Saturday, March 9, 2013

'For Good Ideas': A review of "African Union" by Screwdriver

Inner circle. In pretty much all genres of active music, there is an interesting hierarchy at work. In order for a style to thrive, you need artists at various stages of their respective careers and you need them to be active and involved. When you have something like that, it makes for, most importantly, the potential of longevity and influence. On the highest end, obviously, you have the stars. These are individuals who, for one reason or another, have not only managed to secure a very large audience which loves (and will support) their music, but they've also become the actual faces of the music. In Reggae, specifically, today we look at people such as Etana and Tarrus Riley who occupy those positions today and are relatively new 'additions' to them. Next you have up and comers. These are artists who hope to someday become big names and although most of them will surely not even come close to reaching those levels, their collective presence is also most necessary and is just as important as the stars for the sake of keeping the music fresh and avoiding staleness. You also have elders and it also applies to producers as well. All of these people keep music running, in one way or another. Today, however, we're going to look at a kind of a middle group - which, again, is just as important in making the music what it is. Part of what, to me (and everyone else in the world, because they all agree), makes Reggae music SO great is that we have artists of so many different levels who are amazingly talented. Along with the stars, and elders and up and comers, we have such a solid group of musicians who fit into this healthy center cache of people who, many times make some of the absolute best music in the genre. Of the most well known of this pack are the likes of Bushman and Chezidek and, personal favourite, Mark Wonder. There are so many artists who are more popular than they are and will always be, but ascertaining exactly WHY that is - is another question. There isn't a great distinction in terms of being such a vast difference in the final quality of their music. They are as skilled as most of their peers, well known and under known, alike. Today we take a look at someone who has been within that middle group of artists (for a very long time), who may not be as well known as some but, at least amongst more hardcore fans, are as respected and revered for their amazing talents - Screwdriver.  
"Road Block" [2007]
Screwdriver has probably been making music for the better part of my lifetime and the past three decades or so I would guess and over that period of time, again, while he hasn't become this legendary household name, he has become someone whom is held in a very high regard by many, many fans and, while he isn't one the more active artists on the scene (this is a very long sentence), I would include myself as one of those people. In the latest stretch of his career, Screwdriver has very much become someone who has focused, primarily, on cultural and spiritual topics in his music and he has been very good at it. I have no idea how many albums, exactly, Screwdriver has made to date, though his most popular set to date is probably 2007's "Roadblock" for VP Records and produced by Joe Fraser Records (that thing seems like it came out in the late 1990's) (a very loooooong six years), but he's also had releases such as "Prophecy" from way back in 2001 (more on that in a minute) and his most recent piece (at least to my knowledge) was "Child of The Universe" from just a few years back. Screwdriver now adds to his catalog with a fine brand new album, "African Union".
"Prophecy" [2001]
As its title suggests, the new album is one which pays tribute to the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which was founded fifty years ago (if you're bad at math, that was 1963), which would eventually become the African Union. As I alluded to, this isn't actually Screwdriver's first time dealing with the subject. The single best song on the previously mentioned "Prophecy" album (which came via the once VERY useful Artist's Only Records), to my opinion, was its golden closer, which was called 'O.A.U.'. That definitely shows that he had a great bit of interest and passion in the topic and I just really enjoy when something 'fits' so perfectly like this. I would imagine that if in 2001 you made Screwdriver aware that he was going to be doing this album a dozen years on, he would have been absolutely delighted. And also, as I spoke about this kind of hierarchy when it comes to people in music, I think that it also applies to IDEAS. In Reggae music, and in Roots Reggae in particular (although it definitely applies to Dancehall where you tend to have the prevailing '3 R's' of subjects - girls/guys, guns and ganja), you have very much a 'template' of what people sing about, generally. The broad concept of Africa would be at the top of it, but what happens here is one SUPERSTAR of an idea in my opinion. The project was helmed by Danny Breakenridge of Upstairs Music who is certainly no newcomer and has worked with the venerable likes of Ken Boothe, Marcia Griffiths, Bob Andy and others throughout the years. Upstairs has also done more than a little work, previously, with Screwdriver - most notably in releasing the single from a couple of years back, 'Sweet Collie Weed'. So, to sum it up to a degree (biggup Degree), what we have here is a very talented vocalist with an extremely good idea in his hands and is one which he has previously explored on a smaller scale, working with a producer with whom he has already demonstrated quite a bit of musical chemistry and one who clearly supports the work and has, already, for some time. I didn't know all of that at the time, but I had a pretty good feeling about this album when I initially heard about it (biggup Susan) and it did not disappoint. Let's discuss! 

Screwdriver is someone who, very much in my opinion, has what I would call an 'old school approach' and what he does is to combine that with a slightly modernized sound and, when at his absolute best, he can produce some really impressive material. Such output is to be found throughout his latest creation, "African Union" for Upstairs Music, but particularly at the head. The album gets started with its title track - on of its bonafide highlights. Exploring the concept of a "United States of Africa" is surely no new course in Reggae music. If I recall correctly, both the great Luciano and wicked Cruzan chanter, Xkaliba have even had albums carrying that title within the last few years or so and that is, as expected, the direction of this tune. However, with that being said, what you couldn't expect was just how strong this track turns out to be. It is exceptional.

"We are the heartical Africans 
One destiny is our only plan
United we stand, divided we fall
We've waited so long, no time to stall
We are the victims of division -
Someone else making our decisions 
'Divide & conquer' is their sponsor
Unite and survive is our answer!" 

