Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Vault Reviews: "Many Lives" by Iba

So many wonderful things in regards to Reggae music tend to happen outside of just about any spotlight at all and sometimes it's so nice when, for whatever the reason, we can shine some light in the direction of something which is most deserving of it. Specifically, one of the coolest definitely arises in a situation when an artist does a thing so remarkable that it basically opens up an entirely different aspect of their career to so many different people and suddenly fans like You and I take a greater interest. For example, in a far more broad manner, we can look at artists like Sean Paul and Elephant Man who when they made their headway, respectively, to the more 'mainstream' side of the music - suddenly had not only the project(s) at the time gain popularity, but also their entire catalogs as well as they saw so many new listeners coming to the music. The best example, on a smaller scale, would certainly be someone like a Sizzla Kalonji or a Midnite - those who literally have dozens and dozens of albums to their credit. I can't even tell you how many conversations with people who discovered either and say something like, "Well I found this album and I really liked it. Which one is similar to this one that you think I might like?" Their music is an absolute JOURNEY which opens it itself to new eyes and ears everyday. Something like that is pretty rare for me these days (it usually happens more with labels that we'll find who have considerably more work than I knew about), but what does occur for us a situation where, as I said, someone will do something SO great that it almost forces a look back at previous material and more than just for research. FOR INSTANCE - Last year veteran St. Croix chanter, Ras Iba, dropped what was, in my opinion, one of the best albums of 2010, the HEAVY "Matsahyel". For me, this album was just so FULL of so much amazing material and, somewhere along the way in listening to it, it transformed from something people like me like to call 'solid' into something else which was just a spectacular set. Now, that piece surely wasn't Iba's first release, he'd had two prior to it, but nothing had hit me on that level from his work, but it did beg a second listen!

"Matsahyel" - 2010

Iba's first album, "Jah Lion: Children of The Nile" reached in 2003 (and you know I'm working on listening to it again right now) and he would follow it up with a very interesting set three years later, "Many Lives". Both of those albums, even when I first listened to them, showed Iba to be a very skilled and just downright INTELLIGENT artist, but like I said, I didn't think them GREAT albums, well I was wrong (for the billionth time) at least on one case because after having my ears opened in a very pleasant way last year via the aforementioned "Matsahyel" album, going back it's pretty clear in 2011 that the second of the two was a VERY large release.

"Jah Lion: Children of The Nile" - 2003

Like its predecessor, "Many Lives" was released on Mt. Nebo Records, which means that it was produced by Bambú Station (almost January) and it also means, as you know if you're at all familiar, that the musicianship is TOP NOTCH throughout. The album also features work from the incomparable Achis Reggae favourite, Tuff Lion who (contributes on every one of the album's fourteen songs in one way or another) produced "Matsahyel" also. Clearly the two have a fine amount of musical chemistry and it, again, becomes crystal clear on the album. Having had such a nice amount of time to reflect on Iba's work, the one thing I think that is his best musical quality is his intelligence. His music also challenges the listener to be on such a level that they can comprehend certain concepts and even if they can't at the time, it's like what he's saying is that 'this is the level to aspire to'. So, in saying that, obviously his music is for more experienced listeners of Reggae music and even better if you've experienced his vibes in particular because they are, very subtly, incredibly unique in my opinion. What's also apparent again here is just how impressive he can be lyrically. The 2010 release was, in part, so good because it was just such a complete body of work and I didn't get at all very far back through "Many Lives" before that became evident here as well. Iba's method of writing is so strong, to my ears, because he just covers so much. It may not be the most melodic (it isn't), but what it is - is knowledge based music, but not too rigid and mechanical that opinions and are neglected and it becomes difficult to have a good time - that's not the case. I'm almost tempted to use the (horrible) phrase 'easy listening' in reference to this album because, although it definitely does confront the listener to bring something to the proverbial table in terms of comprehension, it comes through in such a SMOOTH and generally delightful manner that it doesn't seem like that at times. In that, also, I can maybe see an avenue through which a newer listener can enjoy this one more so than "Matsahyel", but the more familiar fans will surely have an advantage in finding the gold hidden in "More Lives" (even if it's unfortunately taken you, like myself, half a decade to figure that out) (better late (as hell) than never). From beginning to end it is just a powerful release and one which, going backwards, would have been such an excellent 'preface' to the even better album which was to come. Taken together, it's clear that Ras Iba has not only been on a musical ROLL, but once you get past that you have a hard time (especially for someone with only three albums) (and the first one . . . Very good also) not arriving at the conclusion that he is one of the most skilled faces around on the VI Reggae music scene today. Just how capable was he back when this album release?

