Sunday, August 4, 2013

'Signal It': A review of "Rastaman Rise" by Jah Defender

A shift. Though I haven't at all taken a proper opportunity to speak about it over the past two years or so, I am definitely enjoying watching what seems to be a very nice changing in terms of Reggae music from out of Trinidad and Tobago recently. That scene has been and remains a very active one and, much in the way that it occurred in music from out of the Virgin Islands and from out of Gwada, you are well beginning to see differences in who comes to be and, perhaps even more importantly, how they come to be. I don't know if you've noticed it, but really some of the biggest songs in all of Reggae music from the turn of the century or so amongst more hardcore heads have come from Trini artists. If I say the name Khari Kill and you're at all the least bit familiar with the chanter, one of the first things that come to your mind will surely be his MASSIVE hit, 'Picture of Selassie I'. Don't you know who Isasha is? If you do then 'Don't You Know' is a song you that you have become acquainted with (and if you have not then you are just a really, really bad human being) and one which would bust both he and his brother, Million Voice. And if he never voiced another song, Marlon Asher earned himself musical immortality when he dropped one of the biggest ganja anthems of all time, 'Ganja Farmer'. Similarly have been big efforts from the likes of Prophet Benjamin and even the golden voiced Jamelody which gained them a huge amount of attention apart from a lesser known but entirely impressive and well accomplished pack of stars such as Jah Bami, Mr. Royal, Ras Pilot and others who emerged from a similar timeframe, but never fully seemed to get even a portion of the attention their skill levels, respectively would seem to dictate that they would receive. That's the part that is changing and those names who haven't had the opportunity to show what they can do at the highest levels of the genre are now being afforded such chances with a wider reaching amount of attention being pushed in their direction. Someone who has taken a great advantage of that changing trend and is ready to show everyone exactly what he has been working on is the wonderfully gifted Jah Defender who now takes a giant step forward. 

So what happened? I think that definitely it was the work of those big hits which drove producers to take an extra look at what was going on in Trinidad Reggae and, though she came to prominence in a different way (and had a full album to her credit before anyone really knew who she was and where she was from), I do believe that years from now we will look at the work of simply one of the most talented artists in all of Reggae music, irrespective of gender, Queen Omega, as pioneering and I do think that she opened some doors, because she has voiced for almost everyone throughout the years. I also credit the work of labels such as Jah Light Records and, more importantly a future credit for developing up and coming talents such as Matthew Greenidge and Righteous. But regardless of the direct reason for the change, it has been so nice to see more deserving names get the CHANCE to do big things and, again, someone has been bubbling around the scene and is now fully boiling.  
Over the past three or four years or so, Jah Defender has been on a tear recording for a wide variety of different imprints based all over the world. Along with pushing ahead with the aforementioned Jah Light Records, he's also worked with Franz Job's Country Boyz Foundation from out of Tobago. ALSO, he's done work with Unit 137 from out of London, Humble Camp Productions from the US, Addis Pablo & Rockers International and others. Still, it seems as if his greatest impact was made for simmering French label, 7 Seals Records, who really wasted no time in announcing that they intended to record an album for the Defender and it has arisen as "Rastaman Rise" is in stores now. I've had my eye on this album for a minute because I fully expected it to be a very impressive release and that was strictly based on what I was hearing from Jah Defender, himself. Being so active has well given everyone the opportunity to at least hear what the artist had been cultivating and what I did hear, apparently much like 7 Seals Records, I enjoyed. I kind of liken the Defender's style as being somewhat similar to people like very SMOOTH VI singers Danny I and Ras Army, but with a bit more of a fiery edge and, as you might imagine, such a style would not only be a very nice one to listen to, but one which might also draw attention in the commercial aspect of making music, so it wasn't shocking at all that he had managed specifically to draw the eyes of a label who wanted to work on an album with Jah Defender. Furthermore, along with having a very sonically pleasing sound, the Defender, as you might suspect given his moniker, also makes very positive and uplifting music which may not an always aggressive form of 'defending', but a very sensible and more intelligent one. As I got into his album, I also gained an appreciation for his work as a writer and, even right now, I'm DAMN looking forward to hearing his work going forward because the formal start of it has been very good. How good precisely? "Rastaman Rise" is everything I hoped it would be and just a little more extra and quickly shows itself to be a fine debut album for someone who figures to have a very bright future - and not too dim of a present either. Play the music!

