Birmingham and the wider West Midlands area of England have been massively significant in the development of reggae music, whether in the uncompromising sounds of Steel Pulse or Benjamin Zephaniah, or in the more chart-friendly singles of Musical Youth or UB40. This collection is the first of a series which aims to highlight some of the unreleased and lesser-known music from in and around Birmingham. It also serves along the way to demonstrate that some of the bands later to be seen as mainstream pop-reggae in fact started out with a sharp and radical take on roots music, especially evident here in the inclusion of ‘Political’ by Musical Youth. The album opens with the slow deliberate bass-driven sound and powerful message of ‘Kibudu-Mansatta-Abuku’ from Steel Pulse, their first single release from 1976 and as strong as ever, followed here by its original B-side, the largely instrumental version of the same track. With ‘Unite Handsworth’, Benjamin Zephaniah offers his characteristic spoken-word delivery over a driving reggae rhythm, while Black Symbol (see full review of their album at reggaemusic.org.uk, 7th April 2015) bring us the spiritual sound of ‘In the Name of Jah’. The Mystic Foundation’s previously-unreleased ‘Instruments’ is quite a find, with its striking vocal delivery and full-on rhythm backing. Further, in common with most of the tracks here, its very clear sound and high production values are surprising, given the age of the tapes from which this must have been transferred. The Capital Letters contribute another previously-unreleased track, ‘I Will Never’, followed by Carnastoan’s ‘Mr Workhard’, another strong song from Handsworth. Within its fifteen tracks, the compilation brings together some classic reggae that deserves its belated moment in the sun, given the enormous influence of the music and artists herein.
Midlands Roots Explosion volume 1; released on Reggae Archive Records, double-vinyl, CD and DDL, 29th June 2015
There is much to be said for taking time to get things right and this seems to be the philosophy of Jashwha Moses who, from his initial single release in the late 1970s (with production from Dennis Bovell), took more than thirty-five years to create his first original album, ‘No War on Earth’, released in 2013. This new album, ‘The Rising’, follows at relatively breakneck speed two years later. Backed up by the sounds of the Full Force and Power band and the production skills of collaborator MIKEY, who has sadly passed away prior to the album’s release, The Rising’ is new roots reggae largely in the manner of the vintage reggae masters. It opens with ‘What a Situation’, relaxed reggae music that could have come from the Lee Perry era but is delivered in fresh upbeat style here. ‘Crazy (Version)’ and ‘Nothing to Lose’ feature falsetto Junior Murvin-esque vocals from Jashwha, while the rhythm/drums of ‘Rise Up’ lean more toward dancehall/ragga in musical style if not in lyrics. ‘Do Not Weep (a Meditation)’ is a slow and thoughtful soul song with a Marley-ish riff in the backing. ‘I Believe’ is simple and effective reggae, untroubled by unnecessary adornment either in its instrumentation or its production. The nine tracks of the vinyl release are supplemented by three more songs on the CD and digital versions, providing a taste of Jashwha Moses live. The sound of Jamaica, shaped by Bristol’s cosmopolitan musical culture: this is accomplished contemporary roots reggae at its best.
Jashwha Moses ‘The Rising’ released on vinyl (9 tracks) and CD/DDL (12 tracks), Sugar Shack Records, 22nd June 2015.
This new album from highly respected US roots reggae outfit Morgan Heritage features a wide variety of guest performers including dancehall A-lister Shaggy, American reggae and R&B vocalist J Boog, Eric Rachmany of Rebelution, Bobby Lee of Grammy-nominated SOJA and a newer Jamaican talent, Chronixx. Many of the tracks within are firmly and strongly in the roots tradition, including the title track ‘Strictly Roots’, ‘Child of Jah’ (featuring Chronixx), ‘Put It on Me’ and ‘Rise and Fall’, a top Marley-esque reggae tune. The advance single release, ‘Perform and Done’, produced by Don Chandler and BBC Radio 1/BBC 1Xtra’s Seani B is a little different in feel but is likely to have more impact with its elements of hip-hop and dancehall.
