The definitive version of the definitive Nyabinghi album, that’s what you’ll find here today. Filled with religious fervor unheard –and in such dosage– on any other Lee “Scratch” Perry produced release, Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus’ Love Thy Neighbour holds the distinction of both being one of Lee’s finest productions and also one that would signal the end of his Black Ark recording studio.
If I’m allowed to get biblical, if Dadawah was Ras Michael’s Gospel extolling all Jamaicans to rally around the dawning of the Rastafari, Love Thy Neighbour (in Lee’s hands) became Ras’s Book of Revelation, extolling a culture’s death and need for its rebirth. Dark, hopeful, mysterious, pulling itself at its the seams, Love Thy Neighbour unwittingly is that perfect symbol of something that had to go down.
A master percussionist and leader in the Rastafari movement, Ras Michael for years had earned the respect and notoriety one expects from being the first Rasta to host a reggae radio program and one of the founding fathers of the Rastafari and roots movement. Since 1967, Ras had been the largest proponent of reggae as a style and Nyabinghi tradition as the source that provides that connection to an African homeland.
Under the Negus Churchical Host, which would later turn into the Son’s of Negus, this Rastafari religious musical group lead by Ras adopted and reworked biblical Psalms into chants that would be hugely influential in shaping the way reggae singers would go on to phrase and sing their own, new cultural music. Translating African rhythms into Nyabinghi riddims, Ras would also be pivotal in shaping the way reggae rhythms would come to exist and drop.
So, you can imagine how when Ras, this massive figure of spirituality and culture, showed up with the Sons of Negus at the Black Ark, at the height of Lee “Scratch” Perry’s greatest time of pressure and turmoil, his appearance would be both a blessing and a curse. Here in front of Lee, stood the person who released exactly the kind of music, and lived exactly the kind of life he had always yearned to live. You see, Lee’s studio, at that moment, was overrun with hangers on, saddled with debt, and under heavy pressure by external record labels, artists, and street gangs to produce hit after hit, so much so that it rightfully took a toll on him. If he had wanted to do something to cap off his career and move on, fresh, to whatever would be the next phase in his life, this was it. He had to do so by honoring the nexus of his lifeblood.
This urgency to both grandize the vision of Ras, and to paint the many hues of the meanings behind it, is exactly why you can sense a heavy atmosphere hovering around the songs of Love Thy Neighbour. I’ll get biblical again –prophets can clearly see their vision, only followers have to struggle to realize its meaning. Songs that for Ras held a communal feeling/thought and were performed in a exalted way, were (under Perry’s hand) turned highly personal. That’s how Lee felt them.
On songs like “Hear River Jordan Roll” based around The Sons of Negus clear, propulsive, communal Nyabinghi drumming, Lee stretches out vocals, blurs melodic lines, and drops accompaniment through time and space to their limits. Trying to reach the holy, Lee’s production tries to draw out sublime emotions that you can’t just reach through pure movement. Tender songs like “Little David” become even more spectral and enveloping, songs about love and hate like “Wicked Got to Go” become even more haunting and profound.
It’s no wonder Lee would find ways to shut down this Black Ark studio soon after its release. There was simply nowhere else he could have taken this sound. By stretching the sonic limits of his studio he had managed to transform the communal vision of Ras Michael and the Sound of Negus into something far more everlasting and meaningful. All tracks are here. Perry’s dread, beat, an’ blood, it’s all here too…