Low-key reggae from northern Malawi

Michael Mountain Album CoverOccasionally I stumble over fantastic stories about music and musicians. One of those is of Malawian Michael Mountain, or Phiri which is his original Chichewa surname. He is a multifaceted man – a small-scale tobacco and maize farmer and a community organizer as well as a prolific songwriter and heartfelt singer.

In 2011 he met Swedish musician Mattias Stålnacke, who moved to Malawi the year after to set up Moto Wambili Studios to record some of the talents he had met when visiting. The music he recorded is now up for release via his Bristol-based label Spare Dog Records.

The second album, and the first of a couple of reggae sets, is Michael Mountain’s debut Nowhere Else to Go, where he tells stories from the hills and villages of northern Malawi and Lake Malawi. It was recorded mostly together with local musicians and is rooted in reggae and the Rastafari movement and Michael sings about the hardships of life and love; sometimes he gets political and sometimes he is romantic.

Nowhere Else to Go is kind of singer-songwriter reggae grounded in the folk-acoustic tradition. It’s organic and vibrant with infectious melodies and genuine warmth.

This album is traditional, yet something fresh, and far from contemporary European one drop or dirty Jamaican dancehall.

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Scorching set from Omar Perry and Sly & Robbie

omar-perry-be-coolSly & Robbie have recently been very productive. Last year they, for example, dropped no less than three dub albums and a combination set with Japanese Spicy Chocolate. And when 2015 has just started they have been heavily involved in two glorious efforts – first No-Maddz’ excellent debut album and now a new set from Omar Perry.

Omar Perry is son of the legendary production wizard and mixing virtuoso Lee Perry. Be Cool is his fourth album – or EP is maybe more accurately since it collects only seven tracks – and is his first four years.

Sly & Robbie are responsible for production and the solid Dub-Stuy crew from New York City have made magic behind the mixing desk.

Omar Perry has a style similar to more familiar artists like Jah Mason, Junior Kelly and Turbulence. It’s a rough mix of raw singing and gruff deejaying. In the effective album opener Can’t Stop Me Flow he explodes and is at his best battling the pulsating bass line and pounding drums accompanied by synths and horns. Blaze Ya Fire is in the same vein, and so is Nah Go A Jail Fi Ganja, even though it’s a bit slower.

But Be Cool is not all about dread lyrics and haunting melodies, a softer side is also showcased on My Shining Star and Love to See You Smile.

As usual with Sly & Robbie – it’s well-crafted, expertly executed and with intriguing arrangements and song structures. And with Omar Perry showing no mercy on the microphone there is need to put up a fight against a set like this. Just surrender.

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A digital bonanza from Atili Bandalero and friends

0004045131_10The European digital reggae scene is thriving and a number of strong albums have been released in recent months. First it was Tonto Addi’s debut set Dancehall Showcase, then it was Dr. Ring-Ding’s playful Dig It All and just a few weeks ago French trio Stand High Patrol dropped their smoky A Matter of Scale.

Another strong and vital set is French producer, DJ and beatmaker Atili Bandalero’s Closed Circuit; an album where he has invited seven deejays and singjays to showcase their talent over nine tracks. It was put out in mid-December last year and is now available for free download over at Bandcamp.

And there are at least nine good reasons to head over there – Prendy’s Tomorrow, Speng Bond’s Sweet Like Sugar, Joseph Cotton’s Kicks and Have Fun, Green Cross’ Boom Skeng, Gappy Ranks’ Gone, Biga Ranx’ Video Game and the two tough cuts where Joseph Cotton, Biga Ranx, Green Cross and Baby Boom take turn on the microphone.

Closed Circuit is rooted in the mid-80s digital reggae scene. The arrangements are straightforward, the tempo often high and sometimes it feels like you are listening to a reggae-oriented soundtrack to a Nintendo video game. Listen to a few familiar samples on Biga Ranx’ Video Game and you’ll know what I mean. Especially if you were growing up in the 80s.

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Jah9 heads on first U.S. tour

Jah9 is ready to head on her first U.S. tour.

