In the Heat of December

The fellow at the soundboard for the Black Rebels at the Tinker Street Cafe on Saturday was a maestro, blending the Dub special effects of reggae with repeated phrases over spontaneous palavers and pulling echo overlays; eliciting exceptional depth, clarity and separation in a room that's been known to swallow inflections like corn kernels in an overcooked stew.

When club overseer Jerry Mitnick came in around midnight after watching a pugilist exhibition wherein a Warsaw heavyweight named Golota singlehandedly tried to legitimize all those wretched Polish jokes of the 70s, he asked confidently how the system sounded. Never sounded better.

The impression of sound purity wasn't injured by the quality of Grade A reggae coming through, either. The band's trio of vocalists laced harmony like the Everly Brothers of Ska with Kalpana Devi offering a feminine touch in response lines and feverish asides while tipping in some fine conga accents, Dr. Jeannot providing versatile support and relief vocals and lead singer Manou showing all the potential of reggae legend Toots Hibbert in groove-guiding flight.

There was dancing from the first vamp which soon became a solid wall around the bandstand and continued nonstop through an all but endless set. The sound was plush even with the band not quite at full strength (with 8 of a potential 10 present) and the chunky bottom of Rastoph's bass nearly subsonic. Brian Bender (Barukh) brought a truckload of trombone and the keyboardist Rui Santos (Ras Moon) delivered a mess of flute and brass tones on synthesizer, even bending a marimba-like setting into some mariachi-sounding passages at one point. Lead guitarist Dave Boatwright fleshed it out over Chris Smith's cross-handed drumming with steady edges and spare solo runs.

The tri-lingual repertoire included some unusual flavorings which trace a pedigree of influence through the Jamaican filter of American r&b to the western-most tip of Africa on numbers like "Sama Xool," "Akhouzamane" and "Amor Di Mae."

The core group was founded 12 years ago in Dakar with members springing from Sinegal and the Cape Verde islands a few hundred miles off coast. Jeannot arrived in the U.S. in 1988 and welcomed others several years later, settling into central Massachusetts around Amherst and recruiting fresh players. The African flavors stayed on along with a blues form peculiar to the Cape Verde region and can be sampled on their new CD Thank u "Jah", a solid production which rivals any reggae we've heard coming down the pike in recent years.

You don't want to ask a group with "rebels" in their name what they're rebelling against because, if they say "nosy journalists", you're done and you deserve to be, smartass. The stance of reggae and Rasta is obvious and its intrinsic element of protest as plain as the issues addressed. The protest song is the first test of social consciousness and it takes many forms, including songs of advocacy. "Afrika Unite," "Black Legends," "Gun Violence", and "Stop War" are prime examples served up by Black Rebels.

Ambiguity isn't a straight-talking Rastafarian target in a musical form where thematic complexity and diversity are relatively rare. Seductive rhythms, simplicity and repetition give vitality to a "one love" message compatible to any spot along a spectrum from suckface to pumpfist. For intricacy, Black Rebels rely more on the musical language than lyrical with subtle rhythmic shifts, Dub layering, percussive inflection and vocal weaving technique; offering a wider range of tonality and effect than much of the competition united under the honorable flag of Emperor Haile Selassie I Jah Rastafari. Once I realized he wasn't singing "a rubber duck is dying", Manou's handling of "Dancing Dub," with its dramatic bridge, registered as a highlight of the evening, along with Jeannot's lead on "Revelation" and Devi's mesmerizing vocal on the real killer number of the night, which slipped its title past me.

It was an exceptionally warm night in December inside of the well-attended Tinker Street Cafe as everyone reggaed into a lather and environmental body heat boosted off pre-winter doldrums. Black Rebels is a group reggae fans are advised not to miss on their next visit.

-Irv Yarg