Sisters are doing for themselves on the We Roots collection, a selection of local female reggae vocalists and their accompanying dub versions, issued on Long Beach’s Catch Me Time Records. As in its American cousin hip hop, it is challenging to get into double-digits when counting the number of female artists in Jamaican music who have impacted and advanced the artform. Under the direction of Chuck Foster, one of reggae music’s highest ranking consuls in Los Angeles, the seven vocalists featured on We Roots strive to correct the imbalance. “The L.A. reggae scene today reminds me of the Liverpool or San Francisco sounds of my youth,” Mr. Foster told The Examiner. “But I wasn’t seeing female artists in the flood of bands and releases. Instead of complaining I decided to do something about it.”
To be sure, this is a tall order, so it’s little surprise that there are a handful of instances across the 15 track album where the performances fall short of the goal. Jessica Burke’s “Ride All Night” picks up on rock steady’s great train themes and casts them through an Angel City prism, but the song doesn’t go anywhere lyrically. Moreover, Ms Burke’s vocal delivery on “Ride” and “Hollywood Sign” lacks that impassioned spark, an ailment that also afflicts Queen P’s performance on “Love Sees All.” Similarly, Universal Speakers’ coquettish title track echoes the slink of Lorna Bennett’s “Breakfast In Bed,” but a couple of bridges awkwardly shift from early lovers reggae to a delivery befitting children’s music, deflating the song.
There are, nevertheless, plenty of exhilarating moments throughout the album. One would swear that album opener “Rock Steady” by Zema, an artist who recorded at Jamaica’s famed Channel One Studio in its heyday, is an old Hortense Ellis or Phyllis Dillon tune that had been unearthed; the writing credit confirms otherwise. The insistent haunt of Shayna Dread’s “Fire Is Burning” creeps like The Specials’ “Ghost Town”; the Chrissie Hynde smoke of her voice would sound seductive were her message not so foreboding. Jordan Mercedes’ “The Sun Is Gonna Shine” has a Big Easy Sunday morning funkiness to it, the melodica and tuba interplay sounding like Augustus Pablo Meets Rebirth Brass Band in Congo Square.
What anchors the album—and where it truly shines—are in the rhythms. Mr. Foster shows himself not only to be a student of classic reggae, but able to inform that learning into his compositions, arrangements and productions, coaxing sounds out of his musicians, engineers and gear that comfortably evoke classic roots reggae sounds while eschewing recycled Studio One rhythms. Wholly fresh yet familiar, these sounds put Mr. Foster and his players on par with Tim Armstrong’s Engine Room (who backed Jimmy Cliff on his recent Rebirth album) and The Delirians as purveyors of top drawer neo-classic reggae.
This is best heard on the album’s dubs. The stand-out among these is “Fire Is Dubbing,” whose recipe for echo and effects was smuggled straight from Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Black Ark studio; all that’s missing is an adroit melodica lead and it’d be Augustus Pablo’s “Vibrate On” for a new generation.
It may not have attained its intended goal, but We Roots firmly stakes Mr. Foster and co.’s claim as one of the top suppliers of vibrant yesteryear reggae from Los Angeles.