THE MIGHTY DIAMONDS / “Right Time”
As a roots reggae fan, you get used to hearing the voices on your favorite records sing about the same subjects over and over again. It’s as if there was some sort of ‘approved subject matter’ primer that automatically got handed out to every dude who had aspirations of singing in a Jamaican recording studio anytime between the years of 1969 and 1979. We all know the most popular subjects: Zion, Babylon, Jah, sufferation, weed, etc. Something like half of all roots songs ever recorded probably fit into just those five categories. So much for the macro. What about the micro-trends? When a roots artist got tired of repatriating to Africa or chanting down Babylon, what then? How’s about running. What? Did he say running? Yes, running – but mostly as in 'not running.' Exhibit #1. “Black Disciples” by Burning Spear – From Dry & Heavy (Mango/Island, 1977) In the world of roots reggae, Winston ‘Burning Spear’ Rodney is a towering figure. He’s probably second only to Bob Marley in terms of influence and popularity. But in contrast to Marley’s clear, clean style (and I mean that both in terms of the way Marley composes music and in terms of the way he sings and plays), Spear’s style is dense and muddy (and again, I mean that in both ways). Unless you’re actually Jamaican or grew up listening to him (as I did…thanks, Baba!), Spear can be quite the acquired taste. It’s a taste well worth acquiring though. The man has an enviably large catalog of quality music, including this song, “Black Disciples,” from one of his better classic-period releases, 1977’s Dry & Heavy. Check the second chorus for Spear’s rather thorough opinion on the whole ‘running’ issue:
Run, run, run I will never run away Run, run, run I will never run away Do you hear? Oh, I never run away No, I will never I, I, I never run, never run Never run away I and I will never run away…The main impression I’m left with is: Burning Spear will never run away. I’m pretty sure I’ve got at least that part right. By the way, I’ve read that “Black Disciples” is actually a remake of Spears’ own much older tune “Swell Headed,” a record I’ve never heard. Anyone in possession of that one, please feel free to hit me up at email@example.com. Exhibit #2. “Never Run Away” by Don Carlos – From Prison Oval Clash (1980) Aside from Michael Rose, Don Carlos is my favorite late-period roots singer. Listening to Carlos’ ad libs on “Never Run Away,” you can hear some of Rose’s trademark vocal affectations. That’s not entirely a coincidence: at the time Carlos recorded this tune, he was both a past and future member of Black Uhuru, the same group with whom Michael Rose cut his most famous recordings. Let’s check out what Carlos has to say about running:
I don’t care what they say I don’t care what they do I never run away I never run away…But where Spear was all bravado and confidence, Carlos is slightly more reticent. Elsewhere in the tune, Carlos sings about letting “them who think them are boss” simply “pass them remarks.” Carlos’ insistence that he won’t run is less a battle cry than a battening down of the hatches. While not quite admitting that Babylon is winning, Carlos is at least saying he’s not trying to pick a fight. “I stand by,” he sings, “And let the wicked them a’ pass.” But, he adds (of course), “I never run away.” Exhibit #3. “Running From Jamaica” by The Meditations – Originally from Message From The Meditations (Makossa Intl, 1977); Available on Deeper Roots: The Best Of The Meditations (Heartbeat, 1994) Here’s an example of the gorgeous three-part harmony that Jamaican roots music was known for. Back in the sixties and seventies, there were so many three-man singing groups that it’s easy to get one confused with the next. For me, the lead singer of The Meditations sounds an awful lot like Joseph Hill of Culture; and on the harmony parts, this threesome closely resembles a band we’ll hear from a little later, The Mighty Diamonds. Anyhow, let’s check out what The Meditations have to say about the subject at hand:
