In terms of influencing the way music sounds today it is not too fanciful to accord the Jamaican sound systems of the 1960s and ‘70s pride of place. The shuddering bass that threatened to cave in your chest, the previously unimaginable liberties taken with the way records are played in a club and the development of dub are just some of the factors that could be cited to back that assertion. Then there were the deejays and MCs.
It is difficult to explain the impact that the likes of U-Roy and the other DJ/toasters made on the reggae scene in the early ‘70s. Big Youth, I.Roy, Denis Alcapone, Prince Jazzbo and a host of others were taking real journeys into the unknown. The man that opened up all the possibilities and paved the way for the rest was Ewart Beckford of the Duke Reid sound system. U-Roy was the one who mattered.
He was not the first to “toast” over a record, certainly not at the dance. Count Machuki was exhorting the crowds over the mike back in the 1950s and the likes of King Stitt and Scotty got to the studios in the late ‘60s. But it was when U-Roy chanted and chattered away over some classic instrumental rocksteady that the DJ phenomenon took off. Forget Bob Marley’s Catch a Fire, the real sea change in Jamaican music can be traced back to one week in 1970 when Beckford held number one, two and three slots on the Jamaican chart. “Rule the Nation”, “Wear You to the Ball” and particularly “Wake the Town”. As soon as the gruff but excited cry of “Wake the town and tell the people” came booming out of the speakers a new generation of music came into being.
That first encounter was like being ushered through the doors into another dimension. I can only compare it to first hearing Jimi Hendrix, Public Enemy or early house music—you loved it, were unsettled by it and generally overwhelmed all at once. What you did know was that nothing was ever going to sound quite the same again.
So what happens when the once cutting edge becomes the nostalgic golden oldie? More presciently, what happens when U-Roy records a new collection of old standards using the rhythms and arrangements of 30 years ago? Fraught with dangers? Certainly. A ghastly imitation of former glories? More than likely. No worries though—this is old-fashioned in the best manner. It is warm, rich in musical heritage and stands up well as a “roots” record today. I guarantee that at least four of the tracks will cause anyone who was there first time around severe emotional damage.
There are some ill-advised collaborations, but for the most part the versions offered here are a match for the originals and the standard of playing and singing is a delight. U-Roy sounds mellower but is on firing form throughout. Dancehall singjays and bad boys take note—the originator can still do it. As with all rocksteady/reggae from that era, it sounds so relaxed and almost folky compared with the likes of Sizzla and Elephant Man that youngsters will hardly recognise it as the same form. Hopefully, some will persevere and get a taste of the rhythms tore up the dance in their parents’ time.
The structure of the set is simple. Each tune is a classic and U-Roy is paired up with a veteran singing star (not always the original artist) who attempts to faithfully reproduce the sound of days long gone. The list of these singers is itself a tear-inducing one. Errol Dunkley, Horace Andy, The Mighty Diamonds, Alton Ellis, Sugar Minott and Max Romeo all conjure up memories of over-sized bass-bins, blues parties, Red Stripe and the all pervading smell of ganja. When the instantly recognisable opening notes of the Diamonds “I Need a Roof” or Alton Ellis’ “I’m Still in Love” work their magic, a whole era is instantly conjured back to life.
Those are the stand-out cuts and where once you might have doubted the rightness of U-Roy’s intrusion into such perfect melodies, now you can hear the affection in his enthusiastic commentaries. Singers, song and toaster combine to celebrate a living tradition. What the music may have lost in innovative, shock value it has gained in appropriateness and even profundity. Matured, rather than simply aged.
The covers raise more problematic issues, but Sugar Minott gives a great reading of Gregory Isaac’s “Wanted” and Anthony B just about copes with Peter Tosh’s “Equal Rights”. U-Roy performs with added inspiration on that and gives it enough lift to make the song work. Its lyrics still carry weight and though the revolutionary anger and unique voice of the original Wailer can never be matched, the intensity is still substantial.
In contrast Errol Dunkley’s pop-crossover “O.K. Fred” is as jolly and as lightweight as the original while the roots of reggae in New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll are revisited courtesy of a ragged but spirited reading of the pre-ska “I’ve Got the Boogie”. This features Stranger Cole (now Strange Jah Cole) who must be knocking on a bit. Another veteran, Max Romeo, tries yet again to establish that he is a performer of conscious reggae rather than the slackness the mainstream audience still remembers him for. “Material Man” is solid, if not exactly dazzling, rootsical business.
The rest varies from the inoffensive to the clumsy. With the exception that is of the long closing number “Nyabinghi Chant”. Sly and Robbie feature here and U-Roy impresses with the Rastafari preaching that started to appear in his work after the initial three years of success. Moody and more experimental than the other tracks, this might be a pointer to future albums.
I hope there is more to come. For while this is no substitute for the original hits, it is a good record and should do well in the growing market for old-time reggae. The form may inevitably be a historical one, but it is still an effective vehicle for some fine singing and rich horns and bass-lines. U-Roy himself still sounds as if the music moves him to praise and inspiration as readily as it ever did. Wake the town and tell the people.