Thank you to Simon Sweetman for the opportunity to contribute to this series. Some will be surprised to see no albums by Bob Marley & the Wailers in my list, or indeed that all five slots aren’t just Bob albums.
For over three decades the Wailers have been a defining presence in my life. I live and breathe them every day. Many of the most significant events in my life have arisen directly as a result of my Marley obsession.
But these days with Bob I tend to listen to songs, or live concert recordings rather than albums. Anyway, if I want to listen to a Bob album, I can play it note for note in my head.
The selections below have a few things in common: superb songwriting and musicianship, artistic integrity, and they all have something worthwhile to say.
A lot of great artists, those who really touch us and reach into our souls, have paid a terrible personal price for the enjoyment, enlightenment and inspiration that they bring us. Not always, but often enough to matter. Some of the artists below definitely fit that mould.
So the next time you’re grooving to a really great piece of music (or if you’re white like me, wiggling out of time and clapping on one and three), spare a thought for what the artist quite possibly endured to bring a tear to your eye or a smile to your face.
This has ended up really long. Not many, if any, will read it all the way through. But please at least check out some of the links from each artist, and hopefully you’ll be inspired to learn a bit more about each of these albums and the wider work of the performers behind them.
1 – Soul Is Heavy, Nneka: Chances are if you live in New Zealand you haven’t heard of Nigerian singer/songwriter Nneka Egbuna, who records and performs simply as “Nneka”. Though you may have heard her without realising it; her 2008/2009 European hit Heartbeat is sampled on Rita Ora’s RIP.
Nneka was completely unknown to me until January this year, when her live show at Rototom Sunsplash 2013 in Spain popped up as a suggested watch in my YouTube feed. With Bob as my benchmark I’m skeptical of (and mostly disappointed by) “new” artists – ie anyone since about the mid-80s. So I ignored the Nneka video. But the bloody thing kept reappearing, every day. Eventually, after a couple of weeks, I relented and had a look. To my surprise I was really impressed, blown away actually. It rekindled memories of first hearing Bob at boarding school in Dunedin in 1982 (though without the following years of “turn that shit off, Ussher”).
It was the second song in that Sunsplash show, Africans, that grabbed my attention. A complete WTF moment. The energy and passion of the delivery, for sure, but oh man, the lyrics. I couldn’t believe I was finally hearing something worthy of a Tosh or a Marley, after years and years bereft of anything even close. It’s been a controversial song for her, and one she didn’t perform outside of Africa for a long time. Criticised and misunderstood too, I think, with one line in particular isolated and focused on (“wake up Africa, wake up and stop blaming”). But if you listen to the whole song you get what she means.
After that I checked out her performance at the Sziget Festival in Hungary, another show on her 2013 European festival tour, and it was even better, and I was hooked. I’ve listened to more Nneka than Bob this year – the first time in 32 years Bob hasn’t topped my personal listening charts. My wife and kids have had what you’d call complete immersion.
Born and raised in the oil city of Warri, in Nigeria’s Delta State, to a Nigerian father and German mother, by all accounts the diminutive singer had a pretty tough upbringing. When she was about 19 or 20 she had to leave Nigeria in a hurry, for reasons she doesn’t disclose. She went to Germany, where she studied and completed a degree in archaeology and anthropology. Fitting, given the depths she digs and the skeletons she unearths in her performance, but she’s said many times that it wasn’t her intention to go into music. She worked more than one job, as well as doing gigs, to finance her studies, and eventually ended up as a professional musician. Quite remarkable, when you hear her perform, that it’s something she just fell into.
Now, she says, music is not only what she does, but what she is, and she’s quite emphatic that for her, it’s a form of therapy.
Soul is Heavy is her most recent album, following her Uncomfortable Truth EP (2005), and albums Victim of Truth (2005), No Longer At Ease (2008), and Concrete Jungle (2010 US-market compilation). It’s the only one of her stand-alone albums available on iTunes in New Zealand, though you can get most of her previous work on a compilation album called To and Fro (2009), and there are singles and remixes available for download as well. You won’t find her CDs in any shops here, but you can order them through stores like Real Groovy, or via Amazon.
What sets Nneka apart from so many contemporary artists is her willingness to speak her mind on serious issues. Not in that trendy, nauseating, way in which so-called celebrities often indulge, proclaiming on subjects they know little about, as if their opinion somehow matters more than the average person’s. Nneka speaks from experience and principle and calls out, amongst others, the Nigerian government and oil industry, notwithstanding the degree of personal risk that stance brings with it. Take the chorus of the title song, Soul is Heavy:
I am, the voice of Isaac Boro,
I speak Ken Saro Wiwa
I am, the spirit of Jaja of Opobo,
Fight for right, for our freedom
A power hungry class of army arrangements,
Stealing money in my country’s plight
A soldier pretending to be a politician,
You teacher who know nothing do not teach me lies
That’s one way not to endear yourself to the powers that be.
The other names probably won’t mean much to you, but you may remember writer and activist Ken Saro Wiwa, if for no other reason than Nelson Mandela was in New Zealand for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November 1995. Saro Wiwa’s impending execution, along with several others, following dubious murder and incitement to murder convictions entered by a “special tribunal” convened by the Nigerian government, was big news here, due primarily to CHOGM and Mandela’s presence. Despite worldwide condemnation and pleas to stop the process, the executions went ahead.
I still remember the collective intake of breath at the arrogance and ruthlessness of General Sani Abacha’s regime in proceeding to execute Saro Wiwa and his co-accused.
Of course it was high on the agenda at CHOGM and Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth for three years (gee – that showed it).
Nigeria is no longer a military dictatorship. Ostensibly it’s a democracy, but although, according to Nneka, progress is gradually being made, it’s still not a place where you can freely speak your mind without concern for the consequences.
So while the likes of JLo and Beyoncé are off doing lucrative private shows for dubious regimes (“Human rights abuses? OMG, I didn’t know! OMG!! Honey, have you booked my colonic?”), Nneka’s getting arrested after being harassed off a Port Harcourt stage by the Nigerian State Security Service, for exhorting a crowd of 20,000 to sing along with her song VIP (Vagabonds In Power).
That is scary shit by anyone’s standards. The SSS is serious business. Like New Zealand’s SIS and police combined, but with assault weapons and an attitude.
