle that is at once familiar and unexpected. Let's be clear here: this isn't simply a Latin reggae album and may be a turn-off to reggae purists. But for anyone with the sort of open mind and dancing feet it takes to appreciate the message of reggae and Bob Marley in a manner that takes more than a few musical chances, the rewards are many. -Tom Orr
Sacred Rhythm Music buy
o Clinton Fearon - Goodness
Clinton Fearon left the Gladiators back in 1987, and if Albert Griffiths is regarded as the Gladiators' equivalent of Bob Marley, then Fearon was their Peter Tosh: a gifted singer, songwriter and musician who had much to offer in a group setting but needed to break away to make an even bigger mark. He's been based in Seattle for quite some time, laying down sharp roots reggae with his Boogie Brown Band and venturing out to tour on a regular basis (he's reportedly quite big in France). His last album, Heart and Soul, was comprised of totally-solo acoustic versions of songs he wrote and sang lead on with his former group. Pleasant aside though that was, it's great to hear him back with original material and a full band backing him up. Handling all of the bass playing and much of the guitar playing himself, Fearon sees to it that the pointed directness of his songs is punctuated with a similarly locked-up melodic sense. Goodness is the album's title as well as its prevailing theme, and often the pursuit of goodness requires the sort of critical self-examination put forth on songs like "Blame Game," "Wi No Know It," "Long Run Short Catch" and "Talk With A Friend," all of which encourage unity and putting an end to fussing and fighting. Even tunes such as "Another Party" and "Jamdown Boogie" are more substantial than their titles would suggest, jabbing at the elitism of Babylon and finding celebration in consciousness respectively. Fearon's slightly gruff, wise-elder vocals are as finely honed as ever, and the way he seasons his reggae with the occasional flute solo or viola sweetness gives both the one drop foundation and lyrical testimony that much more sincerity. Looking for a sizable helping of genuine reggae goodness? You'll find it here. -Tom Orr
Boogie Brown Productions / Kool Yu Foot buy
o Melbourne Ska Orchestra - Melbourne Ska Orchestra
How many players do you need to be considered an orchestra? There are a few ska outfits out there that have the word "orchestra" in their names (and I'm not naming names) but are really just sizable ska bands (if that). To further complicate the issue, there's Southern California's Skatalites tribute Western Standard Time, which, despite membership somewhere in the upper 20s, is billed as a big band rather than an orchestra. I bring this up partly because I like digressions but mainly because Australia's 33-strong Melbourne Ska Orchestra strikes me as fulfilling the necessary numerical requirements. That wouldn't mean a thing if their music was no good, but it just so happens that it's smashingly good. A diverse-looking and sounding lot, they sport some of the spirited fun of the 2 Tone era (you'd expect as much from a group that opens their CD with a take on TV's "Get Smart" theme music and includes a lively version of "The Best Things in Life Are Free") while staying rooted in authenticity as far as overall sound goes. Despite a massive quotient of horns and a bigger riddim section than is the norm, the tunes bubble along clean and tight, harnessing rocksteady and reggae as often as ska and taking a few non-detracting asides into swing and Latin grooves. MSO is also blessed with a charismatic male/female vocal front line and numerous gifted soloists including, delightfully, a steel pan player. And though I've mentioned the fun angle of their music (witness "He's a Tripper," which pays lyrical tribute to both Lee Perry and James Brown), know that this crew also handles heartfelt sweetness like "Learn to Love Again" and an instrumental as seriously layered as "Katoomba." A band of this size and scope has to be able to level many an angle, and Melbourne Ska Orchestra gets it right at every turn. Sometimes bigger is better, and that's the case here. -Tom Orr
Four Four Music buy
o Christos DC - Long Road
