Rhythm roundup (January/February 2006)

New albums by Trinidad’s Orange Sky and jointpop, Jamaica’s Maytals, Sean Paul, and Sizzla, and the latest from Cuba and Curaçao

––––––

Rock on up

The Bess of jointpop: 17 Songs You May Never Hear on the Radio jointpop (jointpop)
Upstairs Orange Sky (Granite Records)

In the half-century since Chuck Berry freed “Johnny B Goode”, Germany — the European country that gave rise to two world wars in a similar time-span — has not managed to produce a decent rock band (Scorpions? Aryan, please!), even though East and West Germany have been unified since 1989. Surely they ought to have come up with more than Rammstein? Especially considering that little Trinidad and Tobago, in the same period, produced two unequivocally great rock bands in Orange Sky and jointpop.

Though equally deserving of the success Orange Sky has found, jointpop haven’t had the A&R die tumble their way: at just about the same time Sky released their first international CD, jointpop were putting out their greatest hits: The Bess of jointpop. Greatest-hits albums normally mark the end (of at least a phase), and The Bess of jointpop would be a little mournful . . . except that jointpop’s songs are so damned good. This is a compulsory purchase.

There will be ongoing argument in jointpop-fandom over what was left off, but few would quarrel with what was put on. The 17 tracks (beginning with a new song recorded for the compilation) span the band’s three previous releases, Port of Spain Style, Exile Baby, and the eponymous jointpop (a.k.a. “Football Boots”). Best of all (bess of all?), the anthemic “Let’s Pray for Rock and Roll”, the Caribbean rock song most deserving of emulating the US commercial success of “Who Let the Dogs Out?”, is on the CD, as well as “Who Shot Paradise???”, “122345-544321”, “Not For Sale”, “Radio Luxembourg”, “I Hate Entertainment”, “The Water Supreme”, “After 1/2 Past Nine”, “The New Fast Food”, “I Need to Make a Call”, “Exile Baby”, “Voodoo vs Voodoo”, “It’s Only Propaganda (But I Like It)”, “King Radio”, “Lost in Space (Port of Spain Style)”, “Bashment to Halloween”, and “Monsta Me”. What more need be said?

In the first 43 seconds of Upstairs, Orange Sky’s first international album, you hear everything that makes Sky an unequivocally great band: a gently picked acoustic steel-stringed guitar is joined by smoothly slapping bass and drums, an electric guitar note slides Nigel Rojas’s distinctive voice in, the voice dances on the last notes of the first line, and then huge, crashing barré chords bring unexpected heavy power to what you could have sworn was a ballad.

And that’s just the first firetrucking minute! There’re 49 more like it. Every one of the 12 great songs is superbly recorded (at Reel 2 Reel Studios in Atlanta). Many of the crowd favourites from the band’s first three Caribbean CDs are on Upstairs, including “It’s Over”, “Escape”, “Beautiful Day”, “Alone”, “Real Love”, and “Falling”. The album also features Sky’s interpretation of Cat Stevens’s “Peace Train”, the most electrifying rock cover since Guns ‘N’ Roses did “Sympathy for the Devil”.

Producer Jeff Glixman (Kansas, Kiss, more) described frontman Nigel Rojas as “a guy who was stranded on a desert island with nothing to listen to but Bob Marley and Black Sabbath”, and the description fits the whole band. Nigel’s brother, Nicholas, on bass, Adam Murray on rhythm guitar, Richard Hall on keyboards, and Obasi Springer, the islands’ reincarnation of Keith Moon, are hardcore hard-rockers who just can’t keep the reggae and calypso out of their heavy metal. Buying the CD as a souvenir in the US may be an advantage: a limited number include a 25-minute version of Sky’s Live in Trinidad DVD.

B.C. Pires

From Cuba with love

Buena Vista Social Club Presents: Manuel Guajiro Mirabal Manuel “El Guajiro” Mirabal (World Circuit)
Flor de Amor Omara Portuondo (World Circuit)
Lagrimas Negras Omara Portuondo (Yemaya Records/Discovery Records UK)

The Buena Vista Social Club wagon refuses to stop rolling, and here we have another senior citizen debut solo album, this time from the BVSC’s 72-year-old trumpeter, country boy Manuel Mirabal. “El Guajiro” is a legend in his own right. Son of the director of the municipal band in Melena del Sur on the outskirts of Havana, he flirted with sax and clarinet before settling on his instrument for life, aged 11. After founding Conjunto Rumbavana , he did a 30-year stint with the house band at the fabulous Tropicana Club, and went on to co-found Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna (with Chucho Valdes and Arturo Sandoval) before conscription into the BVSC.

