“How can I give up a continent, for only an island?”
Thus begins The Son’s of Selassie’s masterpiece, “I man a African,” starring Max Romeo at his righteous, wounded best. His voice cracks like splintering teak, he hits a high note in the middle of the line, but lets it slip back down by the time he reaches the word “island.”
It’s the beginning of the song but, still, he almost trails off. For it’s pointless he knew nobody cared about the answer. Nobody important at least.
“I man a African” is a startling, strange, angry record. But it contains a moment of light.
After a minute there’s a sudden glint of optimism in the chorus when staccato horns kick in with major chords for the first time. But it’s a brief and uncomfortable moment of joyousness. The vocal undermines it, somehow. It’s too heavy. It pulls in a different direction.
And then it stops as suddenly as it came. A stab of trumpet gone like a flash of lightning.
It is a far cry from the first use of the rhythm, Dennis Brown’s “I am the conqueror.” Dennis had the sweetest, most soulful voice in Jamaica. Later on he would allow it to be overwhelmed with saccharine, he slipped into smoothness as did all too many others as the 70’s moved into the 80’s.
But back then he still had some gravel in his tonsils.
And he could cross the divides between consciousness, self-aggrandisement and romance like few others would ever manage.
If Romeo represented the disposessed, the promised land ripped from his ancestors hands, Brown is the opposite. He struts. He swaggers. He is the one in control. “I am the conqueror, so you should never try to conquer me.”
When he hits that crescendo he stops, he lets the clarion call ring out triumphantly on its own. Sweetly, he rocks his head back, a smile playing across his face, he closes his eyes and lets those horns wash over him.
Two different songs on the same track. Two defining artists. Two visions of a world that screwed them, that made them second class citizens at best, and two different ways of fronting up to it.
Both were produced by a nine fingered genius called Winston Holness. The labels on his records would have two round glasses framed eyes, always watching out from inside a crappy unmarked white paper sleeve.
Occasionally he was called George Boswell. But mostly people called him Niney the Observer.
The official story is that he lost his digits in a workshop accident. But Lee Perry liked to tell a different version, that he’d had them cut off a long time ago in the country as a punishment for stealing a cow.
Perry released a record called “Cow thief skank” about Niney. He filled it up with moo-ing noises, long before they would become a trademark of his on records like “The Heart of the Congos.”
My copy of “I am the conqueror” has a small smear of blood on its paper sleeve. I bought it off a man in a hurry, and never cared to ask too many questions. Its a record I had coveted for some time, and the splatter had long dried to brown. He also gave me a copy of “The best dressed chicken in town” on a magnificently warped Jamaican issue LP that rises and falls as it rotates on a turntable like the Atlantic in a storm.
There were a handful of those records, including a 7″ of Brown’s “Cassandra”, certainly the most accomplished full record he made with Niney. I paid about a fiver and he ran out of the shop I was working in at the time as quick as his legs could carry him.
But it’s that moment when the brass section arrives like a latecomer to a party going badly, with a good bottle under one arm and a bagful of dope under the other, that gives both “Conqueror” and “I man a African” their glory.
It lasts – only once on each record – for no more than about 10 seconds. Four simple bars. But it shows Niney’s exquisite mastery of arangement and orchestration. Of band and of singer.
His ability to manipulate both darkness and light.