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Black Uhuru


Sandra Farah
April, 1998

Black Uhuru emerged at the perfect and ideal moment when Jamaica was faced with turmoil, confusions and difficulties. Throughout the late 1970's the country and its people were being faced with outside imperialist threats, political violence, a teetering and unstable economy, covert United States intervention and an angry, politicized youth. Reggae music no longer reflected change and was in need of its own uprising. Black Uhuru was seen through some eyes as the saving grace of this desperate time. The band was originally formed by Derrick"Duckie"Simpson, Don Carlos and Garth Dennis in 1971, and like almost all the front-rank Jamaican groups Black Uhuru proclaims a Rastafarian faith that has been crucial in shaping its music and its message. The religion's core belief is that Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 until a year before his death in 1975 was"a divine being, the Messiah, and the champion of the black race."

Carlos left the group for a solo career and Dennis left to perform as a member of the successful roots group, Wailing Souls. Simpson remained to what seemed like one of many secondgeneration, Rasta-inspired vocal groups until he was drawn to the powerful and magical voice of Michael Rose. Shortly after Simpson and Rose began recording, they heard the ethereal voice of South Carolina-born, Columbia-graduate and Rasta sister, Sandra"Puma"Jones. It wasn't until Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare graced the stage along side the trio that they became the Black Uhuru that most are familiar with. Their music combined a deep spirituality, edgy political anger and rhythm driven by the superstar combo of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare.

The internationally renowned musicians and record producers Sly Dunbar now 46, and Robbie Shakespeare, 45, were both born in Kingston, Jamaica. They started their individual careers as session musicians for local reggae acts, Sly as a drummer and Robbie as a base guitarist. In an interview Sly recalls how he come to know Robbie,"Robbie and I were both playing at different clubs in the same street in downtown Kingston. He was playing at Evil People and I was playing three doors down at Tit for Tat. Our breaks were at different times, and each of us would go to the other club during break and listen to the other band playing. The first time I saw Robbie playing bass I asked"Who's that?"He just seemed so relaxed. We got talking and we would just stand and talk about music for hours. We were both obsessed with music. Then I was offered some free time in the studio and I suggested to Robbie that we should start playing together. He said that was a great idea. From the first time we played together we clicked musically. It was like magic. He knew what I was going to do and I knew what he was going to do. We used to rehearse deep into the night and Robbie asked me to join the Peter Tosh Band, who he was with then. That was in 1975. Since then we've probably only spent - at the most - three weeks apart from each other."

In the same interview Robbie was asked where it all began. Robbie, laughing, goes back to his birth citing the influence of the rhythmic slap applied to his buttocks by the attending doctor, and then to his teen years in East Kingston, when he heard bass man"Family Man"Barrett in a club. It was Barrett who taught him his first bassline.

Sly recalled growing up and how everybody wanted"to be like Tubby"(Waterhouse producer King Tubby). Sly grew up using"drumsticks with pots and pans."

Sly and Robbie, also known as the"Riddim Twins,"(Rhythm Twins) worked for a wide range of international stars, rather than be content simply to build advanced rhythms for their own label. These included the few reggae performers to achieve a degree of crossover success, namely Peter Tosh and Black Uhuru but also Bob Marley, Chaka Demus and Pliers. It also involved other musicians such as Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Grace Jones and Robert Palmer. In this some period they generously ensured major local hits for other Jamaican producers, the notable of which were George Phang, the partnerships of both Clive Jarrett & Beswick 'Bebo' Phillips and Myrie Lewis & Errol Marshall and the first hits for one of"the most successful producers of the forthcoming digital era,"Philip 'Fatis' Burrell. During this period Sly and Robbie's work didn't deal with the development of new or fresh ideas, but they applied techniques they had already used that were well received in the dance halls. In 1984 Sly and Robbie built rhythms for George Phang in return for a favor involving the producer's political connections. These rhythm tracks were used on a string of classic dance hall 45's that included Barrington Levy's Money Move, Sugar Minott's Buy Off the Bar and Rydim, Michael Palmer's Lick Shot, Little John's True Confession, Frankie Paul's Alesha and Tidal Wave, Half Pint's Greetings and Tristan Palma's Folly Rankin.

Sly has been a part of reggae's ever-changing sound for nearly three decades. So he spoke with some authority when he said,"It is time the music shifted away from mediocrity and toward international acceptance."By 1976, only one year after they began playing together, they were already Jamaica's most celebrated and prolific rhythm section.

