With her coolly determined alto voice and politically-fueled lyrics, Jah9 is the latest Jamaican roots reggae star to make a move beyond the island to a larger stage in mid-career. She stands out for a lot of reasons, most obviously because she’s a woman in an overwhelmingly male-dominated field. At a time when dancehall – which these days is basically just Jamaican rap – dominates across the Caribbean, she comes across as committed to a roots vibe, albeit one from the 90s when she was growing up. And in an era where roots reggae is pretty much a legacy genre, like bluegrass or Chicago blues, played mostly by white American jambands, she keeps her Rasta spear burning. Truth in advertising: the title track on her new album New Name – streaming at Soundcloud – is a remake of a Ras Michael classic. She’s playing a New York show on Feb 6 (actually the wee hours of Saturday the 7th, at one in the morning) backed by her group the Dub Treatment Band at Milk River Cafe, 960 Atlantic Ave (Grand Ave/St. James Pl.), in Brooklyn. The closest trains are actually the 2 or 3 to Dean St.; otherwise, take any train to Atlantic Ave and walk a few blocks deeper into Brooklyn.
Musically, the album’s production – with judicious, jazz-tinged guitar, synthesized brass and strings, digital organ and piano, synth bass and drum samples (or just a drum machine) – looks back to the era when Luciano rather than Sister Carol (an artist Jah9 resembles philosophically if not musically) ruled the charts. Where the album’s title track works a spiritual vibe, the second, Intention, has an incendiary political focus, Jah9 determined to live outside the system as much as she dares.
After a long, cinematic intro and some light dub touches, Preacher Man gives Jah9 a platform to go after hypocrites in politics and religion, a braver move than you might think considering that she’s a minister’s daughter. She follows a surprisingly poetic voice-and-piano contemplation with the trippy, dubby Gratitude and its mantra of “your only limitation is your imagination.”
Taken, the token shout-out to the only cure for glaucoma, features none other than the ageless Cedric Myton of the Congos on backing vocals – and it may be the only reggae song ever to suggest that you might not want to get so stoned that you can’t function. Avocado nicks a famous Burning Spear tune for a sly stoner boudoir jam, while Jungle offers encouragement for anyone who’d rather find their own niche in the world instead of slaving for some “unjust corporation,” a message Jah9 revisits on the album’s closing cut, Inner Voice.