Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Abyssinians @ Ashkenaz Concert Review

The San Francisco Bay Area has been blessed with great reggae music legends this month with Baba Lee "Scratch" Perry two weeks ago at The Independent and Midnite at the Shattuck Downlow, the Abyssinians last Friday, August 10 at Ashkenaz. Tuesday, August 14, Sly & Robbie & the Taxie Gang with actress/singer Cherine Anderson were at Slims and Friday, August 17, Jr. Reid is at the Shattuck Downlow.

Okay, reviews are supposed to be critical but after arriving before 10 thinking I was late and actually early enough to find a seat, I was ready for conscious raising music. We’d buried Chauncey, someone had stolen my favorite purple coat out of my trunk in San Francisco two days earlier and though I was a little nervous about parking in the neighborhood when our brother who normally greets us was absent—we later found out he’d died, I got everything I’d come for and more.

They were so good! I hadn’t known that they wrote "Satta Massa Ganna,” also known as the anthem which everyone was invited to sing along: "There is a land far far away, Where there's no night, there's only day, Look into the Book of Life, and you will see That there's a land, far far away." The three men borrowed heavily from older brother Carlton on this song. But the kinsman was generous, an attribute indicative of the ensemble which has weathered a few storms over its 37 year career. No one was killed and though some inequities remain unaddressed, Manning said in an interview he wasn’t going to let material things come between him and Collins. And Collins could probably say the same thing, as I read his version of the history on their official website.

The club was full. The stage crowded with musical instruments, Abyssinian re-releases on CD, the classic albums, plus tee-shirts and posters. It wasn’t everyday that these men came to town. I think the last time had been back when the Maritime was still open and you know how long ago that was.

Wearing all red, Manning was on stage right, while Collins stood center, David Morrison on the right, who wore red, black and green. They all had their heads covered and began the set with a prayer. The band was impressive also, even though they were too young to have been the rhythm section on tour back in the ‘70s or ‘80s. The salient character of the evening was transcendental—the musical language one better felt than spoken. The lyrical journey was sprinkled with warnings about the “love of money,” Collins sang. “Money we fight each other over.” “I try my best to pardon my brother,” was the choral response. “Oh, lord, good lord, everyone struggles.”

References were to the “king’s music,” as the men took a stroll down memory lane with their fans singing right along. Manning and Collins both danced with abandon, although Manning when not singing or even when he was, danced all around the stage. “Throw away your pride,” he sang. “Beat up yourself,” he sang as lead vocalist before turning the role back over to Collins.

It was a nice shared power. Easy without strife. Smoke billowed overhead like a vast cloud as the groove rocked-steady, the kind of groove one could hold all night. We weren’t exerting nearly as much energy as the men on stage, even when Collins sang about fighting for right as he did a quick left and right jab at an invisible foe.

One of my favorite songs given the week past, asked the question, “Why must the blackman stress and strain?” The band did one of those cool false starts that sounds like a car unprepared to stop when the light turns red, so all the bolts and screws fall into each other. The performance was a day after the anniversary of Nagasaki and my daughter was in Pearl Harbor. Funny where music takes the mind. It was also a day after Women’s Day, a day South African President Thabo Mbeki named in honor of Mama Sara Baartman when her remains were laid to rest there Aug. 9, 2002.

(Sara Baartman is known as the Hottentot Venus, and her genitalia was pickled after she died in a museum. See

There was a pop quiz towards the end of the set, which even I passed when Collin sang the verses in Amharic, after a volunteer gave its name in the microphone. The microphone was more in the audience than on its stand toward the end as clearly the men were jazzed over the enthusiasm that greeted there songs and spirit. I was seated next to a man who’d brought his son and another couple who had a babe in arms. This was historic and I’m happy to say the black folks were in the house which is not the norm for reggae or Ashkenaz. It was one of those beautiful moments. One could imagine these guys as younger men hanging out in Trenchtown after work jamming, Bob Marley and other friends dropping by Mannings’ house or Studio One where like Stax Records and Motown there was a renown studio musician stable, available to sit-in if needed. After the set, which ended with drumming, Manning and Morrison, I spoke briefly to Manning, but I can’t do justice to it, so I will just convert it to a sound file and let you listen to it.


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