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A wry view of life for the world-weary

Dread At The Controls

rastafarislve Rastafari: The Dreads Enter Babylon 1955 – 83 Mikey Dread’s 1979 album African Anthem and its outstanding opening track, Saturday Night Style, was for me the zenith of dub reggae, combining booming bass and drums with manic and eccentric sonic experimentation. By then reggae and, in particular, dub was heavily influenced by the Rastafari, devotees of a religion that saw Haile Selaisse or Ras Tafari, as he was before he was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, as the second coming of Christ and a lifestyle offering the use of cannabis for spiritual contemplation and the rejection of the degenerate lifestyle and materialism of Babylon. If you ever stopped to wonder how the Rastafari came to take such a central and influential position in the development of reggae, then this wonderful compilation issued by Soul Jazz Records goes some way towards providing the answer. And the key to it all is Nyabinghi, the ritual drumming patterns which were used during the communal meditative sessions of the Rastas. These were introduced to more mainstream Jamaican music by the pre-eminent practitioner of the style, Count Ossie, and unsurprisingly this collection features a number of the Count’s collaborations. The opening track, Africa We Want Fe Go, sets the tone for the rest of the album, traditional nyabinghi drumming patterns and chants set to a pounding reggae bass. This track seems seminal in the way that it cements the Rasta spirituality with the burgeoning reggae style. And while the drumming style is deceptively simple, albeit hypnotic in quality, it allows other instruments and various forms of vocalisation from chanting to singing and straightforward narration to build layers on top of the rhythm. The album, which features a rather glum photo of Selaisse at his wedding on its cover, comes with a 40 page booklet which has more about Rastafari and less about the music than I would have wished. The track listing is not chronological so Lord Lebby’s 1955 hit Ethiopia – the earliest of the selection – which mixes calypso or rather mento instrumentation, banjos and bongos to the fore, with lyrics highlighting the centrality of Selaisse’s kingdom to Rastafari belief is track 13 out of 20. For those who think reggae is a bit samey, there is a diversity of styles on offer, ranging from the more traditionally rooted Tales of Mozambique, complete with flutes and parrots, and Narration which mix a rich, percussive background with exposition of the roots of the Rastas to the more soulful and jazz orientated Soul Drums, probably my favourite track, and A Ju Ju Wah. Those who are more familiar with late 70s and early 80s reggae will enjoy Hail the World of Jah by Ashanti Roy of Congos fame, and Rod Taylor’s His Imperial Majesty. For the ska fans look out for Laurel Aitken’s Haile Selaisse. Booma Yeah by Ras Michael and The Sons of Negus is probably my favourite track, followed closely by African Drums by Bongo Herman and Jah Lloyd. An album for the train spotter for sure but for anyone interested in the roots of music it shines a fascinating light on to the absorption of reggae by the culture of the Rastas. There is clearly an opportunity for a follow-up which focuses on the centrality of Rasta consciousness on 70s and 80s reggae. For now, though, this will have to do.

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