Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Black Roots - The Best British Reggae Band You've Never Heard

Raise your hand if you've heard of the Black Roots. I have to confess they are a recent discovery for me as well. I was able to get a good education on this UK reggae band courtesy of Andy Brouwer who is definitely a leading source of information about the band.

Black Roots were a powerful and potent force in the British reggae music scene throughout the Eighties and left a legacy of no less than ten albums and more than eight singles before bowing out of the public eye in the mid-90's. Hailing from the St Paul's area of Bristol, the original eight-member band were formed in 1979 and quickly gained a large following by touring almost non-stop around the country, playing their brand of 'militant pacifism' roots reggae in the nation's major colleges, universities and festivals. They attracted the attention of television with appearances on BBC2's Neighbours, BBC West, HTV West and Rockers Roadshow and popular radio, where live studio sessions for Radio 1's In Concert (broadcast April 1982), John Peel, David 'Kid' Jensen and Peter Powell, led to a BBC Radio 1 sessions LP.

Their first releases were on the Nubian Records label and an EP containing Bristol Rock, Tribal War, The Father and The System preceded their first single, in 1981, Chanting For Freedom. Jon Futrell in Black Echoes, labelled them; "Quite simply, Black Roots are the next great hope for reggae in this country," while John Peel was quoted; "If anyone tells you that there is no such thing as good British reggae, first tell them that they are a herbert and then listen to Black Roots." John Peel's Radio 1 session, aired on 27 May, really helped the cause, with Confusion, What Them A Do, Chanting For Freedom and The Father performed live. Their debut album, entitled simply Black Roots and released in 1983 on the Kick label, saw them make their mark immediately on the national music scene, with the leading black music paper Black Echoes declaring, "a blinding debut album from the best of the new British reggae bands."

Here is an interview with two members of the band, Jabulani Ngozi, rhythm guitarist and Errol Brown, percussion and vocals from Makasound

How was the Black Roots group founded?
Black Roots band was formed in 1979 by a couple of us that were in different bands, but known each other from the 60’s. So Black Roots came about through friendship. The first bass player Basil Greenwood, Delroy Ogilvie, and I, Jabulani were just playing domino’s and from that we decided we’re gonna do a band.

This happened in England, but your all born Jamaicans?
Yeah, we're Jamaican born but we all been in England from childhood. From around 65. We’ve been through the school system in England. We were unemployed, doing noting special so we decided to go into the music. It just come out of the blues so it was beyond our control.

How was the Black Roots name chosen?
We just come together and decided that’s the right name for the band, cause it’s roots we’re gonna deal with. In those days there was a lot of stagnation about culture, through the black man culture. And we come to the conclusion, as young youth coming as rastafarians, that we had to let the world know about our roots and culture. So the name came through the message.

How did you and Errol meet?
The same way. We from the same community so we see each other everyday, go to the same shop, we go to the same post office, we go to the same bank, and so we just bump in to each other.

Can you present the other members of the group?
Yeah, you have Kondwani Ngozi, that’s my younger brother, Cordell Francis the lead guitarist, Carlton “Roots” Smith the keyboardist who lives in Bath, Trevor the drummer, and Derrick King the bass player.

Jabulani, you’ve an African name, it’s not common for a Jamaican, can you let us know about that?
Yeah, we’re ging back to the early 70’s. That’s when we were trying to find ourselves as youths. My birth name was Errol Thompson, and I know that no black man can historically carry the name of Errol Thompson! That’s a slave master name. So I man decided to find myself an African name which is Jabulani Ngozi. So I changed my name, and get free of the slave mind, spiritually and physically. Our roots kind of last after slavery, cause we don’t know where we originally from. We know we from West Africa, but what happened to the lineage? We lost it. That’s a reasonment you get as a conscious man. We get a broke by the slave master, which today is the politician. Cause they’re the slavemasters in nowdays. How is it we couldn’t go to the end to find where are roots are? It’s like a tree who couldn’t find his roots!

And you personally did some research or you choose any African name?
No, no special reserach. We just choose an African name that was available. That’s a name I choose in a book name, that I feel suitable, kind of confortable with. Ngozi was chosen by my brother. We each choose a first name and then the family name.

Is it a name like this you give yourself or has it officially become your name?
No, it has been changed officially. My passport, my birth certificate, and all my papers carry my African name. So from 1979 my name is officially Jabulani Ngozi.

