In These Troubled Times:
Mikey General And Lehbanchuleh's Roots Reggae Salve
By Daniel Nelson & Seth Nelson (April 2003)Roots reggae is alive and well. Dedicated fans of the music are owed a great many thanks for this vitality, but also those artists who strive to carry the reggae torch despite the lack of mass appeal, promotion and most importantly recognition, are the integral reason for reggae's longevity.
The combination of conscious and uplifting lyrics together with a reggae rhythm that is deeply rooted in the tradition of naturality and Rastafarian beliefs results in 'roots reggae,' a music that has been expressed since the 1970's. Throughout the years, the larger genre of reggae has spawned many branches; dancehall, rockers, ragga, lovers, and dub are some of the many. However, roots reggae provides those who choose to partake in it, a general feeling of strength and guidance that the other genres may not always offer. Roots reggae messages can include such themes as personal power, history, salvation, strength, political and spiritual guidance, togetherness. Even love songs can fit into its definition. These messages are presented in such a way that is easily accessible to the listener. The artists who incorporate roots reggae music and its accompanying themes are conscious of the music's positivity and ability to create lasting change.
Looking back over the not too distant past, reggae music has been overwhelmed with back catalog reissues, compilations, and crossover acts. So few of the major reggae labels concentrate on releasing new music by reggae artists; instead choosing to focus solely on reviving the sounds of old. While this is an honorable and essential task, the market is stifled to the point where modern roots reggae receives fewer slots in music stores. Then there is the detrimental case of pop crossover artists who "borrow" the reggae sound, only to soften and dilute its authenticity to achieve mass appeal, eliminating the powerful essence that true reggae holds. This works to slash the amount of exposure to quality reggae acts and ensures that even less people hear the crucial sounds of the roots variety.
Of course, finding quality music in any genre has always been the unending job of truly willing fans, taking it upon themselves to search out and feed their own tastes. Reggae is no exception to this rule. Reggae's true soul burns strong in a multitude of artists who create the music full-strength and on their own terms. Two fresh and shining examples of the reggae, and especially roots reggae traditions, are veteran Mikey General and relative newcomer Lehbanchuleh; two of the many artists who are keeping roots reggae alive and well.
Michael Taylor, better known as Mikey General, has etched out a name for himself as one of reggae's longstanding warriors, continuing to release music that is socially conscious, uplifting and rewarding. Born on October 9, 1963 in London, Mikey and his family soon moved to Jamaica, only to return back to England in 1982. Like the majority of singers, Mikey started at an early age but it was not until 1980, while still in Jamaica, that he put his voice to record with his first song entitled "Roots Me Roots" for a sound system owner by the name of Ruddy Silence.
Throughout the rest of the 1980's, Mikey worked and toured with different soundsystems and released numerous singles, including a cover of Michael Jackson's "Do You Want To Be Starting Something" for producer Earl Minott in 1985. The 1980's saw Mikey General achieve limited success, placing several singles on English charts and touring throughout Europe. The readers of Echoes magazine even named Mikey "Newcomer Of The Year." These early musical events in Mikey's career were merely building blocks compared to the transformation that he was to undergo in the 1990's.
Mikey's musical odyssey in England came to an end in 1992, when he returned to Jamaica to further his career. Mikey credits his introduction and subsequent friendship with Luciano as the impetus for his Rastafarian faith. He was brought up in the Church, but his conversion to Rastafari brought about not only a lifestyle that promoted a spiritual awareness, but his music and lyrics advanced towards these same beliefs. Around this time, both he and Luciano worked with legendary producer Phillip "Fatis" Burrell, who helped to spearhead the roots reggae revival with his Xterminator Records label.
Roots reggae had been the reggae music of choice during the 1970's, but significantly lost favor with the public's growing lean towards dancehall in the 1980's and 1990's. An all-too brief list of roots reggae's early practitioners would include Joe Higgs, Mighty Diamonds, Bob Marley & The Wailers, Abyssinians, Aswad, Culture, The Meditations, Black Uhuru, Third World, Peter Tosh, The Congos, Junior Murvin and Max Romeo; a lineup that does not even scratch the surface of the many artists from around the globe who helped progress the reggae genre. The opposing dancehall music, championed by the likes of Yellowman, Shabba Ranks and later Buju Banton and Bounty Killer, along with too many others, failed to promote the same conscious and spiritual beliefs of the earlier roots music. Instead, artists like these chose a stance of outrageously explicit and regressive beliefs and messages. There were certainly conscious roots reggae, positive dancehall and other forms of upful reggae related musics during the 1980's and early 1990's that recalled the messages of old, but they were far overshadowed and suffocated by the more negative and destructive forms. The roots reggae revival of the early 1990's, as the name suggests, ushered in a rebirth of positivity, often combining the digital rhythmic elements of dancehall to modernize but still retain the essence of the roots style.
