Wednesday, July 9, 2014

'Get Familiar': A review of "Hail Ras Tafari" by Ras Ijah

The opening. Ideally speaking, I'd like to think that when it comes to music, good things happens to those who bring good skills and genuine talent. But, of course, "ideally" is… generally a unicorn when it comes to music most times and "good things" are spread to a wide variety of individuals whether a lasting level of ability is present or not. However, when you do find someone who has paid his/her proverbial dues and has arisen in their career to a point where, comparative to where they were before, they experience such a nice rise - increasing not only their respective profile in the music but often their output as well and the actual quality of it (which can be extra-special). And when you look at Reggae, I guess the nature of it, where we have so many artists who're incredibly talented but don't get the attention they deserve kind of helps to push this phenomenon because if/when they eventually do receive some type of attention and credit, at virtually any level, it can be a very good thing to watch unfold. In cases like this I point to a very familiar example and a favourite of ours, the wonderful Mark Wonder. Over the course of the past three or four years or so, the sterling vocalist has definitely seen a rise in how many people now know his name and are able to enjoy his fantastic work and it has been a joy to see his name become more and more active and discussed. I don't know if Wonder will ever be absolutely one of the most popular names in all of Reggae music (I'd doubt it) -- though his considerable gifts would warrant that in my opinion -- but to just see him experience his own raise has been very compelling (and hopefully it leads to a new album soon). I'd also look at someone like Alpheus [new album, "Good Prevails", in stores now] who went on a similar ride a few years ago courtesy of one MAMMOTH release, "From Creation". Again, there is a level of stardom of appreciation that Reggae music has to offer which Alpheus seems sure to never experience, but what he did do was to suddenly make fans out of people like me and ensure that he'd never again release an album which wouldn't get our attention and likely our approval as well. You'll see similar cases throughout the years from people like Anthony Que, General Jah Mikey and others and, hopefully, someone else is about to begin a similar voyage.  
Just a few years back, wicked Bahamian chanter, Jah Nyne, took a similar step forward in releasing his 'advanced' debut set, "Holdin A Vibe". That project would come courtesy of an equally imposing imprint from out of Italy and one which has had a dynamic run over the course of the past half-decade or so, Goldcup Records. The label has not only been in the process of making some truly sublime music but they've also chosen a most interesting lot of vocalists with whom to do it and now they turn their attention, again, to one of them in a major way. Trini born chanter, the Eternal Fyah, Ras Ijah, has been another favourite of Goldcup Records and a staple on their releases and I believe it was as early as 2013 when they began to spread word of a forthcoming album from the artist and we definitely began to keep an eye and an ear on when it would jump up and what it would be.

The answer to when would be mid-2014. What? Ras Ijah and Goldcup Records now bring forth an album we've quietly been looking forward to for quite awhile in the stuffed "Hail Ras Tafari". Along with surely introducing an artist to an even wider fan base musically, an album like this also kind of encourages an interest in the actual musician as well… it kind of forced me to figure out that, despite the fact that I had been listening to his music for a few years and had well enjoyed it enough to be anxiously awaiting his new album - I really didn't know too much about Ijah. I also hadn't known him to record very much for anyone outside of Goldcup, save for a few occasional pieces (he did work with an old favourite of ours, Itation Records) and virtually all of the work I was familiar with of his had come from the label. Before he did link with Goldcup, however, Ras Ijah had managed to release a full album, as part of a duo alongside Sharky, known as Judgement. That album, "Judgment Time", released more than a decade ago and (is still easy to find - readily available due to the digital medium) (and I had come across that cover several times and never really took a proper listen until going back to research for this album) and surely went overlooked to a degree (even by myself) but, again, an album like "Hail Ras Tafari" has probably already given the impetus to many people besides us to go back and take a listen to that initial album. As he has been working with the label for years now, one could also make the case that just linking with Goldcup, who clearly had so much confidence in his skills, may've been that turning point for Ras Ijah as they typically make a very strong effort in promoting their releases and this album has not been the exception. On top of that, looking at the completed project, of the many things that definitely did stand up, one of the tallest was the actual size of this album. "Hail Ras Tafari". Checking in at more than sixty-five minutes of music, spread out over the course of SEVENTEEN tracks, this album was surprisingly large but I looked at that as yet another indication of how high Goldcup was on Ras Ijah and, also, how impressed he was with their work as well. The results made for one impressive solo debut album and one which figures to be strong enough to take the name Ras Ijah and launch it into the ears of some very willing and very happy new fans. Let me tell you about it.
In terms of his style, I tend to draw comparisons from Ras Ijah to a delightful group of under explored and largely 'old school' based chanters. Wholly talented names such as Determine and Military Man come to mind as similar sounding vocalists and that definitely is not bad musical company to keep. On an album full of familiar moments, "Hail Ras Tafari" from Ras Ijah via Goldcup Records begins with one of most memorable, the previous big single, 'Lift Up Thy Head'. This tune features the chanter putting on a lyrical display not to be missed ["Mi dun prepare for the serpent weh underneath di rock. Mi hail Selassie. He'll burn dem nonstop"] in praise of His Imperial Majesty and doing so in a way which also very pleasing to the ears. This tune is absolutely golden and if you wanted to call it the best song on this album, you wouldn't get much of an argument from me (although I do favour one other, more on that later). The course of action for "Hail Ras Tafari" begins to become more apparent on the album's second selection, 'Pharaoh Judgment'. The song is the very first of no less than EIGHT official combinations on the album (nine in total), this one featuring another favourite of Goldcup's, Khari Kill. Link up a pair of BIG voices like these two and you can imagine what you end up with and that is precisely it. 'Pharaoh Judgment' is a fiery composition across Goldcup's LUSH Lola Riddim and a song which, even on paper, you really looked forward to appearing on album like this (the thought of bringing these two together was just genius in my opinion). And before seven more guests make appearances on the album there is 'Dem Smiling Face'. This tune is another blazing one (literally) where Ijah almost seems to lose himself in the moment -- especially during the first verse -- to the benefit of the listener. As its title suggests, it is a piece about watching the company you keep in life and who, genuinely, is out for your best interests. I should also that it comes off as somewhat of a freestyle. Everything here is very free and 'open' and with a talent like Ijah's, he ultimately makes it come together so nicely. 

