Anthony Joseph – the poet, novelist, musician and lecturer described as “the leader of the black avant-garde in Britain” – returns with his sixth album, Caribbean Roots, whose 11 tracks present a fearless and thoughtful exploration of his Trinadadian roots and his own Caribbean identity. The album began as a collaboration with percussionist Roger Raspail (Cesaria Evora, Papa Wemba) which developed into something much bigger, incorporating many of the rhythms and sounds of the Caribbean in pursuit of Anthony’s creative vision of uniting the different islands without diluting any individual strand. In the process, it’s hoped that, despite the perception of it being a fragmented region, the listener will come to understand that there’s an underlying unity with more commonalities than differences. Specifically, as Anthony says in the PR notes, “The album is asking Caribbean people to consider that their roots are in the Caribbean, that their generations run deep and that now, we can claim it as ancestral space.”
The opening ‘The Kora’ is a lengthy groove powered by an irresistible backbeat with looping steel drums and a hard-riffing horn section which provides the backdrop for Anthony’s passionate word-pictures, reflecting on the Caribbean people’s African roots and the ways in which they endured the oppressions of slavery and imperialism.
‘Jimmy, Upon That Bridge’ has a more jazz-funk groove, built on layers of restless polyrhythmic percussion with chanted voices adding to the hypnotic vibe, while Anthony’s lyrics riff on the difficulties faced, and surmounted, by generations of ancestors.
A story of the inequalities still faced by Black people the world over unfolds through the course of ‘Neckbone’ with Anthony’s lyric focusing on the detail of a specific event – an arson attack in Jamaica in 1989 – to reveal the bigger picture. Musically it’s a whirling duststorm of a groove and it’s the combination of words and music that make it one of the album’s highlights.
A hypnotic percussion section underpins the sparse and spacious ‘Mano A Mano’, giving a sustained power to Anthony’s tale of a barefist fight between an established champion and the younger challenger for his title, as an edgy alto sax blows, billowing and dancing with a muscular grace.
‘Brother Davis (Yanvalou)’ hits a simmering midtempo jazz-funk groove right from the start with some quietly tight rhythm guitar enmeshed with a growling bass to create the foundation over which the horn section and steel pans float. Anthony’s oblique but pointed lyric is sprinkled with references to Trojan horses made of straw and burning churches: it took me a couple of listens to begin to fathom its deeper message but it is, I think, one of his most compelling compositions.
The racism of European settlers embedded in the history of Haiti and the terrible legacy of slavery are the key inspirations behind ‘Brother Davis (Yanvalou)’; it hits a simmering midtempo jazz-funk groove right from the start, with some quietly tight rhythm guitar enmeshed with a growling bass to create the foundation over which the horn section and steel pans float. Anthony’s oblique but pointed lyric is sprinkled with references to Trojan horses made of straw and burning churches: it took me a couple of listens to begin to fathom its deeper message but it is, I think, one of his most compelling compositions.
Calling to mind some of Miles Davis’ experimental jazz fusion compositions of the 1970s, the driving freeform sound of ‘Drum Song’ is musically intoxicating, making the ideal setting for Anthony’s lyrically complex analysis of the place of the drum in the history of the Caribbean as well as its origins in Africa.
The soulful feel of ‘Our History’ shows the influence of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, and the momentous changes documented in that album, albeit seen from a uniquely Caribbean perspective. The song’s subject matter focuses on the history of Black people the world over: bearing the brunt of intense hatred, suffering and injustices, concisely if opaquely summed up in the line “our history was of revolution”.
Another of the album’s highlights, ‘Slinger’, is a tribute to Slinger Francisco, better known as The Mighty Sparrow and acclaimed by many as the “Calypso King of the World”. While ‘Slinger’ is musically a long way from the more traditional 1950s style of carnival calypso, or even the more recent soca sound, it nevertheless shares Sparrow’s wicked sense of fun, as can be seen in the accompanying video, illustrating Anthony’s lyric about a man looking for both his roots and his future.
The tempo drops a little for the introspective ‘Powerful Peace’; a mournful oboe picks its way through a backing of strummed acoustic guitar and steel pans while Anthony serves up an impassioned musing on a life lived to the full.
Title track ‘Caribbean Roots’ is a thoughtful reflection of what it means to be Caribbean in the twenty-first century, of the suppressed and unrecorded history that informs the identities of African Caribbean people, and how all of these things have been shaped by the violence of European colonialism and slavery throughout the African diaspora. For this white European woman, at least, it’s a pointed reminder of the part played my own ancestors and, aside from acknowledging my own inherited responsibilities and privileges, I feel my best response should be to sit down, shut up and listen…
Caribbean Roots is a powerful collection of songs which celebrates the diversity of Caribbean people by recognising that they have more in common than is often supposed. It’s a call for unification and a reminder that it is possible to find goodness in bad things. The uncompromising nature of Anthony Joseph’s creative vision also requires white European people to reflect on our own shameful history, but this is a minor discomfort compared to the sufferings inflicted on Black people. Caribbean Roots may take you out of your comfort zone, but it’s a journey well worth taking. Highly recommended.
Caribbean Roots is Out Now via Strut Records