The progressive shift back to the roots has even managed to convert many of the negative dancehall artists to a more positive tone. Mikey General discussed in an interview with the Bashment Link-Up website his feelings on some artists' shift towards positive music, "Rastafari has really come a long way in terms of respect from people, because some times in the ‘80's there was somebody who say SLACKNESS... culture done, slackness come fi rule, but we have seen the opposite, slackness go down and culture ruling. Let us take for example Shabba Ranks, he was the big DJ of that time speaking slackness and dem ting deh, but after a while yuh don't hear nothing from him again, because those lyrics... the songs that's playing for Shabba Ranks are the good and conscience ones, the slack ones you don't hear, because what... they didn't have any substance." Even to this day, roots music has taken hold throughout the reggae genre, living on in dancehall, dub, ragga and other subgenres. However, the roots influence is still losing battle for wider appeal by the more dubious reggae sounds.
The Xterminator stable of artists helmed the forefront of this revival, led by Luciano who drew the majority of attention. While not achieving the same recognition as other roots revivalists, Mikey General's Fatis Burrell produced albums, 1995's Sinners and 1997's I Am Just A Rastaman, demonstrated Mikey's devotion to conscious messages and showed that his musical talent was every bit as powerful as any of his contemporaries. Mikey and Luciano left the Xterminator label in 1998 to create Jah Messenjah Productions and Qabalah First Music, labels owned and operated by Luciano and Mikey, based out of Kingston, Jamaica. One of their stated goals in creating these companies was to continue "to provide people with spiritually uplifting music in these times of degradation." Mikey's first release with his new Qabalah First Music was 2000's Spiritual Revolution which combined top musicianship from the famed Firehouse Crew, led by saxophonist Dean Fraser, together with guided lyrics from Mikey himself. This same year, Mikey teamed with Luciano once again to release Knowledge, Wisdom & Understanding as well as continuing his successive years of touring with Luciano, as the opening act for tours that touched places around the world.
Enter 2003 and the release of Exalt Jah, Mikey General's fifth overall album, and one that culminates Mikey's career into a record that perfectly blends the conscious lyrics and roots reggae that fans have come to expect from him. The album features Mikey working with many of the top Jamaican rhythm makers including the duos of Sly & Robbie, Mafia & Fluxy and Steely & Clevie. As has been the case throughout his career, Mikey General also showcases lesser known singers and musicians who share in Mikey's upful messages. Luciano plays a major part on the album, co-writing and co-producing most of the songs along with Mikey. Throughout Exalt Jah, released on the Stone Tiger Entertainment Group label, Mikey comes across as truly genuine in what he is singing about. Rather than preaching his messages, Mikey instead humbly guides the listener throughout the album.
There are no better examples of this guidance than on the songs "As A Man Thinketh" and "Mind Over Matter." Both songs deal with the notion that positive thought creates positive action. In "As A Man Thinketh," Mikey states, "Think positive and all will be well, I say," revealing that the power to change exists within each of us. Mikey acts as a spiritual advisor throughout the album and makes the listener believe that even though times may be tough, life certainly will get better in the future. In songs like "Babylon In A Mess" and the earthy "Fly Away, Runaway," Mikey suggests that everyone faces problems and can overcome them by simply continuing through life. Mikey's ability to reach through to audiences of differing musical tastes is demonstrated in these two songs as well, where on the one hand, "Babylon Is A Mess" combines elements of dub and dancehall rhythms, while "Fly Away, Runaway" is built upon a mostly acoustic rhythm with flute and congos. The end result in both of these songs has the same effect: the crucial messages come across no matter the musical backing.
