Sugar Shack Records

To trace the origins of UK reggae masters Black Roots, you’d have to go back to 1979, when the original eight members from the Bristol area first began making music together. Blame it on the times and the place: few of the British reggae artists of that period gained the attention they deserved outside of their home turf and Black Roots were no exception. Dig into the back catalog of roots reggae albums they released before they ceased performing live in 1990 and you’ll find yourself shaking your head at the fact that this music wasn’t played around the globe.

Fortunately, due to the efforts of Bristol Archive Records (BAR) and their parent label Sugar Shack, there’s a new chapter in the Black Roots’ story. BAR rekindled the fire with an archival collection of Black Roots singles in 2011; they followed up with the re-release of the band’s All Day All Night earlier this year. The fact that the band’s recently-released On The Ground is on the Sugar Shack label is a significant one: BAR deals with material from the Bristol vaults while Sugar Shack doles out new music, baby. On The Ground marks the first Black Roots studio sessions in over 20 years … and they haven’t missed a beat.

This is music that will make you think while making you move, infused with messages that teach without preaching. The band offers their thoughts on the difference between militancy and maliciousness (“Militancy”); they ask the government of their homeland (and those all over the world), “How can you fix it when you don’t know it?” in “Pompous Way”; and they aren’t afraid to point out how “Capitalism” holds mankind at ransom.

The key to the Black Roots’ sound is the ability to deliver powerful messages hand-in-hand with lovely melodies and well-layered arrangements; with thought rather than anger. Case in point: listen to how they ask the question “What’s going on?” in “Earth Land”. There’s a hint of Marvin Gaye’s original delivery of that well-known phrase – but the Black Roots are truly seeking an answer – right now, because “We’ve been there before/Sons and daughters dying for what I’m not sure.” If it’s anthems you seek, On The Ground is packed with them.

The music itself is mixed with Senouci Madani’s bass right up front – a presence that you feel as much as you hear. Madani and drummer Anthony Ward together are a killer team – true to the Black Root’s trademark grooves while keeping things lively with rhythm bits and flourishes that are intriguing but never distracting. Cool harmonies and vocal weaves are doled out by original members Errol Brown, Carlton Smith and Kondwani Ngozi, along with new vocalist Charles Bryan. Kondwani’s brother Jabulani Ngozi solidifies the riddims with his classic skanked guitar, while Cordell Francis lets loose with six-string leads that range from psychedelic (“I Believe”) to almost jazz-like on the title track. (Both guitarists were there for the band’s birth 33 years ago.) David Holder explores his keyboards throughout the album, offering up everything from cool clavinet-toned mutterings (“I Believe”) to rollicking straight-up piano (“Hide Out”). And providing punch to both the rhythm and melody are Patrick Tenyue on trumpet and Raymond Carless on saxophone. (Dig Carless’ sweet, sweet solo on “Long Long Ago”.)

It’s not often that talent like this reunites to create something that is new and relevant, rather than a copy of their past output. Black Roots is singing to you and for you, people – this time, let’s pay attention.