His heritage is Greek, his stage name is a compression of his given first name (Christopher) and his home base (Washington, D.C.) and his music is described as downtempo reggae with overtones of jazz. Fair enough. I'd use the word "dubby" in place of "downtempo," since the former is a word that reggae fans are more likely to embrace. Quibble if you like. And while I'm already abusing descriptive words and quotation marks, I'd also go so far as to describe Christos' sound as "trippy," "rootsy" and, thankfully, "real." Long Road is, after all, a release from a label called Honest Music, and that's not a term to be taken lightly or for granted. As for DC's own road, he started out producing hip hop and r&b but found himself increasingly drawn toward reggae. A stint as guitarist and backup vocalist in Don Carlos' and the Itals' touring bands took it higher and deeper, as did collaborations with Sugar Minott and the Meditations. Long Road starts off low-key and pretty much stays that way, but it sure does grow on you. Vocally, DC's high-pitched and slightly ominous tones put him across as sort of an American Taj Weekes, while the airy yet solid textures of his backing tracks might remind you of early Ijahman Levi. Even so, don't get the idea that he's any kind of blatant imitator. While he's certainly learned from the masters (including Augustus Pablo, as the instrumental title track shows), his sound is the right mix of selective gleaning and his own sonic identity. He pulls it off with the help of a solid bunch of live musicians, such esteemed guests as Kenyatta Hill, Style Scott and Flabba Holt, and a feel for genuine reggae. Long Road is an unassumingly impressive piece of work, definitely one to check out. -Tom Orr
Honest Music buy
o Roy & Yvonne - Moving On
It no doubt does many a Jamaican music lover's heart good to see this duo, who made some very sweet sounds in the ska and rocksteady years, together again after more than four decades away from the limelight. Roy Panton and Yvonne Harrison, smiling in their snappy suits and fedoras on the front and back covers of Moving On, look mighty happy about it too. Such joy is evident in the 10 tracks here, two of which are brand new and the remainder remakes. Recorded in Falls Church, Virginia with able backing by a band called the Shifters, the disc captures some of the charming murkiness of '60s Jamaican recordings with just enough modern polish to mark it as contemporary. As for the singing, well, I only use shopworn phrases when it's perfectly applicable, so I'm not being glib when I say that the voices of these two have only improved with age. The tunes are pretty much all love songs, and the emoting that Roy and Yvonne do straight from the heart seems to be as much a love letter to a not-so-bygone musical era as to the object of one's fancy. They trade off taking the lead in equal measure, with Roy ranging from playfully coy on the opening "Surely I Love You" to the unabashed yearning of "I'm in Love With a Girl" and Yvonne's enveloping warble strong throughout, most particularly on the Latin-flavored "My Jealous Eyes." The title track and "You Say No" are the two new songs, which, not surprisingly fit right in with the classic feel of the whole thing. Moving On is a real gem. Big up to the singers, naturally, as well as to the Shifters' expert chops and the just-right production and mixing by Teddy Garcia and Mike Mariconda under the guidance of Spain's Liquidator Music label. -Tom Orr
Liquidator Music buy
o Alpheus - Good Prevails
Like many other reggae vocalists, Neil "Alpheus" Martin started his recording career by way of Clement Dodd's Studio One. Okay, not the Studio One heydays of the '60s and '70s, but rather when the Melodians' Tony Brevett spotted Alpheus' talent and brought him from Florida to Dodd's relocated New York City operation in the late 1990s. Prior to that, Alpheus had performed with sound systems in London, the city of his birth. He's Jamaican by heritage, though, and his 1999 debut album Quality Time featured him singing over some of those dependable old Studio One riddims we all know and love. He's branched out considerably since then, and his latest, Good Prevails, handily delivers what the back cover promises: "14 Pearls of Jamaican Soul." Vocally, you'll hear the influence of such singers as John Holt and Dennis Brown in Alpheus' deep but lilting style. Which means he's got the stuff for songs of romance ("The Right One," "Secret Rendezvous," "Pass The Test") as well as serious concerns ("Our Strength," "Rudie No More," "Liberty"). There's a refreshing sort of clarity to his singing also, making this one of those albums where you don't have to be constantly looking at the enclosed lyrics to know what is being sung. Most of the arrangements are in the rocksteady/early reggae mode and the musicians, a Spain-based crew known as Lone Ark Riddim Force and led by multi-instrumentalist/producer/arranger Roberto Sanchez, are first rate. In fact, the singer and players are such a good match that I wish some of the tracks were longer. But no matter; every one of them (including a couple of melodica-drenched instrumental versions) provides ample satisfaction for those who consider "Jamaican Soul" and crackling good reggae to be pretty much synonymous. -Tom Orr
