Of course I can only speak for myself, but for me listening to music is like trying to get completely satisfied by something, despite the fact that I know it will never happen. And I approach every artist, producer, tune and definitely album in that way, hoping that maybe each and every one will at least maybe lead me to getting the same mental feeling that I get physically when I’ve reached my fill. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened as of yet (and it most certainly never will), but I have had the wonderful experience of getting close to that total musical satisfaction. That feeling isn’t one which comes along every time with ’greatness’ interestingly enough, in terms of actual albums (which is, as usual, the reason why we are here today) and even sometimes in the other cases, the music coming from the Virgin Islands Reggae scene has proven to be a very fruitful source of musical nourishment. Of course what you may actually be thinking of is Midnite, but that’s not the case here (at least not usually). Midnite’s (and by “Midnite’s”, I mean Vaughn Benjamin‘s) output is wonderfully usually unusual (if that makes even the smallest amount of since, at all) which certainly lends itself to greatness (and confusion), but fulfillment? Not so much. A few names which do tend to provide such appetizing setups, however, include the likes of the brilliant Batch, Dean Pond, Bambu Station and of course, Tuff Lion. These are names who, again while they may not be SPECTACULAR each and every time out (and no one is), they offer a type of vibes which is just so RICH and HEALTHY that, even when stripped down to their absolute barest forms, still is top notch and quality material. That then leads to examining the style of VI Reggae music as a whole, to some degree, and seeing either WHY (which is a question you just are not going to be able to answer) or, more importantly, HOW is it so. Well, throughout the recent history of Reggae music from the Virgin Islands, it’s always had this very STEADY sound and appeal to it and my theory is that to many people who LOVE Reggae music in general (yours truly so definitely included), within us it’s a matter of striking chords which may only have been tapped by old school Jamaican Reggae music, but in this case, it’s doing it in a modern and VERY enjoyable way. Whatever the reason, however, these are artists who have helped and lead the music to the point where it is now, as beautiful and fulfilling as I’ve ever heard it to be.
So when you link such a wonderful backing with an artist who, himself, brings forth a similarly well done and rich sound, you know that you’re potentially dealing with something special here. Such is the case we find ourselves dealing with in Ras Iba’s latest concoction, Matsahyel. This absolutely WONDERFUL production finds an artist who I’m inclined to refer to as ‘mysterious’ in Iba - because although he has certainly familiarized himself with fans worldwide - not as much is known about the chanter from out of St. Croix as some of his more popular peers (and even some who I wouldn’t necessarily call more popular, such as Army and Danny I), at a stage in his career, now three albums deep, where almost everything seems to be clicking and working in perfect order. It is so interesting here because of that list of producers and musicians that I mentioned, in Iba’s case we’re going to focus on two of them, Jalani Horton & Bambu Station and the venerable Tuff Lion. Bambu Station, to my knowledge, actually gave Iba his start on the international level as he appeared in 2002 on their Talkin’ Roots Vol. 1 compilation which would launch the chanter into his very own debut album Jah Lion: Children Of The Nile the very next year and his sophomore set, Many Lives three years on (both on Mt. Nebo Records, which I‘m pretty sure is Bambu Station‘s own label). Both of those albums, CLEARLY showed an outstanding artist and, although he didn’t necessarily receive the type of attention you might have thought was in store for him, Ras Iba maintained the course, consistently performing, and apparently just honing his craft in general because despite the fact that his first two albums were very good, Matsahyel is an obvious improvement on both! Certainly that progress is due in large part to Iba just becoming a ‘better’ artist. I’m tempted now to go back and vibe the older two again, just to make sure that this level of WRITING wasn’t present on them, but I don’t remember it being the case that I have to rewind and replay a single tune upwards of ten times or so just to REALLY get a grasp of what’s being said (all the more confounding is the fact that the lyrics are in the album’s sleeve!). And on top of Iba’s upward moving lyrical abilities, there’s also the fact that Matsahyel is largely the musical work of the Tuff Lion, one of the greatest producers of Reggae music in the world (and a very good artist in his own right), who also worked extensively on the first two albums as well, but is THE lead producer and player of instruments on this release and the two veterans create near MAGIC on this album. As the title (and cover) might suggest, as well as Iba’s history, Matsahyel is a very spiritual album, but it definitely retains enough social and ‘political’ elements within it to make it not to the point where you simply cannot follow along unless you happen to be Iba himself or someone who shares the EXACT same beliefs as he does in regards to almost everything (meaning again, Iba himself). Also, as the situations surrounding the album would suggest, this is HEAVY material. “Produced by Tuff Lion” on anything usually guarantees that and the album is no exception so, even before getting into the music, you can be sure that it is one best appreciated by the MATURE listener out there. I myself (most of the times) am, thankfully, one such listener so I wasn’t at all surprised by just how much I liked this very THICK album.
