More than any other reggae artists, Black Uhuru have successfully and consistently transcended stylistic barriers, yet they have done so without compromising either the genre or the philosophy that propels it. "Red" is a culmination of these achievements, and as such, it's the best reggae readily available to a broad-based international market.
Uncluttered without being sparse, the album's complexities derive less from the music itself than from the cul-de-sacs of imagery in which the listener lingers long after the fadeouts. Thematic in every way, the eight tracks seldom stray from one key, nor from a primary concept: persistence of faith under worldly and spiritual duress. The album's poppish appeal is an invitation to dance, and this in no way hinders its humanist, ecumenist invocation of spiritual courage.
Michael Rose wrote or co-wrote all but one of the cuts, and his raspy moan carries most of the vocal weight, with Puma Jones and Duckie Simpson adding coloration to chorus and chant. Sly Dunbar on percussion and Robbie Shakespeare on bass constitute a formidable but low-key rhythm section that weaves a quiet textural symmetry into the songs.
For all its schematic design, however, "Red" is anything but contrived. "Youth of Eglington" opens the album with a chilling candor typical of Black Uhuru's style:
The youths of Eglington
Won't put down their Remington. . .
The youth of Utica Avenue
They just can't keep cool
So much gun shot some cripple some turn fool. . .
I say the youth of Kingston
Won't leave their Magnum pistol pistol The message of dread and warning is clear enough in a straight reading of the lyrics, but it reaches stunning emotional depth through Rose' half-step stretching of "piss- staahl," which resembles the mournful sound of a ricocheting bullet.
The lyricism of Black Uhuru's vocal stylings is matched by deft poeticism. On "Sponji Reggae, there is humorous irony ("From the day I was born and given life / I and I a actor genius name it / Genuine character"). "Puff She Puff" evokes the pathos of poverty ("Making love on hungry belly / I couldn't cope too long / With my bare long hands / I am embarrassed most the time"). And "Carbine" dabbles in social prophecy ("Civilian warring among each other / Only to achieve their coffin").
But what Black Uhuru do best is to register a sound and a viewpoint that are equally comfortable in Trenchtown, London or Brooklyn. Pop consumers, particularly in America, who have previously been put off by the apocalyptic vision and theocentric themes of reggae music will not feel threatened by the universal call to faith of "Red," and the imaginative music that accompanies this uplifting scheme should satisfy anyone's soul.
As Puma Jones has said, Black Uhuru's music tries to build a contemporary framework for guidance in the modern world, as well as continuing a tradition of oral history. "Red" accomplishes this without being obsessively dogmatic or doctrinaire.
A footnote: Jones, a native of South Carolina with a masters degree from Columbia University, formerly sang with Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus. Now based in Washington, this group continues to probe the frontiers of reggae under the leadership of Michael, whose presence in the Jamaican community has been a quiet force of musical and ethnic unification. The group is due to return from a world tour this month, and presumably will resume their frequent local performances then. THE ALBUM -- Black Uhuru, "Red," Island MLPS 9625 B.