Thursday, June 6, 2013

'Link Up': A review of "Powerlink" by Amandla

One common destination. Although we may not look at things related to music in such a manner -- and instead are often ultimately steered in the direction of or cleared away from by -- the final product, there certainly is a lot to be said for just having good planning and idea development when it comes to music. There are the obvious examples in regards to the absolute basics - as far as with whom to record and where to do it. And while many of these things can be quite random, just as they can be in almost every aspect of life, sometimes when they reach a level above stumbling upon what are the crystallized results of a chance encounter and become something which really involves a great deal of preparation and follow through, the output can be just as organic, and arguably even more impressive. Currently, looking at the current landscape of Reggae music, if you wanted a really good example of this, I would definitely point you in the direction of the assembled production machine that is the Zion I Kings collective. What they do and have already done to date, in my opinion, represents some of the finest idea development and full-on good common sense that we've seen during not only the modern era of the genre, but perhaps EVER. Along with fine choices in the artists with whom they choose to record (which may or not be set to include the great Lloyd Brown sometime later this year), they keep a very active release schedule and the group's latest undertaking, a riddim album series (The Songbird Riddim, in stores now), is yet another wonderful step from the ZIK. Now, where that union includes the bringing together of three different labels, the case which we take a look at today is a union of great musical minds to come together to form a fully functional band. While such groups are not today in Reggae music what they once were, in terms of numbers, amongst more hardcore fans of the genre definitely names such as Virgin Islands bands Midnite and Bambú Station are of the household variety. And personally, I do have to say that there exists some different type of trait that the music has when you have a set of individuals who come together, specifically, to make music for the whole and for the successes of the whole. It seems to give the material a bit of a 'fuller' feeling at times.  
Meet the fullness that is Amandla. While it remains to be seen if they go on to reach the levels of the aforementioned Midnite and/or Bambú Station, on paper the Amandla Band would appear to have each and everything they need to succeed. Like what? First of all, if you read my work to any degree, you're definitely going to know the name of Tuff Lion (who, coincidentally actually played on and had a full tune on the Songbird Riddim) (have I mentioned that it is in stores now?). The masterful guitar player/producer/arranger/vocalist/engineer/writer has been a favourite of mine from a very longtime now and so has the downright monstrous catalog of music to which he has contributed. If you look into that catalog, directly, you'll find the work of an apparent favourite of the Lion's by the name of Ras Iba. Along with delivering what we've already called a modern classic in the form of his most recent release, "Matsahyel" ["He has found Jah!"] from 2010, the amazingly gifted Cruzan born chanter has been around for quite awhile, officially on albums going back to 2003 (when he debuted with "Jah Lion: Children of The Nile" (on which Tuff Lion played extensively)), and has had a fantastic career. Also, if you've spent enough time here, the name Toussaint shouldn't be a new one to you either (well, it shouldn't be "new" to you in anyway) as the dazzling US born 'Soul Roots' singer has also become a favourite of ours. His MIGHTY "Black Gold" release, also from 2010, is a project which we've discussed at length and it also featured the work of Tuff Lion. Now imagine that all three joined the same band. They have and it is a very big deal and now the Amandla band releases their very own album.

The fittingly titled, "Powerlink". The Amandla Band is different. They don't necessarily have a 'built-in' lead singer, like a Vaughn Benjamin or Jalani Horton and instead there're five different vocalists who rotate and do the honours. Along with Tuff Lion, Ras Iba and Toussaint The Liberator, there is also Burnie T (who was apparently born in Dominica) as well as US born YahKali - both of whom sing, write and play various instruments throughout the project. There're also Jah Derek, Leon Cotter, Akhil Gapal and Brian Paulding adding additional instrumentation and Empresses Melinda, Tonya and Nephertiti, who sing backing vocals. That is a HEALTHY unit of talent and it is a quality which is exhibited throughout their album. Last year Amandla actually gave us a taste of what was to come by pushing a six track EP release of the same name (all of the tunes on that EP have subsequently made it onto the final album). The EP, in another fine exhibition of common sense, displayed a single tune sang by each of the band's five vocalists and an instrumental piece (I did say that Tuff Lion was involved) and, if I needed even more of a reason at the time, and I absolutely did not, when I put it all together it well made me interested in hearing a full Amandla band album and it didn't take very long at all to materialize. Unsurprisingly, what I heard on the EP was a great deal of musical chemistry and, as I said, three of the main principals had a history in working with one another and while I wasn't incredibly familiar with the work of either YahKali or Burnie T, my research on them leads me in the direction of thinking that they're both those wholly necessary types of individuals who, although they may not get their deserved credit most times, if they all suddenly stopped making music, people like You and I would notice IMMEDIATELY. Put all of that together and, again - at least on paper - you have the foundation laid for one big project. The question is whether or not the full album fulfills on those prospects. Yes it does. Let's talk about it! 
Ras Iba
With the different vocalists, "Powerlink" very much has the feel of an extremely well carried out compilation. This album actually gave me the mind to go back and enjoy a previous and related set from a few years back, "Wadada: The First Itation" ["Burnin away. Burnin away! Can't keep babylon from burnin away"], and just like that release, where almost all of the songs were written by the same person, despite having different artists on the mic, this album has a nice level of cohesiveness and, essentially, is a compilation specifically put together for the purpose of creating an album. Because it is Ras Iba who gets us started on "Powerlink", we'll take a look at all of his songs first. His first and the album's first effort, 'Arise' is also one of both of their finest. Iba may just be one of all of Reggae's best writers at the moment (and if you want to hear a master class of lyrics in Reggae music, definitely pick up "Matsahyel", which is one of the most intelligent releases that I've ever heard) and he uses that major skill here to near perfection. This track is one constructed to inspire people through difficult times, in particular, and it goes to a powdery level of detail, especially in its latter stages. There's also a nice vibes to the tune and while it may be a little heavier of a song than I was expecting for an opener (and I mean that in a good way), it ranks near the best material that you'll find from anyone on the album. Iba later returns with the delightful 'Afrikan Queen' which (does sound like a typical opener) is an obvious tribute to the amazing Afrikan Women of the world. This piece simply instills a great feeling in everyone fortunate enough to hear it and definitely adds a nice dimension to the album. If this song were not here, it would have been the type whose absence I would have lamented because it is necessary. Still, my own favourite song of Ras Iba's on "Powerlink" is his final and the song which was on the EP, the MAMMOTH 'Herb & Music'

