Tuesday, May 10, 2011

'The Right Way': A Review of "Rasta Government by Takana Zion

Reggae media sucks. For the past twenty-four months and a half that we've been running this blog, it's one of the most comfortable statements that I can make and, certainly, as part of that, in the most informal of senses, I do count towards that as well. Reggae media/press or whatever you want to call it just doesn't do a good job and it hasn’t for quite some time and, perhaps, on the grand scale, it never has. Surely there're individuals and small groups who do well, but they are few and far between and for a music which comes from such a varied and 'fractured' background, a stronger media base on the ground level (meaning before something has gone 'mainstream') is something which could potentially do an immeasurable amount of good. In what way? I'd like to think that I do a fairly good job of seeking out and comprehensively covering artists, producers or riddims which might not otherwise get that type of attention, but can you imagine if EVERYONE did that, or if there were even just a little more? Covering everything is impossible and to even suggest that we do that is ridiculous, but when we look at other genres, such as Hip-Hop (where seemingly EVERY mixtape from an even remotely established name is intensely scrutinized), asking that we do a better job isn't too far fetched in my opinion because right now someone, somewhere is doing something really good and I don't know who they are. And you know what? That bothers me. Still, for as much as I may (will) critique the work, or the lack thereof, of Reggae media and press, as a whole, I can feel even more comfortable in doing that because when 'they' get it right, I love to give credit where its due and they have gotten it 'right' a few times in recent years, apart from when looking at the absolute TOP (and most easily covered) of the genre. Just last year we saw a couple of pretty good examples in the form of both Jahdan Blakkamoore and Toussaint with their respective projects, "Babylon Nightmare" and "Black Gold". These two are fairly interesting because, at least somewhat, they come from relatively the same 'circle' of' promotion and you just couldn’t go very far looking for Reggae online and not run into them. We’ve also seen, in recent years, someone like Stevie Face benefit greatly in the second-leg of his career from good promotion and coverage and he’s still enjoying that material. However, when we begin to think more and more outside of the proverbial box, several more names which the media has latched onto in recent times come to mind, including the most interesting one we find ourselves faced with today, Takana Zion.

"Rappel À L’Ordre" - 2009

I was trying to piece things together in my ridiculous mind - Whether or not I can think of an Afrikan born artist who has arrived on the scene, in general, with as much coverage and fanfare as the Guinea-born chanter from a few years ago - And I can't. There have been, within the last decade or so, the entrances of people such as Black Dillinger and Lyricson. The former in that example, RIGHT NOW, arguably isn’t as well known as Zion, but does have a considerable underground following to which I (and hopefully You) belong, while the latter (also from Guinea), may be as popular. However, as Lyricson has ALWAYS voiced in English (more on that in a second), he tends to not only set himself apart from other artists from the continent, but other French artists as well, which is where he spends most of his time. Zion, to my memory, is in a category of his own in terms of being a younger artist and seemingly the clear favourite choice as the heir apparent to the likes of Western Afrikan superstars Tiken Jah Fakoly and, of course, Alpha Blondy.

"Zion Prophet" - 2007

Prior to Takana Zion's debut album, "Zion Prophet" from 2007, I (and most people) had no idea who he was, but that album, as I’ve been alluding to, was met with such a HEAVY amount of acclaim that I (and most people) simply had to take notice. What we found was absolutely excellent and while I just so happen to be one of about . . . Maybe seven people in all of the world who heard his sophomore set, "Rappel À L'Ordre" from two years later, and wasn't THRILLED by it, it would take more than one lukewarm album to get rid of me, especially when Zion has gone about things in a very interestingly different manner. 2011 now brings us the THIRD album from the still very young artist, which is probably going to be the biggest and most anticipated from any Afrikan artist this year (and I say this about a month and a half away from Black Dillinger's. Again, envisioning WHO could, ostensibly, top this one, strictly in terms of perception, is pretty difficult and we can almost surely take Fakoly out of the equation), "Rasta Government". While so much of the talk surrounding this album, prior to its release, centered around the fact that it was recorded, in large part, in Jamaica (and just by comparison, all of them - Fakoly, Black Dillinger and Lyricson have done the same to my knowledge), but when more and more people (like me) got a look at the tracklist - It had seemingly been left out of the initial press that "Rasta Government" was an album which was voiced mainly in English! The first two projects certainly did feature the chanter voicing in English, but much more so in French and his native dialects, but this one is a bona fide 'English album' with the other tongues being kind of the twist, rather than the other way around. That’s going to open up this star to even more ears (and hopefully, should It prove successful (and it will), some of his more talented peers will follow suit) (whenever you’re ready Tiken Jah) and make this album even that much more interesting to a wider group of fans. So, does Takana Zion manage to live up to lofty expectations and captivate us once again??? Yes he does - We just wish he did it more.

