Music

Linton Kwesi Johnson: Live in Paris

Raphaël Costambeys-Kempczynski

Twenty-five years on and Linton Kwesi Johnson is still fighting against the terrorism of institutionalised racism. Live in Paris celebrates the on-going struggle of our 'revalueshanary fren'.


Linton Kwesi Johnson

Live in Paris

Label: BMG
US Release Date: 2005-02-08
UK Release Date: 2004-07-22
Amazon affiliate
Amazon
iTunes

On 25 April 2003, the night before Linton Kwesi Johnson gave the concert captured on this anniversary disc, I was lucky enough to catch him perform at a small underground venue where health and safety regulations didn't seem to apply. I had gone to hear a poetry recital by the man recently voted one of the 100 "Great Black Britons". And as the bass tones of Linton Kwesi Johnson's Jamaican Creole or Nation Language filled the smoke-ridden air, I couldn't help wonder if the Parisian crowd hadn't come to hear LKJ the reggae artist and got the date wrong. Ultimately it doesn't matter. Whether accompanied by a solitary percussionist or the Dennis Bovell Dub Band, the result is pretty much the same: Linton Kwesi Johnson delivering his own unique brand of reggae poetry.

The sounds of reggae infuse and enthuse LKJ's writing, the words echoing an imagined bass line, the one that he says is always at the back of his mind when composing. As an active member of the Blank Panther Movement in the 1970s, LKJ organised a poetry workshop inviting along musicians. Calling themselves Rasta Love, these percussionists are the first to accompany LKJ's poetry readings. Never one to see negritude as hermetically sealed, LKJ aims to reach out to all activists and social revolutionaries of 1970s Britain. Coining the term Dub Poetry to describe the act of toasting over reggae instrumentals, Johnson sees the opportunity of recording his poetry performances as a means of bringing his politically-informed writings to a wider audience. In this way, Dread, Beat and Blood, Johnson's second poetry collection published in 1975, becomes his first album released three years later in 1978. Over a quarter of a century on and LKJ is still recording and performing his testimonies of racial and social injustices.

This recording is presented as a celebration of LKJ's 25 years in reggae and it smacks of a retrospective. There is no new material here, the most recent piece dating back to 1998. But some of LKJ's most powerful reggae poems punctuate this one-hour narrative recounting contemporary inner-city British history. From the threat of nuclear war in "Di Eagle an Di Bear" through the call to arms against the Thatcherite figures of authority in "Mekkin Histri" to the very personal focus of "Reggae Fi Bernard" centring on the tragic and so-called accidental death of his nephew a British Rail worker: "we still don't get no proper explanation / no witness at the station / no police investigation / as to how you come fi end up on wrong side of track / how your face fi get turned from front to back."

And this is the strength of LKJ's work -- an ability to combine the political with the personal or rather the ability to place himself at the centre of the political. But then, that's because he's been very much at the centre of an active political struggle against oppression. Back in 1972, after taking the numbers of policemen he witnessed harassing three youths in Brixton he was arrested, "given a good kicking, and charged with GBH and assault". But LKJ has never been afraid to advocate direct action as in the Brixton riots of 1981 remembered in "Di Great Insohreckshan": "it was the event of the year, and I wish I had been there, when we riot all over Brixton, when we mash up plenty police van." Okay, okay, I can't transcribe it exactly how it's meant to be...

If anything this disc serves to remind us how little has changed. LKJ introduces the hard-hitting number "Fight Dem Back" with the words: "Nowadays we hear a lot of talk about the fight against terrorism. Those of us who belong to the ethnic, so-called ethnic minorities in Europe, we all know about the fight against terrorism, because we've been fighting the terrorism of the racist and the fascist for many decades now." And you couldn't really argue with that. It will be interesting to see if these words are repeated during his up-coming tour of the USA. But this is the man who, in the early 1980s, turned down Island Record's $1 million deal so that he could keep artistic, or rather political control over his output. He made one more album for the label in 1984, Mekkin Histri, and it turned out to be his most political. Watering down his content for personal gain has never been LKJ's style.

The well-worn pairing of "Di Great Insohreckshan" and "Mekkin Histri" is the real highlight of this recording, the one serving as an incantation to rise up and the other to instruct us on how important it is not to remain passive actors of our lives. Other tracks also leave you resonating with the need to be actively societal: "Fite Dem Back", "Tings an Times", "Liesense Fi Kill" and "More Time".

But this wouldn't be the recording I would immediately suggest as an introduction to Linton Kwesi Johnson's seminal influence and position as alternative poet laureate. The sound is crystal clear, an important feature when you're not used to this sort of patois. But the live performance of the Dennis Bovell Dub Band can be rather cheesy, notably the harmonica and electric violin playing, and at times it even seems incidental. The music is intrinsic to LKJ's Nation Language and the prosody of his verse is driven by its innate sounds of reggae. Personally I prefer a more stripped down accompaniment, where the bass and percussion simply help to give voice to the beat of LKJ's words. If you want to invest in LKJ, and I strongly suggest you do, I would suggest something more along the lines of the two-disc anthology Independant Intavenshan (1998), which contains practically every track LKJ and Dennis Bovell's dub band recorded for Island.

However, accompanying the release of the album version of Live in Paris, there is also the DVD. Though LKJ doesn't offer any visual exploits on stage, we shouldn't forget that this poet is extremely charismatic. Being able to visualise the metonymic goatee and trilby as the source of this magnificent and powerful voice can only be beneficial. So, if you have a bit of cash burning your pockets, then in addition to the Island compilation buy yourself the DVD and the Penguin Modern Classic publication of his selected poems Mi Revalueshanary Fren (2002). Published just a year before this recording, Linton Kwesi Johnson is only the second living poet to be bestowed this honour. The head of Carcanet Books, Michael Schmidt may believe that LKJ's poetry only works through a medium like CD or video where the performance can be listened to, but I think this is reductive. If this were true then why would Johnson have had the Spectator, the longest running publication in English, running scared in 1982 claiming that LKJ had helped "create a generation of rioters and illiterates."

Fans will enjoy this disc and hopefully this celebration of Mr Linton Kwesi Johnson's 25th year in reggae music will continue to bring his anti-establishment poetry to a wide audience. He claims now to feel good within himself to know that he has lived this long rather than end up dead in a police cell. Rest assured, Linton, I feel good about that too and I've got a feeling I'm not the only one.

6

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image