Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Black Uhuru - RED

While Jamaican reggae trio Black Uhuru was primarily the songwriting outlet for singer/songwriter Michael Rose, it also provided the foundation of a most productive career for production team and rhythm section par excellence Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. They were the musical force who helped to formulate the band's sound, engaging Rose's songwriting expertise and propelling the band to international stardom. Of several solid early 1980's albums, Red remains the most impressive and the definitive work, showcasing Sly, Robbie and their expert ensemble of musicians at their tightest, funkiest and most innovative, while also revealing Michael Rose, Duckie Simpson and American Puma Jones' penchant for unique, soulful harmonies. Sinsemilla might have been more classically reggae, Chill Out ushered in a cool synth and syndrum influenced approach, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner contained the classic title track. But none hit with the consistent urgency of Red. Song after song, it's as though you can witness the struggle to make ends meet in Jamaica, sense the desperation in the streets of Brooklyn, and generally observe the difficulty of living life in 1981.

Opening the album, 'Youth of Eglington' represents Rose's plea to put down the pistol, swear off the gangster life and join together for the greater good. Sly and Robbie lay a sparse, simple, uptempo, marching backbeat, strengthened by steady, blues inflected piano (played by Keith Sterling or Robbie Lynn), propelled forward by Sticky Thompson's percussion, and made funky courtesy of some tasefull riffing by Mikey Chung.

'Sponji Reggae' to this day will fill up the dance floor. It's a perfect, Channel One style, cool and deadly riddim. Puma's distinctive falsetto sweetens the chorus, as does some beautifully laid out instrumentation, in particular the glockenspiel which re-inforces Michael Rose's melody. Lyrically another strong tune, Michael Rose outlines his intense desire to succeed as a singer, "My fingers are shaking as the day start breaking/ I could a never keep it no longer/I had to tell it to one another." A scorcher, yes, but clearly a very personal look at one man's refusal to give up his dream of making it in the competitive world of Jamaican music.

Moving on to the B side, 'Utterance' competes with the two tracks above for my favorite song on the record. It boasts some amazing fills on the drums, understated, perfectly phrased bass playing, an infectious, repeating staccato rhythmic guitar phrase, and once again Black Uhuru's signature harmonies.

'Puff She Puff,' another song written by Michael Rose, berates the absentee mother, "So no bother come, gwaan bout you tough/a nuff you nuff.' Translation - you think you're a strong woman, and you're not even around to help raise your kids? Why don't you get lost, I'll take care of things myself.

While the one Duckie Simpson track, 'Journey,' and the two tracks jointly written by Simpson and Rose ('Sistren' and 'Rockstone') still sound good today, adding to the cohesive whole of the album, these songs just aren't quite as memorable as Michael Rose's efforts.

'Red' captures the formidable talents of a band and a production duo at the height of their collaborative powers, creating an LP which would be one of the defining records of reggae's golden era. Today, twenty eight years on, the album sounds as fresh and vital as ever.