As strong as it definitely is, however, the title track doesn't reach the heights of the next tune in which is, in my opinion, the album's single greatest moment, the MASSIVE 'Sweet Mother Land'. This tune, for me, is one which just exudes pride and responsibility. What Screwdriver says here is that Africa has given so much to Her children who have fought in battles all over the world, but now it's time to stand up and fight the best fight, for HER! From the very first words uttered on the tune: 

"All Africans have got to stand up and defend The Motherland"

You know what you're going to here is special and, again, it does not disappoint. And also near the head of the album is another strong selection in the FULL social commentary, 'Terror In the Ghetto'. This is a big tune which actually reminds me of something you might hear from the aforementioned Mark Wonder and if you know how much I revere him and his music, then you know how much to expect from this tune and, altogether, a fine start. 

Though the majority of the "African Union" album does focus primarily on more social and cultural and spiritual themes, there is a stretch of three tunes in the album's second half which feature love songs which isn't really too unexpected and, although they do not rank amongst my favourites here, they are decent tracks. The first is the very straight-forward 'She Is So Pretty' (VERY straight-forward), which is probably the best of the three. It is then followed by 'She Is A Pearl', whose riddim is outstanding and the Country-ish 'I Want You Back'. Like I said, nothing here dazzles me, but I found all three to be enjoyable and rather decent ideas to kind of change the vibes of the album and they don't at all diminish the running quality and certainly one could make the case that LOVE is a matter of culture as well. And I suppose now would also be a good point to mention another song which kind of falls outside of the others in terms of its direction, but most certainly is a favourite of mine, 'Exercise'. Plain and simple! Screwdriver is tired of looking at your bellies and he thinks you should work out. I saw the name of this song and I immediately began to over think it (that's just what I do) and then I heard it and was so wonderfully impressed by the simplicity of it. It isn't about exercising your mind or exercising yourself spiritually - just get off your ass and start moving (there exists no finer companion to physical fitness than Soca) (just so that you know) (biggup Lloyd Brown). 

Back on course, "African Union" continues to offer up very interesting music and nice songs. Of the remaining, one of the biggest would be the gorgeous 'Mark My Word'

"Everything fi babylon a war
Deep, opened wounds and permanent scars
Everything fi babylon a war
Deep, opened wounds and permanent scars

And all the long nights of showers -
Can't erase that pain and sorrow, oh no
Put down di guns and see di war
We no want no more tribal war, oh yeah
GUN WICKED, BUT MAN WICKEDA
AND MAN ALONE AH SQUEEZE THE TRIGGA
GUN WICKED, BUT MAN WICKEDA
HIM ALONE AH SQUEEZE THE TRIGGA"

This tune seemed very familiar to my ears, but I don't think I've ever heard before. I do think, however, that I'm unlikely to ever forget hearing it again. Speaking of familiar, I definitely do know the very jovial 'We the People'. This piece comes through on Upstairs' delightful Home Bound Riddim from a few years back (big tune by Glen Washington on that riddim) (Everton Blender also) and is pleasantly difficult to get out of your head. It kind of stays with you and that's a good thing for this one. You'll also recognize the track lifting 'Jungle Society' and, again, you're going to have a hard time getting this one out of your head as well. It's always nice when someone can make a tune which not only delivers some type of poignant and crucial message, but also be ENTERTAINING as well. Music is a form of entertainment to most people, including You and I, and although such things won't be cornerstones of the perception of this album (and they probably shouldn't be), "African Union" is fun at times as well. Check the final three efforts on the album (all of which, essentially, deal with the same topic), which're quite dynamic as well. 'No Separation', 'Come Together' and the final song, 'One World'… I guess as EACH title would indicate (I just noticed that), all deal with the theme of unity which is, obviously, one of the pillaring ideas of the album. The finest of the three to my ears would be 'Come Together' with its large sound. I found it so fascinating that Screwdriver chose to hit this issue as hard and as often as he does on the album because, with it being such a clearly defined piece of comprehension here, I think that you take the risk of covering familiar ground too often, but apparently it was that important to Screwdriver and Upstairs to really stress that point here. 

Finally, I'll mention another of the standouts on "African Union", 'Third World' (sometimes these things can be difficult to write, but definitely after writing all of that Midnite, it's gotten easier). I really like this one because it is an homage to the actual music which ultimately goes just a little deeper as it speaks on how music has been such a powerful force to oppressed and impoverished people throughout the world and throughout history as well. It is a BRILLIANT point to make a song on because, though it may not be as discussed, so many of the world's most popular forms of music were born, just as some of their greatest practitioners, in some form of poverty. And that is also an example of something which is easily tied back into the prevailing thought of the album. 
Overall, "African Union" isn't the greatest album I've ever heard, but I think I could probably talk LITERALLY endlessly about it because so many aspects of its structure are all kinds of interesting. While I don't see an album like this providing Screwdriver with some type of large boost in popularity (and I'm sure he wants to sell albums, but I don't think that he cares if he is one of the most popular singers), I do see it bringing in a great deal of respect and appreciation from people like You and I. This is a matter which should be receiving a great deal of interest within the Reggae listening community and it took someone like Screwdriver to give it the prime showcase it deserved. "African Union" is an album which finds Screwdriver delivering a supreme amount of common sense and respect to listeners and, while he may not be the biggest name on the scene, Reggae music simply would not as fantastic as it is without people like him. Well done. 

Rated: 4/5
Upstairs Music 
2013
CD [I THINK] + Digital

Review #423

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