African herbsmen: the top 10 African reggae tracks

Garry Steckles looks at reggae from Africa and tries to best fellow writer David Katz with his own reggae Top 10

Lucky Dube, South Africa`s biggest-selling reggae singer, was killed in October 2007. Photograph by UrbanImage.tv/LEE ABEL

The tragic death of Lucky Dube last October was one of the most devastating losses ever for the world of reggae—and we’re talking about a musical genre that has become all too familiar with seeing its greatest performers snatched away long before their time.

Lucky’s passing was particularly shocking: he was brutally murdered in a suburb of Cape Town, in a car hijacking gone horribly wrong.

As reggae fans around the planet mourned his death, and reggae writers, myself included, rushed to praise him in obituaries that inevitably stressed the huge part he’d played in taking African reggae to an international audience, we were so caught up in the moment most of us omitted to mention that the music he championed so magnificently remains in excellent health.

From the Ivory Coast to Nigeria, from Ghana to South Africa, world-class reggae with a distinct African vibration is still being created by musicians who have taken the music of Jamaica back to Africa and breathed new life and new riddims into it.

My four personal favourites are all huge stars in Africa, and enormously popular with hardcore reggae fans around the world, but they’re not exactly household names, even in the Caribbean, where Lucky Dube was revered. So, here’s a quick look at four of African reggae’s finest.

Alpha Blondy

His soaring tenor is one of the world’s great voices, and he’s been a giant on the international reggae scene since the 80s. From Cote d’Ivoire, he records and performs mainly in his native language of Dioula, as well as French and English. He’s strongly political, often outspokenly critical in his songs, was named United Nations Ambassador of Peace for Cote D’Ivoire in 2005 and played a part in the negotiations that led to the end of his nation’s civil war in 2007. He also makes some of the most wonderful reggae I’ve ever heard, and his 1985 album, Apartheid is Nazism, is among my all-time favourites.

Also highly recommended: Jerusalem (1986, recorded mainly at Tuff Gong Studios in Jamaica with members of The Wailers), and Cocody Rock (1984).

Majek Fashek

One of reggae music’s best-kept secrets, this remarkable Nigerian singer-songwriter has been profoundly influenced by Bob Marley, Fela Kuti and Jimi Hendrix, and it all shows, loud and clear, in the comparatively few albums he’s released over the years.

Deeply spiritual, he paid his dues touring as a guitarist with the Mandators (more about them in a moment) in the early to mid-80s before embarking on a solo career in 1987 and quickly becoming a major star in Nigeria and throughout Africa.

Recommended listening: Little Patience (2005, mostly exquisite mid-tempo reggae with interesting changes of pace that include a killer version of Fela’s Water No Get Enemy); Best of Majek Fashek (1997); Rainmaker (also 1997).

Victor Essiet and the Mandators

Nigerian reggae pioneer Victor Essiet has been enormously successful at home and throughout Africa since the early 80s, but was largely unknown in North America until the late 90s, when my good friend Roger Steffens, founder and curator of the Reggae Archives in Los Angeles, sent a tape of his music to Heartbeat Records, The result was the landmark album Power of the People, a compilation of the Mandators’ biggest hits in Nigeria and Africa.

Essiet has since moved to Mystic Records, and his most recent release is 2006’s One Love, One Heart, on which he works, highly successfully, with Jamaican legends like Sly and Robbie on drum and bass, and hand-drummer Ras Michael.

Rocky Dawuni

At times soulful and bluesy, at others strictly roots reggae, Ghana’s Rocky Dawuni has been getting raves from North American reggae writers for more than a decade. His gorgeous In Ghana, celebrating his nation’s 40th year of independence, was an international hit in the late 90s, and appearances with Stevie Wonder, in Africa and the States, haven’t exactly been bad career moves. Nor have spots on two acclaimed television series, Weeds and Dexter, singing Jammin’ Nation.

Recommended listening: Crusade (1998); Book of Changes (2005).

Garry’s Top 10

My colleague David Katz must have known I’m a sucker for lists when he contributed an intriguing feature on the 10 greatest reggae albums of all time to the March/April issue of Caribbean Beat. I’ve never met David, although I have read much of his fine writing on reggae over the decades, and his ground-breaking book, Solid Foundation, is a remarkable oral history of the music.

I saw eye to eye with David on many of his choices, but, being of a cussed nature, couldn’t resist coming up with a different 10 of my own.

African Herbsman: The Wailers. Some of the finest recorded work of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, produced by the eccentric genius Lee “Scratch” Perry—who released the album internationally without informing the group of its existence. No prizes for guessing how much they got in royalties…

Equal Rights: Peter Tosh. The charismatic Tosh’s commanding baritone has never sounded better.

Two Sevens Clash: Culture. The late, sadly missed Joseph Hill, Culture’s lead singer and driving force, never made an album that was anything but wonderful—and he never made a better album than this one.

Fire House Rock:
Wailing Souls. Classic Seventies roots—some of the greatest music from an era many still regard as reggae’s finest hour.

Rock ’n’ Groove: Bunny Wailer. I know, I know, Blackheart Man is Bunny’s roots masterpiece and it’s a superb album. But Rock and Groove took the former Wailer in new musical directions in the early 80s, and it rocked the dancehalls of its era for years.

Bobby Bobylon: Freddie McGregor. Once upon a time, today’s smooth-as-silk veteran was a reggae rebel. He recorded this classic 70s roots album in Coxson Dodd’s legendary Studio One, backed by some of Jamaica’s top session men. And, to sweeten the pot, Bobby Bobylon was re-released a couple of years back by the Heartbeat label, remastered and complemented by a bunch of extended versions.

Night Nurse: Gregory Isaacs. The Cool Ruler at his 80s peak. Ultra-heavy, ultra-smooth, unique.

Don’t Call Us Immigrants: Various Artists. Bass master Dennis Bovell, the godfather of English reggae, had a hand in practically every track on this superb compilation from the 70s. Roots heaven, start to finish.

Police In Helicopter:
John Holt. Best known for his solo repertoire of polished, “easy listening” reggae and his pioneering work with the rock-steady trio the Paragons, John Holt made this somewhat out-of-character roots masterpiece in the early 80s, not long after Blondie had a huge global hit with his The Tide is High. I’ve always believed the royalties from that monster gave Holt the opportunity to make the sort of music he really wanted to. Thank you, Blondie.

Foundation:
One Shirt. Attention-holding melodies and conscious lyrics from a sadly under-appreciated and under-exposed reggae trio.

David’s top 10

(Like mine, in no particular order) were:

On Top The Heptones

From Bam Bam to Cherry Oh Baby Various Artists

Beat Down Babylon Junior Byles

Catch a Fire The Wailers

Marcus Garvey Burning Spear

Right Time The Mighty Diamonds

Blackheart Man Bunny Wailer

Trench Town Mixup The Gladiators

Police and Thieves Junior Murvin

Showcase Black Uhuru.