review
[-]by Steve Leggett

Harry Belafonte's influence on pop music is much more far-reaching than many realize. Born in Harlem, but spending a good part of his childhood in his mother's native Jamaica, Belafonte grew up straddling cultures and musical styles, and bridging perceived differences became his calling card as an entertainer. He was one of the first performers to bring worldbeat rhythms to the U.S. charts in the postwar era, and his silky-smooth mixture of jazz, folk, pop, and art song, often with impossibly infectious West Indies-styled accompaniment, coupled with his charismatic good looks and easy, hip coolness and sharp racial and political sense meant he was never reduced to being a mere commodity, even though he spent his whole career on major labels. Innovative, intelligent, and unceasingly creative, Belafonte's unique ability to find pop success with artful and socially committed material means he is long overdue for a critical reappraisal, and 2011 may well provide that with the release of his autobiography, My Song, co-written with Michael Shnayerson, and an HBO documentary on his life, Sing Your Song, directed by Susan Rostock and produced by Michael Cohl. This concise set, the soundtrack companion to that documentary, contains Belafonte's best-known and most essential tracks, including “Scarlet Ribbons (For Her Hair),” the ever enduring “Banana Boat Song (Day-O),” the gorgeous “Jamaica Farewell,” “Matilda,” “Jump in the Line,” and “Turn the World Around.” It shows a committed, consistent artist with an elegant and hopeful vision who always brought intelligence, passion, and grace to the table.

review
[-]by Thom Jurek

Recorded in the year 2000 in Bremen and in Hawaii, Hanapepe Dream is ethnomusicologist, guitarist, and composer Taj Mahal's own gumbo of Caribbean, Polynesian, African, and American folk roots styles done up in the glorious dress of "song," for anyone who has ears to hear, feet to shuffle, and an ass to shake. Featuring a large band replete with three ukuleles (little, baritone, and tenor), Hawaiian steel guitars, slack key guitars, horns, steel drums, and standard bass, drums, and guitars, Mahal reveals why he's a master of combining traditions and musics from different histories and regions. In fact, Mahal can prove, via his very fine performance here, that all forms of soul and blues, reggae, jazz, and rock & roll music come from one source and that source lies in the African Diaspora. Mahal's own songs here are fine offerings: There's "Great Big Boat," the opener full of celebratory drums and choral singing and loping winds and horns, and "Baby You're My Destiny," a slippery swing tune that borders on Hawaiian folk music and could have been recorded by Django Reinhardt with Louis Prima, Gabby Pahinui, and Ike Quebec sitting in. But it is in the traditional folk tunes such as "Blackjack Davey," "King Edward's Throne," and the most unique and gorgeous reading of "Stagger Lee" ever that Mahal pulls out the stops and showcases his entire vision. The latter song becomes an expression of how community embraces story, movement, tragedy, celebration, and shared space and time. They come roiling from different musical approximations -- not appropriations -- as Mahal doesn't steal anything here; he offers the ancient sources of this music up as easily identified if not easily separated, and engages the song itself as the easiest and most memorable form of communication we have as human beings. Mahal offers further proof by using Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" and Richie Havens' "African Herbman" as current examples of cross miscegenation of course material. In the Dylan song, jazz entwines reggae and calypso as well as Hawaiian slack key, and the Havens track moves through the Nigerian and Malian folk legacies and brings them to the Caribbean for articulation. Any way you hear it, Hanapepe Dream is further evidence that Mahal has been on a hot streak these past six years, and it continues here with a vengeance.

review
by David Jeffries

Clever and charismatic, dancehall singer Tiger influenced countless followers with his never-take-a-breath "vocal drumming" style of singing, but decent compilations of his work are few and far between. VP’s 2011 set Most Wanted is the first heavyweight contender since 1997’s RAS Portraits and the two sets are almost complementary, seeing as how Tiger divided his big hits between the two labels. Here, the big numbers include “Bam Bam,” “Boombastic,” and “Ram Dance Hall.” Break a sweat with those and the second line of material is nearly as strong, ranging from minimal productions from the new jack ragga era (“Tempo” being the strongest) to extended versions Tiger cut with other vocalists (check the Gregory Isaacs vehicle “Hic Up” for Tiger in a lovers rock style). Shame that the compilers skipped “Jungle Move” off the Ram Dance Hall album, but all other omissions -- “Me Name Tiger,” “No Wanga Gut,” and “Puppy Love” -- are due to licensing and can be found on the RAS set. That’s fine, because if you’re a fan of early dancehall, your collection certainly has room for two Tiger compilations.

