What is it about Reggae that inspires such polarized reactions? Scores of those who are otherwise musically well-versed and open-minded will register tangible expressions of apprehension when the irie sounds of Jamaica are mentioned. Reggae is a line in the sand for a lot of people, but I suspect that, as was the case for me, a lot of people have simply never had the right entry point – something beyond the ganja-huffing roommate who blasted Bob Marley’s “Legend” from dusk to dawn. Like the music of The Grateful Dead (read our guide), Reggae comes with a lot of baggage. Negative cultural associations abound, and the fact that at it’s root, it is a basically repetitive music sung in patois doesn’t exactly woo new listeners. Not to mention the sheer, daunting amount of recorded music out there.
In hopes of remedying this, we’ve put together a guide for the Reggae-wary. Contrary to simply being a list of “user-friendly” Reggae, these records all hopefully offer something slightly removed from the general expectations and stereotypes many of us have formed around Reggae music.
Gregory Isaacs Night Nurse (1982). Gregory is a good gateway for people who don’t technically have a problem with Bob Marley, but are soured by the over-saturation of his image/music in popular culture. Gregory “The Cool Ruler” was blessed with pipes every bit as strong and expressive as Marley’s, with a natural gift for melody, and a voice smooth and sweet enough to buff out the scratches on your Minibus. Mr. Isaacs was pre-occupied with the fairer sex as much as themes of roots and culture, so it’s not all ganja anthems and Hail Selassie (although there is some of that). Much of his material revolves around classic lover’s themes, the bedrock of all pop music, and a potential lifeline for those looking for a little tunefulness and romance with their Reggae.
Rhythm & Sound With The Artists (Compilation, 2003). Rhythm & Sound are Berliners who got their start in the ’90’s making minimal, dubby Techno under the quietly influential Basic Channel moniker. Their Rhythm & Sound project surgically removes the 4/4 spine from their productions, swapping it out for Reggae’s ubiquitous backbeat, and stripping the music down to it’s barest essentials, leaving only the slightest suggestion of Reggae’s pulsating undercurrent. With The Artists sees them voicing their tracks with Reggae legends like the Love Joys and … Read more›
Native Dancer is a wonder of a record. Wayne Shorter is the greatest (especially soprano) sax player in the history of Jazz, and here, he plays at his best. The music is not really Jazz. Instead, Brazilian star Milton Nascimento sings and adds his unique wizardry to the lush, tropical mood of the set. There’s not a trace of Bossa Nova in this music but Nascimento’s idiosyncratic handwriting instead. The compositions sound natural, though, and not as forcefully “intelligent” as the music Shorter would record after this. The musicians (what a lineup!) cook up a unique sound; no one tries to show off, it’s all mood and sensuality. It’s useless to pick out tunes – the flow is perfect, and so is this LP.
Native Dancer has been slandered and overlooked even by Wayne Shorter fans, perhaps because it doesn’t cater for the preconceived concepts of the average Jazz connoisseur, but make no mistake, Native Dancer is a timeless classic, irrespective of the tags attached to it (Jazz/MPB). To me, it’ll always be one of the 70s’ definite highlights. —Yofriend… Read more›
As the title suggests, this isn’t another excursion into Brazilian pop. Here, there’s no pandering to Tropicália, disco or whatever was en vogue in 1972 -yes despite being played by the Brasil ’77, the album was actually recorded in 1972 under the alternate title “Raízes.” This is an album of traditional Brazilian music. The compositions feature traditional percussion instruments such as the gogó, cuica, pandeiro and atabaques. Much of the compositions emphasize the African origins of Brazilian music. While “Primal Roots” doesn’t sell out to commercial pressures, it is far from a field recording of traditional music. While some songs feature minimalist chanting and drumming, others feature those silky smooth female vocalists, flutes and some psychedelic keyboard work. Sergio Mendes may never be remembered in the same light as Astrud Gilberto, Airto Moreira and Gilberto Gil but “Primal Roots” will always be remembered as his ‘important album.’ —The Delite Rancher… Read more›
This has got to be one of the most engaging and enjoyable displays of totally unrestrained musicianship I’ve ever heard. Jorge and Gil’s chemistry is seamless, yet their vocal and instrumental skills remain distinct and identifiable. The album is a terrific, relaxed affair, and the songs have a continuously rolling, improvvy feel about them, driven by bouncy, rhythmic guitar lines that eventually loop into hypnotic grooves and some extremely dynamic dual vocals, all of which remains surprisingly tight throughout. Jorge might take the lead on one song, Gil playfully trailing his vocals and throwing in some little guitar-tricks for embellishment, only to have the baton passed across, the two switching roles in a manner that’s quite selfless and democratic. The decision to record Gil primarily in one channel and Jorge in the other (perhaps just on the remaster?) was a stroke of genius, as it provides a slight buffer between the two which allows each of their contributions to be heard without any obfuscation, not to mention that it makes listening to Ogum Xangô on headphones feel a lot like you’re sitting in the middle of one of the most productive jam sessions of all time. The talent on display here is simply incredible. —Tommo… Read more›
Mutantes reached their apex with the release of “A Divina Comedia Ou Ando Desligado” which translates to A Divine Comedy or I walk Disconnected. This is a flawless record. Rita Lee is at the top of her game when she sings “Meu refrigeradora noa funciona” (my refrigerator doesn’t function). The track which precedes it, “Desculpe, baby” (I’m sorry baby) is one of the most sexy and beautiful songs ever sung. It reminds me of Wong Kar-Wai’s movies (he made Chungking Express and Happy Together). These are incredible pop tunes, but they (as some of the other reviews show) aren’t for everyone. Os Mutantes emerged from the Tropicalia movement of 60’s Brazil. If you enjoy this cd you may want to check out other tropicalist’s: Gilberto Gil, Caetono Veloso, Gal Costa, Tom Ze, Maria Bethania. Jorge Ben is not considered tropicalia, but he is very incredible and sang a song on the first Os Mutantes album. Mutantes have more of a western flavor than some of the contemporaries. If you like them more for the apparent influence of the beatles and the rolling stones, you may want to check out the Peruvian band, We All Together.