VIP appears on Soul is Heavy, but like many of her songs she’d been performing it live for years before putting it on an album. It’s her own song, musically different from, but obviously inspired by, Fela Kuti’s VIP (Vagabonds In Power).
She tends to eschew comparisons with other artists, such as Fela or Bob Marley (two of her biggest influences), but given her outspokenness, despite the personal risk, it’s hard to not to see similarities with Peter Tosh.
And like Peter Tosh, she’s often remarked that talking about “peace” is fashionable for so many artists (or as Tosh said, “peace is the diploma you get in the cemetery”), and a performer needs to do more than just repeat the same old platitudes, saying one thing and doing another. She took herself to task for exactly that early in her career, in a song called The Uncomfortable Truth.
Like anyone trying to get a message across, however, the message is only part of it. The delivery is what gets you an audience, and Nneka delivers.
Her albums are great, but it’s as a live performer that she excels – a powerhouse, squeezing out every drop of energy and emotion. She’s often visibly drained at the end of a show.
And the real magic is in her seemless blending of styles – hip hop, soul, R & B, funk, reggae, rock, Afrobeat. Not only across her catalogue but within individual songs (more on that later).
At about 175 million people Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and seventh in the world. Yet, like New Zealand, you’re still taken more seriously as an artist if you’ve made it outside the country. So it made a big difference to Nneka’s profile at home when she performed Heartbeat on Letterman in 2010.
On first listen that European hit, Heartbeat, sounds like a love song, but it isn’t, not in the conventional sense anyway. Very roughly, it’s a plea from Africa to former colonial powers about how they loved it and left it after exploiting its resources, bestowing on it a legacy of infighting and corruption.
Do You Love Me Now, another track from Soul is Heavy, also at first sounds like a love song. But as she has explained, she moved back to Nigeria a few years ago and it’s about having to function under a regime where you can’t speak your mind and you’re supposed to believe what you’re told. Do you love me now that I’m doing what you want me to do and being what you want me to be? Now that I’m not thinking for myself.
There are love songs on Soul is Heavy which are actually love songs, such as Stay, and Restless. Well, I think they’re love songs, but like all of Nneka’s work, there are probably more layers. Like an onion. And as a born and bred Southlander who doesn’t even wear his heart on his heart, let alone on his sleeve (I mean, yuck! Plus, think of the dry-cleaning bills), and who would never admit to moist eyes over a song, that onion is a handy excuse.
Creating music this good is never a solo effort. From the beginning of her career Nneka has collaborated with Farhot, an Afghan producer based in Hamburg who’s responsible for a lot of the beats and production on her recorded music.
And she has another really important ingredient. Her band.
With the occasional exception, this incredibly tight four piece group has backed her for eight or nine years straight now, and they have that almost telepathic bond that comes from playing, touring and recording together year in and year out.
Gros Ngolle Pokossi is a Cameroonian bass player. African bassists are pretty special. All that weaving around complex polyrhythms keeps you on your toes, I guess. And bass is huge in Cameroon (finally, a country with its priorities right!). It produces more bass players per capita than anywhere else, all of them awesome, so it seems, and Pokossi is no exception. He has that relaxed demeanour from being completely at one with your instrument, and as well as sporting the necessary funk/soul/Afrobeat/jazz/rock/R & B chops, he has a few other cool things up his sleeve, like palm-muted thumb and finger picking. But the important question for any bass player is always (in my world, anyway): can you play reggae? Not only, in Pokossi’s case, can he play reggae (and never underestimate how many so-called top bassists get it so, so wrong), he understands how much of your tone comes not from your choice of gear, or a massive array of effects, but your hands. Play over the neck joint for that fat, enveloping, Family Man tone, move back a bit towards the bridge to add some mids for the Robbie Shakespeare kick-you-in-the-chest punch. Plus that muted finger picking thing to soften it right up. And always, he serves the song, with no unnecessary flashiness. Despite Pokossi being a terrific slap player, you won’t hear any slap on a Nneka record or at her shows. Just big bottom. I love it.
The key to this band, I think, is that the musicians each have tremendous experience in a wide range of styles. For a drummer with huge and absolutely spot-on reggae feel, Garry Sullivan from the Bronx has a surprising background, heavy on rock, punk, and metal. A while back he gained some notoriety when he was the first black drummer for New York punk/metal band the Cro-Mags. In Hamburg (where most of Nneka’s band are based) he’s part of a hip hop/reggae/ska/hardcore metal trio called Urban Magik Johnson. He’s also gigged with various members of Bad Brains. And he has serious funk credentials, playing with good mate and fellow Bronx native, bassist TM Stevens. Drawing from this divergent range of skills and experience, Sullivan is a big reason the band so easily moves back and forth between musical styles. In Sullivan and Pokossi, Nneka is blessed with a massive rhythm section.
I’m fairly certain keyboard player Nis Koetting (aka Nis Kotto) was assembled by Dr Frankenstein, because he appears to have a Jamaican heart in a German body. It’s obvious he has the classical and jazz skills common to most keyboard players, but unlike so many schooled musicians, when it comes to reggae he feels it and he owns it! Whether it’s double-time left hand skipping a la Tyrone Downie (such as on the chorus of this live version of Valley*), the huge and chunky double handed Wya Lindo octave bubble (My Home* from that same live show), wicked organ swirls and solos, or clever clavinet rhythm playing, it’s hard to believe he isn’t from a 70s Kingston session or touring band. From the footage I’ve seen he also apparently controls the samples that mean a small band these days can sound so much bigger (and that Nneka can do her own backing vocals). I doubt he gets to relax much during a performance. No time for a humorous interlude of classic German comedy at a Nneka concert, then.
*Both these live versions of songs from Soul Is Heavy perfectly illustrate that blending of musical styles. Valley starts off as a slow R & B number, segues into a heavy one drop, then into a driving four-on-the-floor rockers beat, and back again. My Home turns that on its head, beginning with a massive, bubbling one drop (well, two drop really, with the kick on one as well as three), then moving to a swinging half time beat, and back to that reggae bubble. Executing these music shifts without sounding corny or forced isn’t easy, but for this band it’s a walk in the park.
