Sunday, 23 February 2014

Album of the Week #14

Artist: The Abyssinians
Album: Satta Massagana
Year: 1976
Label: Jam Sounds

Political, melodic, classic reggae from the vaults

There's an existing train of thought that the only essential difference between punk and reggae is the drugs that the respective artists were on. Whilst the politically-charged punk movements of the UK and USA were partly fuelled by hard drug use - cocaine, speed, heroin - the politically-charged reggae movement of Jamaica was partly fuelled by softer drug use - namely marijuana. Their close links are further evidenced by punk's more obvious nods to reggae- The Clash covered Junior Murvin's Police and Thieves as well as producing some reggae-inflected hits of their own, in the shape of White Man in Hammersmith Palais and Guns of Brixton. Jimmy Jazz even directly references Satta Massagana's title track in its lyrics.

So it's perhaps little surprise that this week's album, a reggae classic, is as socially and politically charged as the future punk albums that it undoubtedly inspired. Released in 1976, the same year as The Ramones' eponymous debut album, Satta Massagana came out on the cusp of punk, bearing strong political messages. But it's far from just an angry protest album - the lyrics, melodies and vocal harmonies are as good as you'll hear on any reggae album.

Bernard Collins, Donald Manning and Lynford Manning, the trio of vocalists who make up The Abyssinians, shared songwriting duties on the album, with each member's contributions seemingly equally strong. It's something which is symbolic of the melodic, accomplished sound of The Abyssinians. All three members came together to pen the classic title track Satta Massagana, which has become somewhat of a reggae standard.

The powerful social commentary coupled with the strong melodies are most obvious in album opener Declaration of Rights, whose lyrics decrying slavery and lack of human rights are backed by the exceptional vocal harmonies of the group. This striking contrast is atypical of The Abyssinians and their trademark melodic reggae sound. Despite the heavy political content of much of the record's lyrics, the songs are never bogged down by their message, rather, it's the memorable melodies that are the driving force behind Satta Massagana.

The wondrous I and I  is a particularly standout moment on a record packed full of them. It's probably the song that best showcases the sound of The Abyssinians, but it's only scratching the surface of an accomplished set of classic reggae hits. With the original release clocking in at a little over half an hour (which is a pretty similar length to a punk album) it's well worth setting aside 33 minutes to hear one of the best reggae albums ever released.

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