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World Music CD Reviews Reggae & Caribbean

Published July 27, 2006

Live In Paris With The Dennis Bovell Dub Band

Pioneering dub/reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson differs from his peers Oku Onuora and Mutabaruka in that his laser-sharp diatribes are usually focused on his adopted country of England, and he promotes Socialism over Rastafarianism.

Born in 1952 in the rural Jamaican village of Chapelton, Johnson learned to read from his grandmother’s bible. At the age of 11, he followed his mother to Brixton in London, where he learned about racism first-hand from white Britons’ backlash against the increasing number of West Indian immigrants. On this album, his first live musical recording since 1985’s Grammy-nominated LKJ Live In Concert With The Dub Band, Johnson celebrates his 25-year career as one of reggae’s most unique music makers.

The album pulls no punches, revisiting one of LKJ’s earliest and most harrowing recordings: “Sonny’s Lettah,” penned in protest of England’s infamous “SUS” laws (Subject Under Suspicion), which, unfortunately, is still quite relevant today. Writing from prison, a son tells his mother how he responded to an unprovoked police attack on his little brother by beating a police officer to death. With Bovell’s heavyweight band accentuating every punch and kick, it is brutally violent and yet as stirring in its anti-oppression message as “I Shot The Sheriff.”

Another early composition LKJ performs here is “Reggae Fi Peach,” a true-life tale about a notorious murder by the police. Blair Peach was a white schoolteacher from New Zealand who, along with thousands of others, marched in West London’s Southall neighborhood to protest a meeting of the Nazi National Front in that predominantly South Asian community. While trying to escape the subsequent riot and police crackdown, he was clubbed to death by the Special Patrol Group (SPG).

Another grim poem, “Reggae Fi Radni,” memorializes the Guyanese historian/activist Dr. Walter Rodney, who was banned from Jamaica in 1968, leading to the “Rodney Riots.” Best known as the author of “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” Rodney was assassinated in a 1980 car bombing. The closing number, “Reggae Fi Bernard,” is an elegy for Johnson’s nephew “who died under tragic circumstances.”

Sobering stuff indeed, and the poet does not try to lighten the mood with his famously uncharacteristic love song “Lorraine.” However, the band keeps up a lively pace and sweetens the serious lyrics with melodic solos by guitarist John Kpiaye, violinist Johnny T. and flutist/saxophonist Steve Gregory (a veteran session man who played on Wham!’s treacly “Careless Whisper”). Bovell, Johnson’s longtime bandleader, is a British reggae pioneer in his own right, releasing well-received albums under his own name and with his old band Matumbi. It’s a tribute to Bovell’s arrangements that the instrumental album LKJ In Dub was a favorite among reggae fans in the ‘80s.

Note that while it’s probably not easy for the French audience to understand Johnson’s Jamaican-accented English, their response is extremely enthusiastic. The performances, captured in April 2003 at the Zenith in Paris, are entertaining, even for those who don’t grasp all of the content, because LKJ’s driving, hypnotic meters mesh so well with the infectious music. These are fully developed songs, as opposed to just preaching over beats (the short acappella track “Di Great Insohreckshan” is a great example of the inherent rhythms in his poetry).

By the way, who wouldn’t smile at the thought of a crowd full of middle-aged Parisians chanting, “We gonna smash their brains in!” (from the anti-fascist anthem “Fite Dem Back”)?

Back when Johnson first started publishing and performing his poems in the 1970s, he was denounced for corrupting the youth and undermining the “purity” of the English language with his patois grammar and spelling. But now he’s earning honorary degrees and gaining widespread respect. In a recent poll to determine the top 100 Black B