Liquidator Music buy
o Meta and the Cornerstones - Ancient Power
His homeland Senegal is better known musically for m'balax, Baye Fall mysticism, Afro-Cuban dance bands and homegrown griots. Even among the fraternity of African reggae stars like Alpha Blondy, Tiken Jah Fakoly and the late Lucky Dube, Meta Dia stands out by sounding less like the roots trailblazers of the '70s and more like the younger set re-discovering those same roots nowadays, referencing as much on the opening "Roaring Lions." Sporting a high-pitched, keening vocal style that splits the difference between West Africa and Jamaica, Meta offers up a goodly amount of straight roots reggae on Ancient Power, plus some acoustic love sentiments, a hint of hip hop and, not surprisingly, a distinctly Afrocentric point of view most prominent on "Beloved Africa" featuring Damian Marley. Meta is presently based in New York City, giving his sound and perspective a far-reaching vibe. Borderline surreal tunes like "Mayan River" and "Silence of the Moon" go to lyrical places not exactly typical of reggae music, and Meta's subtle variations in tone bring forth the proper mysticism, militancy or mellowness that each track needs. Ancient Power is a satisfying, wide-ranging slab of conscious reggae, and the depth of Meta's artistry is probably what prompted the New York Times to rather lazily proclaim him the "African Bob Marley." Feel free to make whatever you want of such a comparison, but believe me when I say that while Meta Dia does echo his predecessors to some degree, he's got his own thing going on. Although his NYC backing band the Cornerstones get the cover credit and do play on the tracks, this disc was recorded at Tuff Gong with assistance from Capleton, U Roy, Squidly Cole, Winston Bowen, Dean Fraser, Larry McDonald, Sidney Mills, Julian Marley (on drums, which was a surprise to me) and many others. You can't go wrong with a crew like that, so Ancient Power brims with modern goodness. -Tom Orr
VP Records buy
o Keyser Soze - The Remedy
Having long since accepted and even embraced the fact that I am hopelessly unhip, I can admit to never having seen "The Usual Suspects." Notwithstanding, I know something of how the name of that flick's unsettlingly dark villain has entered the lexicon, at least as far as the margins of ska, rocksteady, reggae and Jamaican jazz expand. Keyser Soze- the band -came about in Reno in the late '90s and has been building a following on these shores and over in Europe ever since. The foundationally solid riddims, salty horns, soul-informed vocals and damn catchy tunes of their latest, The Remedy, are indeed very much akin to a sampling of elixirs from many phases of Jamaican music's last half century (dub included). "That Big Big Sound" is what some subtly placed wordage on the back cover promises, and if that's not enough of a clue, song titles such as "Soul Ska" should fill in any remaining blanks. The band's horn players also do the bulk of the vocals, handily delivering both atop the drums, bass, guitar and percussion to give the tunes a funky, danceable energy that starts with the opening "The Season" and never lags. It looks like these guys were without a permanent keyboard player when this disc was recorded, so guest ticklers including the Aggrolites' Roger Rivas are on hand to put the bubble to the skank. Another notable invitee is Lauren Nagel, whose blood-thickening vocals on "Catch Your Breath" make for a sexy/sinister tune with a sweetly aching blues edge. Purely instrumental tracks like the not-as-meshugge-as-you-might-think "Dreidel Dub" are first rate as well and help make The Remedy a very good album by a band named after a very bad guy. -Tom Orr
Rocking Records buy
o Mystic Roots Band - Camp Fire Vol. 1- CAMP (Roots)