"Music was always part of my life
From in Mama womb, hearing her voice
Hearing her sing to me 
Hearing my Daddy playing the bass for me
Natural in I destiny
Music kept I man busy
And the way from jailhouse and cemetery 

Herb and music saved my life
That's no lie
Herb and music 
Give thanks for the drum line
Herb and music saved my life
That's no lie
Herb and music
Give thanks for the riddim

Empress Mari -
Such a mystical spice
Secret flowers bloom in the dark of night
She help I reconnect and align 
She help I and I open up mi third eye
And help me to look inside
To look inside -
And see the source of life: SELASSIE I"

Ras Iba speaks on the two entities which helped to make him the man and the musician he is today and, if you're a fan (and you are), you have to be just as thankful because when at his very best, Iba is also one of the best as is shown by his three songs on this album.
Tuff Lion
For his part, Tuff Lon also dazzles on his pieces on "Powerlink". This album really presented a nice opportunity to hear the somewhat vocally reclusive Lion (of course I LOVE his instrumental work, but he's also a very strong vocalist) on a trio of selections which should also be a big selling point for more hardcore fans for this album as well. His first, the album's second, is either his best or his second best, but it is fantastic in either case, 'Ready'. This VERY clever relationship song speaks on the most important aspect of a full unity in a positive and functioning connection. And (because I'm an over thinker) I also take this one in a different direction towards general friendships. If you're going to be married to someone or in a relationship, it takes both of you to make it work ALL OF THE TIME and the same is true in being [good] friends with someone. It is a unique idea and an even more unique delivery of it on a big tune. The Lion returns on the just as impressive social commentary 'Some Have' (his tune on the EP). This composition is very straight forward, but it makes the most of itself and Tuff Lion talks about people basically helping someone else out who really needs it. The song pinnacles when the maestro kicks up the intensity and delivers a big verse later on which is not to be missed. 

"Too many helpless people deh pon di street
Ah push dem life inna cart, with no food to eat
No government nah help dem inna dem plate
Wonder how does it look inna His Majesty sight
Rich man pon di top
Poor man at di bottom
Dem mussi fi get tough fi dem foundation
Table ahgo turn, change of di situation-
Bringing bout di poor man revolution!"

And Tuff Lion's final song is also something to remember - it's actually called 'Something To Remember' - which is an excellent and somewhat funny lover's piece on which he… offers a very, very special token to remember him by to his special lady. This song lightens things up a bit and I'm sure that it is a big song in a live performance as well.
YahKali is next and I have to say that, from his three songs, I was VERY impressed. Coming in with three very well known talents and two lesser known ones to my ears, I finish this album thinking that I'd like to hear more of his work, in particular, at some point in the future because he is excellent. By the slimmest of margins, his first song, 'As I Am' is my pick of the best of his lot. Along with possibly having the best riddim behind it on the whole of "Powerlink" (BEAUTIFUL!), this is a powerful and serene praising tune - sounding something like you might hear from Luciano, actually. 