Jah9 is ready to head on her first U.S. tour.

Jah9 took the world by storm two years ago when she dropped her much anticipated debut album New Name. Since then she has put out a few singles, and now starts a new chapter – her first U.S. tour on February 4 to 8.

Reggae has never been huge in the U.S., even though Bob Marley sold well in the 70s and 80s. A few singles have also been successful on the charts and the latest one to climb high is Gyptian’s monster smash Hold You, released in 2010.

But away from the charts is an ongoing roots resurgence. It can be felt and heard both in the U.S. and Jamaica where artists such as Protoje and Chronixx have started making names for themselves. The most successful is definitely young Chronixx who graced The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon with Here Comes Trouble last July.

Janine “Jah9” Cunningham is also part of the reggae revival, or Rastafari movement as she puts it.

“This movement is Rastafari, and it is a resurgence of consciousness. It is not just in the music, it is in all forms of expression and the arts. All of the forms of the feminine which are no more dominant in our time and space, especially in this new age that we’re being ushered into. An age where the principals of the feminine, principles of self-conquering heart, principles of nurturing and care and love are more significant to us as a people than war and competition. That’s the essence of the movement,” explains Jah9.

More than music
It’s more than reggae. It’s more than music. And it’s more than Jamaica. It’s driven by certain Rastafari principals and ideals.

“Fortunately we as Jamaican youth have tapped into that current, and are using that to create and share the messages with the world,” she says.

And because it’s not merely about music, the success is built on the teachings of Rastafari, Bob Marley and Burning Spear; two artists that have made a tremendous impact around the world.

“They have always put Rastafari and principles of Marcus Garvey and knowledge of self and kind sustainable living and all of these things. They’ve always put them to the fore. Whatever their personal life entailed, when they were given an opportunity to speak they spoke on behalf of Rastafari, on behalf of consciousness, and I think that is we have also tapped into, what our message is resounding throughout the Earth,” explains Jah9.new_name_cover

Bringing the roots and culture
Jah9’s debut album New Name was highly praised when it came out. The set was produced by Rory Gilligan of Stone Love and has a sound far from the ordinary. It’s conscious, spiritual and has a smoky jazz vibe to it.

And now she’ll be performing her material live on her first U.S. tour. Between February 4 and 8 she visits Raleigh, Washington, New York City, Stowe and New Jersey.

“It’s a really good opportunity [to tour in the U.S.] because that is a market that reggae music made a significant impact in, but more of late Jamaican reggae music hasn’t really had an opportunity to shine in that space. So it feels really fitting to be able to bring the experience of roots and culture to the U.S. Especially because a few of the dates I will be there with my brothers, Midnite, so it’s a really good opportunity to really share a particularly poignant significant message of Rastafari and liberation in the U.S., especially at a time like this,” says Jah9.

Jah9 has been described as Jamaica’s best-kept secret by veteran musician Mikey Bennett.

Jah9 has been described as Jamaica’s best-kept secret by veteran musician Mikey Bennett.

Not just an entertainer
She says she tries not to have many expectations on the tour, but she has a clear aim – to give the U.S. East Coast an opportunity to see the culture of Rastafari. And as she’s a young Rastafari woman she also wants to kind of be an example.

“We bring elements of believity, that’s why I we’re calling it the dub-treatment rather than just ‘Jah9 coming to entertain ’. So it is really going to be more of an experience, a sharing, than just one entertaining event,” she says.

On several of the date she will support VI reggae trailblazers Midnite, her brothers as she calls them. She’s honoured to be able to perform along them and it will be the third time they share stage. Together they will create an experience rather than just a show.

“I think it is a great opportunity for healing and for growth and development of spirit. And I think the persons who come out will get an opportunity to be truly blessed. And even for us, our performance will also have an opportunity to share with each other and also be blessed,” she explains.

Spreading consciousness in 2015
Jah9 didn’t release much last year, but in October she dropped the single Revolution Lullaby, an unusual bright cut produced by Bregt Puraman and released in celebration of the crowning of Haile Selassie. This year seems to be different though and much is happening for Jah9 in 2015.