This album is essential stock for a healthy record collection, its like eating broccoli! —fossilfrolic… Read more›
In order to contextualize some of the best Brazilian music of the 1970s, one must first understand tropicália (AKA tropicalismo). In order to do that, one must first look back to Brazil in the ‘60s, a nation at that time rife with contradictions. Despite intermittent political instability which culminated with a military coup in 1964, postwar Brazil simultaneously experienced unprecedented economic growth. A large portion of its population lived far below the poverty line, but its middle class grew exponentially, with many of its members now enjoying a standard of living that previous generations could only dream of. Not surprisingly, these changes began to manifest themselves in the music of Brazil. Bossa nova, in particular, enjoyed not only massive popularity in its homeland but in many countries in the northern hemisphere as well, making it Brazil’s most successful musical export since Carmen Miranda. At the same time, other new styles emerged on a seemingly daily basis. Aided by a growing radio and television industry and the proliferation of the LP format, a new Brazilian musical identity began to emerge, adopting the moniker of MPB (Música Popular Brasileira). Ironically, it was also around this time that a host of distinctly non-Brazilian styles, most notably American R&B and British Invasion, began enjoying popularity there as well. From there things would only get more complicated.
By 1966, a small but growing movement was afoot in the northeastern city of Salvador. Deconstructionist and remarkably post-modern in its approach, it sought to shatter all preconceived notions about Brazilian art and culture and reassemble these pieces into something entirely new. These “tropicalistas”, as they called themselves, at first largely consisted of artists, poets, and filmmakers. But when two up and coming musicians, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, entered the fold, Tropicália’s true legacy would become realized. Soon joined by a handful of other massive musical talents, among them Gal Costa, Tom Zé, and a trio of teenage Beatles fanatics calling themselves Os Mutantes, this unlikely collective would spearhead the Tropicália movement. Incorporating disparate musical styles ranging from traditional samba to psychedelic Hendrix-style guitar freakouts into their songs, nothing was sacred to the tropicalistas. This anarchic sonic collage can be heard in all its glory on the 1968 sampler LP, Tropicália: ou Panis et Circencis, which fired the opening salvo of a musical revolution that would prove to be very short-lived.
Tropicália’s tenuous existence was no surprise; … Read more›
Nigeria has one of the richest musical histories of any country on the African continent. Considering the competition, that is really saying something. A country wracked with centuries’ worth of war, poverty, and countless other social ills, music has remained a constant unifying force, and it is the lifeblood of its peoples. For Nigerians, music is not a huge part of life—it is life. In fact, it is said that every Nigerian boy is given a drum before he learns to walk.
The evolution of Nigerian music can be traced back thousands of years, but it was its more modern forms that made the country a major player on the world music stage in the second half of the 20th century. It didn’t hurt that by this point the country already had a rich base shaped by a cross-cultural pollination dating back to the early days of colonization. Much of this occurred in the Nigerian capitol and busy port city of Lagos, where the heavily-rhythmic yoruba form dominated. Beginning in the 1900s, a plethora of musical influences, among them ragtime, calypso, meringue, blues, and even some Celtic forms, would join the mix, over time giving birth to a sound that was truly pan-global in every sense of the term.
But perhaps the most significant event in the evolution of modern Nigerian music was the arrival of highlife from neighboring Ghana in the early ’50s. A form with a resemblance to Trinidadian calypso and the American big band sound of the ’30s and ’40s, highlife would evolve and truly come into its own in Nigeria. Heavy on the brass, Nigerian highlife bands slowly began to emphasize the electric guitar, an instrument with widespread availability all over the world by the early ’60s. Vibrant, rhythmic, and extremely danceable, highlife became a major touchstone of Nigeria’s modern cultural identity, which in itself had taken on a whole new meaning following the gaining of the country’s independence from Great Britain in 1960.