Some people confuse the notion that in order to understand and enjoy true reggae music, one must be a Rastafarian and believe in the divinity of Haile Selassie. This is absolutely not true. While Mikey General is certainly a devout Rastafarian and takes pride in announcing his beliefs, his messages are above all universal and can be accessed by anyone who cares to listen. Mikey warns of one such widespread message involving evildoers in the songs "Red Inna Rome" (a duet with Luciano), "Pretty City," and "In Times Like These." No three songs are more pertinent to today's times when violence abounds, wars rage and world leaders offer conflict as their export of choice. Mikey and his contemporaries are in a sense, musical news reporters, providing a true glimpse of the world that is typically glossed over anywhere else. As Exalt Jah showcases, the listener can rest assured that any Mikey General tune will always come out positive and with much heart and soul. While he may not be the most well-known of reggae artists today, his product nevertheless places him amongst the best and brightest around.
Another shining example of how roots reggae is alive and well exists within the artist known as Lehbanchuleh. Norberth Clarke took on the name Lehbanchuleh (pronounced La-bon-ku-lay) in the early 1990's, choosing a name that is Swahili for 'building upon a solid foundation.' His music is a physical embodiment of his name, as he builds upon the lyrical and musical foundations of the roots reggae of old, and delivers the music to new heights.
As with Mikey General, music hit Lehbanchuleh at an early age and in 1976, he performed at a major Jamaican talent competition, while still in his early school days. Throughout the 1970's and 1980's, the Jamaican-born Lehbanchuleh performed in local groups and at concerts that allowed his name to slowly gain recognition. In the late 1980's while a member of producer Donovan Germain's stable of artists at his Penthouse Studios, Tony Rebel (one of the ranking roots reggae leaders) brought together Lehbanchuleh with another talented singer/songwriter, Sugar Black. The new duo recorded their first single, a cover of El DeBarge's "Donna" in 1990 for the Soljie label. The two recorded many singles on various labels over the next few years and also in 1990 Lehbanchuleh, still using the name Norberth Clarke, released several solo singles for the Penthouse label. These songs continued to demonstrate his progression as an artist, but this output consisted mostly of love songs.
In 1993, Lehbanchuleh's progression also created a spiritual awakening, led by his accepting the name Lehbanchuleh in connection with honoring his faith in Rastafarianism. During this same year, Sugar Black & Lehbanchuleh joined Tony Rebels' Flames Productions, another of the top labels furthering the roots reggae revival movement. Working with Tony Rebel during this period awakened a focus on conscious messages in Lehbanchuleh's music. The duo's recording of the Beatles' inspirational "Let It Be" marked a shift away from the more lovers' ballads from their earlier days, into songs that clearly expressed their faith. Years earlier, "Let It Be" had actually been covered by The Ethiopians, who transformed the Beatles' tune not only into an anthem to Rastafari, but also a song that comforted. Sugar Black & Lehbanchuleh's version saluted back to this fertile period of roots reggae and forecasted greatness to come. Throughout the late 1990s, the duo released many singles including a version of "Jordan River" and a 1998 cover of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" for the Flames label. In 1999, Sugar Black & Lehbanchuleh toured various locations around the world, but by the beginning of the next year, the duo decided to separate, allowing Lehbanchuleh to fully concentrate on his solo career.
Claim The Joy is Lehbanchuleh's debut solo album, released early in 2003 on Stone Tiger. Lehbanchuleh further took control of his career by establishing his own production company Banchu Muzik, rooted in unity and world togetherness. The simple yet noble mission for Banchu Muzik is that "the peoples of the world can live and work as one, that we are all a part of one universal family and that we can all grow together as one, for it is in giving that we receive." Just as Mikey General's beliefs lead his actions, Lehbanchuleh does not rest on statements alone, but through his words come equally upful deeds.
On Claim The Joy, Lehbanchuleh offers different lessons for the listener to take to heart. These lessons range from warnings of the abundance of evil to the everyday necessity of maintaining a positive outlook and always lending a helping hand to those in need. The solo version of the song "Moving On," produced by Beres Hammond (a tremendous lovers reggae singer specializing in positive material for nearly 30 years) pleads to everyone to stay on the right path and never take life for granted. The album also contains another version of "Moving On," featuring a duet with Terry Ganzie, a roots oriented dancehall DJ, counteracting any doubt about the existence of conscious dancehall music. Just as Mikey General brings together the finest Jamaican musicians, so too does Lehbanchuleh who surrounds himself with the top-notch Firehouse Crew among other key session players on this album. The lively "Eyes On The Father," suggests that faith (in Lehbanchuleh's case, the Rastafarian faith) equates to living, and that by taking what life has to offer one day at a time, life becomes more enjoyable.