Michael Rose was born in Kingston on July 11, 1957. Not able to complete his high school education at St. George's College, he was fortunate to turn to music through the influence of his older brother, Joseph. Michael (and his beautiful voice) would meet regularly in Kingston with such singers, musicians, writers and producers as Dennis Brown, John Holt, Big Youth, the Wailers, Niney the Observer, Gregory Isaacs, Sly & Robbie and Owen Grey.

As front man for Black Uhuru, singer Michael Rose approached reggae stardom on the international level of Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. Rose was the singer-songwriter in the group's glory days of the early 1980's. He wrote one of Uhuru's best-loved songs,"Youth of Eglington."Along with Duckie Simpson and Puma Jones, and backed by Sly and Robbie, he recorded classic albums such as Sinsemilla, Red and Chill Out. Another album,"Anthem"earned the first Grammy Award for a reggae recording. This successful period is know documented on the box set; Liberation. Through each of these albums Rose's role can be easily identified in both his distinctive vocal style and his conscious lyrics in songs.

"Everything about Black Uhuru was right, the time, the message, the vibe. It was fresh and the people were hungry for it"said Rose.

Michael Rose left Uhuru in 1985 over differences with Simpson. When dissension splintered the group and backup singer/dancer Sandra"Puma"Jones passed away from Cancer, Ducky Simpson founder of Uhuru brought in Junior Reid for lead vocal chores, while Rose pursued a solo career. After giving a few sporadic but electrifying performances, Rose took a break from music to tend to his coffee plantation in the hills of Jamaica. During his time away he stayed in touch with the dance hall scene and found regular work singing on dub plates for various Kingston sound plates. Since his return to the music business, Rose has recorded at a prolific rate, releasing seven albums covering styles ranging from roots reggae and dance hall to r 'n' b and hip-hop flavored tracks. Rose began to release material that he had spent a great deal of time writing and recording between tours. He teamed up with producers Noel Brownie, Tyrone Downie and Geoffery Chung to release the album Proud. The album reflected the years of experience Michael had acquired and showcased a more mature artist with a sharper edge. His follow up album was released in 1992 and featured hits like,"Ganga Bonanza"and"Long Time."In 1993 he reunited with Sly and Robbie, resulting in a sequence of hit singles such as;"Mr. Mention,""Monkey,""Visit Dream"and"Bad Boy."His newest album, Dance Wicked, is the first to recapture Rose's thrilling synthesis of Rastaman intimidation and warmth. It was produced by U.K.- based Jamaican brother team Mafia and Fluxy (Leroy and David Heywood).

"We were watching how Michael Rose sounded with Black Uhuru in past times and what he is known for,"said Mafia."We used to be right up front at Uhuru shows. Jackie Davidson hooked us up on the phone cause Michael was coming to England. We laid three tracks in one day, and that led to an album. We finished recording in early '96, but doing other mixes took a while, just experimenting with the voice and putting different beats behind it. We tried to recreate that Black Uhuru vocal quality with fresh beats, how Black Uhuru would sound today. We even done the harmonies, cause I sounded like Puma and Fluxy sounded like Ducky."

Mafia and Fluxy would often lay down the rhythm tracks and Rose would compose lyrics and melodies. Rose recalls,"On some of the songs, we just vibes and recorded them on the spot."

Many thought that Rose had never sounded better. His voice was clear and strong and stern. For Michael Rose his album Dance Wicked brought back a feeling of dance halls,"It's like in Jamaica when the dance ram, the people love it, have a good time, and nobody look no fight, everybody have a good time."

Dance Wicked makes that stylistic statement up front with lead track"Happiness,"a scintillating update that's every bit up to the standards of the original Black Uhuru recording. The vocals, leads, and background harmonies evoke the strength and longing of the 1985 version. But the Black Uhuru laid-back style set by drummer Sly and bassist Robbie Shakespeare-are accelerated here to a faster, 1997-style tempo. And the slashing chords of the original's rhythm guitar are replaced by percussive computer keyboard patterns."I think it's brilliant,"said Rose."They're young and fresh and have new ideas. These young (U.K.) producers try to adapt the now sound of Jamaica instead of that British sound from long ago."Michael Rose will always carry a message in his music. And he will always be conscious of what he wants it to be.

"The youth today are forced into violence because they lack opportunities,"said Rose."They get no substance. We've got to flood the air with music that has a message. You can't have too much of that."

