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Black Uhuru – Reggae Powerhouse, Sizzling Sounds of Solidarity
The very first recipients of a Grammy Award in the Reggae Music category which was introduced in 1985, Black Uhuru have always been one of the most progressive reggae or “reggae-rock” bands, managing to stay true to their fierce Rastafarian policy and its obsession. vocal harmonies despite many challenges over its 35-year history. And, WOW, what a story!
Black Uhuru, whose name comes from the East African Swahili language meaning “freedom” (hence Black Freedom), was originally formed as a trio in 1974 in the Waterhouse neighborhood of Kingston , in Jamaica, by Derrick “Duckie” (now “Gong”) Simpson, Euvin “Don Carlos” Spencer and Rudolph “Garth” Dennis. They played clubs around Jamaica but didn’t get much local attention despite their Top Cat produced singles “Folk Songs”, “Slow Coach” and “Time is on Our Side”. In the 1970s, as now, young black men in Kingston had few opportunities to break away from the poverty of the city’s slums. Reggae was certainly an escape route, but it was teeming with talented hopefuls, so the chances of success were very slim.
After a few years, Don Carlos left the band to pursue a solo career, Garth Dennis left for what was to be an 8-year stint with the Wailing Souls, and Simpson quickly revamped the band with Errol “Jay” Nelson and Michael Pink. This time, the band’s singles, “Natural Mystic” and “I Love King Selassie”, caught the attention of a London distributor named Count Shelley, and Black Uhuru’s debut recording, “Love Crisis”, produced by Prince Jammy, was released in England in 1977. (“Love Crisis” was later remixed and reissued as “Black Sounds of Freedom”).
Nelson left shortly after the release, leaving Simpson and Rose to work as a duo for a while. But it wasn’t until reggae’s hottest rhythm section, Sly Dunbar on drums and Robbie Shakespeare on bass (who were friends of Michael Rose), graced the stage alongside them that they created their its most unique and have become the Black Uhuru we are most familiar with. Around this time, Sly and Robbie had just started their Taxi label, and Black Uhuru’s “Observe Life” became Taxi’s first release.
In 1978, lightning finally struck when Nelson’s place was taken over by Colombian-educated African-American band singer Sandra “Puma” Jones. Led by Rose’s distinctive tenor and recording for Sly and Robbie’s Taxi label, this third line-up launched the band into their most commercially successful period with the haunting hits “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Abortion” (banned in Jamaica), “Leaving to Zion”, “Plastic Smile”, “Shine Eye Gal” and “General Penitentiary”. All of these singles were assembled on the 1979 album “Showcase”, later reissued on CD as “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”.
The release of “Showcase” brought an invitation from a New York radio station, WLIB, which was hosting a concert at Hunter College. It was Black Uhuru’s first performance outside of Jamaica, an opportunity most reggae bands never had. “Showcase” also caught the eye of Chris Blackwell, president of Island Records, and Black Uhuru’s first major label deal soon followed with Island subsidiary Mango.
The band made their US album debut in 1980 with “Sensimilla”, which established the band’s hard-hitting sound mixing traditional roots with modern digital effects on its sizzling tracks, all written by Michael Rose, such as “Happiness”, “Push Push”, “The World is Africa” and, of course, the cut title. As the frontman of Black Uhuru, singer-songwriter Rose approached international reggae stardom like Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. His deeply conscious Rastafarian voice and lyrics helped usher in an exciting era in reggae music.
The release of “Red” propelled the band into the top 30 of the UK charts and many considered it the band’s masterpiece, illustrating their commitment to social change. “Youth of Eglington”, written by Rose, has become Uhuru’s manifesto and a reggae classic, connecting Jamaican youth with African youth around the world, from Eglington (the Caribbean enclave of Toronto), to Brixton ( where the riots crippled London), in Utica Avenue and Brooklyn. The album’s tour was met with some violence; a show in Miami was reportedly shut down because the audience brought in guns. “Red” would end up being No. 24 on Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Albums of the 1980s with its rootsy classics like “Rockstone”, “Sponji Reggae” and the upbeat “Utterance”. Black Uhuru found themselves among the most influential reggae bands on the planet after the death of Bob Marley in 1981.