Despite being passingly familiar with California's Mystic Roots Band (they started out in the northern part of the state, hit their stride after relocating to the southern regions and are now back up north), I didn't give them a good listen until receiving this, their rather cumbersomely-titled third album. It's loaded with good-time reggae sounds, perhaps not as "roots" as the disc's or the group's name would suggest, but nonetheless a plentifully pleasing chunk of the kind of reggae that has earned Mystic Roots Band a fan following in touring locations as far-flung as Japan, Guam and South Korea. Allow me to get negativity out of the way by saying that the only bum track here is a pro-ganja rap (yes, rap) called "On It," which despite thematic good intentions comes off, like most rap, as boorish and self-indulgent. Skip that and enjoy the rest, including the heartfelt sweetness and bright harmonies of "Things To Say," a re-casting of Bob Marley's "Heathen" riddim on the knowingly cocky "We No Care," the environmentally and socially conscious "Earth Song," a Latin rock-flavored "Musica Reggae" and a title track that does a fitting slow burn deep into your soul. Most of the lead vocals are handled by Katherine Ramirez, whose sensual but assured style is frequently complimented by the rougher voice of keyboardist cootdog for a combination that makes MRB sound at times like a harder version of another California reggae band, Soul Majestic. The flames are further fanned by guest spots from Mykal Rose and Tippa Irie, and although this release is reportedly available as a set with a second CD of remixes, it stands very well on its own. -Tom Orr
Stay Positive Productions buy
o Jr. Thomas Meets the Venditions
My trusty hardbound 1997 dictionary doesn't include the word "vendition," but a bit of online searching revealed that it means something like "the act of vending." I'm already sold on the idea of mixing rocksteady and early reggae with a jolt of soul, so I quite enjoyed every moment of this album's rather lean 31 minutes. Jr. Thomas is a singer, guitarist and songwriter also known as Tom McDowall, and as the latter he's the front man for Minneapolis-based band the Dropsteppers. For this project, however, he's branched out to include players from the New York and Boston reggae scenes, among them saxophone master David Hillyard and Pressure Cooker keyboardist Zack Brines. The result is 10 tracks of rollicking, good-time reggae/soul guaranteed to please. While Thomas has a voice that's more Motown testifying than Trench Town sufferation, the Jamaican accents present in the accompanying grooves are unmistakable. The disc kicks off strong via "Face in the Crowd," a song about the importance of being more than just that, and a similarly passionate viewpoint powers matters of the heart ("Somebody Like You," "One Desire"), holding on in spite of adversity ("Trouble in the Music") and both instrumental and vocal takes on running afoul of the law ("Handcuff Strut," "Looters on Broadway"). Organ-heavy backing tracks grind along tough and sweet, and short though the songs may be, savoring them on both reggae and soul levels will result in satisfaction that's more than ample. -Tom Orr
Rocking Records / Megalith Records buy
o Mighty Joshua - Mighty Joshua
Like his biblical namesake, this Joshua lets us know, by way of the opening track on his first solo album (a song called "Mighty Joshua," just like the artist himself and the album itself), that he's intent on bringing down a wall or two. However, he's going for the whole of Babylon and not just Jericho, invoking plenty 'nuff scriptural locales and characters atop a nyabinghi-tinged arrangement that's a perfectly suitable kickoff for a rootsy CD like this. Mighty Joshua is a major figure on the reggae scene in Richmond, Virginia, having been a vocalist and percussionist for several of that city's reggae bands and a tireless promoter of the music. Singing-wise, he goes for a more understated approach than many, emphasizing the conscious clarity of the lyrics rather than trying to inject as much fire and brimstone as possible into the proceedings. And so it is that we get the no-nonsense point of songs like "Locks Of Oppression," "Catching Hell" (featuring a strong assist from reggae/blues man Corey Harris), "Them A Watching" and the straight-outta-yard "We Don't Trouble You," a song that combines seriousness and jauntiness in a way that might put you in mind of the Twinkle Brothers. A very impressive outing all around, and kudos to producer/keyboardist Chris "Peanut" Whitley, who helps craft a modern roots backdrop that accommodates Joshua's compelling style with sufficient niceness. -Tom Orr
StableRoots Productions buy
