Winston Holness aka Niney the Observer is one of reggae’s finest and distinctive prodcuers and has been plying his trade since 1969 when he first began production work with Joe Gibbs and the nprosduced the seminal roots tune ‘Rasta no born yeh’ for Sang Hugh in 1972. In fact even before this he was involved in the music industry as a singer and this probably explains why he was so sensitive to the needs of other musicians. On this new box set four original albums from the 1970s are presented with their original facsimile sleeves and the trademark eye logo that became synonymous with Niney’s 1970s roots productions on the box set cover, here lovingly illustrated by the man behind the superb graphics for those Greensleeves 12” singles and albums, Tony McDermott. Of all his collaborations that Niney enjoyed with singer Dennis Brown was, perhaps, the closest of all and so the re-issue of one of Brown’s hardest to find (on vinyl certainly and in general there are selected songs available on CD compilations) albums in its original form is a real treat. There is no shortage of listening heaven here, but key songs include ‘Tribulation’, ‘So long Rastafari’ and ‘Voice of my father’. Best of all is ‘If you’re rich, help the poor’ which could almost be a rallying call for the present day. Legendary vocal group the Heptones had already established themselves in the premier league of harmony groups by the time they and Niney hooked up for the late-1970s album ‘Better days’, the group having first worked at Studio One and then during the mid-1970s under the creative production talents of Harry J and especially one Lerry Perry with the epic ‘Party time’ album. However, the group did change personnel with lead singer Leroy Sibbles leaving to be replaced by Dolphin ‘Naggo’ Morris. Thankfully the Heptones were still capable of delivering some fine roots songs and in ‘Crystal blue persuasion’ and the steppers favourite ‘Through the fire I come’, many a revival session has subsequently been lit up. Actually the album is pretty strong throughout with one of the group’s most endearing melodies being ‘Temptation, botheration and tribulation’, a seminal roots tune and ‘Holy Mount Zion’ is only marginally less effective.
DJ I-Roy was one of the roots era’s most compelling and entertaining social commentators and the partnership with Niney resulted in the album ‘The Observer book of I-Roy’. A major highlight here is the inclusion of a bonus 12” cut ‘Jah is my light’/’Wicked eat dirt’ featuring Leroy Smart and I-Roy, but the original album is equally impressive. There is a feel of Lee Perry’s ‘Police and thieves’ production on ‘Jah come here’ and one presumes that Holness was listening closely to the experimentation emanating from the Black Ark studios. One of the best loved tunes on the album is ‘Sister maggie breast’ which borrows the riddim from Dennis Brown’s ‘Woles and leopards’ classic. For lovers of steppers with a healthy dosage of dub echo look no further than ‘Jamaican grill/Observer in fine style’. I-Roy’s inimitable DJ intro is heard on ‘Native land’. Finally there is a follow up dub album to ‘Dubbin’ with the Observer’ which cemented Niney’s reputation as an all-round top roots producer. The second instalment, ‘Observation of life dub’, by Page One and the Observers is not quite on a par with its predecessor, but a strong set nonethless with reworkings of the aforementioned Heptones vocal album.
Of these new interpretations, ‘Nuff bread on the table’ is notable for its pulsating beat and distinctive keyboard licks, and there is also some pared down drum and bass on ‘Africa’s time now’. This is a first rate anthology of Niney’s work and only marginally short of a five star rating. At least two of the albums are deserving of belonging in that category.
With between 400,00 and 500,00 French nationals resident in the UK, this mere statistic alone provides a significant commercial potential and unsurprisingly the music industry has begun to take note of their potential, particularly when so many of this new generation of emigrants are in their twenties, thirties and forties. British interest in the French music scene has been highly selective and tends either to take a sugar-coated nostalgic look at the 1960s and before (Françoise Hardy, early Johnny Halliday), or else psychadelic and other rock influences (Serge Gainsbourg), or instead focuses on a limited number of new artists for their individual style (Camille), or finally instrumental groups that easily transcend linguistic barriers (Daft Punk, Air). An anthology of the new generation of singer-songwriters who surfaced during the 1970s (Souchon, Lavilliers, Le Forestier etc.) aimed specifically at an English-speaking audience with clear explanations is required to rectify matters and this would only be touching the surface for there is a wealth of musical talent hitherto unknown in the UK.