Very. Unsurprisingly, the focus and direction on this album aren't at all different from those of its successor (and predecessor). Ras Iba, again, pretty much covers all bases: He writes with a spiritual lien, but about tangible and real-world issues and he does so with confidence and great effect. For example, definitely check the opener to his second studio album, "Many Lives", the COOL 'Stay In The Right'. The song’s subjectry is pretty obvious from his title - it is a tune urging the listeners to maintain a positive lifestyle and behaviour and it does so in a few different ways. This is one of the best songs on the album and it would've ranked highly on "Matsahyel" also. Combined with the message is a stellar riddim highlighted by a SWEET guitar which develops later in the tune and is not to be missed. Next is another of the album's standouts in my opinion, the stirring 'Love Life' (biggup Ras Attitude). This tune makes for an excellent followup to the song which precedes it because what it does is to broaden (and specify in some aspects) the very same message, essentially.

“Love Life!
Love Life!
Love Life!
And ah hate the war
Love Life!
Love Life!
Love Life!
And ah hate the war

Cause love is life and hate is war
Whether you White or you Black like tar
The height of their wickedness - it gone too far
So much innocence dun get scarred I say -

You look round the world, you look on the news and all you see is violence
So tell me what you gonna do
Sink the ship or solve the problem?
Now its affecting the minds of the children
They’ve become desensitized to violence
The value of life, they do not recognize
But love must win this fight!
Rasta tell dem before, now we tell dem again
Man it’s a serious problem
Too many guns are in the streets
And now the children killing children
So many lives dun gone asunder
Out of the wrath of the world warmongers
The value of life, they’ll be forced to recognize
Cause love must win this fight”

An easy case can be made that 'Love Life' is THE best song on "Many Lives" and I'm . . . currently reconsidering my choice on that. Big tune. Wrapping up the opening lot of tracks on the album is 'World Crisis' which slows us down just a bit, but manages to keep the quality levels elevated after it gets going. It's just BEAUTIFUL song and despite its focus, which kind of clashes with its serenity, it is ultimately one of the songs on the album which is most immediately identifiable because of its sonic appeal.

Interestingly, my absolute favourite song on "Many Lives" also is one which has an excellent amount of sonic appeal and it is the song after which the album is named (first time that's been the case in a while I believe). I can remember being so interested and curious as to what the title of the album meant actually and when you put it together with the album's COVER (which is gorgeous), it really makes a great deal of sense. Iba sings about the Afrikan Diaspora and it was one of my areas of major studies in school, so it's always been an interest of mine and the way he puts it together is just BRILLIANCE!

“Arrived in shackles
Arrived in chains
Took our cultures and they changed our names
Imagine the pain and misery
In a foreign land to face more atrocities
Built up their countries with our blood, sweat and tears
Forced to work a lifetime without pay
Reparations could never repair 400 years of torture and pain
But we’re still singing songs of old
Never again with our backs against the ropes
So don’t you forget your history

BOOM! I can go into so many different details about this track and so many things that Iba says which I so much agree with (especially the nature of time "not too long ago"), but even I don’t have that type of time (I actually do, I just don't want to in a review). Similarly, check a tune which kind of finds us going in the opposite direction, the repatriation anthem - 'Afrika'. The song is one of a couple of combinations on "Many Lives" - this one featuring rough chanter Ijah Menelik from out of Montserrat (nephew of the late and great Mighty Arrow). When Menelik is good, he's very good and this tune, fortunately, found him a very good form and the two make a powerful pair on the track. The album's other guest, Rafijah Siano from the Star Lion Family, features on an arguably even better selection in 'Babylon Don't Like'. I just LOVE the way this one is arranged with Siano and Iba going through various positive and neutral things and entities which the system frowns upon ("they don't like when Black man gather and unite. Dem only waan si wi fight"). As usual, Siano does bring the fire and it goes just a little odd at times in his sections, but when you hear it as a combination (because it is) and take it fully, his delivery makes more sense and his passion becomes well appreciated when linked directly with Iba's tact (especially near the song's end). Another HUGE set is 'Dont Talk' and this one used to be my favourite before I really tuned in "Many Lives" and it’s still a sizable tune. There is just so much COMMON SENSE emanating from the song (if it had a smell - it would smell like fruits or something like that) and it all sources from punchline: "DON' TALK IF YOU DON'T HAVE NOTHING USEFUL TO SAY".