o Pacific Vibrations - Irie Feeling
Once a six-piece band and now whittled down to a duo (plus guest players), Pacific Vibrations returns with a disc that's every bit as laid back as the title suggests. We're not talking firebrand reggae that touts truth and rights or advocates revolution here. Even so, it's pretty good stuff if and when you're in the mood for a bit of reggae-flavored music that doesn't have to be rebel music. Kerry Wing (vocals, guitar, bass, drum programming) and Randy Nakamura (vocals, ukulele, Native American flute) possess the necessary singing and instrumental skills to create a good time, and I'd bet that even the most immovable reggae purist could find something to love among the 10 unassuming tracks on Irie Feeling. Overall lightness aside, such songs as "Everyday Angel" and "Sinful Lullaby" are pretty innovative lyrically, and the riddims manage to be respectably pulsating even if canned drums aren't your idea of what the foundation for those riddims ought to be. Pacific Vibrations' ongoing use of the ukulele might lead you to believe that they operate out of Hawaii, but their home base is San Francisco. If that fact alone is enough to make you want to brand them as "mellow," so be it. They certainly are, but given the fact that reggae has always been a mixture of relaxedness and intensity, these guys make it work in their own no-pressure way. -Tom Orr
Warrior Monk Records buy
o Mark Miller - On the Road with Bob Marley
Mark Miller was stage manager for Bob Marley and the Wailers from July 1978 until Marley's final concert on September 23rd 1980. Being a stage manager is a huge responsibility, and Miller kept the job by being damn good at it. His position as someone who was close to Bob and the band meant that adventures aplenty were a given, and many of those adventures are recounted in detail in this long-time-coming memoir. It's a very absorbing read despite its flaws, brimming with tales of groupies and ganja, music and mayhem, facts and fancy. Some digressions aside, Miller tells his tales mainly chronologically, and his insider's views of such landmark events as the Wailers' performances in Zimbabwe are simply gripping. The book also includes an impressive selection of photos (some familiar, some not), a timeline of Marley's life and career, a transcript of Marley's last known interview, copies of documents that give an idea of the tremendous logistics involved in touring, a discography, and Miller's personal reflections on each member of the Wailers. At times less than flattering, the book's frankness is bold and revealing. As to the flaws I mentioned earlier, they mainly have to do with the way the book doesn't quite come across as a finished product. Spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors are numerous, a few stories are recounted more than once, and some dodgy wording doesn't help (yeah, I've been guilty of using the term "Rastafarianism" in the past, but I thought everyone knew better by now). In spite of all that, On the Road with Bob Marley (cleverly subtitled A White Knight in Babylon) is a uniquely satisfying addition to the many tomes that have been written about reggae's most commanding figure. -Tom Orr
The Iconic Images buy
o Morgan Heritage - Here Come the Kings
Nice to see and hear that, after a few years' worth of side projects and collaborations, the offspring of Denroy Morgan are back together and making music. Note the recurrence of the salient word "roots" throughout the title track of Here Come the Kings, and you'll get an idea of where Morgan Heritage is at nowadays. For that matter, back-to-back songs "The Return" and "Looking for the Roots" also point to the band wanting to retain the credibility they've had from the start. Don't get the idea that the album is strictly roots, though. Some popish intentions including a helping of lover's rock and r & b flavoring are heard. Plus the modern production values mark this release as decidedly contemporary. What hasn't changed is the commitment, passion and positive vibes of Morgan Heritage's best work, most evident in their live shows (which are always a treat) but present in the energy of their studio recordings as well. Here Come the Kings is bright, danceable reggae that weighs in on the state of the world today ("Holla," "Dem ah Run Come") and offers respite from it in the form of good time tunes like a cover of Michael Jackson's "Girl is Mine" and "Love Stoned," which features a nicely restrained guest turn by Shaggy at his least clownish. While the bulk of the vocals continue to be handled by Peter Morgan, who appears to go by the name Peetah nowadays, there are plenty of low register chime-ins by keyboardist/vocalist Gramps to keep the heat turned high, and the combination of live instruments and programming similarly maintains the right feel. Of the 12 tracks, the only one that fizzles is the opening "Man has Forgotten," which veers too close to rap rhythmically despite being solid lyrically. Reasserting their position as reggae royalty, Morgan Heritage makes a strong return here. -Tom Orr