Having dealt with more than my fair share of twenty + track monster releases (sometimes very good, sometimes not so much), I was rather happy just to see that this album checked in at a very comfortable fourteen tunes, which goes to show that you can pack a downright OBESE amount of vibes and colours in such a tempered form and that’s also a great thing. Not short on great things at all is Ras Iba’s new release, his third album to date, Matsahyel on Tuff Lion’s Outpost Music Workshop label and things on the musical side get going with one of the album’s finest offerings right out of the gate, ‘Blessed Life’. This tune is just so BIG sounding and it’s clear why it was chosen as the opener because in terms of sound AND in terms of its actual message, it gets things going in a very positive and upful direction and were I going to stress it to that degree (and someday I just might), I think the tune is very instrumental in overstanding the main concept behind the album. Wonderful start. From living a blessed life, Iba goes on to deal with the ‘blesser’ Himself on the next tune, ‘Haile I’. This tune is DEFINITELY one of the biggest vibes on the entire album and it’s not one that ‘grows’ to any noticeable degree. It’s there IMMEDIATELY, even not being as vibrant as the opener (although I do favour it between the two), you get the notion right away that this is a powerful tune giving thanks and praise to His Majesty. Another BIG tune. Next in is the title track. . . TEARS! I LOVE this tune. ‘Matsahyel’ is the name Iba has come into on his spiritual journey (and apparently it was given to him, you HAVE to hear the way the wording goes on this tune), having “found Jah” along the way! This one, I could have so much fun in analyzing because, although it’s certainly very spiritual, I think there’re elements of at least assumed tangible and literal behaviour implied in it as well, as Iba says, “ ‘HE HAS FOUND JAH.’ That’s what the elders say”, while simultaneously taking the listener on EDUCATIONAL journey as well. The tune appears to have come to Iba during one of his many tours where he toured Israel and I’m sure all who got to see that show are very appreciative, while the rest of us can now so wonderfully indirectly be appreciative and LOVE the fruits of that venture as well. VERY powerful tune!
Besides the title track here, I found myself mostly drawn to three tunes in particular on the album and for various reasons. Going sequentially, the first of the three would actually be my choice as my favourite tune altogether on Matsahyel, the brilliant ‘Mission’. This tune just makes you FEEL GOOD. I could elaborate (and I’m probably going to), but that’s the prevailing sentiment from me there. The ‘mission’ which Ras Iba so nicely has put himself on is to find and spread LOVE in even the most atrocious aspects of the world and I’m signing up! I’m going! You can do whatever you like (big respect goes to one Soul Sista, Empress Tonya and Tuff Lion himself for backing singing on that tune which REALLY pushes it even higher). The next tune to have really stuck itself on my attention is the stirring ‘Jah People’. This one is essentially a BIG social commentary, but certainly one that isn’t pedestrian by any stretch of the word. This tune is just IMPORTANT! Iba questions many aspects of obviously corrupt society (you have to hear what the man says about the prison population in the States. GENIUS), but does so in a very fresh way, eschewing the kind of lame and stereotypical way you usually hear on such tunes (“we don’t own no plane, no own no gun factory. So tell me why there’s so much guns and drugs in our community”) and does it with another BIG vibed tune. And the other tune which really caught my senses (fittingly) was the closer, ‘Warrior’, another one which ‘goes against the grain’, for the type of tune it is. Ras Iba calls himself a warrior, but one of DEFENSE and certainly not offense, and a warrior of music and spreading the love. To give you the direction of the tune - there was a line which REALLY stuck out for me when Iba says, “I’ve got to spread His message that a conscious mind is our Jah given right. A MESSAGE TO MY PEOPLE THAT WE CAN DISAGREE WITHOUT HAVING A FIGHT”! That, for me, is lyrical EXCELLENCE. You just don’t get any better than that in terms of conveying an idea and an opinion in the literal since, but leaving just enough room so that the listener can also figure things out for themselves and build their own thought from it. ‘Warrior’ is probably the best written tune on the album and it is absolutely gorgeous over that LUSH Tuff Lion laid riddim (more on that in a bit). HUGE three tunes there.