"Dem woulda stab you inna yuh back after dem gwan spread propaganda
Tarnish yuh name wid all dem lies and slander
Dem mission everyday is to fight against Rasta
Si mi wid a spliff, so you run call an officer
And you rather si mi locked down inna di babylon cellar
So fella, remember no weapon can prosper
That is just a piece of words from The Almighty Jah Jah
And you can't sell mi fi a dime, neither quarter
Solid ground mi deh pon, I'm the serpent trapper
Bout di meditation, haffi get some cleanser
Can't enter Zion if you is a backbiter
Trust fi yuh flesh and gwan balance unuh chakra
Hail King Selassie I: The Earth Rightful Ruler
Better hold a meds and stop act like a fool yah"

Grrrr! One of the biggest tunes on "Hail Ras Tafari", 'Dem Smiling Face' came as a most welcomed surprise.
Along with Khari Kill, Ijah and Goldcup really tap some impressive names to link with throughout the album. The biggest one joins Ras Ijah on one of my favourite tracks from the label, the Mirror Riddim, as Bushman features on 'One More Load'. This song is exactly what you think it is and it's damn impressive. I've come to the conclusion that when Bushman sings anywhere near his best, he almost has a Jah Cure-like appeal where listening to him sing almost anything is impressive and his voice here was so strong and in perfect pitch and Ras Ijah did more than handle his part as well for another sizable selection. On the very next tune is another giant voice as the 'Volcano Trumpet' joins the Eternal Fyah as Vincy native, Qshan Deya' makes his mighty presence known on the downright stunning 'Brighter Day'. Just as far as sonic attraction, I don't know that "Hail Ras Tafari" features an equal to this tune. These two sound fantastic together and because he tends to be so inactive, it is a big deal for me to hear Qshan Deya' and he doesn't disappoint here. Speaking of big deals, another favourite of ours joins on the album and on a song which I think is new to my ears. On 'Rise', Ras Ijah teams up with Messenjah Selah [new EP, "Coming Home To Me", in stores now] to turn in a stirring call to action and a better way of life. This is another piece which just sounds so powerful to the ears but also brings forth a great deal in the way of substance and passion. The zeal also isn't lacking in a pair of earlier tracks, 'Take The Blame' and 'Lambsbread', which feature Iya Inghi and Redlyte, respectively. To my opinion, the former is one of the best songs on the whole of "Hail Ras Tafari". The tune is one which applies a bit of common sense to an entirely nonsensical practice as Ijah and Iya Inghi notes that for all the ridiculous atrocities committed in the world, eventually someone will have to pay. That burden certainly has not been lost and they're aware of it - as we all should be. And although I'm not the biggest fan of 'Lambsbread' (the song), it is a solid effort and a very interesting tune at least. The same 'Peace & Love' with the aforementioned Jah Nyne which appeared on the aforementioned "Holdin A Vibe album is also carried here and while I haven't heard this one in quite awhile now, it has not diminished much, if at all, and remains the same lyrically striking record that it has always been to my opinion. Lastly, another staple of Goldcup Records, Dominican chanter Aima Moses (I've essentially given up on waiting for Moses' next album, that tends to help make things come faster) checks in on the golden 'Water For Africa', which came through on the same riddim as 'Brighter Day' (which, I believe, is called the Offtime Riddim). This tune, obviously, is a social commentary and one directed at the prosperity of not only the Afrikan land, but the lives (and the minds) of Her children spread throughout the world as well. I really enjoyed a song like this because it takes such a unique route on a subject which, of course, isn't unique to the genre and biggup Aima Moses, Ras Ijah and Goldcup Records for bringing a song like 'Water For Africa' to fruition.  
'Ancient Land' [2013]
When back on his own, Ras Ijah not only continues to dazzle, he also serves up the single greatest moment to be found on "Hail Ras Tafari" in my opinion. Prior to that, however, check a tune like 'See Dem' which is somewhat of a similar offering as 'Dem Smiling Face', as far as identifying people and their actual intentions. Ijah does channel a bit of UK pillar, Macka B, on the tune and, as always, that's a good thing. Also doing worth hearing is Ras Ijah's decent cut of the Keep It Clean Riddim. Though not a favourite of mine, 'Stepping Stone' is a solid track and one which I can well say that I enjoy more today than I did the first time that I heard it. Later on, we get a trio of songs which definitely do qualify as favourites of mine, in 'Honour & Praise', 'Kush Marijuana' and 'Tumbling Down'. The first of these is a master class of a song and a real highlight on this album. 