The guitarist in a small band covering so many styles needs to be a jack of all trades and the master of them. Brazilian guitarist Mo Jonas effortlessly covers reggae, heavy rock and blues, R & B, flamenco, and funky and intricate African rhythm playing, all with a minimum of fuss and hardly any guitar face. He has that rare combination of serious technical ability and feel, but just gets on with it, never descending into the wankfest to which so many guitarists succumb. As well as holding down the rhythm, when needed he’s the sauce on top, adding the emotional element to the foundation laid by the bass/drums/keyboards, and complementing the (tremendous) emotion in Nneka’s singing. Sometimes during a solo she’ll just stand or kneel behind him with her hand on his back, like he’s filling in for her voice. Brilliant.
It’s noticeable than when Nneka isn’t backed by these guys, her sound is quite different. She’ll play her guitar for most of the set, and to some extent the musicians are backing up the acoustic versions of her songs, with Nneka’s hand firmly on the tiller. It’s still a great show, but with her regular band things are on a different level entirely. She plays guitar only on the acoustic songs, and connects completely with the musicians, who need little or no direction from the boss. A nod or a gesture is all that’s required.
And I should mention Nneka here, too. She often does solo acoustic shows, so she’s got some impressive guitar skills herself, a left hander who plays her nylon-string guitar right handed, primarily finger picked, but when needed she can reggae-strum with the best of them (and contrary to popular belief you need skill, feel and timing to execute a decent reggae chop. Not everyone can do it).
Unlike Marley’s Wailers, or Tosh’s Word, Sound & Power, and despite its longevity, Nneka’s backing band doesn’t have a name. It’s hard to think of what might work, though if she wanted to build a kiwi fan base “Nneka Minnit” might be the band name of choice.
I’ve gone on (and on, and on…) about reggae here and I know Nneka isn’t solely a reggae artist (she’s clear that her primary influence is hip hop – her early career had some pretty angry rapping), but reggae is a constant influence and underpins her work.
And a band like this can have all the soul or jazz or rock chops in the world but if you can’t play reggae properly it’s not going to fly. The big difference between Nneka and so many other artists that incorporate reggae into their music, is that she does it properly. She and her band understand it, they feel it. There are plenty of bands, even “real” reggae bands (some, perplexingly, quite successful) that never, ever, get it. Listening to your parents’ UB40 albums and their copy of Legend doesn’t mean you can play reggae. You have to feel it, know it, study it, absorb it, understand it. Adding a reggae beat to shit music might make it more danceable, but it’s still shit music.
If I’m honest, I’m probably (definitely) overstating (and over-analysing) the reggae thing a bit (a lot). The depth of my Wailers obsession dispels any pretence at objectivity. There are plenty of songs on Soul Is Heavy without any reggae in them, such as Shining Star, probably the closest you’ll get to a pure pop song from Nneka.
In fact, while her live shows are quite reggae-heavy, her albums are less so.
And of course she’s African, and unashamedly Afrocentric. Nigerian and wider African musical influences pervade her work. She takes a leaf from Fela’s book and often sings in pidgin, the “language of the common man” in Nigeria, as she calls it. There are many similarities with Jamaican patois (the majority of Jamaicans are of West African origin, so there are common linguistic roots, and some descendants of Carribean slaves moved back to West Africa, bringing elements of their own dialects with them). So if you’re a regular listener to reggae you can pick up the gist. And once you figure out what “wahala” means (rough translation: “trouble”), you’re halfway to understanding Nneka’s lyrics.
She doesn’t like big studios and often records while on the road. For all the reminiscing about the good old days of analogue recording, there’s a lot to be said for the technology that gives artists these days the ability to record cheaply and well. Large parts of Soul Is Heavy were recorded at her Lagos home. Apparently, if you strip out all the music, you can hear the sound of a generator underneath the whole album (generators are a necessary part of Nigerian life, due to frequent power cuts, and if you’re a musician they’re vital if you don’t want to lose music files mid-save).
Nneka has it all: brains, heart, balls, and a killer band. Please check her out. She has a new album due early next year. I can’t wait.
2 – Saint Hilda’s Faithless Boy, Darren Watson: Kiwis look at politics in a place like Nigeria and smugly tend to think we’re above it all. New Zealand is, supposedly, the least corrupt country in the world.
Recent events, though, in the lead up to this month’s general election, and revelations about certain politicians and what they’ve been up to, call that into question. Clearly, we have a few Vagabonds In Power of our own. Plenty wahala, as it were. Not the least of which, in light of the election result, is that (policy issues and political differences aside) the majority of voters seem untroubled by political leaders conducting their business with scant regard to ethical and constitutional principles. Something that will ultimately, I suspect, bite the electorate, and the country as a whole, on the bum.
And our finest bluesman finds himself mired in the midst of this Machiavellian maelstrom (sorry, I promised Simon no terrible puns, but I didn’t rule out awful alliteration).
Like Nneka, Darren Watson wears his heart (and his mind) on his sleeve. He’s forthright about expressing his opinion – in print, in person, and in song.
So he recorded a song called Planet Key, a witty and catchy observation about the foibles of New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key.
Initially the single sold very well, especially when coupled with the excellent and entertaining video created by Watson’s good mate Jeremy Jones of Propellor Motion, which quickly racked up significant views.
But then sales rocketed – when it was, er, banned.
Banned. In New Zealand. In 2014.
Okay, technically the Electoral Commission, a state agency tasked with the administration of elections and anything electoral in this country, decided that Planet Key amounted to an election programme under the Broadcasting Act and an election advertisement under the Electoral Act. Unless Watson and Jones either withdrew the song and video from sale and broadcast forever (yes, forever), or agreed to include a promoter statement in the song (“this advertisement is authorised by [insert name here]”, etc), the matter would be referred to the police for prosecution. Watson and Jones aren’t political promoters, and didn’t see adding a promoter statement as an option, so, for the time being anyway, Planet Key is off the market.
That the song was satirical, humorous, ironic, and not a solemn or serious exhortation not to vote for Key’s National Party, cut no ice with the Commission, apparently.
The Electoral Commission is nothing if not dry. I bet nobody photocopies their bum at an Electoral Commission Christmas party.
