Home / Music Reviews and Choices

Pablo Moses's Acid Reign

by Carol Cooper

RASTA IDEOLOGY has always been profoundly Spenglerian. The German philosopher's contention that our parasitic, capital-based machine age will be defeated by "another power, not by a principle," certainly echoes Rasta belief. What Oswald Spengler called "Caesarism" could well be construed as Rastafari, and the conflict he foresaw between blood and money, where "the master-will subdues again the plunderer-will," is certainly on the agenda of the Rasta Armageddon.

The fathers of African and Caribbean Negritude studied Spengler in the '20s and '30s to help formulate a set of postcolonial options. Now Pablo Moses, said to be a university-trained poet né Paul Henry, has articulated virtually the same ideas in the concise, unadorned lyrics of the critical realist. His new LP, In the Future, on the Chicago blues label Alligator, is a marvel of eloquent paradox, where the humanist-Luddite, presaged by Spengler, uses banks of synthesizers and all the wattage of hi-the rock 'n' roll to preach against industrial oppression.

Vocally, Moses suggests a satin-toned Burning Spear, with just enough Slim Smith in his timbre to cut across the textured volume of the Revolutionary Dream Band like a falsetto laser. On UA's I Love I Bring, released in JA and Europe as Revolutionary Dream, Moses learned to control that voice through long, expository verses about politically inspired gang wars ("Blood Money") and THC-inspired transmutation ("I Man a Grasshopper") which taxed his untrained diaphragm. Once record royalties made possible better equipment, Moses's music began to acquire the polished, mirage-like sheen this hard-line guitarist-songwriter envisioned years before. In 1980, producer-arranger Geoffrey Chung, who'd orchestrated the lush dreamscapes of Ijahman's psalms, outdid himself on Moses's Mango debut A Song. Under his guidance Sly & Robbie, two I-Threes, and a Wailer keyboardist joined Jamaica's top studio sessioneers to create eight flawless tracks. Cuts like "A Song" and "Dubbing Is a Must," performed live at Irving Plaza December 30, are still among the spaciest roots rock reggae of the post-Kaya era.

Doubtless, Moses would have made great inroads following the tour circuit Marley and Tosh trailblazed in the States had 1981's Mango album been equal to its predecessor. But Pave the Way, whose eponymous single also got an updated delivery line, was altogether less electric, less astonishing than A Song. A jazz hot horn solo imbedded in "Dig On" and brilliant Akete drumming surfacing throughout side two hinted at the kind of jazz-rock synthesis even progressive Brit-reggae had yet to achieve. But the rest of the LP didn't deliver on an audience assumption that Moses would continue to pioneer a territory where usual Africanized melodies would coexist with hard rock and dub improvisations. Two years later, In The Future comes to more than fulfill earlier expectations. This is the record that inaugurates a nonderivative redefinition of acid reggae.

The acid reggae effect, all electronic contrast and occasional contrapuntal dischord, is not lysergic but hydrochloric -- eating away at the dross of modern life, burning all illusions, providing the alchemical impetus to turn human lead to gold. Songs like "The Slayer" (indicting doctors, lawyers, priests and others), "I & I New Bow" (a hymn to Rasta autonomy), and "Ready, Aim, Fire" (how to shoot a gun) flow like lava across the dance floor. Aston "Familyman" Barrett, the Wailers' rhythmic anchor, came aboard for In the Future, so that despite its understated sound the whole album has the same sort of sonic propulsion that sent Bob Marley's music around the world. Live, the transition between the vinyl schematic and its holographic representation is the difference between Regatta de Blanc on record and that supernaturally amplified set from the Palladium proscenium.

While Moses's ensemble took the stage in casually coordinated battle dress of leather and khaki, the singer wore white coveralls and red, gold, and green "crown." Thus appropriately clad, the band drove into the proletarian anthem "Who?," where deep-mouthed bass and basso choral insinuations resound with sober menace: "Who feels it first?/The worker!/Who?/The masses!/Who?/The sufferers!/Who?" By now the whole room is skanking to the fiery cadence I thought had passed with the King of Reggae. You miss the Aketa burra drumming now that Moses has embraced state-of-the-art minimalism, but the searing keyboards and guitar appoggiaturas that come to replace it are overwhelmingly hallucinogenic. Yet though he doesn't lurch for the groin or affect vaudevillian vulnerability like the boasting toasters, Moses's material is not without humor. The sly ironies of "Sillie Willie" and "Subway Rider" prove that reality, while grim, need not destroy the spirit. The latter is particularly deserving of urban airplay; its fast, danceable rhythms and topical subject matter are a refreshing respite from the manic escapism of "All Night Long."

By the time Moses arrived at the Orwellian title track of the Alligator LP, I was utterly sold on the authenticity and worthiness of his revolutionary dream. In the future, the coming of Rastafari, like its Spenglerian analogue, will break the dictatorship of money and its organized political weapons. The dark tonal colors employed in most Rasta reggae is what Spengler perceived as the cry of the blood, of the invisible powers of the soul which our Western political economies suppress. Acid reggae, the cybernetic creation of the wretched of the earth, provides the rhythm track for raising the blood, conjuring compassion, and redeeming the future.

Published in: Village Voice, 17 January 1984