"Inna di morning when mi rise, mi haffi give thanks to Jah
Even when di sun ah set, mi still praising mi Jah
'fore mi lay mi head to rest, mi still have to praise Jah -
Cause He never mek mi sleep nor slumber
Selassie I flash di lightning and HIM roll di thunder
Mi si dem sell out dem soul fi babylon treasure
Now dem ah bun up inna eternal fyah"

"Selassie I shine forth HIM light now mi meds ah get higher
Mi find out who a di thief, third-eye sight di liar
Dem waan yuh blood - fi wah?
Dem must be vampire
Have di people inna dem cell just building up dem empire

The riddim on this song is subtle but entirely divine and I'd love to hear an instrumental of that one and Ijah doesn't miss a beat and, instead, turns in a sterling lyrical arrangement on the praising song. For 'Kush Marijuana', I'll tell you not to look too deeply on that song (although you will find something if you do), and just enjoy the song for what it is - a full joy to listen to! And as "Hail Ras Tafari" was in its beginnings, so shall it is at its end as its final selection, 'Tumbling Down', utilizes the same Eternal Riddim as its opener, 'Lift Up Thy Head'. And although I can't put it quite up to those lofty levels… if isn't that far behind to my opinion. I think the tune is somewhat of a 'bonus track' as it is the other combination from the album, this one featuring two other artists. Another fine addition to the album and one which resonates, particularly, on the sonic side, but it also features a whole heap of substance as well. Before all of that, however, is a pair of the best songs on this album, including THE best. That distinction actually and firmly belongs to what I THINK was the album's first single, the heavy 'Ancient Land'. I've LOVED this tune from the very first time that I heard it and I think, if it's possible (and it is), I enjoy it even more these days. This song is where Ras Ijah's immense SKILL meets his equally bulky PASSION and what occurs is probably not only the single best song on "Hail Ras Tafari", but also the best song I've EVER heard the chanter do altogether. Lastly, also check the familiar title track which is another familiar set having previously appeared on Goldcup's solid compilation "The King's Road Sessions" from a very short two years ago (if you told me that album came out this year, that would seem more accurate than two years ago). It was a star on that album and it still shines brightly on this one as well. For me, I took this song as one being about taking pride in the path that you walk in life and to not be ashamed to stand up for what you believe in. It is surely a thing to be a proud of and to stand up for and Ras Ijah makes it sound so on this tune and throughout this excellent album.
Ras Ijah
Overall, in retrospect "Hail Ras Tafari" is pretty close to what I imagined it would be. It does offer its share of surprises (most notably, as we mentioned, its size), but musically speaking in particular, I think that the album is that type which is capable of bringing more attention to this artist now and for the future. What those new fans will find here from Ras Ijah is an artist who not only features 'material' and 'body' but is also EXCITING to listen to. I'm someone who always likes to comb through lyrics and find meanings in every syllable (which is… just what happens to you when you listen to so much Vaughn Benjamin) and while I do think that's so important, it's also just as vital that you make something that people want to listen to and can enjoy in a variety of different ways and "Hail Ras Tafari" is that type of an album. That comes to no surprise as Goldcup Records, while focusing almost exclusively on Roots Reggae, has always been the type of label to make an stirring brand of the subgenre and, again, that aligns almost perfectly with someone like Ras Ijah. Hopefully we'll look back at the "Hail Ras Tafari" album (and its outstanding cover - one of the best I've seen in 2014), years from now, and see the place where Ras Ijah really took a significant step forward and captured the attention that his considerable talents warrant. Well done. 

Rated: 4.15/5
Goldcup Records

Review #519

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