Saturday, April 6, 2013

'Tuning In': A review "Songs Fa Jah" by Abja

More really good ideas. If you've been taking notes of who, exactly, has been having a good 2013 then, at least as far as labels go, surely at the top of your list has to be Higher Bound Productions. I find myself speaking about them quite constantly and I am delighted to do so because they continue to give me actual, good reasons (and not regular 'I'm easily excited' ones) to do so and have done so unlike anyone else in Reggae music to my knowledge in the past three months and a week or so. And while more big names are surely on their way, any of them will have to do a seriously impressive amount of work over the next nine months to unseat HBP. They have been fantastic and have done great things, particularly for more studious fans of the music. Previously, we've dealt with "Free Indeed", the label's new (and very popular) album from Midnite, then there was "Ethiopie" from the fiery Ancient King and most recently (even though it was actually officially released after the album I'm going to tell you about today) there was Army's invading "Dredlocks Time" which was, to my opinion, the best of the lot. If you just take a look at that and those names, it is very interesting. Of course Midnite is wildly popular and may just have the most intensely devoted fan base in all of Reggae currently, but I do not think that you'll find too many people who're fans of Midnite, but are not Reggae fans, in general. In fact, I would probably go as far as to say that most people who were very interested in "Free Indeed" were also paying attention, in some form, to the other two as well. Army is also very well known, but he hadn't had an album in five years and, essentially, "Dredlocks Time" has just been released -- as of this writing it's about a week old or so -- so we don't know, but I would also say that most fans picking that album up are very heavy fans of the genre. And I don't even know if I should have to say it in terms of Ancient King (although, clearly, I'm about to do it anyway). Probably 100% of the people who bought "Ethiopie", also got a copy of the other two releases as well. So what Higher Bound has been up to hasn't been a method of pushing the music a more commercial and 'mainstream' direction. Instead, they have been FEEDING great music to people who really love Reggae music such as You and I. And with the fourth of there other release of the first quarter of 2013, nothing has changed as they tap longtime Virgin Islands veteran chanter, Abja
Also from Higher Bound Productions [2013]
They're also doing something very nice for me. Abja is one of those artists who I always make it a point to go back and REALLY listen to, but in terms of how I like to dig into albums, I've yet to actually do so until now. So if someone were to... Oh maybe put out a new Abja album, that is something that I'd potentially be very interested in. Previously, as was the case with Army, Midnite and Ancient King, Abja did a great deal of his work for I Grade Records. That fantastic label (who has been on a stretch of genius of their own over the past three years or so) released both of his previous albums, "Inna Red I Hour" from 2003, which I have listened to a bit and should probably review someday, and “Mahogany Road" from three years later (which I have been told is significantly better than its predecessor). Abja also appeared on one of the best albums I've ever heard, "One Atonement" by Yahadanai, which was also from I Grade Records. I wouldn't even be very surprised to see him make another set for IGR in the future at some point, but in 2013, the Cruzan chanter is singing songs with Higher Bound Productions and he's also singing "Songs Fa Jah"
"Inna Red I Hour" [2003] & "Mahogany Road" [2006]
The album becomes Abja's very first in seven years and, personally, it has been something I was very much looking forward to hearing. Besides being in good company, as I said, I've been trying to get more into his music because he's worked alongside far too many people whose work I do so much enjoy and his style, although somewhat different, isn't so far in some other direction that I wouldn't, theoretically, like his sound as well. That "style", actually, is extremely straight forward. I'll refer to him as a chanter and that is precisely what Abja is in the purest sense of the word. Trying to liken his style to someone - I would say that Abja is a far more emotive version of someone like a Jah Rubal. If you know Rubal's sound, you know just how it seems that he has a task to perform with every tune and every verse and you cannot break his concentration until he has done what he has come to do. Abja has that as well, but he is a bit more melodically conscious and concerned. Also, obviously Abja wouldn't fit too far away from the realm of sounds coming from people like the aforementioned Ancient King and Xkaliba and Volcano and others from the VI scene who have more of a clear-cut and uncomplicated approach to making music. The two areas in which I would say that Abja differs from his peers is lyrically and his ability to change the pace of a song. "Fiery" is a word which will likely describe Ancient King, Volcano and Jah Rubal for as long as they are musicians. It's just a part of their style and probably a part which they will never abandon. Abja, on the other hand, can be fiery or he can use a bit more finesse (and kind of sings at points) to get his point across and the result of that is an album which is very versatile and multifaceted superficially. Even before you get into the lyrics, you know you have something which was really carefully and skillfully created. And as a writer, while I'm not going to say that he's significantly better than any of them, Abja definitely has his very own clever approach which works throughout his new album. Let's discuss.  

