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Reggae Caballeros
From Lucky Dube et al., Social Consciousness and a Heap of Romance

By Alona Wartofsky
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2000; Page G02

Almost from the very start, the cards have been stacked against South African reggae artist Lucky Dube.

The singer favors the traditional reggae style of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, but by the time Dube emerged from South Africa during the early '90s, popular reggae had shifted from the loping rhythms of the classic '70s sound to the stripped-down computer rhythm tracks of the modern dancehall style. And while traces of South African music known as mbaqanga brighten Dube's full-ensemble reggae, in some ways his Africanness has worked against him. Jamaican music audiences tend to prefer artists who are Jamaican, and Dube didn't improve his standing on the island several years ago when he remarked that reggae had originated in Africa, not Jamaica.

But Dube has also not lived up to his potential. He is an immensely gifted singer and a charismatic live performer. More importantly, his late '80s and early '90s recordings rank among reggae's greatest albums. "Slave," "Prisoner" and "House of Exile" made eloquent anti-apartheid statements, aided by indelible melodies and a shimmering reggae sound. Then in the mid-'90s, Dube's band, the Slaves, splintered. He parted ways with producer Richard Siluma, and his subsequent albums were good--very good even--but not great. The remarkable sound was still there, but the songs seemed formulaic, the melodies didn't stick and it appeared that Dube had lost his inspiration.

Dube's new "The Way It Is" (Shanachie) is not as brilliant as his early work, but it's his best album in years. The opening track, "Crying Games," begins with his signature churchly keyboards before expanding into a lush, luminous sound. The lyrics are somewhat confusing, though, and it's difficult to determine precisely what the song is about.

"Crime and Corruption" and "You Stand Alone" are compelling meditations on the social inequities that endure in post-apartheid South Africa, but again, Dube's lyrics aren't as sharp as they could be. "Liar, Liar, your pants are on fire" is the opening line of "You Stand Alone," and given Dube's soaring falsetto, the words seem a little . . . ridiculous. Still, the song goes on to make its point, one that echoes his early tour de force, "No Truth in This World." In "You Stand Alone," Dube ponders what he calls "the terrible truth about the truth" and all its implications: "If you stand for the truth," he sings, "you will always stand alone."

The title track is about betrayal, "Rolling Stone" offers advice to those who reject committed relationships, and "Till You Lose It All" echoes Peter Tosh's "Till Your Well Runs Dry." Other songs affirm such concepts as optimism and self-confidence, while "Let the Band Play On" celebrates the power of music. "Police came in halfway through the night/ With the good news/ Neighbors are complaining 'cause the music is so low." It's hard to imagine that scenario taking place Tuesday night when Dube performs at the 9:30 club, but wouldn't it be great if it did?

(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8161.)

Freddie McGregor: 'The Anthology'

With the success of multi-artist compilation albums and the increasing influence of mobile sound systems, reggae music in recent years has evolved into a singles phenomenon. That's one good reason to invest in "Freddie McGregor: The Anthology" (VP), a two-CD collection of 20 tracks by one of Jamaica's consistent hitmakers, who performs next Sunday at Crossroads.

Another reason is McGregor's way with a love song. While this compilation includes some of his socially conscious material, the emphasis is on McGregor the lover man. The best of these include "Loving Pauper" and "Push Comes to Shove," confections layered with hope and yearning, as well as "Just Don't Wanna Be Lonely," which verges on hokey but maintains its dignity.

McGregor's version of the Cuban folk standard "Guatanamera," a 1988 hit for him, is a sublime fusion of tropical rhythms. McGregor co-produced that one, but on other tracks here, he's aided by some of reggae's finest, ranging from Sir Clement "Coxsone" Dodd to dancehall minimalists Steely & Clevie.

McGregor can find poetry in ordinary subjects--he wrote "Big Ship" after watching a boat in Kingston Harbor--but this collection also traces his religious inspirations with such powerful message music as "Prophecy" and "Africa Here I Come." Outrage also inspires McGregor, as evidenced here on "Bobby Babylon," a hit from 1972. "You brought us down here in captivity/ Feed us with your brutality/ Turn your back on humanity/ You got no love," McGregor scolds, heralded by a famous Studio One horn riff that has since become part of reggae's musical vocabulary.

(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8162.)

Freddie McGregor: 'Signature'

There are a number of gifted reggae singers who can be suspiciously prolific, and McGregor is one of them. His new "Signature" (VP) is a reasonably good album that offers McGregor's usual mix of romantic love songs and the kind of rapture engendered by Rastafarianism. The religious numbers, including "Key to the City" and "Hand in de Fire," are the stronger selections here. All of these tracks are expertly produced, well sung but not particularly memorable. Leave this one in the bin and spring for "Anthology" instead.

(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8163.)

Glen Washington: 'Number One Girl'

The very first notes of "Burning Fire," the a cappella interlude that opens Glen Washington's "Number One Girl" (VP), make clear that Washington is a vocalist of considerable talent.

The album's second track, "Strangers in the Night," is even more striking. Not only does it borrow its title from a famous American standard, the song also features a melody that bears a remarkable resemblance to "Full Attention," an early '90s Jamaican hit for veteran singer Beres Hammond.

On "Strangers" and several other songs here, Washington sounds like a Hammond clone. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Hammond is one of reggae's finest vocalists and perhaps the music's most convincing romancer. Washington shares his gravelly persuasiveness, and even if he sounds only almost as good as Hammond, that still puts him in a better place that many of his colleagues.

The best tracks here--"Strangers in the Night," "How Did You Know" and "Consider Me"--are the handiwork of producer Clement Dodd. Washington gets help from other reggae heavyweights as well. The "Sitting in the Park" medley features stellar performances from drummer Sly Dunbar, bassist Robbie Shakespeare and saxophonist Dean Fraser, who recast a few Motown chestnuts in a reggae style.

"Right From the Start," one of several Rastafarian-inspired tracks, makes use of several tricks from Dawn Penn's "No, No, No." And "Consider Me," a desperate plea for a woman to consider the singer as a last resort, borrows from Garnett Silk's "Oh Me, Oh My." Washington might benefit from a little more original thinking, but then, recycling is a noble tradition in reggae, where entire albums will be recorded on a single rhythm track.

Washington performs at Crossroads next Sunday, opening for Freddie McGregor.

(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8164.)

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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