“Singles and new free download mixed tape, with information mixed with music, as well as another EP project with Rory Stonelove. Some of my own productions coming forward as well this year,” she reveals, and adds:

“There is also community activism through the dub treatment, through yoga and dub, through omega vibrations, projects which are specifically targeting women in particular. And hopefully this year we will be able to enter the South American markets and the continent of Africa in a real way with more than just entertainment, but with empowerment and crucial, crucial learning.”

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Stand High Patrol takes you to another place

Stand-High-Patro-A-Matter-Of-Scale-JaqFrench trio Stand High Patrol’s second album A Matter of Scale offers something new and exciting to the otherwise often traditional digital reggae scene.

This is a brave album and it offers mostly extremely sparse arrangements and several of the cuts lie close to digital jazz with a reggae and dub twist. Even though Stand High Patrol also manage to showcase they’re still at ease with producing hard and triumphant steppers, as shown on Warehouse, The Bridge and The Tunnel; three spine-chilling tunes I would run away from if I met them on the street.

It’s a 13 track set and a mix of vocal cuts and dubstumentals. Pupajim does most of the singing and his nasal pitch might be something of an acquired taste.

Stripped-down tunes like album opener Tempest, with its desolate trumpet, Geography, with an infectious piano line, the slow Sleep On It and the cinematic Blue Wax could all work well at a smoky jazz club in Paris, while Gambling Johnny and Routine are more conventional 80s sounding digital reggae aimed at the sound system circuit.

A Matter of Scale offers something fresh, while it’s still rooted in the 80s digital reggae scene.

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Kingston City is New Kingston’s best album yet

unnamedU.S. reggae powerhouse Easy Star Records – home to the successful Easy Star All-Stars – latest signing is New York City-based family quartet New Kingston; brothers Stephen Suckarie, Courtney Panton, Jr., Tahir Panton and their father Courtney Panton, Sr.

Kingston City is their third album and follows Kingston University released in 2013, a set that included the Black Uhuru-influenced album opener Life. Their new album is more consistent compared to their previous two sets, but they still manage to combine soulful vocal harmonies and bright melodies with pulsating bass lines.

The album, which hosts twelve tracks, leans heavily towards contemporary European roots reggae, and New Kingston are somewhat rougher compared to some of their U.S. peers. The set opens explosively with the up-tempo Today and the pace is high throughout the first four cuts. Then comes the deep and slow Honorable followed by the beautiful Kimie Miner combination You Are Mine with its infectious chorus and haunting keys.

The album is actually laced with several guest appearances and New Kingston is also joined by Tribal Seeds’ vocalists Maad T-Ray and E.N Young, The Wailing Souls, the late Sugar Minott and Sister Carol graces the 80s sounding Conquer Dem with her signature deejaying.

Kingston City – available everywhere except in Europe where it drops on February 23 – is well-crafted and definitely New Kingston’s best album to date and a strong addition to an otherwise often shallow U.S. reggae scene.

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Another sound bwoy slayer from Maximum Sound

unnamedUK-based super producer Frenchie has teamed up with no other than the legendary King Jammy for a new scorching riddim titled Clash of the Titans, set for release on February 16.

This riddim is in the same blazing vein as the mighty Tin Mackerel riddim, released in 2013 with monster tunes like Konshens & Romain Virgo’s We No Worry Bout Them, Mr. Vegas & Natel & Major Mackerel’s Flash Up Unu Lighta and Tony Curtis’ Number One Sound.

Clash of the Titans is voiced by seven different artists – Ninjaman, Mr. Vegas, Ward 21, Major Mackerel, Shanty B, Vershon and Masicka – and comes with nine cuts, of which two are from Vershon and one is an instrumental.

More than a few sound bwoys were slayed by the Tin Mackerel riddim and with this one another dozen or two will face the same cruel fate.