I suppose earnest, utterly bureaucratic and blinkered public servants are nothing new. However, we’ve seen time and time again that humourless state enforcement agencies can end up doing very, very bad things if the climate so allows. We’re a long way from that yet here in Aotearoa, of course. But it’s no longer just fanciful speculation, when you observe the lowering of standards, ethics, independence, and adherence to constitutional principles amongst our politicians and public service in recent times (much of which hadn’t publicly come to light at the time Planet Key was released – an indication of Watson’s astuteness and prescience).
And to be fair to the Electoral Commission the law, in this case, is an ass. To some extent it was a hasty over-reaction to issues which arose three elections ago. Still, there really seems no basis to hold that Planet Key is an advertisement (and it has to first be an advertisement in the commonly accepted sense before it can be defined as an election advertisement).
But there are other recent examples of the Electoral Commission’s questionable judgment. It referred a comedy skit on Jono & Ben at Ten last year (about the Novopay school payroll debacle) to the police on the grounds that it was an election broadcast, aired outside the statutory election period.
Are you kidding me?
(The police, to their credit, do not appear to have progressed the case with any degree of haste.)
And more recently an exhibition of clothing worn by the late MP Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan had to postpone its launch date because it coincided with the election date, and in the view of the Electoral Commission might influence voters.
I simply don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this, honestly.
To add insult to injury, the Commission advised that it had no problem with others uploading the Planet Key video. Just Watson and Jones. That this would both defeat the purpose of the legislation (as the Commission sees it) and encourage others to breach Watson and Jones’ copyright, apparently escaped it.
In any event, Watson and Jones challenged the Commission’s position in the High Court. The case was heard a couple of weeks ago, and the judge is expected to deliver his decision shortly.
I’m reasonably confident of the outcome. But if I’m wrong, and the Court holds that the Electoral Commission’s interpretation of the law is correct, then clearly the law needs to be amended. It is unacceptable in any society that genuine artistic expression can be censored. Once you do that, it’s only a short hop to censoring political dissent.
Whatever the result, we can be certain that the High Court (or appellate Courts if the decision is appealed) will adjudicate apolitically and independently. We are blessed in this country with a robust and absolutely independent judiciary.
Successive governments have, thankfully, without exception, appointed judges at all levels strictly in accordance with constitutional principles, on merit, and devoid of any political considerations.
As a nation we should be incredibly proud of the fact that, as in the case of High Court judge Justice Joe Williams, you can be a reggae singer/songwriter, with a song in the charts, with both Maori and English lyrics, laying down a serious challenge to the powers that be, and yet a couple of decades later be appointed to the High Court bench.
All my life I get taught about the right of the great white way
I said how much longer before we get up and say, people
E te iwi, maranga ake ai
I doubt there’s anywhere else in the world you could sing that and still end up in high judicial office. For me, it’s another onion moment.
An independent judiciary is the last bastion of democracy. There has to be real concern that the lowering of standards evident in other aspects of government will eventually infect the judicial appointment process. If that occurs, and appointments are made with political considerations in mind, there will be a downward spiral, with the most suitable candidates declining to put their names forward. If it ever comes to that, and we no longer have a completely independent judiciary, we are in deep, deep trouble.
We may ultimately pay the price for our apathy. Not now, but in a generation or two. Heaven help us if it ever gets to the point where there’s a need for some sort of Resistance movement (let’s face it, the idea of having to put on a beret and a terrible French accent is almost too awful to contemplate).
Right. Rant over. Back to the subject at hand.
Calling Darren Watson a kiwi bluesman doesn’t do him justice. He’s a world class musician who just happens to live here. A national taonga who should be on permanent display at Te Papa. I hope there’s a taxidermy clause in his will.
In the late 80s and early 90s a large number of international blues artists played in New Zealand. I was lucky enough to see Brownie McGhee, BB King, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, Junior Wells, and many others.
As well, I saw the supremely weird and often filthy Screamin’ Jay Hawkins twice, in Auckland, in the space of two or three years (the second time I took my wife and learned a valuable lesson: women aren’t nearly as impressed as you might think by skulls, coffins, and songs about “furburgers” and constipation).
(Hawkins can’t be dismissed as a novelty act, though. If you have a spare hour and forty minutes, check out the excellent documentary Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – I Put A Spell On Me. In many ways his theatricality was born from being a frustrated opera singer. That he died, suddenly, at the age of 70, just when it looked like there might be an opportunity to sing opera – oh man, there’s that onion again.
It’s a reminder too, that when you see what black American musicians went through up to the 1950s and 60s and beyond, the rest of us should just shut the hell up).
As far as I’m concerned, and acknowledging of course that some of these artists were pioneers, Watson can hold his head up with them, musically. Lyrically, he’s at least their equal, and in many cases streets ahead.
I think we all have delusions of songwriting ability at some time or another, but most of us get a reality check pretty quickly. When you sit for hours trying to come up with a great hook line, and all you can muster is “Laxative of Love”, you know it’s time to throw in the towel and leave it to the professionals.
Professionals like Watson. There are some obvious musical parameters within which a blues song needs to fit. These limitations make it important to be creative musically and even more creative lyrically, something so many contemporary blues artists fall short on, relying instead on raw musicianship and energy (and often, sadly, foregoing taste for flash).
“My baby done left me” may have been cutting edge the first time around, but after a million or so times, you need to freshen things up a bit. Watson is the master of that. His lyrics are clever and relevant, never clichéd.
Whilst unashamedly positioning himself as a blues artist, the Wanganui born and Hutt Valley raised performer draws from a wide range of influences, most notably the Beatles (McCartney in particular), and including Elvis Costello, and a large dollop of Memphis soul. He also knows a fair bit about reggae.
And while he claims to have first been turned on to the blues when a friend played him a Muddy Waters album at the age of 12, personally I think the Freddie King-sized collars in which his mother dressed him as a kid in the 70s had something to do with it (that would also explain the name of his first solo album, King Size).
Planet Key brought Watson to national attention again. Until then he’d remained known and respected in the musical community for the last couple of decades, but with a much lower public profile. There was a time, however, when he was very well known.
As a young musician in 1985, Watson started Chicago Smoke Shop (later shortened to Smoke Shop), one of the hardest working, best sounding bands of the 80s and 90s, and definitely one of the best live acts.