review
[-]by Jo-Ann Greene

What better venue for an Eddy Grant performance than London's Notting Hill Carnival? The capitol's cosmopolitan denizens hail from around the world, and its large West Indian contingent guaranteed that the artist received an exuberant welcome, although it's clear from the record that his white fans were equally elated. Recorded live at the 1981 festival, Grant's set flows seamlessly across two (vinyl) albums (a video was also released), capturing the excitement, energy, and power of the show. With only ten tracks, this album isn't your typical live hits set (although a clutch of hits are performed), instead the charismatic artist stays true to the carnival atmosphere, with the songs all stretched into superlative extended dance mixes. Grant's band, the fabulous Frontline Orchestra, simply cooks, laying down tight rhythms and a sound that simmers from funk to reggae, with enough hints of calypso to accurately predict the artist's eventual evolution to ringbang. The singer's connection with the audience is awe inspiring, and, even on record, it feels as if he's speaking directly to the listener. Much of the set showcases heavy-hitters; "Cockney Black" is particularly biting, while "Curfew" and "Jamaican Child" also seethe. An entire side is given over to "Hello Africa," and, for a few minutes, Notting Hill and its disparate community suddenly became one African nation. "Walking on Sunshine," meanwhile, becomes the funk monster it always threatened to be, but the true standout is a ferocious "Living on the Frontline," which still has the power to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. Carnival took place just weeks after England had erupted in riots, but on that summer day in August, Grant took a divided, frustrated, and despairing city and effortlessly united them in a joyous celebration of sound and soul.

review
[-]by Wade Kergan

This double-CD set is a godsend for anyone curious about the incredibly prolific Byron Lee and his erstwhile Dragonaires. Prior to the arrival of Jamaica Ska & Other Jamaican Party Anthems, poor Byron's catalog was littered with late-period soca and smooth reggae collections with the occasional poorly packaged live collection of older tunes rearing its head, but no definitive set of his major works available. His assembly-line approach that continues to crank out disc after disc of music in whatever style is in favor is partly to blame. Be it calypso, ska, soca, reggae -- if it was popular in Jamaica or other parts of the Caribbean there is probably a tune or album by Lee and his group in that style. What he was known for, though, was ska, and that is where this collection sets its sights. Covering roughly 11 years, 1960 to 1971, Jamaica Ska follows Lee though the heydays of ska, rocksteady, and the nascent reggae boom. The first disc is largely ska, highlighted by the title tune and a number of covers, including a rousing cover of Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man." Lee was also producing ska recordings at this time, and songs he produced for Stranger Cole and the Maytals are included as well. The second disc moves, as Byron Lee did, with the times with a rocksteady focus. In between the ska and rocksteady jumpers are various tunes that showcase the strong musicianship and overall eclecticism of the Dragonaires: an odd acetone organ-and-horns cover of "Ol' Man River," a fairly straight, although loungey, soul cover of "Green Onions," a rocksteady version of "Shaft," and other stabs at bossa nova, show tunes, calypso, and funk. Lee's contribution to Jamaican music cannot be understated, especially in introducing ska to American audiences. Jamaica Ska & Other Jamaican Party Anthems will at least let listeners find out, once again, what all the fuss was about.

review
[-]by Thom Jurek

Sofrito is a U.K.-based DJ collective whose members include Hugo Mendez, Frankie Francis, and the Mighty Crime Minister. Since 2007, they've established a near-fanatical fan base because of their almost legendary parties under the Tropical Warehouse moniker in East London. Their rep has spread and they've branched out, hosting massive bashes on the beaches of Greece, and spinning from the stages of the WOMAD festival and in New York clubs. They've also featured live acts along with their spinning: the Souljazz Orchestra, Manu Dibango, and Quantic have all all appeared with them. Tropical Discoteques is Sofrito's first full-length compilation. It is an (almost entirely) unmixed collection of new, historic, and rare grooves from three continents. What these jams all have in common is their propulsive rhythm, infectious melodies, and irresistible grooves, whether they be highlife, cumbia, Congolese guitar music, Afro-beat, soca, or modern corrido. There isn't a dud in this 15-cut bunch, but there are some real highlights, including Guadelupe's the Fair Nick Stars' "Arrete Pal Marte," a Frankie Francis and Simbad edit of Sir Victor Uwaifo's highlife cruiser "Uhue," El Timba's steamy "Descarga Bontempi," Mighty Shadow's historic "Dat Soca Boat," Dany Play's "Fa’Waka," Roaring Lion's jazzy "Carnival Long Ago," and a new track, "Cumbia Mochilla," by Quantic. Released in January of 2011, this burning set is full of great liner notes as well as music. Tropical Discotheque is guaranteed to take the winter blues away.