Going back to Black Roots, what was the first album?
Black Roots is the first one. The picture on it comes from west countryside in Bristol. That’s the closest we could get for the countryside cause it’s all concrete jungle around in Bristol. And if you don’t know, looking at the picture could let you think it’s somewhere in Jamaica or in Africa. It was in summetime, in the evening when the sun is going down and you get that particular light.

Before this album released in 1983, you did some 45 or 12 inch?
Yeah, the first record was a 12 inch, “Bristol Rock”. Released in 1981. And “Tribal War”, “The Father” and “The System” came along together.

You’ve always been independant. How you first finance yourselves?
The community in Bristol helped us a lot at that time. We did a concert and advertised the people that we’re doing it to raise some money to do our first single. And we had a full house that night, around 1200 people came. That’s how we started on the recording side. But we’ve been touring around the country for 7 or 8 years, doing four shows per week.

You were an underground group when reggae was already established in England?
Yeah reggae was really big through Marley and all them guys. But when you say underground, yes we were for record companies, but not for the people, the public. Record companies didn’t want reggae music to sell, so they suppress it. So what we’re showing you is that in those days we could go to record companies like Virgin, Island, EMI, or whatever, but they would tell you that lyrics too strong. And yet they would tell you so, but the people who are buying this music are the ones who come to see us on stage. If we play in London in a club on a Thursday night, we get a full house. We play in Brixton Academy, we get a full house. Everywhere in England we get a full house. We’re dealing ourselves independantly and we’re selling records ouselves. And the record companies would say that they can’t sell us. So I never understand what they were saying. So reggae was and is popular to the people who know it and want to hear it.

At the same time, when you started, many Jamaican artists from Jamaica were getting big in London and doing a lot of shows. Did you play with them or share any stage?
Yeah sometime. We did a couple shows with John Holt, with Toots & The Maytals, with Freddie McGregor, Ras Michael, support Yellowman as well, Ini Kamoze...Steel Pulse who were the one carrying all shots for roots music in England.

Why you always stick by the roots?
That’s us. That’s what we had to offer to the music business. Like John Holt did what he was doing in a romantic style, and did very well, but we had a message that we wanted to spread. We wanted the younger generation to wake up, to know that it’s time to wake up, to stop sleeping, and get some of our youths out of the ghetto. Let them know that there is life after the ghetto. You have to get up and Do something, educationally, educate yourself and move on.

That’s what you talk about in Juvenile Delinquent?
Yeah man, if you listen to that tune it tell you what we just talk about . Charlie sings that tune. I sing the Father, War, Survival, Far Over, Frontline.

Who wrote them?
We all wrote them. Jabulani come up with lots of the lyrics, and we get to rehearse and find the proper way for the tune.

How you chose who sing this or that tune?
When the right voice fit. We had a mental approach of the tunes. We always tried to reach the deeper side of the tunes.

You had your own label Nubian. How was it founded?
Yeah it was our own label and own publishing company. The creation of this structure is a part of the same struggle. It’s Nubian tribe, straight linked to Black Roots.

You had a shop too, I saw it in town.
Yeah we had a shop too. And we had a manager too, who we can’t forget. Him move back to Spain where he’s from but he did a lot for us. He was doing all the managing work, from production to touring.

On the Frontline LP, where is the picture taken from?
It’s a rehearsal. That’s the room we use to rehearse. When them took the picture, we had a break but we had been rehearsing for hours before.

Can you tell us about the tune Far Over?
Jabulani wrote that song. It come out from the vibe that we’re so far from Africa. You know, it’s spiritual level, cause although me live physically in England, a part of me mentally live in Jamaica. And for Africa, it’s the same, never been physically but been many times spiritually.
To me to go I have to go in special position, ready to help. I don’t want to go Africa as a burden.

When you started, had you any models?
In those days we use to listen Burning Spear, The Gladiators, BB Seaton, Heptones, Mighty Diamonds, Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Justin Hinds...all those people who were the foundation of roots. To me personally Peter Tosh was a man that I admire.

What about the tune What Them A Do?
That’s about what was happening in Africa and South Africa in those days. We never get any answer to that tune cause they still mash up Africa. We don’t see no real changes.

Here is a download of their best album "In Session"

Please visit their MySpace site for more information.

Finally, here is a video of the band performing one of their well-know songs "Juvenile Delinquent"

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