More of an R & B/soul band than strictly blues (and often touring with a full horn section), Chicago Smoke Shop nevertheless was very strongly blues-based. Few things matched the thrill of a Chicago Smoke Shop show opening with T-Bone Shuffle. Watson’s rendition was clearly influenced by the version on the classic 1985 Showdown album from Robert Cray, Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland, and it was magical.
Back in those days, actually, close your eyes and you’d think it was Cray singing. Unlike so many blues instrumentalists who get by with competent but unremarkable vocals, Watson has a killer singing voice, and a keen awareness of phrasing and timing.
A smart arse* once remarked on Watson’s Facebook page that, back in the day, with his jet-black pompadour and his outstanding vocals, Watson “Sounded like Robert Cray. Looked like Ronnie Kray”. And whilst there’s something of the tortured artist about him (you don’t write songs like Watson’s without a significant degree of hurt and angst), unlike so many he’s not precious at all, and he was amused by the comment. He’s the first to take the piss out of himself (and often posts pretty embarrassing historical photos and clips from the 80s and 90s).
*I take the Fifth.
Smoke Shop ended in the early 90s. You can get an idea of its soul/funk/blues style from the 1996 album Fusion At Room Temperature. The instrumental of the same name from that album was the sting for Trevor Reekie’s long running Sunday morning spot on Radio NZ National, Hidden Treasures. Quite apart from the world class playing, that piece is an insight into Watson’s wicked sense of humour. A well-placed baritone sax blast leaves no doubt that the acronym was deliberate. Genius.
After Smoke Shop, Watson worked day jobs for a while, before returning to his true calling. Whilst reflecting to some extent his wide range of influences, his solo albums (King Size (2002), South Pacific Soul (2005), and Saint Hilda’s Faithless Boy (2010)) show a steady shift back to the blues.
And across all these albums the strength lies not only in the musicianship, but in the songwriting, which is at an international standard.
His song All Going Wrong from South Pacific Soul took first place in the blues section of the International Songwriting Competition in 2009 (with judges including John Mayall, James Cotton and Tom Waits).
The following year he took third place with Can’t Get Enough of You from Saint Hilda’s Faithless Boy.
Another example, Black Cadillac from King Size, is a witty and pithy commentary on the American phenomenon of getting buried or married in an automobile, with absolutely poetic lyrical timing set to a Chuck Berry-ish rhythm:
She was the victim of a sudden heart attack
At the wheel of a black Cadillac
What the dead will do for fifteen minutes of fame
But while King Size and South Pacific Soul are excellent albums, Saint Hilda’s Faithless Boy is Watson’s crowning glory to date. A masterpiece a long time in the making, and deserving of a place in any list of classic blues albums, or classic New Zealand albums.
If you’ve been following Watson’s monthly chats about classic blues artists on Eva Radich’s Upbeat radio show, you’ll know he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things blues.
I love blues, but unlike Watson I’m woefully ignorant of all but the most basic aspects of its history and musical form, so I’m not going to try to analyse the songs on Saint Hilda’s Faithless Boy. I’ll highlight a few tracks, but this is an album with no filler. Every song is a gem. You need to listen to it all.
Love Is An Ocean is a nice twist on the standard blues lament about the tribulations of love. The opening line “Love is an ocean I just can’t cross, never learned to swim, baby, I can’t cross” cleverly references Watson’s own childhood near-drowning experience, which has seen him ever since give a wide berth to anything deeper than a puddle.
There are a couple of curve balls with tracks 9 and 10. My Love Will Never Die and The Bitter Suite are stripped-back minor-key slide numbers with an Eastern European feel. Blues in feel and sentiment more than form, but stunning examples of Watson’s think-outside-the-square songwriting.
And the title track, which closes the album. Again, it’s not traditional blues, but a heartfelt acoustic piece, with a dash of onion.
She Got It All and Wtlif are a reminder of how ska and ultimately reggae developed from the blues, in particular from the New Orleans shuffles that Jamaican radios picked up late at night in the 50s and 60s.
Whilst covers are something of a blues tradition (and often a crutch), Watson’s originals to covers ratio is considerably higher than most. When he does do someone else’s song, he does it his own way.
Apart from his singing and songwriting, Watson is a talented multi-instrumentalist. When recording an album he often lays down the majority of instrumental tracks himself.
Guitar is his instrument of choice, though. He’s as well known as a guitarist as he is a singer, and he has more guitar chops than anyone could reasonably want or need. Always deployed, however, with economy and taste. So many blues players still see it as a pissing contest. But while countless SRV and Bonamassa clones are spraying all over the walls and the floor, Watson hits the bowl every time. And puts the seat down when he’s finished.
He has a new album out shortly and I know it’ll be fantastic. True to his reputation for wry wit, he’s calling it Introducing Darren Watson. The circular irony of that title has me spinning, like a dog chasing its tail. Two decades ago Watson would have needed no introduction at all. And whilst, up until a couple of months ago, when Planet Key was released, he may have needed reintroduction to the wider listening audience, he most certainly doesn’t now.
He’s also just published his first novel, the Russo-Kiwi epic Anna Darrenina. Okay, I made that up, but given Watson’s intellect, breadth of talent and experience, I’m sure he could if he wanted to.
Darren Watson is the biz, the real deal. Kiwi or not, if you haven’t got him in your record collection, you don’t deserve to call yourself a blues fan.
3 – Black Gold, Duane Stephenson: But for the weather, Duane Stephenson might be a little better known in New Zealand. He came here in March 2011 to play at the Ngapuhi Festival in Auckland, flying directly from Kingston to Auckland, then rehearsing with local musicians for a few days, only to have the festival cancelled on the day due to rain.
Stephenson is about as close as you’ll get to the ideal artist. Smart, talented, organised, professional, yet at the same time laid back and happy and a dream to deal with. Nothing’s a problem. So despite the disappointment, he went all the way back to Kingston (and it’s a very long way) with no complaint.
The Ngapuhi Festival is held every two years in Kaikohe. It used to be held every other year in Auckland as well, and whilst Kaikohe remained the flagship, Auckland was the larger event, attracting up to 40,000 people or more.
As well being a household name in Jamaica, Stephenson has a big following in Europe. The Auckland Ngapuhi Festival was seen as a good opportunity to expand his fan base to this part of the world. Well, it would have been. Bugger.
