Album Review: Duane Stephenson - Dangerously Roots
…so you haffi play the music, authentically and melodically, that is how the music a fi sound!
Duane Stephenson may have left August Town to tour the world as an artist in his own right and one of the lead singers for The Wailers featuring Aston “Family Man” Barrett, but his heart and livity are still rooted in this community in Kingston’s Blue Mountain foothills.
For his third album, Duane links Greensleeves Records, a suited partner with its lengthy roster of historic albums in roots reggae and international marketing of the same. He also linked producers that have made some of reggae’s greatest grooves, man like Clive Hunt, Donovan Germain and newcomer Phillip “Winta” James. The final mixes for this album were mostly done by Greg “Grammy” Morris who works out of the Tuff Gong Studio. He also enlisted Romel Marshall who mixed the From August Town album. Each step taken for this release was deliberate in order to continue the mission of cultural reggae as freedom fighters music and music that reaches the souls and minds of many.
The album title, Dangerously Roots makes the inherent claim that this is now an act of rebellion in and of itself as a Jamaican reggae artist - to be deep in the roots, the riddim structure, the vibe of the past and its revolutionary message, still so very relevant is a dangerous road to trod in these times.
The album opens with Rasta For I an anthem that appears to broaden the spectrum for what rasta means and who and what can be rasta in the society. It offers a chance to sing along with an amazing chorus whose lyrics play on the “iyata” Rasta linguistic term I and I. It fends off the demons, those that bring the danger, who would co-opt the message and mission of rasta which is that of peace, cultural awareness, hope and unity.
A constant thread in the album is the emphasis of the drum and bass, omnipresent, constant, a comfort in these times, a familiar salve and modulator for the heart. For Good Good Love Duane channels the distant past of reggae’s roots melding the R&B of the 1960’s doo woo with organ bubbling and the live instrumentation of the riddim in the front of the mix inna rub a dub style.
A remixed version of the same song from Black Gold Nah Play denotes the ruthlessness of today’s violent thugs, “when you look into their eyes, dem youth den nah play”… sung in a mournful falsetto, the remixed version finds the ubiquitous drum and bass enhanced with thoughtful dub effect to close it out. This song has perhaps album’s main thesis in its line: “Let’s sing some more songs of inspiration that the people that them want that them a wait pon”.
Dub poet and pundit/griot Mutabaruka reminds us in an intro for Jah Reign that if it wasn’t for reggae, no one would know about Jamaica, the indisputable sound that put it on the map. In Jah Reign Duane presents a tale in a style that he does best, as a true singer/songwriter, he uses imagery to forge stories of real people, ways that people fight to survive, ways they implore powers greater than them for help. In one of the most beautiful lines sung over a richly produced “steppers” style groove Duane sings, “Like the rain over land, Jah reigns over man….”
To further make the case for the drum and bass, Duane covers an original tune that came in post-Bob Marley & The Wailers but during the time when “the dancehall a go nice” and there were many types of primarily one-drop tunes played on the sound systems and at radio. Cool Runnings originally released in 1981 on Bunny Wailer’s Rock and Groove album and it maintains that storyteller crusade to bring the roots back to the forefront.
The album has plenty of romance and rub a dub, part of the deliberate intention to stay close to reggae’s roots where actual couples danced close in a public setting. The song Juline a duet with I-Octane, channels Lucky Dube in its production values with female harmonies in the front and bluesy guitar lines seasoning the groove. The vocals between the two artists are compatible, with I-Octane’s laid back improv riffing style answering Duane’s first person confrontation of the love interest. On Simply Beautiful the maestro Dean Fraser opens the song with soprano sax and an additional solo that sets the tone for Duane’s great voice to shine and proclaim the basics, the simplicity of love and the wonder of his dreams. Another love song as a duet is the unsettling House of Lies with Lutan Fyah. A reality check with “real talk” Lutan breaking down the iniquities of the love game and Duane “reading your bluff”. For Come Right In Duane rides the chords and writes his magic with lyrics that sing “true love standing at your door long time…” and the perils of relationships that are under the scrutiny of others who may say “the rasta bwoy make him gway” or get rid of him. More love is present on Dance For Me a Latin-tinged groove with the omnipresent drum and bass to a conquest, a señorita who Duane says “did your thing, you pulled my string” and one who he wants to rock the night away with in his arms.
Another cover tune, this time a reggae-tinged groove that originated in the R&B world by Wyclef and R.Kelly Ghetto Religion is turned up with the Jamaicans behind the console. Tarrus Riley is the partner for the duet here and between he and Duane and the support vocalists, they turn it into a hopeful, healing chant for their Jamaican compatriots.
The music takes a revolutionary stance typical of this artist who often pulls focus on uncovering the truth as in London Bridge a metaphor for imperialism and colonialism. It has one of the more ironic lines on the set, “Hey Elizabeth, no bother fret, even though your time is drawing nigh, for your children’s children’s children, they won’t sleep so good at night. Cause in the darkest parts of the black of night, a thousand ships will sail, and a million souls of the battlefield will sing them to their grave.” A reference to the ancient Greek Trojan War as a cautionary tale. Another rebel tune is Sorry Babylon which comes ‘cross as a suggestion to the forces of Babylon to point out that maybe “your life would be better with a Rasta at the controls”.
As the release closes Duane takes it home to Run For Your Life a vivid foray into the real time violence in his community. On notice is the shift in the level of patience, as the streets are “no longer fun” now a “gun shot a bus where the youth used to play.” In a recent interview for Reggaeville [READ IT HERE], Duane explained that a forthcoming video for the same song featured three people from the August Town community as part of the cast and they are all now dead from gunshots. Not one to sugarcoat the situation, the lyrics vividly explain, “Everything used to irie man and man all a play some domino, now everything get strange, the street corner turn a gun range.”
Mutabaruka has the final say on the set, goading the listener “So wha ya say? You hear how the music set up…so you haffi play the music, authentically and melodically, that is how the music a fi sound.”
Indeed Duane Stephenson on your journey from August Town you are still holding the torch to light the way for authentic music by writing great melodies infused with conscious lyrics that aim to set the course for a roots reggae, drum and bass-filled odyssey of sound.
Duane Stephenson - Dangerously Roots
DIGITAL RELEASE / CD [Greensleeves]
Release date: 09/23/2014
01. Rasta For-I
02. Good Good Loving
03. Nah Play
04. Mutabaruka Intro
05. Jah Reign
06. Cool Runnings
07. Juline feat. I Octane
08. Simply Beautiful
09. London Bridge
10. House Of Lies feat. Lutan Fyah
11. Come Right In
12. Ghetto Religion feat. Tarrus Riley
13. Dance For Me
14. Sorry Babylon
15. Run For Your Life
16. Mutabaruka Outro