Lehbanchuleh suggests that a greater enjoyment of one's life can come about by merely simplifying. This theme is demonstrated in the album's title track "Claim The Joy," where Lehbanchuleh states, "Claim the joy that you've been promised / Sacrifice and you will make it / Hold to faith and keep on trusting / Though the living it ain't easy." The sacrifice he is talking about is ridding oneself of vanity and any dependence upon material possessions, problems plaguing us all. The destructiveness of vanity is also touched on in "Behold The Armageddon," where Lehbanchuleh reunites with his old partner Sugar Black to offer a different take on the Armageddon theme. This is not Armageddon in a strictly biblical sense- rather, the duo condemn mankind's greed as deadly and a possible cause to the end of humankind. "All the love is in their luxury, material gain / And all the truth is hidden in the library." These lines have a dual meaning, as they also correctly connect the multitude of reggae fans that would rather seek out the regressive forms of the music instead of searching out the truth, found in such reggae styles as roots reggae music.
The revelation of influences in an artist's music is a great method for determining the level of heart within that artist. Two influences that immediately strike the listener on "Claim The Joy" are Sam Cooke and Garnett Silk. Lehbanchuleh's cover version of Sam Cooke's triumphant "A Change Is Gonna Come," here titled "Change Gonna Come," is as powerfully moving as the original and fits perfectly within the socially conscious themes of roots reggae. Lehbanchuleh again teams up with Sugar Black on this optimistic tune. "Heed Jah Words" sees Lehbanchuleh paying homage to his mentor, the late Garnett Silk, who undeniably defined the essence of the roots reggae tradition. Before Garnett's untimely passing, Lehbanchuleh received encouragement from Garnett in the creation of this song and had it not been for Garnett's death, according to Lehbanchuleh, the two would most likely have sung it together. Lehbanchuleh evokes the silky smooth style that Garnett perfected, bringing forth all of the greatness that lived in Garnett's music.
Lehbanchuleh's grand spirit is continually expressed on his debut solo album and his devotion to the roots spirit found throughout is no better expressed than in the album's dedication to all listeners inside the album's liner notes. "From Lehbanchuleh to all who listen to music that ‘edutains,' inspires and speaks to the heart. Jah bless." These words perfectly define the music that both Mikey General and Lehbanchuleh strive to put forth. They educate, entertain, inspire and most of all, speak directly to the heart.
Roots reggae is not about selling a product or living a selfish life. Roots reggae does offer a better way of living and conveying positive messages that create lasting and beneficial changes in its listeners. Mikey General has weathered a style of music that has surprisingly never reached mass appeal status, but he has nonetheless stuck with the positive form of the music throughout his 20-year career. This positivity has culminated in Exalt Jah showcasing his powerful production, heartfelt writing and moving singing talents. Lehbanchuleh is in the formative stages on this same righteous path, releasing Claim The Joy and delivering compelling and beneficial guidance.
Roots reggae music continues to reach willing audiences with outstanding artists like these and exceptional companies like the Stone Tiger Entertainment Group, a label that takes an active roll in preserving and presenting a roots attitude with every release. In fact, proceeds from both Mikey General's Exalt Jah and Lehbanchuleh's Claim The Joy, are given back into the Jamaican communities from which the artists were raised, donating monies to separate children's homes to preserve the lives of future generations. With all of the benefits that roots reggae has to offer each person on this earth, it is shocking that the music is not more received and accepted by the public at large. In a time when so many things in our lives are troubling (war, unemployment, poverty, human division and overwhelming evil) and when many of us are searching for a better way of life, it is music by artists like Mikey General and Lehbanchuleh that provides the salve to help heal our wounds; if we would only give them a listen.
For more information about either of these artists and information about the Stone Tiger Entertainment Group label, see the link to their site below. Be on the look out for "Stone Tiger: The Renaissance Tour" featuring the labels' roots arsenal of Admiral Tibet, Lehbanchuleh, Mikey General, Terry Ganzie and Edi Fitzroy, coming to the roots reggae minded throughout the United States. The tour's ambition declares that "in these troubled times, a rebirth and revival of spiritual and artistic endeavors is not only needed, but destined."
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