The Plant Speaks: Yabby You - Conquering Lion

This is the latest installment in The Plant Speaks, an ongoing series of personal notes from the members of 10 Ft. Ganja Plant about their favorite albums.

 year 2011 looms overhead, and the reclusive 2012′ers in neighboring Woburn are settling in for what they believe will be one of their last long New England winters.  They huddle in front of a giant LCD screen and ponder how best to prepare for the return of Quetzacoatl.  Is two years enough time?  In Providence, they wonder if he’ll be bringing Nyarlathotep with him.  And together they hear rumors spoken in hushed tones during online gaming sessions of new directions for 10 FT. Ganja Plant between now and then.  As for myself, all I can say is good things are certainly on the way… and if these cultists are right, we’d better Get This Show On The Road.  And why shouldn’t we?  I hate to sound like a pessimist, but a few more years like the last couple and anyone with a vested interest in roots reggae will be dead.

This was a bitch of a year for reggae.  Two titans in the world of roots reggae have passed on.  On the evening before we gathered in the studio to begin tracking our next album, the one and only Lincoln “Sugar” Minott passed away all too early.  And more recently, the Cool Ruler himself, Mr Gregory Isaacs went home to Jah.  But as much as I love and respect both these great talents, there was yet another, less publicized passing that has affected me more than either. Vivian Jackson, a.k.a. Yabby You, had a unique voice in both a physical and a philosophical regard.  His voice was not the type of sugary-sweet Jackie Edwards type, but evoked all the heaviest attributes of that quality that sets the golden era of reggae apart; the essence of “dread”.  Yabby You did not sing love songs in the romantic sense, choosing instead to extoll the virtues of the Love of Jah.  Literally.  That’s the name of a classic track from the incredible “Conquering Lion” album.  “Conquering Lion” itself was one of the heaviest riddims of the day, being versioned many times over by the likes of sax virtuoso Tommy McCook and Big Youth, the Human Gleaner.

When I first made the transition from smoother reggae (think “Third World”) to the heavy stuff, the Conquering Lion album hit me like a lead weight.  Some of the deepest grooves ever laid down anywhere, mixed by the visionary King Tubby. The album is a soundtrack to Armageddon.  In “Jah Vengeance”, Yabby You  admonishes the wicked that “the Lord shall roll and shake the land”. He examines the poverty around him, noting “The man who does the work does not get any pay / But the one who doesn’t work, he inherit/ But I know the time has come now / When my Father’s ready / They’ll get their pay according to their works”.  Not exactly roller skating music for most people.  But for me it became a part of the soundtrack to my daily life, playing somewhere in the background at all times, even when no radio was around.  On one occasion a friend and I were sheet rocking an apartment while the guy fitting tile in the next room, a staunch metalhead, found himself chanting along with “Run Come Rally” before stopping himself midway through the chorus and proclaiming to us loudly that that was in fact Some Heavy Shit.

Credit must also be given to the extra-heavy harmonies of the Prophets. Every classic Jamaican harmony group has a unique, distinct sound, and the Prophets are rarely given their just due.  The record also features some of the hardest beats ever laid down by Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace.  Yabby you was also a respected producer, releasing killer records on his own Vivian Jackson label for the likes of Wayne Wade, Michael Prophet, and Trinity. Yabby You was a survivor, a man who endured persecution from other Rastas because he, as a self-described “Ites Rasta” did not believe in the divinity of Haile Selassie, thus earning himself the nickname “Jesus Dread”.  He also suffered from different physical ailments from an early age, ranging from arthritis to malnutrition. And yet he was still active in his later years, even performing internationally in his later years and still possessing a strong presence.

Yabby You should be featured prominently in any serious reggae fanatic’s playlist, especially in times as dread as these.  And if you don’t yet know his music, you owe it to yourself to seek it out.  It’s worth the effort.  As a new year approaches, take a moment to remember the reggae greats who have left us in recent years for a brighter home; Yabby You, Sugar Minott, Gregory Isaacs, Joseph Hill, Justin Hinds, David Isaacs, Brent Dowe, Joe Gibbs, Coxsone Dodd, and all the rest.  In the turbulence of a broken economy and a feuding government with no concern for its people, remain strong and always look forward.  While we cannot replace the cornerstones of reggae music, 10 Ft. Ganja Plant can at least build upon that foundation to provide a seed for future generations.  Tune in soon for more news regarding the group and new plans for next year.  If you love roots music, you shall not be disappointed…

The Plant Speaks: Sylford Walker - Lamb's Bread

This is the second installment in The Plant Speaks, an ongoing series of personal notes from the members of 10 Ft. Ganja Plant about their favorite albums.

