Monday, December 21, 2020

Duff Review: The Archives "Carry Me Home: A Reggae Tribute to Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson"

The cover features a Rhodes keyboard viewed from above, with a flute and handwritten lyrics on pieces of paper resting on it, and a pair of hands on the keys.
Montserrat House
2 x LP/CD

(Review by Steve Shafer)

The idea for Carry Me Home: A Reggae Tribute to Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson came about when Darryl "Trane" Burke, the keyboardist for the superb Washington, DC reggae band The Archives, learned that Gil Scott-Heron's father was Jamaican, and he realized that he had never heard any reggae covers of Scott-Heron's songs. Gill Scott-Heron was, of course, the extraordinary and highly-influential Black American poet, author, and jazz-influenced soul and funk musician who was most active in the 1970s and '80s, and whose songs addressed systemic racism, social and political injustice, and promoted Black pride. Burke then enlisted the help of Eric Hilton of Thievery Corporation, who agreed to co-produce the album with Burke and release it on his label (Hilton had issued The Archives debut album in 2012 on his ESL Music label); and legendary reggae percussionist Larry McDonald (Lee "Scratch" Perry, The Skatalites, Toots and the Maytals, Peter Tosh), who was a member of Scott-Heron’s band Amnesia Express back in the '80s and '90s. McDonald, of course, knew long-time Scott-Heron collaborator Brian Jackson (he and Scott-Heron recorded seven albums together in the 1970s), who was intrigued by the project and agreed to perform on several tracks. 

The results of this collaborative effort are spectacular. Carry Me Home is a triumphant reimagining of Scott-Heron and Jackson's indelible and indispensable songs (beautiful Trojan Horse-like music delivering devastatingly pointed lyrics into listeners' minds) as soulful reggae cuts in the vein of The Wailers, Steel Pulse, and Black Uhuru. The album is essentially bookended by two of their most powerful and--yes--still disturbingly relevant songs, Scott-Heron's "Home Is Where the Hatred Is" and Scott-Heron and Jackson's "Winter in America." A metaphor for a dysfunctional and cruel society (America, writ large) that forces many of its people to seek escape by any means necessary, "Home Is Where the Hatred Is" (from 1971's Pieces of a Man) is heartbreaking in the mass suffering and wasted potential that it hints at. This is what happens when a nation decides that Black lives don't really matter: 

"Home is where the hatred is
Home is filled with pain and it
Might not be such a bad idea if I never
Never went home again...

...Home is where I live inside my white powder dreams
Home was once an empty vacuum that's filled now with my silent screams
Home is where the needle marks
Tried to heal my broken heart..."

Puma Ptah's vocals are filled with so much sorrow on this track--and his singing is highly evocative and affecting throughout this album (as if he's channeling the unheard music of so many singers).

In the waning days of the disastrous Trump years, when racism, corruption, incompetence, cruelty, cronyism, inequity, lies, Covid-19, and outright sedition (I still can't believe that there was an out-in-the-open attempted coup by a sitting president abetted by the majority of Republicans in both houses of Congress!) have run wild and nothing good and right seems to matter, Scott-Heron and Jackson's mournful "Winter in America" (from their 1975 album Midnight Band: The First Minute of a New Day) feels uncomfortably prescient:

"And now it's winter
Winter in America
And all of the healers done been killed or sent away
Yeah, and the people know, the people know
It's winter
Winter in America
And ain't nobody fighting
‘Cause nobody knows what to save"

Augustus Pablo's wonderfully gifted son Addis Pablo contributes melodica to the Dennis Bovell-sounding (and "Rivers of Babylon"-like themed) "Rivers of My Fathers" (from Scott-Heron and Jackson's 1974 album Winter in America): "Rubber soles against the concrete/And the concrete is my smile/Got to change my way of living/Got to change my style/Let me lay down by a stream/Miles from everything/Rivers of my fathers/Could you carry me home?" "Peace Go with You, Brother (As-Salaam-Alaikum)" (also from Winter in America) is plea for Black solidarity in the face of oppression. The toll of America's still unresolved legacy of slavery and racism on generations of Black Americans is pointedly raised on the plaintive "Who'll Pay Reparations on My Soul" (from Scott-Heron's 1970 album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox). Reworked in an awesome Lovers rock style, with impassioned vocals by Raheem Devaughn, "A Toast to the People" (from Scott-Heron and Jackson's 1975 album From South Africa to South Carolina) recognizes the awful burden and struggle Black Americans have faced, but is also hopeful that someday things will be better:

"And though it's been too long
Too many years have passed
And though the time has gone
The memory still holds fast
Yes, as strange as it seems
We still live in the past
The essence of a black life
Lost in the hourglass

And ever since we came to this land
This country has rued the day
When we would stand as one
And raise our voices and say
You know there won’t be no more killing
And no more talk of class
Your sons and your daughters
Won't die in the hourglass...

...A toast to all black fathers
Who live their lives in vain
A toast to all black mothers
Who shoulder this life in pain
A toast to the people"

With its sweet harmonizing and great, off-kilter percussive elements, the highlight of the album is "Must Be Something" (from their 1975 album Midnight Band: The First Minute of a New Day)--which brings Fishbone's "One Day" (from their 1988 record  Truth and Soul) to this reviewer's mind, as they're both about Black Americans living in a kind of limbo, since there's no clear answer as to how or when racial injustice will end (and it's not necessarily their responsibility to solve the problem, either): "Must be something we can do/We didn't come all this way just to give up/We didn't struggle all this time to say we've had enough."

One missed opportunity is "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" (from 1971's Pieces of A Man), Scott-Heron's truly groundbreaking musical poem that, in addition to the work of of The Last Poets and the deejay style of toasting in dancehall reggae, helped give birth to rap and hip-hop later that decade (via the JA-born, Bronx-raised DJ Kool Herc). Perhaps all of the dated early '70s references (John Mitchell, Spiro Agnew, Hooterville Junction, etc.) led Burke and company to opt for the mostly instrumental route here, but it would have been fantastic if they'd asked a guest musician (like Horseman AKA Winston Williams) to toast the original text, which is so funny and potent in its urging Black Americans to get involved in the struggle for racial equality, since change will not be brought about by the powers that be and sponsored by corporations for broadcast on TV. And if listeners didn't get some of the political, pop culture, and product references, they should look 'em up! (One stanza from the original that now chills one to the bone is: "There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay." How times have changed.)

There are two excellent dub versions of "Home is Where the Hatred Is" and "Rivers of My Fathers," as well as the terrific "Revolution Disguised as Change," penned by reggae poet/musician Mutabaruka (who performs on this song) and Burke, and lyrically inspired by "Winter in America" and "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"--the chorus reminds the listener that even though some progress has been made in the fight for racial equality, "It's not quite spring yet..." While I'm not well-versed in all of Gil Scott-Heron's music, with at least two business tycoons operating their own space programs (and NASA working on sending people to Mars), it would have been great if The Archives could have included a version of Scott-Heron's biting "Whitey on the Moon."

The Archives' Carry Me Home: A Reggae Tribute to Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson is a stellar tribute to Scott-Heron and Jackson's extraordinary musical legacy, and one of the best albums I've heard all year.

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