The Midlands Roots Explosion Volume One
Reggae Archive Records
CD / 2xLP / Digital Release
June 29, 2015

Track list
  1. Steel Pulse - Kibudu-Mansatta-Abuku
  2. Steel Pulse - Mansatta (Instrumental)
  3. Man From The Hills - Redemption Day
  4. Eclipse - Blood Fi Dem
  5. Musical Youth - Political
  6. Sceptre - Ancestors Calling
  7. Benjamin Zephaniah - Unite Handsworth
  8. Oneness - Rome
  9. Black Symbol - In The Name of Jah
  10. Groundation - Fa-Ward
  11. Mystic Foundation - Instruments
  12. Iganda - Slow Down
  13. Capital Letters - I Will Never
  14. Carnastoan - Mr. Workhard
  15. Benjamin Zephaniah - Free Man
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Vocals : 4/5 Backing : 4/5 Production : 4/5 Sound quality : 4 Sleeve : 5
Reggae Archive Records, a subsidiary of the well respected reissue label Bristol Reggae Archives, comes up with another noteworthy release. This time the listener is taken on a musical journey to the Midlands, an area spanning central England that broadly corresponds to the early medieval Kingdom of Mercia. Birmingham and the other towns and cities that make up the Midlands were a powerhouse of British reggae, and this album is the first in a series of compilations that aim to showcase some of the unreleased, forgotten and barely known musical gems from what was such a vibrant reggae scene in the 1970s and 1980s.

It's only appropriate to kick off "The Midlands Roots Explosion Volume One" with two tracks by Steel Pulse as this self-contained band, which is still active today, put both Handsworth and Birmingham on the musical map. The very scarce "Kibudu - Mansatta - Abuku" and its version "Mansatta" are tunes taken from Steel Pulse's very first 7" single release in 1976. Both tracks, previously unreleased on LP and CD, are simply great to hear and show the potential this band already had at the beginning of their successful career.

Another band that achieved international fame is Wolverhampton's Capital Letters. Included here is the previously unreleased scorcher "I Will Never". The latter, a celebration of their faith in Jah, comes across a slow-paced riddim with a harder roots edge than their Greensleeves releases. Formed in 1979 at Duddeston Manor School in Birmingham, Musical Youth are best remembered for "Pass The Dutchie", their successful 1982 Grammy-nominated single which was a major hit worldwide, peaking at number one on the UK National Chart for three weeks, number ten on the US Billboard Hot 100 and selling over 5 million copies worldwide. In 1981 Musical Youth (then with Frederik Waite Sr, father of members Junior and Patrick Waite and former member of The Techniques, on lead vocals) released a double A-sided single with the songs "Generals" and "Political" on a local record label named 021 Records. "Political" is a solid social commentary that deals with unemployment among the youths and asking the politicians to give them a chance.

Contemporaries of Steel Pulse and one of Birmingham's leading bands was Eclipse. They never achieved a real breakthrough which is hard to understand when you listen to the wicked "Blood Fi Dem". Poet, writer, lyricist and musician Benjamin Zephaniah was born and raised in the Handsworth district of Birmingham, which he called the Jamaican capital of Europe. In the early 1980s, when Punks and Rastas were on the streets protesting about SUS Laws, high unemployment, homelessness and the National Front, Zephaniah's poetry could be heard on the demonstrations, at youth gatherings, outside police stations, and on the dance floor. Here you can listen to "Unite Handsworth", recorded before he relocated to London, and "Free Man", both previously included on the LPs "Handsworth Explosion Vols I & II".

Black Symbol was inspired and influenced by Burning Spear as can be heard on their excellent spiritual roots anthem "In The Name of Jah", which has a deep roots sound and chanting style vocals strongly reminiscent of Burning Spear. Apart from recording their own material, Black Symbol provided the opportunity for many other Handsworth artists to record their music. These include Man From The Hills' "Redemption Day" - another group clearly inspired by Burning Spear as their name points to the title of Burning Spear's 1976 album - Sceptre's "Ancestors Calling" and the truly outstanding and previously unreleased "Instruments" from Mystic Foundation. Furthermore worth mentioning (and hearing) are Carnastoan's Dennis Bovell produced "Mr. Workhard" the killer B side of the band's classic 12" single "Sweet Melody", Iganda's 1979 single "Slow Down" and Leicester's Groundation with their nearly 8 minute long tune "Fa-Ward". Last but not least there's the crucial "Rome", a track from Black Symbol spin-off group Oneness, previously only available on a very hard to find 12" single.

All in all this is a very strong compilation, showing that the English Midlands were second to none when it came to roots reggae in the 1970s and 1980s.