Highlife continued to evolve throughout that decade, occasionally even leaving the confines of its national borders to enjoy some niche popularity in some western countries. One of its prime exporters was a young multi-instrumentalist by the name of Fela Anikulapo Ransome Kuti. In the early ’60s, Fela’s gifted musicianship landed him a spot at the prestigious Trinity College of Music in London, a city that at that time was experiencing the rumblings … Read more›
Aside from reggae, ska was arguably Jamaica’s most important musical form, at least in terms of long-term cultural impact. Becoming ubiquitous all over the island at an astonishing speed in the early ’60s, ska grabbed hold of Jamaica’s musical consciousness like nothing had before. What’s more, despite its strange rhythms and heavily-Jamaican-accented vocals (when it wasn’t entirely instrumental), it crossed cultural boundaries almost effortlessly, making it catch on like mad in Britain and—to a lesser degree—the states.
Many Jamaican artists who eventually became international household names, among them Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff, cut their teeth as performers during ska’s reign. In 1964, Millie Small scored an international smash hit with her skanked-up cover of “My Boy Lollipop”, and soon ska was everywhere. But by 1966, it was mysteriously vanishing in one place: Jamaica. A visit to a typical Kingston dance hall around that time would reveal that things were changing. Ska was becoming more melodic, more centered on the vocalist(s), and slower. Nobody knows for sure why this happened, but there are some theories. One suggests that during the summer of ’66, a brutal heatwave gripped Jamaica, forcing the musicians to slow things down on the dance floor so revelers wouldn’t collapse from heat exhaustion. Another postulates that the increasingly widespread availability of American soul records might have been a factor. (This would certainly make sense, as Stax and Motown influences can be heard all over the place on many Jamaican sides that were cut around this time.)
Whatever the cause, ska was metamorphosing into something completely different, so much so that it needed a new name; rocksteady seems to be the one that stuck. Rocksteady’s heyday was even more short-lived than its predecessor—-really only about two years-—and by the end of 1968, things were changing again. Recording technologies on the island were improving. Rastafarianism’s influence continued to spread, prompting a more socially conscious and politically-charged aesthetic. By the end of the decade, rocksteady was no longer, and reggae prevailed. But for many connoisseurs of modern Jamaican music, rocksteady represents its high point. It’s a form that’s rich and complex, yet raw, pure, and deeply soulful. It’s a truly unique product of its place and time, but one that transcends geography and culture, and which remains timeless. Here are five shining examples.
1. Prince Buster: Fabulous Greatest Hits (1980) – Though acquiring a popularity in the UK that at … Read more›
Ironically enough, Caetano Veloso’s almost entirely English language album is one of the most misunderstood of his classic 60s/70s period amongst English-speaking audiences (first place goes to Araca Azul, but that one at least gives you fair warning of its polarizability by the Caetano-in-bikini cover). Recorded while in exile in London, the album marks a dramatic musical departure from his first 2 solo outings that he would continue to explore up through 1977 or thereabouts. I must confess I don’t know too many details of Caetano’s (or Gilberto Gil’s) exile in London. It seems like a bit of a missed opportunity on the part of the British, though there was probably no reason why anyone there should’ve known who he was. Apparently some Traffic members were big fans, and even helped out on Gil’s sessions but if I were George Harrison or Twink or Jimmy Page or Bill Wyman or Jack Bruce or Marc Bolan or Mike Heron and someone told me that the leading light of Brazil’s new underground rock movement was in my midst, I would totally be over there asking if he wanted to go bowling or split an appetizer or something. Or if I was Jimmy Page, I would ask if I could steal his guitar line from “Irene”.
One aspect of Veloso’s exile period is quite : he did NOT like it. The cover is amazing. Caetano looks like he’s 50, he’s cold, and you just told him a mildly offensive joke. One would assume this album is as bleak as Pink Moon but the first couple of songs might surprise you. “A Little More Blue” opens with a laidback, meandering acoustic figure that sounds a bit mellow but certainly not conducive to soul-bearing. The lyrics are about events that have made him sad, even though at the present moment “I feel a little more blue than then”. Along the way he peppers in references to his own exile and some truly vivid lyrics (“her dead mouth with red lipstick smiled”). An odd, dichotomous opener. “London, London” is for me the standout. And, oddly enough, it’s the jauntiest track, replete with playful flute like Donovan’s 67-era acoustic sides. It’s one of the most exquisitely beautiful songs I’ve ever heard concerning alienation, loneliness, and, above all, homesickness. In this respect, it can be seen as the post-traumatic counterpart to the desperate “Lost in the Paradise” from … Read more›