'Black Man Rise'

Though not necessarily being what I would call 'storied' at this point, 7 Seals Records has also had a fine recent history and they make a brand of Roots Reggae music which is as fresh and refreshing as one might hope to compliment their artist on this album. To no surprise, the link works well throughout the album as does the work via other sources as well. The first sight of this comes via the  first tune and probably most popular piece as well from Jah Defender's new album, "Rastaman Rise", the excellent and uplifting 'Black Man Rise'. This is one of those pieces that we constantly run into where the sound of things threaten to overwhelm the message and, as is usually the case in such moments, that message is very, very crucial. Here we find the Defender speaking specifically to people of Afrikan descent to unify in such trying times and, collectively for us to help everyone push forward. This is what I would call a 'cultural commentary' and I really like how it all pulls together, particularly later on when we get more of a loose sound and a really dynamic charge of things. A big tune, fine start and one of the album's best. Next we have another tune with which you may be familiar, the sublime 'Jah Is The Maker', which comes courtesy of One Time Studio from out of Gwada and their solid and recently released No Pwoblem Riddim. This one is pretty straightforward, it is a gorgeous song giving thanks and praise to His Imperial Majesty (which you could kind of say about the entire album, I suppose), but I would urge you to focus in on what is being said because this song is amongst the very best written that you'll find on "Rastaman Rise". 'Time Will Come', I think, may be another single from this album and it really continues on the path set forth by its two predecessors, but it does go in a slightly more aggressive route to my opinion, which is nice and subtle shift for such an early point in the album, but is one which returns later on. All in all, the beginning portion of the album sets us up for a fine duration. 
And, to its credit, "Rastaman Rise" does have many fine moments. A song like 'Listen' is one which caught my ear and though it may be destined to never receive a significant push, I think a song like this could really do a damage if it ever got the chance.

"Listen what I say - 
Don't let dem lead you astray
Keep trodding on Selassie I way
Now is not di time fi go joke nor play
Listen what I say -
Teach di likkle youths dem fi pray
Don't lead di youth dem astray
Now is not di time fi go joke nor play

Dem caan hold I down or try confuse mi
I won't allow no one to try abuse mi
Much less dem wanna come and use mi
No way - betta dem refuse mi
Such lovely vibes creating sweet melodies and I share it with my dearest friends
Lets live upright inna one love and one harmony
We're gonna be alright, Ithiopian children longing to be free

Work, man ah work fi go climb up di ladder
Playing my part, just to make things better
The struggles goes on, I'm doing my best
We're unconquerable, Rastaman a survivour
Tell dem seh wi dread to di bone
Dirty politician betta leave us alone
The stone that the builder refused, turn around and be the head-corner stone" 

BOOM! I could say a very similar thing about the tune which chases 'Listen' on the album, the very vertical 'Rebel'. Personally I found it damn difficult to remain seated while listening to this track and it isn't that it is so forceful or hype, but the mood here is one that is a call to action and it is empowering and authoritative in its vibes, especially later on:

"Dem waan to see I stoop
Di Rastaman stand up strong
Di more dem try fi cool di fyah, di more di fyah bun
Wi never hear di jungle controlled by no dog, there's only Lion