His solo album is a tribute to “El Ciego Maravilloso” (“the Blind Marvel”), Arsenio Rodriguez, legendary tres player and father of modern son, the man who popularised the all-important Afro element in Cuban music. Every track, as Arsenio would say, is sabroso y caliente.

Next up: El Guajiro’s stablemate Omara Portuondo, on a double outing. Omara got to be the BVSC diva by virtue of her emotive sensual vocals, and I can’t think of too many grandmas who could hold their own with her.

Flor de Amor mixes her Cuban heritage with some Brazilian influences (Carlhinos Brown accompanies her on one of his own compositions, “Casa Calor”) and starts with a Yoruba chant, before Omara slips into her more familiar caressing bolero style. Listen out for the lachrymose “Hermosa Habana” and her version of the Miguel Matamoros classic “Juramento”.

The two-CD album Lagrimas Negras captures Omara in both Latino cocktail jazz mode and, courtesy some archival recordings dating from 1967 to 1992, in a younger incarnation. High notes are the lyrical ode to Che Guevara, “Hasta Siempre”, and the smoky “Y Solo Tu y Yo”.

Simon Lee

Double Dutch

Bendishon Disfrasa Oswin Chin Behilia (Otrabanda Records)
Krioyo Izaline Calister (Network Meridien)

Bendishon Disfrasa (Blessing in Disguise) should bring two legendary Curaçaoan musicians to a wider Caribbean and world audience, and alert us all to the lyrical possibilities of Papiamentu, the unique Dutch-, Spanish-, and African-based Creole of the Dutch Antilles.

Oswin Chin Behilia is a much-loved and multitalented singer-songwriter, whose “Plegaria” is considered a folk alternative to the national anthem, while his guest Julian B. Coco on acoustic guitar is an equally prodigious multi-instrumentalist, composer, and arranger. Behind his deceptively gentle delivery (epitomised on his classic love song “Sunu”), Behilia is capable of delivering searing social commentary in the best calypso style, as on the title track, or the playful satire of “Marie I Juana”. Regional influences like Cuban son and danzon, Brazilian bossa nova, and Haitian twoubadou style can all be traced in Behilia’s music, but there’s always the distinctive tumba root, the signature rhythm of the Dutch Antilles, as a base for his floating lyrics.

Curaçaoan Izaline Calister’s solo album Krioyo (Creole) introduces both a youthful female Papiamentu voice and an insight into the rich musical and folk traditions of her island. Calister has delved far and wide: from the African-derived tambu and traditional muzik di zumbi (which is indeed the music of the spirits), to Antillean waltz and danza, salsa antiyana, creolised tumba and contemporary fusions like zouk antiyano and afrikatumba. It’s a pleasure to hear the instruments of the muzik di zumbi folk ensembles — the African mouth bow, tambu grandi bass drum, wiri scraper, agan ploughshare, and chapi hoe head still making their voices heard. Yet, although her base is traditional, her approach is distinctly modern, and on tracks like “Ultimo Amor” she delivers a Creole jazz ballad with all the sophistication of Martinique’s Malavoi, string quartet and all, while “Mi Sekreto” is a high-powered fusion of Afropop and Curaçao funk, allowing Calister’s powerful voice free range.

SL

Toots’s roots

Roots Reggae Toots and the Maytals (Trojan Records)

Toots Hibbert has been pumping it for forty years, and shows no sign of slowing down; for anyone who has a yen for the soundtrack of their youth, or who wants to hear what the real roots reggae sounded like, this six-CD set of re-releases by classic reggae label Trojan Records is absolutely obligatory.

Just imagine — “Monkey Man (and Girl)”, “Pressure Drop”, “Revival Reggae”, “Redemption Song”, “Gold and Silver”, “African Doctor”, “54-56 (That’s My Number)”, “Louie Louie”, “Pomps and Pride”, “Country Roads”, and many other vintage tracks all there in the box waiting for you to liberate Toots’s passionate rough-hewn Pentecostal-inspired vocals.

Toots was never a Rasta (but don’t forget Morgan Heritage’s “You Don’t Haffi Dread to Be Rasta”), and got sidelined when Bob Marley’s radical Rasta reggae became the flavour of western youth culture, but these discs are a testament to one of the greatest, humblest, and most gifted Jamaican musicians of all time. Get them.

