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V/A - Fisherman Style

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Artist: V/A

Album: Fisherman Style

Label: Blood and Fire

Review date: Jul. 16, 2006

Blood And Fire Records’ gorgeously packaged and scrupulously annotated reissues of vintage reggae have won the label renown, but it’s never been just about putting out cool records. They’re on a mission best summed up by the phrase “Come into my yard” – they want to bring the listener closer to Jamaican culture. To this end they’ve sponsored sound systems in Europe similar to the mobile party rigs that are the true live venue of Jamaica music, and Fisherman Style duplicates a related phenomenon, the one-rhythm record. Such long players recreate the experience of hearing a series of singers and DJs (who are really more like rappers; they don’t spin records, they talk over them) riding the same sound-system dubplate.

Heart of the Congos is one of the greatest albums from the mid ’70s – reggae’s golden age – with a golden reputation out of proportion with the poor sales it achieved prior to the release of Blood and Fire’s definitive CD version 10 years ago. Producer Lee Perry pulled out all the stops when he made this one, fashioning rich and varied settings for Cedric Myton and Roydel Johnson’s sublime harmonies and artfully penned tales of spiritual uplift and dignity in the face of poverty. The song “Fisherman” opened the album with a liquid guitar flourish, some rolling basso profundo vocalizing, a singularly springy rhythm track that harbors all manner of sonic hidden treasures, and a lyric that honors in Biblical terms the accomplishments of subsistence fishermen. Despite its magnificence, until about a year ago the song had never been versioned. This is ironic given that parsimony and recycling are virtues in the reggae business; why, the reasoning goes, think up a new rhythm or record a new backing track when you can have a singer put his words to an existing version? Many of today’s dancehall hits are saddled upon updated grooves first fashioned at Studio One. The Congos commissioned and coordinated Fisherman Style themselves. They invited a legion of singers, toasters, and instrumentalists, some grizzled veterans (and that’s no idle claim — check the booklet’s session photographs, you won’t see anyone combing his grey out!), others relative newcomers, to do have their way with the original “Fisherman” track. Then the Rhythm & Sound crew edited and mixed the resulting two dozen tracks (which includes the original song and its dub) into a two-CD epic that maintains sonic consistency but retains interest with fairly subtle mixing tweaks.

The album has been sequenced so that most of the older performers are on the first disc. Many of them, especially the DJs, are still in fine voice. U Roy works some observations about international differences in fish preparation into his rap, Big Youth spars nimbly with the original vocal track, and Prince Jazzbo brings some Old Testament rage in Fisherman Style’s sternest cut. Horace Andy offers an older man’s counsel, ruing past rude boy antics and proposing peace and love as a cure for street violence. A hint of hoarseness has crept into his preternaturally high-pitched voice, but it sounds quite all right. Mykal Rose and Sugar Minott roll holy across the Congos’ groove, but inject enough wit, passion, and variety into their lyrics to persuade non-Rastas. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to listen too closely – Max Romeo’s beautifully song about fire and brimstone-singed excoriation of Godless parasites comes to mind – but the first disc’s only outright dud is Dean Fraser’s David Sanborn-like saxophone showcase.

The newer singers on the second disc balance the spiritual content with more singing about black history, street violence and economic privation. Luciano kicks things off with a solid sufferer’s plea; his influence looms large over his less famous brethren, many of whom sound an awful lot like him. Respect to Paul St. Hilaire, the artist formerly known as Tikiman, for resurrecting Carthage in opposition to Rome, but I wish he’d let his raspy voice stand alone rather than wrap it in slick female back-ups. Country Culture comes on especially strong with a muscular delivery and an anti-poverty rallying cry – “Make poverty history, give poor people their history” – that never fails to make me imagine Lyndon Johnson and Karl Marx in an uncomfortable photo-op handshake. Gregory Isaac, the second volume’s sole oldster, sounds like he’s struggling a bit against vocal decline, but that just makes his lyric about the hapless fisherman – too poor to bait his hook – even more poignant.

The individual appeal of Fisherman Style will hinge on how much you love the original song, and under no circumstances should anyone consider picking this up until they’ve heard Heart Of The Congos. But overall, these 24 repetitions wear surprisingly well.

By Bill Meyer

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