With the 1982 release “Chill Out”, Sly and Robbie took Black Uhuru from the simple sound of traditional reggae to a more electronic sound called “dub”, the new sound that was becoming so popular in reggae in the mid-1980s. Some critics felt it was Uhuru’s weakest album while others marked it as their best album of all. Some classics from this album include the title track, “Wicked Act”, and “Mondays”, which addressed all working people who see Monday as “the day slavery begins”.
The group reached its peak in 1983 with the release of “Anthem”. Island Records attempted to build on the success of “Chill Out” by remixing “Anthem” in 1984 for American and European audiences (but original versions can be found on “Liberation: The Island Anthology”, a superb two-disc anthology ). And, in 1985, Black Uhuru won the first-ever Grammy Award for reggae music, beating Bob Marley and the Wailers, Steel Pulse and Yellowman. “What is Life” was a huge hit and the album was full of classic anthems like “Solidarity”, “Elements” (a masterpiece I say), “Botanical Roots”, “Black Uhuru Anthem” and “Bull in the Pen”. While Rose had written most of their previous stuff, these lyrics were largely written by Duckie Simpson. With this release, Black Uhuru mixed a touch of pop/R&B with reggae without sacrificing quality and was able to attract more mainstream attention.
As often happens, success can destroy a group. In 1985, after the band’s rise to prominence began to slow, Michael Rose decided to try his hand at a solo career and establish a coffee farm in the Jamaican hills. Delroy “Junior” Reid came on as his replacement, first appearing on “Brutal” on the RAS label in 1986. Reid, a devout Bobo Shanti Rastafarian, was a talented singer as evidenced by “Let Us Pray” and “Fit You Haffe Fit”. “, but the American government refused Reid a visa to perform on tour in America, forcing him to resume his solo career and Uhuru to tour without him. And then, Puma Jones is forced to leave for health reasons just before finishing the recording of “Positive” in 1987: the singer was battling breast cancer and died in 1990 at the age of 36. (She was briefly replaced by Janet Reid.)
In 1987, the “Reggae Times” Awards honored Don Carlos as Best Singer and Black Uhuru as Best Group and had Simpson, Carlos and Dennis perform together. A European tour followed, and in 1990 the original trio were recording again as Black Uhuru. “Now” (1990) received critical acclaim and rose to No. 2 on the Billboard World Music Chart. It also earned another Grammy nomination for Best Reggae Album. From the single “Iron Storm” (1992), “Tip of the Iceberg”, an award-winning video was made with controversial rap star Ice-T and was filmed on the burnt-out streets of South Central Los Angeles following of the Verdict in the Rodney King Police Brutality Trial. “Mystical Truth” (1993) and “Strongg” (1994) continued Black Uhuru’s commitment to eradicating oppression, offering hope despite injustice, to critical acclaim.
In 1995, old animosities (mostly over money) resurfaced and Uhuru broke up again. But Dennis and Carlos continued to tour using the Black Uhuru name, and in 1997 were taken to court in Los Angeles by Simpson, who claimed exclusive rights to the Black Uhuru name. Simpson won; Carlos and Dennis were absent, and lead singer Andrew “Bees” Beckford and harmony vocalist Jennifer “Jenifah Nyah” Connally were on hand, producing “Unification” (1998). Some highlights were “System”, “Real Thing”, “Hail Tafari”, and “Lullaby Love”. Andrew Bees and Pam Hall, joined by Sly and Robbie, were featured on “Dynasty” (2001) on the RAS label and toured in support of the album. (“Bees” soon left to pursue a solo career.) The wonderful greatest hits collection “20th Century Masters – The Millennium Collection: The Best of Black Uhuru” was released in 2002.
In February 2004, Simpson and Michael Rose reunited as “Black Uhuru with Michael Rose”. Along with a backing vocalist named Kay Starr, they released a single, “Dollars”, and performed at several concerts.
Over the years Black Uhuru has headlined many music festivals around the world and toured with bands like The Rolling Stones, The Clash, Talking Heads and The Police. Duckie Simpson continued to tour, with and without Michael Rose, and there is even talk of a new album!
Black Uhuru remains one of the greatest reggae bands of all time and is firmly in the hearts of reggae fans around the world. And they were voted number 1 reggae band in the Rolling Stone Critics’ Poll. Listen and revel in this ever-evolving legend of reggae music!
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