I have to give even more (biggup Army) credit to Higher Bound Productions for making these four albums and have a unique sound for each one. We've seen such things happen in the past, with labels coming up and releasing so many albums in a relatively short period of time, but what you notice in those cases (such as what In The Streetz did a few years back and definitely Drop Di Bass) is basically a producer having a variety of vocalists on the same cache of tracks and then assembling albums with the songs. That doesn't seem to be what happened here at all. Also, I should mention that taking an official credit are the Lions Of Kush, which I believe is Abja's group, as well as Natural Vibes, who I don't think we've heard from in a minute, but previously released albums from the both aforementioned Midnite and Jah Rubal. Getting us started on Abja's latest set, “Songs Fa Jah" via Higher Bound Productions is one of the album's standouts, 'Rights To Be'. As the title of the album would suggest, there're more than a couple praising songs on this album (you could well call it a praising album, actually) and 'Rights To Be' is definitely one of the most impacting to my opinion, is a lovely song and is packed with a whole heap of knowledge as well, so pay a careful amount of attention to what is being said here. Next we have a piece which follows the set course very much in 'Hail Jah'. Speaking of knowledge, the album's second tune is saturated in it. It isn't necessarily the most dynamic of offerings (although you could call it some type of hypnotic, because I love that riddim behind it), so the real point of concentration her is what is being said as Abja delivers one of the most impressive lyrical efforts on the whole of "Songs Fa Jah" ["Hail Jah, praise His Majesty. No more blank spaces in wi history"]. And rounding out the opening lot of tracks for the record is the very BRIGHT 'Hold I Joy'

"Why dem try conquer and divide?
Put wi inna barrel and watch wi bleed through wi eye
Hail His Majesty and tell dem Jah Jah will provide
Steady as wi ride don't make di boat capsize, no

Said I hold I joy
I said I hold I joy 
Said I hold I joy
Hail King Selassie I

Give ises and praise as wi humble and chant
Love to si di Rasta children dem surround inna dance
Rise up, free yah livity each and every chance
Hear di rebel forces start to advance
Do good in spite of evil
You si di evil signs facing us
Fi Jah Jah guide wi trust
More vibes, less lust
Bun di greed, envious -
Every chance that I touch"

Although it would take a few spins to grow on me, when it finally did, 'Hold I Joy' quickly became one of my favourites here as Abja, very basically, tells all to at least try to be happier. What didn't take a bit of time to grow on me, on the other hand, was the lovely way in which this song ends - with more than a minute of nothing but that riddim playing which is always an excellent touch, particularly here. 
As I said, I think that a fair and accurate way of describing "Songs Fa Jah" would be to call it, as its title would tell you, an album giving praise. However, in saying that it is also important to make it known that, not in any way is this album a mundane one. It certainly has its moments. Along with 'Hold I Joy', check a songs such as the title track, which is my absolute favourite song on the entire project. This piece has more of a softer feel to it and perfectly captures what I meant when I said that Abja can use a bit more finesse at times to make his point. Along with that it also has somewhat of a FEATURE feel to it and certainly that has something to do with it being the obvious main attraction here, but in its actual sound as well, there is something of a 'star quality' possessed here as well and it didn't take too long to grab my attention and then keep it. Also ranking highly here is the song which chases the title track, 'Jah Love Surround'.