Three things stand out when you scan up and down the tracklist of Takana Zion's much anticipated new album, "Rasta Government" (besides the fact that it shares with at least two others - Most notably an older one from Junior Reid, as well as Isiah Mentor's latest effort from 2009). One of them, as I said, is the presence of predominately English titled selections (eight out of ten to be precise) and another, I'll tell you about shortly, but the third is that there're only ten songs. I'm starting to come around to the notion that the BEST number of tracks to have on a full album is around 12-14 or so and despite there being four tunes on the album which are more than five minutes long (and only one is less than four minutes), I fully suspect that I won’t be the only one who wanted just a bit more by album's end. And I should also mention that the album comes via Soulbeats Records and is Zion's first for the imprint, having previously done his work for Makafresh/Makasound (who, sadly, just closed its doors).

Unsurprisingly, this album (at least to my ears), carries much more of a direct and less varied vibes when compared to its predecessors, for the most part. Perhaps this is never more apparent than on the SWEET praising opener, 'Give Thanks To Jah'. This song is SO SIMPLE that it’s complicated. You can listen to this one on a superficial level and just appreciate its undeniable sonic appeal, but when you tune into the lyrics, you see that it’s a powerful piece about Zion realizing his 'calling' in life and giving thanks, specifically, for that. Also he sheds light on the meditations which actually lead him to go to Jamaica to record this album as well. This is the type of song that I LOVE to read more into (such as with the lyric, "give thanks to Jah, he make me humble and strong like a lion" - I think that Zion is DIRECTLY talking about through the instrumentation of music in the general sense as well as this specific song as well). DEFINITELY this one is one of the album’s finest and I assume that it may go overlooked to some extent, but if you're reading this (and you are), you’ll rush through it at your own misfortune. Following that excellent piece is another powerful tune, 'Stolen Family'. This one, inherently, is the type of song I tend to enjoy because it is a track vibed on the Afrikan Diaspora and coming from someone in Takana Zion's very unique position, once I figured out that this was the nature of the tune, I was well excite to hear it and it didn’t disappoint, none at all.

“They stole my Woman and Children and gone
400 years of slavery
They came with their bombs and guns
Dutty babylon ah kill we”

The song has a very slow and kind of swaying chanting style to it which makes it quite infectious for a reason much different than I typically use that word. It is just a breathtaking piece at times and a topic which I'm thankful that Zion chose to address in his English album. And I'll skip ahead for the next tune, 'My Music', another fine effort on which Zion gives thanks for his music and exalts the healing and medicinal purposes of it. Again, this is definitely the type of song I like to read a bit into and even if you don’t go as far as I will (although I hope you do), it's still a very nice song and one with a lovely riddim as well.