Always running from Jamaica I hope it's forever Always running from Jamaica I hope it's forever When the gate is closed We don't want no knocking… So, pick your place for now Before it's too late A look around ‘round ‘round ‘round Pick your place for now Before you regret…Here, we abandon both bravado (Spear) and defensiveness (Carlos) in favor of admonition. The Meditations damn sure aren’t running themselves; what they’re doing is advising their brethren to stay put as well. If I’m reading the lyrics correctly, they seem to be comparing the island of Jamaica to Noah’s Ark, as if Jamaica is going to end up being some sort of special chosen place. When judgment time comes, they imply, you’re going to want to be inside the gates. (I’ve never heard that particular bit of theology before. Interesting.) At the end of the tune, they even call out specific countries, singing: “You’re not a British-born / Nor a Canadian-born… / You’re not American-born / I wonder if [to] Africa you’re going.“ I’m not exactly sure what they mean by the last bit. In other roots songs, the lines between Africa (or an idealized version thereof) and Zion (which seems to be something close to heaven) are fairly blurred, if present at all. Are The Meditations saying that the runners won’t get to Zion because only the Jamaicans who didn’t run will survive the judgment? Or are they second-guessing themselves, wondering if those who’ve run to Canada or Britain or America are actually going to Africa, only in a round-about way. I’d guess it’s the former. Exhibit #4. “Running Away” by Bob Marley – From Kaya (Tuff Gong/Island, 1978) Listening to Marley back-to-back with his contemporaries, it’s easy hear the distinctions. As a fan of hardcore roots, I have to say right off top that, by the late seventies, Marley’s music wasn’t nearly as heavy or dread as that of many other Jamaican roots artists. I’m sure some see that as a negative. On the positive side though, Marley is a better composer than just about any artist you can name, reggae or otherwise. And even though he remained a staunch Rastafarian until his death, Marley was also a nuanced and politically-aware thinker. His theories, opinions and positions weren’t limited by his faith. By way of example, Marley’s “Running Away” uses a by-then standard conceit (the whole ‘never run’ thing) to make a greater point about not just himself but also human nature in general. Marley wrote this song during his self-imposed exile from Jamaica. Judging from the song’s lyrics, he clearly had some misgivings about leaving the island. By turns he seems resigned and philosophical, defiant, or even guilty. But given that he was nearly assassinated in his own home, the truth is, Marley was virtually obligated to leave. He says as much himself: “I’ve got to protect my life / And I don’t want to live with no strife.” Those lyrics aside, the genius of Marley’s songwriting is that “Running Away,” like most of his music, isn’t just about Bob Marley the individual. Instead of focusing solely on the assassination attempt, Marley uses our knowledge of its occurrence as a backdrop to meditate on the subjects of fear, loneliness, belonging and home. It’s a wistful paean to his own mortality made all the more poignant by our knowledge that Marley was diagnosed with cancer around the time of this recording and would die from the disease only a few years later. When I listen to “Running Away,” I get an image of an aging but still powerful lion licking his wounds before heading back to battle. (He returned to Jamaica in 1978.) Marley never sounded so gentle and yet so determined as he does on the quieter moments of the Kaya sessions. Exhibit #5. “Right Time” by The Mighty Diamonds – From Right Time (1976) This is the record that finally expanded my awareness of reggae beyond Bob Marley and Black Uhuru. The moment I heard that hypnotic bassline mesh so perfectly with the inescapable chorus (“Natty dread will never run away! / No, no, no!”), I simply had to find a copy of my own. Because the lyrics are delivered in a thick patois, they aren’t the easiest to understand, but basically, the Diamonds are listing all the reasons that runners run. And, of course, they’re asserting that they themselves—as followers of Marcus Garvey’s prophesy—will never, ever run.