"Look what Jah put in the sky tonight
Jah moon
Jah stars
And Jah clouds
Di moon rays shine so bright
Yes I know, I know Jah love surrounds

Give thanks to Rastafari
For everything HE gave me
The right to Love Jah and live in peace
Give thanks to Rastafari
For everything HE gave me
Yes I know, I know Jah love surrounds

Do you know where you going?
And did Jah send you to this place that you have found?
Blessed be di one ah put his trust all in Jah Jah

BOOM! As one of the more straight forward moments on "Songs Fa Jah", what 'Jah Love Surround' make lack in the category of "spectacular", it more than makes up for by just being such a SOLID and thoroughly enjoyable selection and one with a grand significance (and you cannot tell me that the beginning of that tune does not sound at least a little like both 'Hemp Scroll' from Midnite and 'Legalize It' by Peter Tosh) ["right now how they want it is with total control"] [WHAT!] [BOOM!]. Even stronger is the earlier effort, the very clever and somewhat old-school-ish (that really should be an actual word), 'To De Ground' which, again, is a song giving praise to The Almighty, but it does so in a very unique and original manner. Here, Abja wonderfully makes the point that to give praise is not only, inherently, a great experience, but it is also a HUMBLING one - to recognize something and someone who is always greater than you are. This is well one of those songs with which I could have so much fun in analyzing and going over (and I probably will), as it is fully brimming with discussable moments. The uncomplicated but wholly GORGEOUS 'Jah Judge' is a stellar composition as well, as is the closer of "Songs Fa Jah", 'Care Too'. With a title like that I was well interesting in hearing what was the message behind 'Care Too' and I wasn't at all disappointed. 

"Won't you - care too
Love and care for someone other than your greed
Your filthy ego you feed
Won't you - care too 
Love and care for someone other than your greed
Your filthy ego you feed"

As he does with several other songs here, on 'Care Too' Abja takes more of a social approach in his writing and the result is one fully focused and all-encompassing piece which is not to be missed.

Rounding out the album is a fine quintet of tunes which provide for a nice 'body' of "Songs Fa Jah”. The first, 'Praisin Jah', is also one of the best. This track has a nice but very subtle edge to it that I wasn't hearing at all until a few spins through. Also, it is another one which carries a substantial social aim which is very lyrical in this instance. There's 'Kushite' which isn't very far behind 'Praisin Jah' (literally - it's two songs on) and appears to be a quite personal tune for Abja and later the strong 'Raw Deal' which is probably the best of this group in my opinion.

"What a youthman travesty 
Children all over the world born in poverty
Insensitive to their own humanity
Tell me how di youth dem gonna grow
Times hard pon di boulevard
Times even harder pon di ranch island farm
Bureaucrats acting like nothing ah gwan
And the massive act like they don't know

Raw deal for the future Nubians-
That's fighting for a chance to grow
More love for Jah and fear of HIM -
For he'll show you which way to go
Raw deal for the future Nubians-
That's fighting for a chance to grow
More love for Jah and fear of HIM -
For he'll show you which way to go"

'Raw Deal' speaks, very originally, about how the world has, presumably, gotten so bad that we are not really giving the younger people much to work with and they're virtually starting at a great disadvantage from older generations. 'All Praises', and its excellent riddim, are another big THANK YOU from this album which makes it its most salient of purposes to give thanks. 
Overall, I do have to say that for my very first time dealing with an Abja album like this - I'm impressed. Particularly I'm now extremely interested in the way he writes. If you look at the titles of these songs, with a couple of suggestions, there's nothing which really stands out as far as being foreign to the genre, but he has a way of individualizing every song and making them in a way which, as I said, is far from mundane and generic. To my ears that has a lot to do with the fact that Abja's songs all have a point and I'll say that in the cases of people like Macka B and Tanya Stephens (who he sounds absolutely nothing like in either example) and I now have to put him into that category as well because "Songs Fa Jah" is an album which is pillared on good writing. Along with some excellent backing tracks and a fine presentation, it proves to be not only a winner for now, but an album which made me happy that I finally listened to Abja. Well done and I'm looking forward to his other work as well. 

Rated: 4/5
Higher Bound Productions
CD + Digital

Review #430

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