"In this mystery of life, I need Your guiding hand, oh Jah
You are my strength in I going out and coming in
Though You seem so far away, yet deep within
And when I go astray, You lead me back again

As I breath in, I find the I within my heart
And as breathe out, I feel Your presence all around
As I sit and contemplate  in this earthly struggle
Oh Jah - give I courage and protect I and I hustle"

Everything about this one is a winner and it resonates well beyond its completion. It also has a great feel to it and you hear a small variation of the sound throughout, making for one dynamic piece (and I still call it serene - it is both) and a most memorable presentation as well. YahKali returns with another sizable offering in 'Debt In Slavery' which continues to impress (especially lyrically) as does his third contribution to the album, 'Same Old Story' which is a kind of a love/relationship song (seeing a familiar sequence here?). Again, this is an entertaining and compelling song and, like I said, these three as a whole make me interested in hearing so much more of his work as, particularly placed in this context -- where I was SO much looking forward to hearing three other people who were not him -- YahKali demands attention within all of that brilliance. And I don't want to pass over it quickly either, 'Same Old Story' is a very good song!
The Liberator, himself (curiously absent from the Songbird Riddim), is up next and to introduce himself on "Powerlink" he offers my single favourite song on the entire record and in the process gives a remarkable tribute to Jean Jacques 'Dessalines'. A lesser known leader of the Haitian Revolution (lesser known than Toussaint's own namesake, Toussaint Louverture), Dessalines becomes the subject of this unforgettable tune and I suppose it should have clicked with me at some earlier point in time that someone who calls themselves "TOUSSAINT", might have Haitian blood and, whether the singer does or does not doesn't diminish from this huge song. His second song on the album, 'See It In You' (which I believe was written by Burnie T) is Toussaint's relationship type of song and it is a solid one and he later concludes with the crucial 'You Got It'.

"Let your mind go free
Relax, ah yeah
Let your troubles go 
That burden's far too heavy to carry alone
No time fi worry
Can't live life in a hurry see-
Always worried - no

You got it
I got it
You got it
I got it
Brewing within, under your skin
What it takes to turn boys to men
Fighting the sin that we living in"

I was probably most looking forward to hearing what Toussaint did on this album, given his dynamicity as a vocalist, and he does not even come close to disappointing. And YES, I'm damn looking forward to that next big album from the singer ["nobody knows what I did today. Only me. Me and The Most High!"]. 
Burnie T
Lastly is Burnie T who plays a significant role on every tune on "Powerlink" (usually as a drummer) and gets his batch (biggup Batch) of tunes started with a love song which appears to be quite personal to him, 'My Love Reads Like An Open Book'. I'll tell you something that happened to me when I started listening to this song: I heard it and I decided that it was okay. It was decent, but not a highlight for me and then, while doing something else and listening to another song, I'm still singing the chorus for that song. So definitely don't pass a judgment here from a cursory listen, because you're likely to miss something that you'll like if you do. Burnie mines and Reggae-fies a classic song from the legendary singer Nat King Cole and does a respectable job with 'L-O-V-E', but to my opinion Burnie rides on his final offering to the album, 'Can't Keep A Good Man Down', which is 'officially' Burnie T's track, but actually is a song from THE AMANDLA BAND. Tuff Lion, Ras Iba and YahKali seem to join in at points for a dramatic and likely signature moment from this album. Biggup Burnie T who, as I said, was very important in the construction of this project as his, alongside Tuff Lion and YahKali, are the only names to appear on every song on "Powerlink" for doing something. The album wraps up with a GOLDEN and lively instrumental, 'As It Is', which is a definitive highlight in my opinion. I really enjoy when labels and artists and producers choose to include things like this on otherwise vocal projects, because it really adds to the EXPERIENCE of listening to an album and adds so much to vibes. Again, a very good idea.
Overall, while I am certainly tempted to give this one a more conditional recommendation, I don't think I'm going to based on its quality. Listening to it, I think that "Powerlink" is the type of an album which can really be appreciated by any fan, new or old, of Reggae music, but it will just as surely mean more to more experienced fans. Tuff Lion, Ras Iba and Toussaint on a project together is a very interesting set of circumstances that are actualized exceedingly well throughout the album and, subsequently, also becomes fitting introductions to the work of Burnie T and YahKali. Furthermore, there is such a prevalent interrelation between these songs so while they do stand alone quite well as single songs from different vocalists, they come together to make one fantastic album as well. In "Powerlink", Amandla comes together and, collectively, performs one giant stroke of genius and with a group like this, together and as solos, you have to continue to keep an eye on what they'll do next. Very well done. 

Rated: 4.35/5
Amandla Productions
CD + Digital

Review #444

1 comment:

  1. WOW!!!! Much respect to the writer of this blog, you have done an outstanding job describing the works of these talented musicians. I don't know all of the artist on this project But I have been blessed to have a copy of Ras Iba & Toussanit "Black Gold" works and have loved the vibes. On the other hand TUFF Lion where do I began ....THIS man has gotta take off and explode that is just too much talent the world needs to know, JAH has blessed this man in all areas weather it be playing, singing, writing or producing , he will bring the very best each and everytime, taking you on a musical journey all the way to reality of life. I cant ever get enough of his vibes. just wanted to share some input on the artist let them know I appreciate the vibes the project was blessed. until next time remember SOME HAVE, help the next man support our people. love to you all Letitia - Hampton VA