Stephenson’s third album, Dangerously Roots, has just been released. But it’s so hot off the press I haven’t had a chance to listen to it, other than a couple of earlier single releases off the album, such as Rasta For I, and a great cover of Bunny Wailer’s Cool Runnings.
So, for the time being anyway, 2010’s Black Gold is still my Duane Stephenson album of choice.
Stephenson makes his living not only as a singer but a songwriter. He started his entertainment career in his teens as part of dance/drama/music troupe the Cathy Levy Players. From there he formed the group To Isis with several fellow singers. They had some success in Jamaica, but after a decade or so Stephenson made the break as a solo artist.
As a songwriter, he has often written for other artists, creating hits for the likes of Jah Cure. A few years ago he was contracted to write a song for the Wailers for use with the World Food Programme. It’s not easy to create something appropriately anthemic and inspiring without crossing the line into kitsch, but he did so very successfully with A Step For Mankind. In addition to writing the song, he contributed vocals, and ended up singing with the Wailers for a couple of years, often opening their shows.
Not having his eggs all in one, or two, baskets, there was a time when he was contributing backing vocals to large numbers of Jamaican recordings as well.
Stephenson is a roots artist, in more ways than one. Roots reggae is what he does, and it’s the musical style he prefers. As well, he’s passionate about his own roots. The East Kingston suburb of August Town, where he grew up, is a defining influence in his life. His debut album was called From August Town and produced his hit August Town, a semi-autobiographical number about growing up there, set to backing based on Marley’s Jah Live.
August Town can be a bit rough these days, but true to his roots Stephenson still lives there.
From August Town was a very strong debut, with some standout Stephenson-penned tracks such as Ghetto Pain, Love Inna Di City, Chant Love and (Sly & Robbie backed) Mr B, as well as a new treatment of the late Tyrone Taylor’s 1983 hit Cottage In Negril. And of course the title track.
But Black Gold was a step up. Stephenson is an outstanding vocalist. He never fluffs a note and it seems unnaturally easy for him. Even noodling around a cappella on Lionel Ritchie songs, he sounds like Lionel Ritchie. He has a rich voice, but, like Marley, it’s heavy on the high mids, so it cuts through the mix (personally, I think that was at least a small part of Marley’s success).
And it’s a significant part of Stephenson’s package, too.
Every track on Black Gold is strong. From the quieter, acoustic-based Deception, to the hard commentary on gun violence in Cycle Goes On, to the to and fro banter with Gramps Morgan, about who gets the girl, in Rescue Me, to the oil/money/corruption commentary in Black Gold.
There’s a lot of very intelligent observation wrapped up in all these songs, none more so than in Sufferer’s Heights. There are two versions on the album, a ballad (which closes the album), and the much more up tempo rockers version. Both are quite a pointed commentary at the fallout from the Global Financial Crisis, with despair at losing your car and your beach house, and maybe struggling with the power bill, contrasted with the kids who’ve never had enough to eat, or proper clothes to wear, and for whom the state of the economy is largely irrelevant to their daily lives.
But whilst he doesn’t pull his punches in many of his lyrics, in sharp contrast to much of the Jamaican music industry (or the music industry in general), you won’t find any slackness in Stephenson’s recordings. He’s said he likes people to know they can play his CDs with the kids in the car.
Nor are Stephenson’s music videos of the gratuitous semi-porn variety so common in reggae nowadays. It’s a sad indictment that in today’s music industry, not just in Jamaica, but around the world, the standard arithmetic seems to be: bums + breasts = sales. If Peter Tosh were still around, I suspect he’d shake his head and denounce it with his trademark wordplay. Something like “ass-tit-metic”, perhaps.
Peter Tosh is a big influence on Stephenson, as influential as Marley I suspect, and Stephenson often performs Tosh’s version of Johnny B Goode. He does a lot of charity and community work, including working with prisoners, and I believe he’s spoken with Tosh’s killer in prison.
As well as recording his own compositions, Stephenson sometimes sings over a riddim. It’s a very Jamaican thing, and I doubt it would work elsewhere, but it’s quite common for a producer to create a riddim and then have a number of artists sing or toast over the top, so that you end up with an album of ten or twelve songs, each with identical music but different vocals and lyrics. With his vocal and songwriting abilities, Stephenson is often the standout on these albums.
A good example is his song Marijuana over the Drop It riddim. I don’t think even Peter Tosh would have anthropomorphised ganja into a wise, all knowing earth mother, as Stephenson does here (despite being a non smoker of anything himself). Brilliant.
One of Stephenson’s biggest champions is Jamaican sax maestro Dean Fraser (and if you’re in any doubt that Jamaican brass sections are the best thing ever to have been created, this footage of Fraser and cohorts with Dennis Brown at Montreux in 1979, as part of the awesome Lloyd Parks and the We The People Band, will dispel any doubt once and for all).
Fraser plays on, and produces, Stephenson’s albums, and his Blak Soil Band often tours as Stephenson’s backing band.
Singing and songwriting skills aside, what I love more than anything about Stephenson’s sound is the bass. Huge and fat old school bass tone on every single track. No twinkly highs or pesky mids. Just massive low end. As it should be.
Hopefully we’ll see Duane Stephenson down here again one day, and if conditions permit we might actually get to see him perform. In the meantime, though, treat yourself to his conscious, heavy, rootsy, old school reggae. You’ll love it.
4 – Rasta, Benjamin Zephaniah: “The path to obsession is varied, and weird”, said no one, ever. Yet in my case it’s pretty apt. I acquired the nickname “Bob” long before I encountered his music, because (for reasons too long and banal to recount here) one day early in 1981 I confessed to my fellow high school boarders my dreadful misunderstanding that Bob Marley was a prefect at our school. Ultimately that was, however, what sparked my interest in Bob’s music.
And so it was that a teenage obsession with Ford Zephyrs (especially the Mark III) led me to notice an LP by “Benjamin Zepheniah” (sic) in a Dunedin record shop in 1986. (I found out later that copies of that original pressing, with his name misspelt, were worth quite a bit).
Anyway, I remember first seeing the LP in Dunedin, but my diary confirms I didn’t actually buy a copy until later in 1986, in Christchurch (13 May, in the morning, to be precise. I kept a daily diary between December 1980 and November 1991. Even for me, it is the single most boring thing I have ever read. If you suffer from insomnia, I’m happy to send you a copy. You won’t be disappointed).