Making of 'Glory' video

Now! If you live in Afrika or France and you go to Jamaica to make an album, I would think that it would be best to take advantage of your surroundings and that’s exactly what Takana Zion has done on the "Rasta Government" album. Reportedly much of it was recorded in the legendary Harry J Studio in Kingston, under the watchful eye of veteran . . . Everything, Stephen Stewart and it features the likes of Sly Dunbar playing instrumentation on it as well. Still, surely the most glaring bit of information one might notice when traveling so far to make a Reggae album in Jamaica is that there certainly are a lot of Reggae artists around (just not many producers) (I digress) and although Zion only taps into this nearly infinite pool of talent once, he does so in a truly unforgettable way. Already the tune 'Glory' has been grabbing much attention from this one as it features the incomparable Reggae superstar, Capleton, alongside Zion for THE tune which stands out on the album’s roster of tracks. Fortunately, the tune doesn't just play off of itself being a combination with big named artist - It's very strong as well. What strikes me here is listening to how similar the two points of view are, in praising of His Imperial Majesty, because you know just how different and remote they might be, coming from Jamaica on one side and Guinea on the other, but seemingly meeting on common lyrical ground in Ethiopia.

“Dis yah a di King
Di Prophet
And di Higher Priest
There is no betta way fi mi to trample di beast
Mi celebrate Jah Jah victory and Mussolini defeat
The power of Selassie I has no limit
Children, be ready for The Emperor
Selassie is The Conqueror
Black People protector
HE is our saviour”
-Takana Zion

While that big tune figures to gain most of the notice in regards to that album (and deservedly so, given what it offers), it's actually a tune which may get the second most amount of eyes and ears pointed in its direction which gets my vote as the album’s finest. The title track on "Rasta Government" is DEVASTATING. I've probably heard dozens of tunes with similar setups - The presentation of this kind of Rasta guided and defended greater world - to the point where it's become somewhat of a Reggae-cliché, but I don’t recall a one which had such a personal impact on me. TEARS! The chorus on this tune is just so powerful and so uplifting, despite not having so much 'activity' on it and not really changing the vibes up much at all and it made a personal DENT on my psyche which will not be forgotten. MAMMOTH tune.

'Rasta Government'

The second half of the album features two very interesting and notable titles which feature Zion touching base in his native tongue, 'Khoule' and 'M'Bife'. The former is probably one of the best songs on the album. It's just a very beautiful (and fiery) tune, but both are well done and I just enjoy that they exist because, at least seemingly, it shows that Zion was careful to not alienate a great deal of his fan base (particularly those in West Afrika) who expect these songs from him, even on an album on which he's going in a slightly different direction. Joining those two songs on the albums second stanza are three more really big tunes. Check 'Love Fire', which is nearly something I’d refer to as a 'love song', but with its wonderful old school set, it never really goes FULLY in the direction that you expect it to - But it kind of does. I'll leave this one to your interpretation, but for me it was kind of meant as a broad love song which could be personalized (in the relationship sense) or taken generally (in the global sense). 'Rise Up' is an even stronger tune and, sonically, it just may be THE best song on the album. It’s uplifting and really everything you’d imagine, but I'll be honest: I had to listen to this song about five times before I could go past that downright dazzling riddim. Finally is 'Three Six Clash' (biggup Culture), which also has a big composition behind it, but this one is going to standout because it’s a song which discusses many of the general cultural and religious differences in the world:

“Remember dutty babylon a wicked
When dem ah tell you go to East -
Go to the West!”

And just how much, perhaps, the truth has been hidden from the world. It's a very interesting way to end things and though I don’t know if I may've exactly made the same choice, regardless of where it rests on the album, it’ a fine effort.

Takana Zion

Overall, I can say that I actually have even more of an appreciation for this one after scrutinized it to the point of building this review. If you take these same tunes and add another two or three of a similar level, we potentially have something very special here and, well we kind of do anyway, in this artist. It will be most interesting, going forward, to see if "Rasta Government" was simply a matter of trying something different, or whether or not Takana Zion will do more English forward projects in the future. If he does happen to continue to do so, the seemingly never-ending line of critics who sing his praises every chance they get will probably continue to grow. Meanwhile, after the material found on this album you can well mark him down for at least another one - Me. Well done.

Rated: 4.25/5
Soulbeats Records
CD + Digital

Takana Zion

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