When the right time come Lord, some a go charge fe treason When the right time come Yeah, some a go charge fe arson When the right time come Lord, some a go charge fe murder When the lawman come Oh, some a go run till dem tumble down…According to The Diamonds, natty dread will never run from the lawman because they’re not afraid of any man. And they won’t run when “the right time” (i.e., judgment day) comes because they’ll be among the chosen. The religious specifics might be wacky but the music is superb. —Mtume ya Salaam OK Dr. Jung, Dr. Freud Would Like To Add I know a little bit about Mtume. I used to think he was merely cynical (e.g. one of his regular utterances was “sincerity is everything and once you can fake that, you’ve got it made”), but now I recognize him as a through and through, thorough going skeptic who gave up cynicism for comedy (albeit of the dry and heavy kind, i.e. dripping with sarcasm so thick that even those who know him have to kind of peek sideways sometimes to determine when he’s merely playing around as opposed to simply, wittily playing his hand). Seeing as how Freud preceded Jung time-wise and Jung proceeded from Freud philosophically, and also in embracing some if not all of Jung’s complicated theory of “collective consciousness” (Mtume, thanks me for playing Burning Spear over and over when Mtume was but a baby on the floor playing with a computer), you might catch the chronological reference I’m using for the Freud/Jung reference. As for me, my Freud-like penchant for emphasizing context is no accident. Anyway, to proceed, let me lay out two relatively unrelated but directly connected background facts for a deeper appreciation of Mtume’s choice of running reggae songs. 1. On Sunday, June 1, 2008 Mtume ran the San Diego marathon. Running has never been high on my list of self-inflicted short-term pains/long-term pleasures. The best I did was six miles every morning for a two or three year stretch pre-Katrina. A proper marathon is a shade over 26 miles. 2. Back around the turn of this century (instead of partying like it was 1999) Mtume literally trekked up to Northern Cali to live outside the urban zones of the impending Armageddon (or was it apocalypse?; Mtume, sometimes I get confused on the root motivations). Some might have seen it as running away. That’s it. —Kalamu ya Salaam Running Wow. Ain't that some shit? Dr. Freud is straight-up putting my business out in the street. Yeah, it's true. I headed up to the nether regions of NoCal in early '99 and didn't descend back into the city (other than weekly one-day excursions to pick up new CDs and vinyl in Berkeley and San Francisco...some things just have to be done, impending apocalypse or not) until early 2000 when I was sure civilization wasn't about to end. You can call it running away or whatever you want. Looking back on it, I think I was just done with the 24-hour mental grind of being a professional music salesperson. But I got paid too well and the perks were too good to just up and quit without a "good" reason, so, subconsciously, I invented one. That's my theory at least. The irony is, it ended up being one of the best years of my life. I lived on sixteen acres of beautiful rolling hills, learned to garden, ate Ital foods and watched my little baby grow from nine months old to a year and nine months. It was a beautiful thing; I consider myself very lucky. On a different subject, I have to say that Kalamu is being a little optimistic. I'm writing this on the evening of Saturday, May 31st. The San Diego Rock 'N Roll Marathon is tomorrow at 6:30AM. Kalamu wrote: "On Sunday, June 1, 2008 Mtume ran the San Diego marathon." Seeing as how I haven't ran a step of those 26.2 miles yet, I think the past tense thing is pretty funny. If you've never run in a big-city marathon, you'd be surprised at what a complicated and huge enterprise it is. Today, me, Jahi and Beth went down to the marathon's Health & Fitness Expo at the Convention Center to pick up my race number and timing chip and to get my corral assignment. (Don't ask. If you're not actually running a marathon, the details are boring.) I've never seen that many fit-looking people in the same place in my life. Everyone had that bounce in their step and that gleam in their eye. Most people train between three and five months for this thing, so by now, we're ready to go! I'm told there's going to be 20,000-plus out there running. (And rolling. There's a wheelchair division too.) That's a whole lot of people. You know what's going to get me through? Hip-hop. I have about nine hours of quality beats and rhymes loaded up on my iPod Shuffle. I'm just going to put it on random, let the rhythm get me hype and start running. If I can follow my plan and keep an 8:55 per mile pace, I'll be done in just under four hours. (Want to hear something really crazy? At the Expo, they were handing out temporary tattoos with mile splits on it. If you're at mile sixteen and want to know if you're on pace, you don't have to do math. Just look on your forearm.) And if I start hurting too bad, I'm switching to my spiritual mix, which is stuff like Stevie Wonder's "Visions," Gil Scott-Heron's "Beginnings" and Buju Banton's "Untold Stories." I love those records, but I sincerely hope not to hear any of them tomorrow. Next week, I'll let y'all know how I did. Right now, I gotta go to sleep.... —Mtume ya Salaam
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