VP Records buy
o Alpha Blondy - Mystic Power
With all due respect to Africa's many notable reggae stars, Ivory Coast's Alpha Blondy is the best of the best. His multilingual approach, inclusive spiritual perspective and charismatic voice are a few of the reasons why, in addition to the fact that all of his albums have their own unique personality (for lack of a better word). The cover of Mystic Power shows a grinning Blondy looking dapper but loose in a suit and fedora, and the music is likewise a mixture of sophistication and toughness. The reggae riddims are enhanced with rock and funk touches at times and left to their own rootsy devices elsewhere, adding up to a big, wallop-packing sound that clearly means business (check the biting lyrics of "My American Dream") and has fun doing it (yes, that is a Tarzan yell at the beginning of "France A Fric"). Still, however he chooses to dress up his brand of reggae, Blondy's concerns of peace, love and unity remain unchanged. He also gives the fairer sex heartfelt kudos on "Woman," tears into a French version of "I Shot the Sheriff," blasts Babylon's treatment of the poor on "Rasta Bourgeois" and takes religious hypocrisy to task with "Crime Spirituel." Tellingly, he winds up the disc with a double dose of medicinal calming. "Reconciliation" features numerous guest voices including fellow African reggae greats Tiken Jah Fakoly and Ismael Isaac in a plea against vengeance, while "Pardon" asks forgiveness on a personal level. Vocally, Blondy is as commanding as ever, and his Arabic-tinged tones amply serve the cause of consciousness on this varied, soulful and hard-hitting release. -Tom Orr
VP Records buy
o Various Artists - Dub Rockers Vol. 1
I put off listening to this disc for quite a while. After looking at the cover and seeing that some of the artists involved are ones of whom I'm not particularly fond because they don't fit my definition of what makes for good reggae (no, I'm not going to name names), I decided I wasn't going to like it. But then again, I thought, I am rather fond of most of the participants, and anything with the words "Dub" and "Rockers" in the title is at least worth a listen. So I listened. And guess what? I need to get over myself and my stubborn-ass preconceived notions, because I liked it. The idea behind Dub Rockers Vol. 1 was to present collaborations between Jamaican, American and European artists, and how wrong I was in thinking that it would be too digital-sounding, not rootsy enough or, well, just not reggae enough. Best of the lot is a new remix of "Java" courtesy of the RBC and Prince Polo with the original Augustus Pablo and Tommy McCook parts intact (so why aren't their names on the cover?), but I also got deep into the effective combination of Capleton's harsh tones and Slightly Stoopid's much mellower pro-herb proclamation on "No Cocaine," John Brown's Body and Peetah Morgan going for "The Gold," Etana adding sweetness to the Aggrolites' "Complicated Girl" and the triple threat of SOJA, Gentleman and Tamika on "I Tried." There's some inspired fusion here (like the Bollywood overtones of Bad Brains' "Ragga Dub" featuring Fishbone saxophonist Angelo Moore) plus plenty 'nuff genuine reggae vibes. I'll keep my eyes and ears out for the second volume and in the meantime enjoy the ample niceness of this first one. -Tom Orr
VP Records buy

Born in upstate New York and a present denizen of Southern California, Tom Orr has been (and still is) a contributor to such print and online publications as The Beat, Global Rhythm, World Music Central, Roots World and several sites devoted to reggae music. He's a fan of many sounds from the world over but reggae is the primary rhythm of his life, which includes work as a voiceover actor, percussionist, husband of one, father of three and state employee with a shrinking salary.
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