The children of legendary reggae artist Denroy Morgan, siblings Peetah Morgan (vocals), Una Morgan (keyboard/vocals), Gramps Morgan (keyboard/vocals), Lukes Morgan (rhythm guitar) and Mr. Mojo Morgan (percussion/vocals) are collectively a powerful force, and this is a strong release. The album is independently released on their own self-funded label and the band’s commitment to causes of social justice and equality is evident throughout.
Morgan Heritage: ‘Strictly Roots’: album release on independent label CTBC (Cool to be Conscious) Music Group, 15th June 2015. Single ‘Perform and Done’ released 25th May 2015
This eponymous album from the relatively little-known British reggae band may at last succeed in connecting this vital music to a wider audience. Although Black Symbol’s self-released output in the early 1980s was supported by numerous local performances, and was enthusiastically received by their following in the West Midlands, it never reached much beyond this. The band actively promoted the upcoming bands of the area, in particular financing and releasing “Handsworth Explosion”, two volumes that helped to establish and publicise local acts, but public recognition of their own profile remained low. Here, courtesy of Reggae Archive Records, is a new release of material gleaned from single releases, unreleased tracks and dub versions of existing songs.
The tracks were all recorded at Outlaw Studios in Birmingham, reflecting the British reggae sound of the period and also the origins of key band members in Jamaica. The sound is powerful indeed, characterised by a deep slow bass that underpins these songs of religious and political redemption. The CD-format release opens with ‘Everything Has Its Time’, strong roots reggae at its finest, followed by its version, with a bass that’ll give your speakers something to think about. The mood continues with ‘None a Jah Jah Children’, again followed-through by its mightily serious version. The lengthy ‘How Long’ has echoes, both musically and lyrically, of the classic sounds of the roots tradition before resolving into an extended dub-leaning instrumental conclusion. The spiritual message of ‘In the Name of Jah’ is followed through by a separate and sparse dub while the pace quickens (just a little) for ‘Trouble Trouble’ and ‘Spiritual Reggae’. The words of ‘Solidarity’ seem strangely appropriate today: it could almost have been written for a general election campaign with references to austerity and prosperity. It would be an intriguing thought indeed to imagine a political party adopting this one as a campaign theme song.
There is some strong roots music in this release, and its contrast to the prevailing reggae mainstream of the time is interesting. It’s a million miles removed from the then-emergent dancehall sound and, although the songs get a little more upbeat as the album progresses, there is no lively-up yourself mood herein. The songs have warmth but are, at heart, serious. Thus it strangely reflects both its own time and our current times.
Black Symbol: Reggae Archive Records; released on CD (16 tracks), double-vinyl (12 tracks) and DDL, March 2015.
It’s been a mighty long time since Capital Letters released their ode to ‘Smoking My Ganja’ in the reggae/punk heyday of late-70s Britain, but the Wolverhampton wanderers now return with a brand new album named after their home town. Comprising fourteen tracks it is almost certainly the only album ever to feature a song called ‘Wolverhampton’ and another called ‘Jamaica’. The album opens with ‘Jah Music’, setting the initial mood as one of gentle roots reggae along with relatively understated vocals, drawing to a mildly dub-influenced conclusion. The next track, ‘Wolf’, has a similar feel.
Thereafter, ‘Opportunity’ has a slightly harder edge, both lyrically and in its familiar rhythm. The more assertive lyrics continue with the powerful anti-war theme of ‘Dat Nah Stop’, its hard message set within a deceptively light and melodic rhythm and instrumentation. This contrast between placid musical style and serious lyrics is a feature of several of the tracks here and it is a particular strength. The spiritual roots sound of ‘Thanks and Praise’ is clear enough in its meaning, while ‘Tell Me What’s Wrong’ returns to the message of peace, delivered, like ‘Movie Star’, in a vocal style reminiscent of lovers’ rock or even that of a soul ballad.
Capital Letters have been through several personnel changes over the years. The band reformed in 2013 and this is their first album of new music for 30 years. Engineered by Noel Browne at his own studio, this is an intriguing mix indeed; unashamedly retro in some ways, but sounding vital and new all the same.
Capital Letters ‘Wolverhampton’ released on Sugar Shack Records, CD and DDL, March 23rd 2015; additional limited-edition vinyl release of selected tracks and their dub versions.