Benjamin Zephaniah’s is a story of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. From being virtually illiterate, having finished his full time education at 13, to a stint in prison for burglary, to one of the UK’s best-loved literary figures, with more honorary degrees and doctorates than you can poke a stick at.
He’s better known as a poet and author, but does sometimes put out an album. I like his musical efforts (even if the music isn’t always my cup of tea, the lyrics are worth it alone).
But his first album, Rasta, is something else. As far as I’m concerned it’s a bona fide reggae classic, up there with anything by Linton Kwesi Johnson, or indeed any other reggae artist. It’s a damn shame it isn’t better known (though, oddly, it went to number one in Yugoslavia).
Whilst it was the name that made me buy the album, when I put it on the turntable it hit me like every opponent in the occasional fights I got into at school. Hard, and triumphantly. In the face.
(Except for my friend Nick, who kneed me in the balls, thus sparing me the humiliation of once again going down miserably, and pathetically, in a fair fight).
My first thought was: who the hell is this guy? From that moment Rasta was, and remains, one of my all-time favourite records.
It’s so, so reggae, and yet unique musically too. Not as keyboard-heavy as a lot of reggae, but with massive and brilliantly simple basslines (very akin to the bass style on early LKJ records), played by Zephaniah himself. What a shame he didn’t continue playing bass, because he’s very, very good. And mixed up with some very non-reggae instruments, like sitar and oboe.
I have to confess, I’m not a huge poetry fan. I hardly ever read poetry, and even recitals don’t do much for me. I saw LKJ a few years ago in Auckland, without his band, and though of course it was a thrill just to see him in person, the actual show wasn’t that exciting.
Zephaniah, on the other hand, is truly a performance poet. He was in New Zealand in quick succession in 2000 and 2001, and oh man, what a performer. Even as a guest on some panel or other for (from memory) Auckland Readers and Writers Week, he was hugely entertaining. And when he gets down to his poetry. Fantastic.
And that same energy and excitement is all over Rasta, from the hit-you-in-the-face title track all the way through.
Of course the original LP had two sides, and side two opened as strongly as side one, with No Politicians. “Take back your VD and your dead god”. Enough said.
Being a professional wordsmith, Zephaniah’s grasp of timing and meter is perfect, as in the semi-a cappella Dis Policeman: “Well I don’t want to kid myself, but I don’t think I’m free. If I am free then why does he keep fucking kicking me?”
Most classic reggae albums have an ode to ganja. Although it’s been years, decades even, since Zephaniah used herb, he clearly still did when he recorded Rasta. Hence the slow and heavy Get High, which also sports about the biggest, best bass tone you could wish for.
When Rasta was reissued on CD, it included some bonus tracks, most notable of which were a couple of tracks Zephaniah recorded with the Wailers in Jamaica in the mid 80s. In particular Free South Afrika, a reworking of the track of the same name from the original Rasta LP.
I like both versions, but the Wailers-backed remake has a harder edge, and of the course the instantly recognisable Carly Barrett drum sound.
Legend has it that a couple of guys dropped copies of the (by then probably banned) Zephaniah/Wailers Free South Afrika single from helicopters in South Africa. Well, they dropped the sleeves anyway. It was deemed too hazardous, I understand, to drop a chunk of vinyl on anyone’s head from such a height.
What’s beyond doubt, whether the heli-drop story is accurate or not, is that Nelson Mandela, while still in prison, heard about the single and asked to meet Zephaniah when he was released. They remained friends until Mandela’s death.
Zephaniah is hugely respected in the literary and academic world. Unlike so many who mix it with the establishment, however, he has never compromised his ideals. Although, in person, he’s polite, charming, one of life’s genuine nice guys (with his quiet Birmingham accent a world away from the Jamaican accent he often employs in his performance (it’s the only voice he uses on Rasta), – without kitsch or corn, it must be said), he made it clear what the British government could do when they offered him an OBE.
I don’t think it’s that easy to get a copy of Rasta. You may be able to pick one up on Amazon, but right now there’s only one available, it seems. If you do manage to get hold of a copy, treasure it. Insure it even. It will be your friend for life.
5 – Grace Jones, Private Life – The Compass Point Sessions: I understand that St John Ambulance officers no longer check for a pulse when looking for signs of life. They simply play any track from Grace Jones’ Compass Point sessions. If the patient doesn’t start grooving, they’re dead. It’s not foolproof though – there are documented cases of the recently departed getting down to these tracks. Most reputable funeral directors won’t allow cuts from these sessions to be played at or anywhere near a service.
And it’s not hard to see why. This music just reaches inside you and grabs your gall bladder, or your spleen, or whatever it is that’s responsible for “groove” (sorry, but I don’t know – in Southland you’re taught practical things, like don’t wash your woollens with your Velcro gloves, but groove is definitely not in the curriculum).
My favourite rhythm section of all time is the Barrett Brothers, Aston (Family Man) on bass and Carlton (Carly) on drums. But their career as a team and as the musical core of the Wailers ended prematurely. When Bob Marley died in 1981, the band that had worked with him almost exclusively for over a decade was left directionless and eventually, for a time, penniless. Then, finally, the Barrett brothers as a team was brought to an end when Carly was murdered in April 1987, just a couple of months after the Wailers had toured New Zealand.
The other iconic reggae rhythm section comprises, of course, drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare.
It’s hard to know which rhythm section is the more influential. Bob is ubiquitous, and with only a few, largely uncredited, exceptions (primarily on Catch a Fire and Survival), the Barretts played on every Bob track from about 1969. When you hear Bob, you almost always hear the Barretts (and you hear him everywhere, from the White House to the Amazon rainforest to the Himalayas to the recent Pt Chevalier Primary School disco – where he was a welcome oasis in the barren tasteland* of One Direction and Katy Perry).
*Oops. Sorry Simon, that’s a sort-of pun, I think. And it is pretty terrible.
In the end both, in their own way, have been hugely influential. Anyone who’s ever tried to play reggae has drawn directly from both, even if they don’t realise it. And, as is clear from John Masouri’s excellent book on the Wailers, Wailing Blues, and his equally excellent Peter Tosh biography, Steppin’ Razor, Bob’s snaffling of the Barretts for himself directly paved the way for Sly & Robbie anyway.