Veteran Jamaican reggae singer Delroy"Junior"Reid was a solo artist of six years before he replaced Michael Rose in Black Uhuru in 1985. Reid was known as an innovative musician and roots reggae songwriter whose rich voice delivered hits like"One Blood"and"Great Train Robbery."Then as Black Uhuru was about to tour the United States, the U.S. government denied Reid a visa to perform in America. Reid blames his banishment on"music politics."Rasta ideology, he thinks doesn't sit well with government bodies."They wanted to try to stop the group, so they stopped the lead singer,"Reid said.

So Black Uhuru kept touring, while Reid picked up his solo career, established JR Productions and decided to avoid signing with other labels. For Reid the temporary estrangement from the American market proved to be a blessing."I had to look into myself and analyze the business more."said Reid whose single"Sign Up"is a critique of the current state of the reggae industry.

"The artist singing positive lyrics is not making it up the chart,"Reid said in his unique island speech style."Sex songs and gun songs and slack songs, that's what making it. Reggae music supposed to carry a positive message. Right now, the people is so thirsty and ready for the positive message."

Reid is a purist, a devout Bobo Shanti Rastafarian who remains faithful to reggae's original purpose as religious music delivering a message of peace and unity.

Over Black Uhuru's 25-year life span, the group has seen several major personnel shifts, with harmony singer, songwriter and founding member Simpson its sole constant. Earlier this year a jury in the Los Angeles Supreme Court found in a unanimous 6-0 decision that"plaintiff Derrick 'Duckie' Simpson is entitled to a preliminary injunction in his favor and against defendants Don Carlos and Garth Dennis. Almost three years ago Simpson filed his case after the original trio reunited and split again. Dennis and Carlos continued to perform under the same name"Black Uhuru"as a duo. The defendants were ordered to cease the Black Uhuru name, in favor of Simpson.

The separate lives of Michael Rose, Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, Derrick"Duckie"Simpson and Sandra"Puma"Jones have all been remarkable and inspiring, but it is through each other that they have found the"larger universe they desired."The unedited and original"What is life,"from the Anthem album is a chilling example of their strength and connection, as Michael sings Duckie's hopeful lyrics,"What is life? No one can tell."The beat is loping, disarming - until Sly's electronic beats are the sound of gunfire.

This is what the youth of Jamaica were seeking.

That they arose during the last days of Robert Nesta Marley's life was not to their disadvantage nor did it influence the pace this group was ready for. They believed that Bob Marley went to a sweeter place, and their place was still a bitter hell. Their second Island album, Red, was considered by many their masterpiece."Youth Of Eglington"was the Uhuru manifesto, a link beyond Jamaica with the armed resistance of African youth throughout the diaspora: Eglington, the West Indian enclave in Toronto; Brixton, where riots paralyzed London; Utica Avenue, Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The Red tour had it share of terror. A show in Miami was stopped because the audience decided to bring their own artillery.

"Uhuru's live shows, pumped by Sly and Robbie's extraordinary bond, were movable Rastafari revolutions. And they were a sight: Michael on an endless prowl 'n' scowl; Duckie cool and stockstill; and Puma, the visual hook - arms fluid, silks flowing, an African queen, the chrysalis in the mix.

As Sly and Robbie become the premier rhythm section of choice, Michael Rose gained prestige as a songwriter. Duckie too drastically rose and his songs, including"What Is Life,""Black Uhuru Anthem"and"Elements, 91 were the highlights of the original Anthem album.

Michael Rose was possessed by an intelligent, fierce pride that can be seen through simply listening to him speak, sing or chant. Sandra"Puma"Jones though she died of Cancer,"held a regal bearing and forthrightness that empowered countless women of color."Duckie remained remote and distant, but will always be secure and satisfied knowing that his group is an essential chapter of cultural history.

In Swahili, Uhuru is the word for freedom. Freedom is what they are trying to scream.

"They make us work in their factory
Then pay us small small salary
That can't even buy us bread."

Black Uhuru was the sound of liberation.


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Campbell, Howard; Jamaica Music: Reggae needs to Change Gear. Inter Press Services 1997

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Talbot, Mary; Junior Reid is Back . Daily News (NY) 1995

Terrell, Tom; Emotional Slaughter. Island Records, INC 1993

Varga, George; Album Reviews Reggae. San Diego UnionTribune, The. 1996