SL

Sean Paul grows up

The Trinity Sean Paul (VP Records)

How do you follow up the biggest dancehall album of the decade? How about selling 107,000 units of your next album in the first week of its release?

Dancehall’s global torch-bearer, Sean Paul, returns with The Trinity, scoring the highest-ever single week’s sales for a reggae album in SoundScan history, and cementing dancehall’s return to the mainstream music scene after a relatively quiet 2004. Trinity debuted at number one on the Billboard reggae charts, number seven on the Billboard top 200, and number four on the R&B charts — some feat, considering that the album is less deliberately aimed at crossing over than its predecessor, Dutty Rock.

Sean Paul stays true to his roots, recording the album in Jamaica and working with veteran Jamaican producers like Stephen “Lenky” Marsden, Renaissance’s Delano Thomas, and long-time friend and producer-manager Jeremy Harding. The club-friendly “We Be Burnin”, which scorched dance floors through the summer of 2005, may have led fans to expect more of the hypnotic riddims and catchy lyrics that made 2002’s Dutty Rock so appealing. And beat-makers Thomas, Marsden, and Black Chiney deliver, while Sean Paul serves up the requisite shout-outs to girls and ganja.

But the album showcases a slightly more grown-up Sean Paul, waxing philosophical about crime and violence in Jamaica, mourning the passage of lost friends, and slowing down his trademark rapid-fire delivery to ride more traditional reggae rhythms. The latter works surprisingly well on the standout “Never Be the Same”, and on “Yardie Bone”, which also features the versatile Wayne Marshall.

Forget the formulaic string of hip-hop guest appearances required for crossover albums. Sean Paul mans the mike solo on most of the 18 tracks, featuring, in addition to Marshall’s star turn, a duet with rising Jamaican songbird Tami Chynn that makes you hope it won’t be their last.

Critics may argue that The Trinity doesn’t replicate the lightning bolt impact of Dutty Rock. But dancehall fans won’t care. The Trinity adds a little reasoning to Sean Paul’s usual bag of rhymes and rhythms — a welcome addition that will leave fans asking for more.

Kellie Magnus

Real enough

Da Real Live Thing Sizzla (VP Records)

For those who missed Sizzla’s Da Real Thing, VP Records has released an updated version of the artist’s 2002 star-making album. Not the concert album the title implies, Da Real Live Thing is what VP cheekily calls a “special edition”, featuring three bonus tracks, a DVD with concert performances, and an interview with the controversial artist.

Luckily, the album is worthy of a second coming. Da Real Live Thing is Sizzla at his best: more roots rock reggae than dancehall, more consciousness-raising than controversy. Classics like the inspirational “Solid As a Rock”, the hit “Thank You Mama” — a hymn to mothers in reggaeland — and the roots reggae anthem “Just One of Those Days (Dry Cry)” deserve a second shot at finding a wider audience. Too many of the Bobby Digital-produced tracks sound alike, but guest appearances by saxophonist Dean Fraser and veteran bassist Robbie Shakespeare add flavour.

The acoustic rendition of “Dry Cry” that closes the album almost justifies its existence, but you have to wonder why VP would rehash an album for an artist as prolific as Sizzla. Longtime fans may opt to wait for the real real thing — the artist’s next studio album or a real concert album that showcases his legendary performing flair. But for reggae lovers unfamiliar with Sizzla, Da Real Live Thing is well worth a listen.

KM

Tunes for the tube

London Is the Place for Me 2 Various artists (Honest Jon’s Records)

Following on the heels of his first compilation of London-recorded calypso classics from the 1950s, here is Honest Jon’s second compilation, with a range extended to include some of the West African musicians who settled in the capital during the 1950s and 60s.

Grandmaster Kitch — whose topical kaiso sung from on board the Empire Windrush as it docked gave its name to the project — appears again with another classic, “My Wife’s Nightie” (to the accompaniment of the incomparable Fitzroy Coleman), and here is Lion in fine fettle singing his J’Ouvert anthem “Kalenda March”, alongside Young Tiger, the Lords Beginner and Timothy, and pan veteran Russ Henderson.

Alongside the Trini posse we also have the late, great Vincy trumpeter and flugelhorn player Shake Keane, and groups like the West African Rhythm Brothers and the West African Swing Stars (with one track featuring Ghanaian high-life king E.T. Mensah), providing a fascinating underground soundtrack to the shifting cultural life of the metropolis in this period.

SL