Whenever I reflect upon my first trip to Jamaica, there is one album that is forever linked to those memories; one album that instantly transports me back to the sweaty streets of Kingston every time I hear it. My friend and I landed in Montego Bay in the midst of a national state of emergency. Most tourists had been evacuated from the island shortly before our arrival. As we climbed into the rickety taxi, a radio news report informed us that the number of taxi drivers killed in Kingston that year had just reached nine.

As soon as we had reached our tiny motel room and began to unpack our bags, we were greeted by a hasty knock at the rear door of the room. The knock came from a local man hustling some ganja. We informed him that we’d already bought plenty from our cab driver and he went on his way. Reaching back into my single piece of luggage, I realized that we had only brought two cassettes to listen to on our pilgrimage to the birthplace of reggae. One was Dadawah: Peace and Love by Ras Michael & the Sons of Negus, a spaced-out, psychedelic dub nyabinghi extravaganza. The other, and the only true reggae album we had, was Lamb’s Bread by Sylford Walker.

Walker is lamentably obscure, even among fans of roots reggae music. A couple of his early singles for Joe Gibbs, such as “Burn Babylon” and “Jah Golden Pen” can be found on various compilations, but his true crowning achievement to date is the seminal Lamb’s Bread . This record collects some of the singles Walker voiced for legendary producer, musician, and singer Glen Brown’s Pantomine label. Featuring an all-star lineup of JA’s greatest session musicians, including the Barrett brothers, Santa Davis, Robbie Shakespeare, Ansel Collins, Tommy McCook, and many more, the tracks were voiced and mixed at the great King Tubby’s studio. Walker’s incredible chanting vocals are often likened to Burning Spear, yet his style is unique and inimitable. The lyrics are always conscious and cultural, and often apocalyptic, as when Walker asks “weh you ago tell Jah on eternal day?” And the hard-hitting “Cleanliness is Godliness” is almost too tough to believe. It’s as if Tubby, Brown, Walker, and company managed to distill roots reggae down to its most raw, pure form. Somewhat appropriate when one considers that Sylford used to make his living brewing and selling roots tonic from his home on Gold Street in Kingston.

As the taxi sped into Kingston down Spanish Town Road, we were informed by the driver that he wouldn’t be stopping for any signs or traffic lights for a while. To our left, the midday heat distorted the view over the hot tin-roof shacks of Trench Town. To our right lay the sprawling development called Tivoli Gardens, once called “Back-o-Wall” before the original community was bulldozed by the government. As we rolled tensely through the area, strains of Walker’s “Babylonians” struck home: “Each and every day I walk up, all I see is violence…” A sobering reminder of the realities that make up everyday life for an unfortunate majority of the world’s population.

For the rest of the trip, the sounds of Lamb’s Bread accompanied us everywhere we went, from the old site of Randy’s Studio upstairs at 17 North parade, to Idler’s rest on Orange Street, and even uptown, from Lee Perry’s neighborhood of Washington Gardens, to the king of reggae’s uptown address at 56 Hope Road. Ironic that as two young white foreigners trod the island listening to Sylford Walker and Ras Michael, the prevailing definition of roots music in JA at that time was extended to such artists as Sizzla and Buju Banton. Most Jamaicans live unaware of the massive contributions their very friends and neighbors have made to the world of music, arts, and culture.

It was not until some time later that I came across another album entitled The Way to Mt. Zion, by Glen Brown. This excellent album features the producer himself voicing several of the same riddims as the Lamb’s Bread album, and is also worth checking out if you love the heavy vibes. Incidentally, Brown’s album was released on the ROIR label on CD in 1995. I think we need to find some way to work these connections to track down Sylford Walker and get him as a guest on the next Ganja Plant album…

The Plant Speaks: Max Romeo - Open The Iron Gate

This is the first installment in The Plant Speaks, an ongoing series of personal notes from the members of 10 Ft. Ganja Plant about their favorite albums.

