Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Culture - Roots Reggae Greats - A Profile

Culture formed in 1976 as a Vocal trio and their sound and style is considered by many as the epitome of roots reggae. This is thanks largely to charismatic singer, songwriter, and leader Joseph Hill. As their name would suggest their material was mostly devoted to spiritual, social, and political messages, and as such they quickly became a part of the vibrant, politically charged Jamaican reggae scene of the day. Originally known as the African Disciples, the line-up consisted of Joseph Hill (lead vocals), Albert Walker (backing vocals) and Kenneth Dayes (backing vocals). Hill was the only member of the trio who had prior studio experience – having worked at Coxsone Dodd’s legendary Studio One as a percussionist with the Soul Defenders group in the early 1970’s, cutting backing tracks for a variety of vocalists. It was also at Studio One that Hill first recorded as a vocalist, releasing "Behold the Land" and "Take Me Girl," amongst others but unfortunately nothing came of them.

Shortly after Culture came together, they began working with the ‘Mighty Two’ – producer Joe Gibbs and engineer Errol Thompson. While at Gibbs’ studio, the singers recorded a series of powerful singles, many of which ended up on their successful debut album ‘Two Sevens Clash’. This initial release was hugely popular in both Jamaica and England and is considered a roots reggae landmark (also named by Rolling Stone magazine in 2002 as one of the '50 Coolest Records'). The lyrics demonstrated Hill’s keen awareness of the connection between Jamaica’s history and its current social climate. While the songs may have been dealing with serious issues, at the same time the group always recognized the value of a catchy beat – a sensibility shared by U.K. punks at the time. At once Culture became part of a wave of vocal groups (including the Mighty Diamonds, Black Uhuru, the Meditations and countless others) that ruled the reggae scene for a brief, but poignant while in the late 70’s.

As is always the case financial disagreements grew and the trio disenchanted with their dealings with Gibbs, and Culture soon split for a brief and contentious stay at Duke Reid's Treasure Isle label. Here they started (and never quite finished) a new album titled “Africa Stand Alone”; the results were eventually released as they were, without authorization. Meanwhile, Gibbs released leftovers from the Two Sevens Clash sessions on two more LPs, “Baldhead Bridge” (whose title song was a hit) and “More Culture”. By the end of 1977, Culture had already moved to Sonia Pottinger's High Note label, and recorded three excellent albums in quick succession: 1978's “Harder Than the Rest” and 1979's “Cumbolo” and “International Herb”. Additional material from the era was later compiled on “Trod On” and “Production Something”.

Culture performed at the legendary One Love Peace Concert in 1978, and later toured extensively in the U.K. with backing band the Revolutionaries (which included the young Sly & Robbie). However, there would not be much more material forthcoming, at least for the time being. Culture split up in 1982, and Hill recorded what was essentially a solo album, “Lion Rock”, under the Culture name. While Walker and Dayes made a few recordings with top producer Henry "Junjo" Lawes. The trio reunited in 1986, and quickly recorded two well-received comeback albums, “Culture at Work” and “Culture in Culture”, that year. They resumed touring as well, and kicked off another prolific and productive period with albums like 1988's “Nuff Crisis” (which featured the powerful protest "Crack in New York"), 1989's “Good Things”, 1991's dancehall-flavoured “Three Sides to My Story”, and 1992's “Wings of a Dove” .In 1993, Kenneth Dayes left the group to pursue a solo career, wanting to continue their earlier experimentation with dancehall. Culture was then touring with an independent backing band called Dub Mystic, and that group's lead singer, Ire'Lano Malomo, was pressed into service as the third vocalist in the trio. Malomo appeared on two studio albums, 1996's “One Stone” and 1997's “Trust Me”. He was replaced in 1999 by veteran singer Telford Nelson who after a lengthy career on his own joined on harmony vocals, and appears on 2000's “Payday”. Hill then released what was another effective solo album, “Humble African”, in 2001, before Culture returned in 2003 with the acclaimed “World Peace”.

Following this release Culture continued to actively tour around the world. In 2004 they played at the first edition of the highly successful Montreal Reggae Festival. Joseph Hill was inducted into the Reggae Walk of Fame, and was presented an Independence Award by the Jamaican Prime Minister in 2005, and in 2006 the group performed a number of concerts including the 'Bob Marley 61st Birthday Celebration' in Ghana and Reggae Sunsplash. It was also in this year that Joseph Hill suddenly became ill while the group were on tour in Europe and sadly passed away in Berlin Germany on August 19th of that year. The group decided to finish the European tour with Kenyatta Hill (Joseph's son and Culture's audio engineer) singing lead vocals as a tribute to his father. On September 8th a tribute concert took place in Kingston Jamaica and featured an all-star line-up of artists that ranged from Luciano to Bunny Wailer. A memorial service for Hill took place in Kingston the following day.
Culture have proved to be one of the few acts in reggae that can always be relied on – both on record, and on stage and have sustained their lengthy career by being both true to their cultural roots, while at the same time being able to incorporate new sounds and ideas into their mix. To their credit the group where never content to be a mere oldies act and have rightly earned their place as true reggae greats.


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