Album Review: Ras Michael - Live By The Spirit
by Gardy Stein
"Live by the spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature." (Galatians Chapter 5:16)
With 77 years on this earth and a thorough education in Rastafari and music, Michael George Henry OD (yes, the man has received the Jamaican Order of Distinction in August 2015) aka Ras Michael sure knows what he's doing - and why. The "father of the Nyabinghi drumming" presents his 27th album Live By The Spirit a mere two years after his re-make None A Jah Jah Children.
The nine pieces on the current release take us on a deeply conscious journey, disregarding conventional guidelines of track length and airplayability. Thus, more than half of them play longer than 8 minutes, so make sure you bring some time before pressing play!
Nicodemus sets the tone with a slow, hypnotic heartbeat. The song is telling the story of the Pharisee mentioned in the Gospel of John who talks to Jesus about the meaning of "being born again". As the album title implies, the focus here lies on the spiritual re-birth, of course. On a more wordly level, the next track is almost jazz, and Ras Michael enlightens us on the History Of The Drum Music.
The teachings received are put into practice in the Nyabinghi Instrumental, a piece impressively demonstrating the power of those percussions. The baandu or thunder drum providing the bass here must have been huge indeed, judging from its all-encompassing sound that will make your whole place vibrate. About time to introduce the musicians: besides Ras Michael's Sons Of Negus, we hear drummers Santa Davis, Magatte Fall and Malick Sow as well as Alphonso Kirk on saxophone, Junior Milton Smith on bass and Stevie Verhault on guitar. Unfortunately, the press release doesn't mention the name of the background singer, so praises for the sweet notes she adds on almost every track (and, most notably, on Be As One) are directed to unknown.
Less singing, more biblical story-telling: Thou Art Worthy To Be Praised repeats words and phrases well-known in the devout circles Ras Michael has been influenced by, and has influenced in turn. He might not be the best vocalist of all times, but he sure knows how to bring his message across!
Intespersed with animal voices, rolling thunder and historic allusions to King Solomon, the kingdom of Kush and, of course, Ethiopia, Take Me Back To Africa is a repatriation hymn if ever there was one. "Serve the living God!".
While I'm not sure if the world needs yet another cover version of By The Rivers Of Babylon, the equally often sung Gospel Press Along Saints makes for a nice, slightly up-tempo addition to this release, and the jubilant interplay of the instruments bears testimony of the fun the recording session must have been.
My personal favourite, however, is the final and title track. The harmonic arrangement of both instruments and vocals instantly invites for sing-along (not only under the shower), and the lyrics make you reflect on the difficult balance between material and spiritual world long after the song is over.
The album Live By The Spirit is balm on the souls of those complaining that Jamaica's contemporary releases lack roots, spirituality and decency, as it transports the intense vibe of the original Rastafarian Nyabinghi Grounations to the international community. Hallelujah!
Ras Michael - Live By The Spirit
Release date: 01/31/2020
02. History Of The Drum Music
03. Press Along Saints
04. Be As One
05. Thou Art Worthy To Be Praised
06. Nyabinghi Instrumental
07. By The Rivers Of Babylon
08. Take Me Back To Africa
09. Live By The Spirit