In the late 60s and early 70s, the Barretts were THE rhythm section of choice in Jamaica. The Sly & Robbie before Sly & Robbie, if you will. Robbie Shakespeare was Family Man’s bass student and protégé. When the Barretts ended up working pretty much full time for the Wailers, and then officially full time for Bob after Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh departed, Family Man passed the mantle to Shakespeare, telling him to take over where the Barretts left off.
After playing with various drummers, Shakespeare met Dunbar, and they both quickly realised that they were peas in a pod. Their partnership has endured four decades and they’re still smashing it.
The word “Supergroup” is bandied around casually these days and mostly it’s pretty meaningless.
Them Crooked Vultures? Black Country Communion?
Sometimes, though, the term is absolutely appropriate. In the words of Crocodile Dundee: “That’s not a supergroup. THIS is a supergroup”. He referred, of course, to the Compass Point All Stars.
Put together by Island Records’ Chris Blackwell in 1980 to be the house group for his newly constructed Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas, the group initially comprised Sly & Robbie, guitarist Mikey Chung, percussion maestro Uziah “Sticky” Thompson (who sadly died just a short time ago), British rock guitarist Barry Reynolds, and keyboard geniuses Wally Badarou and (Wailer) Tyrone Downie. Plus engineer and producer the late, great, Alex Sadkin.
Later additions to the band included guitarist Daryl Thompson, a long time Sly & Robbie collaborator, who also sadly died this year.
Amazingly, notwithstanding the superb quality of the parts, the group as a whole exceeded the sum of those parts. What these guys produced when backing other artists was extraordinary, and never more so than when they joined forces with Grace Jones.
Private Life – The Compass Point Sessions is a compilation drawing largely from the best of those three albums, with extended and dub versions.
And I just can’t gush enough about how great it is. Like I said above, if you don’t groove to this, you’re dead.
But the thrill is not only in the music and the musicianship. A very large percentage of the tracks on this compilation are covers. There’s a level of genius almost impossible to comprehend in the way these songs have been selected, from a very eclectic range of sources, and then treated in a way that takes them to a whole new level of groove, while still retaining the essence of the original. The danger with covers is that you can either faithfully replicate a song (pointless), or alter it so much it’s unrecognisable (arguably, murder). Not so here. The treatment is almost perfect. Some examples:
Walking In The Rain from Aussie group Flash and the Pan.
Grace Jones, Walking In The Rain.
The Pretenders, Private Life.
Grace Jones, Private Life. Not messing with a good thing, Robbie Shakespeare takes the original bassline and builds on it. Chrissie Hynde has been quoted as saying that when she heard Jones’ version, it was, to her, how the song was meant to sound.
Joy Division, She’s Lost Control.
Grace Jones, She’s Lost Control.
Use Me, from Bill Withers.
Grace Jones, Use Me. Oh man, the groove on this! Kathryn Ryan got it absolutely right a couple of months ago on Nine to Noon when Grant Smithies played this track, and Ryan said the bass and drums “frame the song”.
Tom Petty, Breakdown.
Grace Jones, Breakdown. Robbie Shakespeare’s walking bass is superb, and Dunbar shows once again that his backbeat is a thing of magic, especially when it comes straight off a reggae or reggae-ish beat. For me, it’s almost an onion moment as the song goes into the chorus and that backbeat, not at the sentiment, but the musical genius.
There are too many stunning covers to list here, really, though I can’t let I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango) go without a mention, with Jones and the band adding reggae and lyrics to Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango.
Not everything from these sessions is a cover, though. Early 80s hit Pull Up To The Bumper, for example, was co-written by Jones.
I am seriously slow on the uptake. Sometimes it takes decades for the penny to drop. At university in the 80s I knew a medical student whose thesis research consisted of crapping into a potty and analysing the contents. She would do her business, open the window and snap on her rubber gloves, with her flatmates giggling outside the bedroom door (“we know what you’re doing in there”).
Nearly 20 years later the perfect retort came to me: “That’s not a real thesis, you’re just going through the motions”. But of course, by then, I’d missed the boat. What a wasted opportunity.
So a quick wit I’m not (though I’m occasionally called something that sounds a bit similar).
Believe it or not, however, that wasn’t my all-time penny-dropping record. It took me nearly 30 years to understand that Pull Up To The Bumper isn’t actually about a long black limousine. If there was any doubt that I’m a bit thick, that settled it. (And thank goodness that although she’d had a European partner at the time, she used a bit of artistic licence. “Pull up to the bumper, baby, in your small white convertible” just wouldn’t be the same).
These tracks are a reminder, too, that keeping it simple and concentrating on feel is what makes a great song. Forget all the flash. Bass has had a resurgence over the last few years, but so many young players want to learn to slap and tap and solo, without ever, it seems, learning the fundamentals. Do yourself a favour. Get yourself a Fender Jazz, string it with flatwounds, and get down to some of these Robbie Shakespeare basslines. Like Family Man (who taught him of course), Shakespeare’s basslines are often simple arpeggios with a strong nod to the vocal melody. But in context, they are perfection. Listen and learn, Grasshopper.
In 2003 I was lucky enough to be at the soundcheck for a show billed as Sly & Robbie with Michael Rose, but what in reality was in all but name Black Uhuru (Duckie Simpson owns the name apparently, so it couldn’t be used on that tour).
Dunbar’s drum soundcheck was a show in itself. An hour or so of absolute brilliance while he got everything right.
And once that was done, a crew member soundchecked Shakespeare’s bass. Shakespeare himself wandered in later (lesson: always respect the drummer, but always be the bass player).
To prove the old adage that it’s not what you play, but what you don’t play that matters, one of the grooviest, funkiest things ever, that almost (but not quite) succeeds in getting a white boy like me dancing in time, is the half beat pause that Dunbar sometimes leaves after a tom fill, before the cymbal crash (such as at 18s in on Private Life). Those tiny little things, those little sparks of genius, are what separates the funk from the flunk.
The only flat moment on this compilation is Jones’ cover of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire. It was a demo, never made it to any earlier record it seems, and it’s pretty obvious why.
But, overall, this collection is so good it hurts. If you don’t have it, or don’t already have the albums from which it’s drawn, get it. You won’t regret it. It may change your life.