Various Artists War Ina Babylon: An Island Reggae Anthology Review

Compilation. Released 2009.  

BBC Review

Island Records’ 50th anniversary celebration of its reggae output.

Angus Taylor 2009

Island Records’ 50th anniversary celebration of its reggae output doesn’t contain anything by Bob Marley. Even so, it’s a hit-packed testimony to founder Chris Blackwell’s efforts to plant the Jamaican flag in the mainstream music scene.

The selection mixes big singles with cherry picks from popular albums. Disc one charts the progression from Jamaican R&B through ska and rocksteady to reggae; disc two deals with the roots, dub and lovers explosions of the 70s; while disc three takes us from the dancehall era’s inception to now.

Evangelising stomps like Toots’s Reggae Got Soul meet the mystical UK roots of Steel Pulse’s Prodigal Son. Rub-a-dub herb anthems like The Mighty Diamonds’s Pass the Kutchie jostle with more sombre fare such as Ini Kamoze’s Trouble You a Trouble Me.

Island’s (at times turbulent) relationship with the producer Lee Scratch Perry is also represented by Junior Murvin’s massive Police and Thieves and the Max Romeo cut that gives the collection its name.

The highest points are a series of awe-inspiring early instrumentals based on jazz, TV and film scores: guitarist Ernest Ranglin’s solemn swinging Exodus, Carl Malcom’s giddy Bonanza Ska, and saxophonist Val Bennett’s seminal Russians Are Coming (aka Take Five).

On the downside, the first disc lacks Six and Seven Books of Moses by the Vikings (later the Maytals) and Mount Zion by Desmond Dekker and the Four Aces. Both would fit perfectly with the overall mood.

Blackwell had started putting out R&B in Jamaica before moving to the UK to export the new ‘ska’ sounds. He was famously keen that reggae should reach a sceptical rock audience, adding slide guitar and clavinet to the Wailers’ Catch a Fire. (Clavinet is still used in Jamaican ‘one-drop’ rhythms today.)

Bob and his fellow Wailers’ absence notwithstanding, War Ina Babylon is essentially a celebration of the music that crossed over. And given the huge choice of styles, producers and artists from sound system DJs to dub poets, lonely lovers to dancehall kings, you won’t miss him too much.

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