It was late in the summer of 1997, a considerably brighter time. The economy was on track (at least when compared to today’s vicious state of affairs), and those who spoke out against the government did so because of clandestine oral operations in the oval office. By today’s standards, such issues may seem trivial, but such was life in the last days before the ugly dawning of the Bush Era; or as Obi-Wan Kenobi would have called them, the Dark Times. It was also a great time to be awakening to the world of roots reggae music.

Even out in the so-called “Quiet Corner” of Connecticut, rumours of frequent reggae shows filled the air as a barrage of classic Jamaican bands were beginning a short-lived string of tours. At about that same time I started to see the first re-issue labels popping up, providing the masses with much sought-after quality roots music. The shows were plentiful, but as any serious reggae freak knows, we Must Have Our Fix. This need to expand my musical horizons stemmed from first hearing a particular Lee Perry album a couple years earlier (but that is a story for another time), and saw me next buying albums from anyone I could associate with the great Producer. My bredren and I would drive with furious, knock-your-balls-back-into-your-throat speed from rural CT to locales as exotic as Burlington, VT in search of the next big score.

It didn’t take long, of course, to discover the incredible Max Romeo. War Inna Babylon is probably one of the first albums any roots fiend finds. But despite the brilliant Perry production and the superb Upsetters riddims, our insane lust for ever-deeper grooves drove us to look for lesser-known material. On one of our search-and-consume missions to RI, Max Romeo would throw us the ultimate curveball.

When my friend pulled the five-dollar cassette from the closeout bin, he had know way of knowing that, by the end of the ride home, I would be offering him several times that in exchange for the tape. And there was no way he was giving it up. At first glance, there was nothing striking about the lone copy of Open Up the Iron Gate except the name Max Romeo.

As we prepared for the trip home, my bredren decided to first try the other tape he had bought (Wally Badarou: Words of a Mountain; only recommended as a gift for people you don’t particularly like) simply because he associated the artist’s name with the Countryman soundtrack. The ensuing cacophony nearly resulted in the loss of both our lives in a near-collision caused by a spastic aneurism-type reaction from the driver. We were forced to pull over and roll a spliff for mental re-calibration and to shake off the bad craziness of a few moments earlier. At that time, my bredren was growing pure Hawaiian sativa that tasted like ripe tangerines. As its pungent smoke filled the car, the Wally Badarou tape was thrown into a deep lake (leading, I suspect, to the deaths of many unfortunate fish), never to be heard again. It was now definitively Romeo Time.

As the first strains of “Revelation Time” etched themselves permanently into my brain, I suddenly felt at Home. Spiritually, that is.  Even there in the heart of that bizarre and foreign land of Rhode Island.  Probably one of the last places you expect an epiphanic reggae experience. Yet there we were, absorbed completely in the rolling bass lines and crackling drumbeats. The sparseness of the instrumentation was complemented perfectly by the crunchy production and, when combined with Max’s meditative vocals and dread lyrics, provided the sonic neutron bomb that would blow our collective mind.

Somewhere mid-way through “Blood of the Prophet” everyone in the car was laughing melodically with the riddim like some type of crazed laudanum freak in a silent German impressionist film. I have never been so completely out of my tiny little mind except when under the influence of salvia divinorum (thankfully, those days are over). And this insane musical reaction was probably the catalyst that would kick my berserk lust for deep reggae music into overdrive. From there it went to Ras Michael, to Yabby You, to Sang Hugh, Lennie Hibbert, and Far Beyond. If Lee Perry’s Soundzs From the Hot Line had been the gateway drug that kickstarted my reggae habit, then Open Up the Iron Gate was almost certainly the vicious hard stuff that would fling me wildly into a great morass of deep roots music from which I am likely to never escape. And for that I am eternally grateful.

So while I may not be a critic or reviewer, as a daily habitual user of reggae music, I can tell you to avoid this album if you don’t want to foster a lifelong obsession with vintage Jamaican music. If, on the other hand, you are looking for the perfect album to send you plunging head-first into the neverending depths of quality roots and culture music, you need look no farther for your springboard. Revelation Time is here to stay. And if your brain never fully recuperates (or feels any particular need to), remember You Have Been Warned.