review
[-]by arwulf arwulf

In 2007, Dutton Vocalion reissued a pair of Edmundo Ros albums filled with mainstream calypso music. Originally released in 1957, Calypso Man picks up where Ros left off with his 1956 album of calypsos which was reissued by Dutton Vocalion in 2003, along with the Ros album of baions. Calypso Man is fairly typical of mid- to late-'50s Ros, who recycled "Chocolate Whiskey and Vanilla Gin" from his late-‘40s band book. "Henry VIII" is not "I'm Henery the Eighth I Am," a British music hall ditty recorded by Harry Champion in 1931 and revived more than 30 years later by Herman's Hermits. Instead Ros delivers a novelty calypso that encourages civilized lovemaking as opposed to decapitation as practiced by the Tudor monarch in question. This odd little number appears to have been written by the same individual who penned the naughty "Jacob, Take Off Your Tra-Lala." Most of the Calypso Man album would later be reissued as Edmundo Ros Plays the Limbo. Dutton Vocalion has actually reissued that reissue rather than the original 1957 Calypso Man album, which included a modified version of "Matilda" called "Sweetie, Sweetie." The best part of this double reissue package is the Calypso album from 1970 (tracks 1-12), on which Ros opted for a stronger presentation with an exciting lineup which included at least one steel drummer. He also tapped into a batch of titles by real contemporary calypso kings like the Mighty Panther, the Mighty Duke, and the Mighty Sparrow, whose charmingly titled opus "Sell the Pussy" eventually earned Ros his first, and perhaps only, parental advisory tag. There are also two titles by Lord Kitchener, who like Ros found acceptance and popular success in the U.K. after making friends with the royal family. This entertaining compilation includes an ingratiatingly ghoulish portrait of "The Funeral Undertaker" as well as "The Sky-Jackers," a light-hearted essay which describes the art of forcibly redirecting jet planes to Havana. That practice became positively trendy during the ‘60s and peaked in 1969 when more than 30 such rerouting attempts were made, most of them successfully.

review
[-]by Steve Leggett

Mento is essentially (but not exactly) calypso stripped down to a tenor banjo, a guitar, and some hand drums, and while it would appear to be Jamaican folk music, it is really designed to provide tourists with what they expect to hear as Jamaican folk music, and it has proven to be an amazingly adaptive form, forming the template and foundation of the whole of Jamaican pop music. The up-stroking banjo and guitar rhythms, coupled with an emphasis on the second and fourth count of the beat, gives mento the feel of proto-reggae, and it is really just a short jump, some horns and a faster tempo away from early ska, which is where modern Jamaican pop music really gets going, not to mention mento’s often slyly risqué and ribald lyrics, which makes it the grandaddy of dancehall slackness. Jamaica's Jolly Boys -- in one incarnation or another -- have been playing their street corner version of mento in the north coast Port Antonio area since the 1940s, and their joyous, frequently off-color, and decidedly ramshackle approach to the music has made them an enduring tourist favorite. Raw, loose, and joyous sounding, the Jolly Boys are hardly naïve folk musicians, though, and they aren’t traditionalists; they’ll drop any song they feel like performing into the mento template and they aren’t afraid of gently modernizing their sound. That’s the case on Great Expectation, the group’s newest album. It features charming and interestingly rearranged versions of songs by the Doors (“Riders on the Storm”), the Clash (“Should I Stay or Should I Go"), Steely Dan (“Do It Again”), New Order (“Blue Monday”), Amy Winehouse (“Rehab”), Lou Reed (“Perfect Day”), Iggy Pop (“Nightclubbing”), and Johnny Cash (“Ring of Fire”), among others, and it also features sequenced drum tracks and horn arrangements by Cedric Brooks. The amazing thing is that it still sounds exactly like mento for all of these modern touches, and if on first listen, Great Expectation plays rather ramshackle and rough, repeated listens bring out the sunshine and joy that sit at the heart of what the Jolly Boys do, and one would expect nothing less of this very special mento band

review
[-]by Thom Jurek

With its unshakeable focus in seeking the very best vintage music from virtually everywhere south of the equator, Soundway Records has reissued a true gem here. Ifetayo, the lone album by Trinidad's Black Rhythm Truth Band, was released in 1976, and disappeared soon thereafter -- until the dawn of crate-digging culture. It is an ambitious, steamy slab of Caribbean funk that endures the test of time. Though the cut "Save D Musician" appeared on Kon & Amir's Off Track, Vol. 2: Queens compilation, and has been sampled elsewhere, this is Ifetayo's first reissue on either LP or CD. Black Truth Rhythm Band were an odd and prophetic unit. While most of the acts from Trinidad during the '70s were busy sopping up American soul, funk, and disco and offering them in clubs with their own rhythms added, these cats looked to the motherland, Africa, for inspiration. Populated by electric bass, guitar, various keys, flute, keyboards, marimbas, and steel drums, and fronted by lead vocalist Oluko Imo (who later sang for Fela Kuti's Egypt 80 band), this music is a far cry from anything that was coming from their homeland. Steel drums were usually employed as novelty instruments in island bands during the '70s, as an attraction for tourists. BTRB used them instead as foundations that were essential to the ensemble's sonic architecture; they mixed them in equal balance with the rest of the instruments on any given track, adding an uncommon darkness to their rich, deep, and moody grooves. While the title track and the aforementioned "Save D Musician" are obvious starting points because of their their eerie, humid, elastic funk, the true depth of the band's genius reveals itself in "Kilimanjaro," where Latin-flavored keyboards, circular Noruba drumming, and the kinetic use of mbiras and flute, accent and illustrate the polyrhythmic flow. Another standout here is "Aspire," where a near Trinidadian calypso is melded into a contrapuntal series of layered rhythms, guitar vamps, and sweet, chorus-like vocals. The best is saved for last, however, when the BTRB throws everything into the pot on the eight-minute "Umbala." It crosses calypso, dread reggae, Fela's Afro-beat, and the melodic richness of Sonny Okuson with an organic funkiness that is not unlike Cymande's, only smoother. Ultimately, Soundway does it again: Ifetayo is a gem through and through.

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