Where do Noir Désir fit into this musical jigsaw? They are very much rooted in the alternative music scene that emerged in France during the 1980s and especially 1990s as a reaction, partly to the French equivalent of the ‘X factor’, referred to more generally in France as the ‘star system’, and partly as a direct response to the rise of the extreme right party, the Front National. If one had to categorise them at all, then it would probably be in the indie rock field, though their influences are above all French (especially in outlook and use of lyrics) and they can be seen as direct musical descendents of 1970s group Téléphone and even Manu Chao’s first group Manu Negra rather than as a mere pastiche of English-speaking rock music. Lead singer Bertrand Cantet typifies the group’s approach as a whole, with a philosophy degree, a voracious reader of banned poets and a clear left of centre vision of the world. The compilation is well conceived with all their major hits contained including. perhaps, their best known song ‘Le vent nous portera’ and others which cover sensitive social issues. For example ‘Un jour en France’ deals with racism and xenophobia in French society while ‘L’homme pressé’ is an emphatic rejection of the manufactured music being produced via television talent shows. One song missing is the group’s attack on unbridled captialism with an English title, ‘Holy economic war’. In many respects this was a visionary tale of what would come to pass with the current economic recession and possibly the group’s very public own struggle with their label Barclay being taken over by multi-national Universal was a little too close to the bone to be considered for inclusion here. Whatever the case, this package nonetheless offers a comprehensive overview of the group, especially with extensive DVD footage (two and a half hours no less) that includes video and concert music from French television. Sadly, the group’s future came to an abrupt halt when lead singer Cantat’s partner, the actress Marie Trintignant, was tragically killed with Cantat directly implicated in a highly mediatised coverage and the singer went to prison. Upon his release the group attempted two more songs, but the old chemistry was no longer there and they disbanded. Their influence on contemporary French music is immense and, for anyone who is interested in examining what their contemporaries across the Channel listen to, this will prove to be an eye opening experience. A pity there are no lyrics either in French, or English which would have enhanced the listener’s enjoyment.
Keyboardist Robert Glasper has consistently maintained a foot in both jazz and contemporary black music fields and thus it should come as no surprise that he would wish to combine the two for an album showcasing various vocalists on the current rap and R ‘n’ B scene. While he is to be applauded for this endeavour which works in some places here, the sheer number of guest artists on board for this CD makes the overall objective an impossible one to achieve and, crucially, it relegates Glasper himself to a bit sideman part, leaving the listener with the decidely uncomfortable feeling that this has been a lost opportunity. First of all let us focus on the positive aspects. The inclusion of singers of the calibre of Eryka Badu and Meshell Ndegecello is a mouthwatering prospect and, had they been given more time and songs to develop a musical rapport with Glasper, we could have been talking about a recording of some substance. Badu’s vocal pyrotechnics are ideally suited to improvisation while Ndegecello’s eclectic approach and multi-instrumental skills would make for an ideal partnership with Robert Glasper. Why, then, was this avenue not explored on an entire album? As it is, Badu and Glasper combine on a reworking of Mongo Santmaria’s classic ‘Afro Blue’, but even this does not really afford the chanteuse the opportunity to show off her vocal range over some tasty keyboards improvisations. Glasper becomes largely a sideshow here, but nevertheless he does resurface in jazzier mode on the excellent ‘Gonna be alright (F.T.B.)’ that introduces talented vocalist Bedisi and features some lovely fender licks that we have come to love and admire from Glasper. Possibly best of all is ‘Letter to Hermoine’ where the music finally comes alive and we have an extended piano solo from the leader as well as subtle flute playing. Now for the negative. If Robert Glasper truly wishes to make a rap-dominated album, then he should be allowed to do so, but this should be strictly separate from his jazz-inspired career (unless of course he chooses some rappers who truly know their jazz such as Tribe Called Quest) and much of the jazz-rap terrain has already been explored and exhausted by a variety of musicians during the 1990s. Indeed on the title track Glasper might as well have not been there and in general the rap collaborations are at once unfulfilling and sound a trifle dated. Of the other collaborations, Lalah Hathaway makes a good attempt at Sade’s (why are there not more covers of this contemporary classic chanteuse?) ‘Cherish the day’, taken here at a slower pace than on the original. If it is back to the drawing board for Robert Glasper for the time being, at the very least this blending of genres has given the pianist the opportunity to see and hear what works and what does not, and that in itself may long-term prove to be a valuable lesson. A mixed emotional experience for Robert Glasper’s devoted fans of which this writer is a paid up member. Tim Stenhouse