'Jah Teachings'

Around that is a tune which, again, just uplifts positivity and pushes far away negativity and negative thinking and acts. The very lofty titled 'Save The World' also highlights the album. The tune really goes into different things that everyone can do to help 'save the world' in a very direct way and it also features a few of the most stirring moments on the project. Also, the sound of the song is just BIG and it isn't big in a more general way, but for Reggae music - it's spectacular if you’re able to take it all in. 'Jah Teachings' eases up just a bit, but as you can likely tell from the title, we're going in a more spiritual direction and a nice one. This is another gem and one of the finest lyrical displays from Ras Iba here as, like I said, he blends the spiritual and tangible and does so, here, in a single tune (and sometimes in a single verse, like the first). And to build on that, later is the album's fine closer, the HEAVY 'Zion Trail'. I mentioned the relation of the cover to the album's message and it's never more clear than on this journey.

“We’re on a Zion trail
Get your trip ready to sail

Just like Moses and Abraham
Just like King David and King Solomon
Selassie taught Jah plan
And this yah knowledge gives inspiration
Cause out of the land that grew the Black man
There‘s no questions, this is the foundation
All studies of life - that’s where it all begun
Whether medicines, astrology, mathematics or religion
Around the River Nile, the knowledge was abundant
I beg my people dem fi get up and skank
For Kings and Queens and Afrikan Savants
We‘re toppa rank, toppa rank!”

And lastly, as I alluded to, "Many Lives" does have its share of more easy going tunes and songs which aren't so HEAVY like many of those I've mentioned thus far. One such song is definitely the obligator Mama song, the sterling 'Strongest Woman'. It’s a very pleasant song to vibe and the message, although very important, is one which is so universal (LOVE YA MAMA!) that you can just appreciate it whether you spin Reggae day and night or just TODAY. Later there's 'Smile' which I swear has a bit of the old Slow Down The Pace Riddim in it [Gregory Isaac's 'Tune In'] and is something sweet enough to deserve such accompaniment if it is so. This one is so easy and it does give a message and one which is somewhat complex, but at its heart is so easy: I want to feel better. I want my people to feel better. I want everyone to SMILE. Of course the tune 'Vibes' also fits in here as well. Here, Ras Iba just pushes the music itself and its greatness. He mentions some of the greats of past eras and even goes into the very popular notion of how when VI Reggae really began to bust - everybody called it a reawakening of the days and vibes of old. It's a very fascinating song and one of my favourites present here. And there's also 'On The Road' which has a different sound and dynamic (almost the opposite) from the other three tunes I bring in here. While the sound here is quite soothing, it's really the message that makes this one so nice and effortless. I would imagine that he wrote it or came up with it during a tour from the way it goes and you also get the feel that Ras Iba feels that his constant journeying is well worth it for himself and his family and to just get the message to the people. A wonderful song!

Ras Iba

Overall, "Many Lives" should've been a 'warning' that something HUGE was on the horizon from Iba because it isn't far from that grandest level itself. This album is just a strong project and also one which goes above and beyond a label like 'solid' - It is so solid that it’s something else. In many aspects, it's as fine an album as "Matsahyel", although for me that remains his best piece of work, but this isn't far behind. It's just all around, all-encompassing and well done Reggae music from start to finish and there isn't even a hint of a bad song anywhere. I will reiterate that, like all of Iba's music most likely, this album is best in the ears and minds of those more experienced in the genre, although I have shown and seen how it can be well appreciated by newer fans to some extent as well. Regardless who you might be, if you are someone, like me, who was absolutely dazzled by Ras Iba in 2010, then maybe you too would like to travel back to 2006 to have a second listen to another masterpiece, "Many Lives". Excellent.

Rated: 4.75/5
Mt. Nebo Records

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