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A fruitful meeting between Sly & Robbie and No-Maddz

nomaddz_SlyandrobbiepresentsThe Jamaican band revival continues. It started about four or five years ago with successful bands like Dubtonic Kru and has since continued with Raging Fyah, Uprising Roots Band and Mystikal Revolution. And now it’s time for No-Maddz’ debut set. They’ve been around for some time, but has until last year only released a few singles. The singles from last year – Romance and Shotta – were the band’s best yet, and it might have been because of their new producers – Sly & Robbie.

Most of the contemporary Jamaican reggae bands have their own sound – Dubtonic Kru leans against funk, Raging Fyah leans towards pop, Uprising Roots is more rootsy and Mystikal Revolution has a rock twist.

Few Jamaican producers have such a distinctive sound as Sly & Robbie and they have successfully managed to transfer it to No-Maddz. And their new album together is Sly & Robbie in their prime.

Sly & Robbie Presents No-Maddz has powerful, erratic beats and playful sound effects set to beautiful vocal harmonizing. Check for example Modern Love Affair, a cut that share harmonies with Color Me Badd’s hit song I Wanna Sex You Up, released in 1991.

No-Maddz also borrows unexpectedly from Spandau Ballet and their monster smash True, which has a similar angelic vocal hook as Love Story. They also play with the melody and discofied groove from The O’Jays’ Now That We Found Love – probably best known today for the versions by Third World and Heavy D & The Boyz – on Ganja Stain.

Sly & Robbie Presents No-Maddz is a joy from start to finish. It’s cleverly produced and tailored to No-Maddz with engineered perfection.

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Dr. Ring Ding & Dreadsquad dig the 80s

unnamedGerman singer and trombone player Dr Ring Ding has played a key part on the German ska and reggae scene since the late 80s. He took his name in tribute of The Skatalites – who has released a single with the same name – and formed Dr. Ring Ding & The Senior Allstars in the 90s and went solo in the early 2000s.

He has worked with most subgenres within reggae, including, ska, roots, dancehall and dub and now he has joined forces with Polish Dreadsquad for an album dedicated to the pioneers of the early computerized dancehall scene, including innovative producers and musicians like King Jammy, Bobby Digital, Augustus “Gussie” Clarke and Steely & Clevie.

The title of this 14 track set – Dig it All – is a clever one and catches the sound and atmosphere very well. Dr. Ring Ding might be dismissed as a mere novelty act, but he has a free flow, entertaining lyrics and a feel for catchy melodies and hooks.

Dig it All is a playful album from start to finish and the riddims created using loads of classic gear from the old days, for example Yamaha CS-01, Casio MT41 and MT100, Roland Space Echo, Fisher SpaceXpander and the Coron DS-08 drum synth, catch the sound of mid-80s both successfully and respectfully.

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No ordinary dub album from Prince Fatty and Nostalgia 77

628747029-TRU297_300ppi_RGBNearly a decade ago acclaimed UK producers Prince Fatty and Nostalgia 77 met for the first time. Prince Fatty firmly rooted in vintage reggae and Nostalgia 77 being a bit more eclectic, but primarily based within jazz, blues and pop. They have released several collaborations since and a full-length set was released last year with virtually no or very little promotion.

On In the Kingdom of Dub – it has nothing do to with the Scientist album with the same title – Prince Fatty has taken on ten tracks from Nostalgia 77’s back catalogue. It’s a flavourful meeting where Prince Fatty has given the cuts new life with solid grooves; dubby, funky, soulful and jazzy.

Most of the tracks are low-key and breezy with vocal snippets popping in and out here and there. You have the almost haunting Rainclouds Dub and Quiet Dawn Dub as well as the highly organic and ethereal Little Steps Dub. But then you also have tracks with a more dancefloor-oriented sound, like the Latin-flavoured Freedom Dub and the rowdy Skeletons Dub with its echoing sound effects and screaming trumpets.

In the Kingdom of Dub is superbly and tastefully mixed and Prince Fatty works extensively with tempos and breaks building up crescendos and suddenly tearing them apart. Listen to this set and you’re definitely in for a few surprises.

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