Corey Harris’ Zion Crossroads is quite simply a highly accomplished musical contribution owing to the continuing artistic, moral, and cultural tradition of the late and revered Bob Marley, among others. The music’s somewhat gentler and more lyrical than Marley’s: Harris apparently feels more assurance in the message than any need to insist on it. Opening with Michael Wagner’s trombone on “Ark of the Covenant”, the set begins with a declaration of faith in a spirit of peace and consolation.
If he’s not trying for Marley’s intensity and drive in delivery, he’s not faking. I won’t comment on the cogency of Rastafarian doctrines, but it’s not hard to see that the questions they address could nowadays be more real to many than they were during Marley’s too-short life. “No Peace for the Wicked” is positively revivalist in its moralizing, featuring a second vocal from Ranking Joe. “Heathen Rage” has the same spirit and feel as the nearest Gospel gets to Marvin Gaye. The rhythm is reggae, the doctrine Rasta — religious, cultural, humanitarian, and with a belief in Hell and damnation.
Harris is a very musical performer with as much insight into reggae as he has brought to blues (of which there are echoes in some of the guitar-licks of “Sweatshop”). His depth of scholarship has the formal testimony of the academic CV, university studies, teaching appointments, and field research on African music mentioned in the notes of this album. On the one hand this connects him with European jazz performers who came up after 1945 playing 1920s and 1930s music, digging into blues and kindling the serious 1960s interest in that music which certainly underlies some of his earlier performing work. On the other hand, in a comparative historical regard, he’s not an anomaly within the sort of musical and spiritual traditions of which the music here might be a part. The songs or hymns here are Harris’s compositions, expressing a body of fairly orthodox Rastafarian teachings. With the exception of one song in French, the language is a Caribbean patois English, and Harris, with little exception, sings with an authentic Caribbean pronunciation.
The historical scholar of slavery and later political activist, Walter Rodney, murdered in his native Georgetown, Guyana, is remembered in the apocalyptic context these songs attempt to establish. Harris sings an African intro to “Walter Rodney” accompanied by the African stringed instrument of Cheik Hamala Diabate (ngani), which surfaces again as a refrain and recollection in the band accompaniment to the main song “Walter Rodney”. In the hymn in French, Africa is remembered: the violated and robbed, father and mother and sister. “Cleanliness” is the next hymn, and whereas “the last time it was with water”, meaning the Flood, the next deluge will be flaming and final. Noah’s ark won’t do; nothing will suffice short of establishing as “your Habitation… Hola (holy) Mount Zion”, and taking that as the necessary permanent centre of moral and all orientation.
There is a repeated reference on pressure gathering, and in the song “Plantation Town” it’s building still. The end is apparently nigh, and nigh too are the biblical as well as historical references in Harris’s allusive and terse texts. There is a strong sub-text to all of them, one of many good reasons to follow his injunction in “Keep Your Culture”: “If you don’t, who gonna do it for you/ If you don’t stop crying these blues/ If you don’t put up a fight/ If not you, then who… what you gonna do/…/ The lion still a-conquering/ Fighting still.”