But don’t let that steer you away from the other eight selections on Matsahyel either, because any of them could strike similar chords with you as well. Check ‘Herbal Ride’, the obligatory herbalist number, which is one SWEET vibed tune. The tune itself isn’t groundbreaking or anything in that regards, but it is so well done and so STRONG that you cannot skip track #4 on this album and be happy about what you’ve done! Two tunes on the album I’ve come to associate in terms of sound and the messages as well - ‘Free’ and ‘Gun Ting’ (which I think may be the album’s first single). They both have this kind of acoustic/stringy kind of a feel to them (‘Free’ sounds downright HEAVENLY at times), but in different ways. ‘Free’ is a tune which speaks to escaping the oppression and “illusions” of the world and it also very cleverly and coyly speaks on subjects like repatriation as well. And I unite with the obvious antiviolence sentiments of ‘Gun Ting’ for obvious reasons in the social aspect of both tunes in terms of freeing oneself from a negative in each case. The latter has a much more dynamic vibes to it and it’ll most likely receive quite a bit of attention and justly so, because it too is a very powerful tune (but ‘Free’ definitely has my ear right now). I could also very well add another somewhat similarly aimed tune (in terms of the message) to this group as well - the very nice - ‘It No Easy’. This is one of the few tunes that I think you’ll find which actually takes the message of life in the ghetto being hard and then adds to it the (DETAILED) allure of the youths taking up these negative ways of life in order to make things ‘better’ for themselves. You don’t hear tunes too much which go in that direction and then goes the next step of slowly but surely (and effectively) dismantling that allure and showing that ‘better’ is certainly available through the will of His Majesty. This tune is definitely going to keep you on your toes so DEFINITELY make sure you’re well paying attention. Going back, take a nice listen to a next tune by the name of ‘Consciousness’ and also the tune which immediately follows it, 'Love For Mankind’. These two tunes also share similarities in terms of their message (which was perhaps why they were placed together) with the former pointing directly to The Almighty, whereas the latter points to Love [aka ‘The Almighty’]. The two are very strong also, particularly ‘Consciousness’ to my ears and that one-drop on ‘Love For Mankind’ is HEAVY! ‘On My Mind’ is a kind of a changeup for Matsahyel. It’s kind of a love song with a very nice and 'funky' sounding vibes (with a little Spanish tinge to it also I believe). It has a very complex vibes to it and of course the message is right on point as usual, it’s very nice to listen to. And lastly is ‘Warn Dem’ which is the 'calm before the storm' in a sense. The tune is giving evildoers and the unrighteous ONE LAST CHANCE before the lightening strikes for the final time on their wicked ways and you can so look at this BIG tune in a literal sense of the tunes on the album also - first you ‘Warn Dem’, then, when they don’t take heed (and they won’t), you send on the ‘Warriors’, which bring this wonderful album to a close.
I also want to mention that the actual MUSIC you’ll hear on Matsahyel is TOP NOTCH. There are some very beautiful compositions on this album and Ras Iba certainly had a virtual playground of sorts on which to display his masterful messages courtesy of the Tuff Lion.
Overall, when I started writing this review, I very much had the ‘4.999999’ rating reserved for the album, but I think through scrutinizing it for the sake of this review, I’m going to give it the extra ten-millionth of a score and bump it up. Matsahyel is BEAUTIFUL! I guided this review in the direction of the wonderful material from out of the Virgin Islands which tends to be very vast and satisfying and this album certainly has that going for it and more so than usual and in that regards I guess I am somewhat surprised, even though I shouldn’t be. It is also to be noted, as I said, that you probably won’t be able to experience said vastness if you don’t have a lot of experience with Reggae music, this one is almost exclusively for the experienced fans, who’ll almost certainly love it. So am I satisfied??? Nope! I never will be satisfied, but in Matsahyel Ras Iba and Tuff Lion have prepared a meal and seasoned it to perfection, so I’m certainly not starving after listening to the first TRULY GREAT Reggae album of 2010.
Outpost Music Workshop/Negus I Records