You stand up and you move and get happy on a notion like that and this tune had me moving all around. Going back, 'Jah Is Alive' is a just a little different in its swinging sound, but that same sound grew on me completely as did the Defender's kind of old school sensibilities in the way that he arranges the track. Though I tried to resist it (or at least I think tried), the curious 'Galang' eventually did progress on me substantially. It is THE changeup on "Rastaman Rise", and if you hear it a single time you'll know why, but what ultimately stands out is that it doesn't at all leap outside of  the nature of the album and you won't see it as a song which comes off as an experiment or anything like such. And at the album's end is a very impressive trio of selections which're also amongst my very favourite material on this album. The first of them, 'Only King Selassie I', I think has a good chance to end up as a future single from this album. It is very listener-friendly on 7SR's new Simple Riddim, and somewhat similar to the first few tracks which're doing well, so I wouldn't at all be surprised to see it receiving a push and its quality would also demand such a look. 'Jah Es Mi Amor' is something different, but whatever different it is, I THOROUGHLY enjoy it. No, the song isn't in Spanish (biggup Danny I, new album, "Tribu Especial", in stores now), but it kind of makes that connection with an infectious Spanish guitar playing behind it and we eventually get another crucial praising piece from the Defender. And then there is a song carried as a 'Bonus Track' on the album (but apparently, and thankfully, is available in both physical and digital forms of the album), 'Give Thanks'. This is rather self-explanatory (you're thinking of what it is about, and you're correct), but the twist here is that it is the only combination tune on the whole of "Rastaman Rise" and it just happens to feature Achis Reggae favourite, Gwada flamethrower Tiwony! 7 Seals Records actually had a hand in on Tiwony's most recent street album, "Difé Lyrical", from last year and he is a mainstay on their productions, so although I wasn't surprised to see him aboard, I was well pleased. Listening to Tiwony ply his trade is about as impressive as listening to anyone today and he and the Defender make a strong musical pairing on the HEAVY track. Still, with all of that being said, "Rastaman Rise" rises to its pinnacle in my opinion during the MASSIVE 'Everytime I Rise' which, even in the face of sterling work, proves itself to be the shiniest gem on this album. 

"As I rise in the morning, I hail up my God and King
Selassie I, He's everything
Mi no give a damn what di wicked want to chant and sing
Chant and sing
Folly it ah gwan inna babylon -
And whole heap a damn sufferation
My people stand up strong inna dis holy Armagiddion

Don't let babylon frustration pull you down
Keep that smile on your face and don't wear no frown
I know King Selassie I will keep us so safe and so sound
This another boom sound, boom sound
Nuff a dem ah frown, nuff a dem ah clown

The song makes a nearly perfect usage of everything Jah Defender seems to do well and wraps it one spectacular package of a song. The best song on this album and one of the better ones I've heard from anyone this year. 

Rounding out "Rastaman Rise" is a colourful quintet of songs which may not personal favourites of mine, but are, easily, amongst the most interesting material that you'll hear on this album. The most familiar of them all to my eyes and ears is 'No Feel No Way', which appeared on 7SR's Sweet Music Riddim. This tune has somewhat of a 'different' tempo and cadence to it -- it's kind of difficult to explain -- and it throws me off just a little, but it is a nice song and one which probably requires more listens to really get into. There's also the album's obligatory ganja tune, which is very solid and the best of these four, 'Rolling'. This song isn't special and it doesn't jump out, but it does have a very nice and simple quality to it which is worthy of a further listen as well. I should also mention that, in regards to 'Rolling', while he may not STRETCH his vocals there, it does feature one of the more stirring deliveries on the album. And there's also the two love-ish selections from the album, 'Call On Me' and 'Lonely'. The latter has is fine and I debated on whether or not to include it in the previous group because it is this nice blending of a captivating sound and a pretty good song as well. And as for ‘Call On Me', though I do favour 'Lonely', I hear this song and I hear something in there. There may be something special in it that I'm still working to draw out, but as it stands, it exists a decent, but again potential-latent somewhat Ziggi Recado-ish effort. Like I said, all of these songs have certain traits which make them stand out and I was happy that I reached the end of "Rastaman Rise" and did not hear a single song which I would at all call bad. Apart from that, my only real lasting critique of the album is that I think there could have been a bit more variation and not in terms of the sound, but when you have fifteen songs, maybe another combination or two (particularly one with Khari Kill, who has also worked with 7 Seals) can really ignite things even greater.  
Jah Defender
Overall, call it a winner of a debut album. "Rastaman Rise" clicks on every category in which you would hope it would and, remarkably, I actually LIKE that it isn't one of the most amazing and fantastic album that I've ever heard. That's because there is certainly enough of a good thing coming from Jah Defender to signal, perhaps, that such work can come somewhere in the future. Until then, however, this album gets an unconditional recommendation (I hate that word, I don't think that I have EVER spelled it correctly on the first attempt) from me. Fans, new and old alike, should be able to find something here, and a considerable amount of it, to enjoy. As well as looking forward to what the Defender has to bring forth in the future, and in the present, I'm also looking forward to watching Reggae from out of Trinidad continue to progress. In Jah Defender, they've clearly produced yet another strong entrant and one who doesn't figure to have to hard time keeping the attention of Reggae fans, with or without a giant hit tune. Well done. 

Rated: 4/5
7 Seals Records
CD + Digital 

Review #459

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