Life & Lessons
Gallo Records
September 15, 2014

Track list
  1. The Beginning, The End, The Beginning
  2. Would You
  3. Life And Lessons (Marcus Garvey Speaks)
  4. Sitting In My Hotel Room
  5. A Girl Called Johannesburg
  6. Woman Of Life
  7. My Revolution
  8. History
  9. Watch It
  10. Body Count
  11. Lucky (Tribute To Lucky Dube)
  12. The Same Old Story (Keeps On Repeating)
  13. Mr. And Mrs. Tecki Tecki
  14. Would You (Dub)
  15. Lucky (Dub)
Rating : from 5 (excellent) to 1 (poor)
Vocals : 4 Backing : 5 Production : 5 Sound quality : 4 Sleeve : 4
Mutabaruka (born Allan Hope) is a Rastafari-inspired dub poet, as well as a social critic in a broader sense. Born in Rae Town in downtown Kingston, Jamaica in 1952 he embraced Rastafari more and more in the course of his life. Becoming later a radio host as well, he gave his opinions and social critique on matters concerning Jamaica, Africa, Rastafari, and, well, the world situation. He also held interviews with different people, also outside of Jamaica. The interview of Mutabaruka with Louis Farrakhan (to be found on YouTube) I found to be very engaging, for example.

Mutabaruka started out writing and publishing poetry in the early 1970s. Not long after that, with the help of legendary reggae musician and producer Earl "Chinna" Smith, he gave this a musical form with the early 1983 album "Check It!", a classic in what was known as the Dub Poetry genre. On it Mutabaruka is a vocalist, sometimes near-talking, but often also rhythmic chatting more in the Jamaican Dee Jay/Toasting tradition. "Check It!" more or less set the norm for his following albums in the course of time, though with variations. Musically often groovy Rockers Roots Reggae, but drawing at times also on digital dancehall, older Jamaican musical forms, or percussive African music. Several fine albums followed in this vein, including collaborative songs with Ini Kamoze, Dennis Brown, Sugar Minott, Luciano, and others.

This 2009 album "Life & Lessons" - reissued in 2012 - is his most recent as I write this, and is released many years after the debut in the early 1980s, and seven years after the last one, 2002's "Life Squared". Despite the time passed, it still has similarities in style with the earlier albums. There is also consistency in Mutabaruka's views as he expresses these in this Dub Poetry, such as in his evident Marcus Garvey-influenced views, and focus on African liberation and pride. He also shows, however, as in his radio programme (Cutting Edge) to go with the time and comments on topical events. "Life & Lessons" was largely recorded in studios in South Africa, with international, largely African musicians, though on some songs also Jamaican musicians contribute, notably Dean Fraser on saxophone, Nambo Robinson on trombone, and Sly & Robbie. He further combines with Zulu musicians and female singers on the nice song "A Girl Called Johannesburg", which mainly has the form of Zulu music.

With Mutabaruka's Dub Poetry you can expect that the lyrics are just as important as the music, but there is a good balance I think. Even when seemingly just talking, Mutabaruka maintains mostly a good rhythmic flow and "cadence", befitting the groovy music. This way the message comes across well. The lyrics are in fact at the same time expressive poems, dealing with history, current problems, as well as redemptive philosophy. The messages are poignant and strong, recalling e.g. when Africans "still knew (and loved) themselves" in the "garden of life" (Africa), on the opening track "The Beginning, The End, The Beginning", and the need to return to that by mental and physical liberation. The Black, African woman is also metaphorically related to this knowledge of and connection to roots. On "Body Count" he talks about the wars in the world, including Darfur and Iraq. On the Sly & Robbie-produced "Watch It", which has a modern dancehall-like riddim, Mutabaruka states how there are "too much gun lyrics", and discusses the music industry. Other lyrics are on South Africa, and current global political affairs.

The music is mostly Roots Reggae with a groovy, danceable Rockers-vibe (bass drum on first count of 4/4, to put it in technical music terms). Some songs show Zulu music influences, other songs dancehall influences. There is also "digital" sounding music ("History"). This variation helps to keep the listener engaged throughout, while listening to the interesting lyrics. This shows thus the added value of combining poetry with good music, even when the vocals move a bit toward "talking". The band playing on most songs, The Royal Kushite Philharmonic Orchestra, may be relatively unknown, and non-Jamaican, but certainly sounds solid and atmospheric. Horn additions by Dean Fraser (on 3 songs) and Nambo also are great, as are occasional female (backing) vocals, such as the tastefully echoed female backing vocals on "History" (of which the lyrics form a good poem on self-determination).

One of the stronger tunes, or at least more instantly appealing is, in my opinion, "Lucky (Tribute To Lucky Dube)", with a groovy echo-spiced riddim and strong message about the South African reggae singer who was murdered in 2007. In it Mutabaruka eloquently describes reggae as "a wind that removes a blinding mist". There are also several other good tunes, though, also from a purely musical perspective. In this subgenre Dub Poetry, however, lyrics are just as important, and opening yourself to these lyrics adds to the overall, satisfactory experience. There are a few duller, more repetitive parts on this album, but these do not dominate this overall engaging album, with some strong, outstanding tunes for good measure...

These better songs, according to me, include the opening first song (which at the same time consists of a beautiful poem), and also, as mentioned, "Lucky", "Watch It", the one drop-riddimed "The Same Old Story (Keeps On Repeating)" with lyrics on persisting global oppression, and the lively, folksy "Mr. And Mrs. Tecki Tecki" (about stealing and greediness). I also found the Zulu music-based "A Girl Called Johannesburg" strong - the song is lyrically also a nice ode to that South African city -, and after a few listens I enjoyed several of the other tunes as well. The two dubs are also quality dubs, I opine, showing for instance how strong the groove of the song on Lucky Dube is.

In conclusion, it is an interesting, engaging, "layered" album with groovy, varied music as well as interesting lyrics. Not all the songs are, so to speak, "spectacular", but most are good and solid in a varied and often understated sense, making this album definitely worthwhile to check out.