Nearly three decades after roots reggae bubbled out of a handful of recording laboratories in Kingston, Jamaica, and spilled onto the world's airwaves, only a few of the original practitioners can still command a stage. There's Winston Rodney of Burning Spear; Neville "Bunny Wailer" Livingston, the last of the original Wailers; and Joseph Hill of Culture. On the evidence of Live in Africa, a compilation from outdoor concerts performed by Culture during its first tour of South Africa in December 2000, of these surviving patriarchs the effervescent Hill has best maintained his musical edge and charisma.
To listen to this set of 20 numbers sampling the full range of Culture's repertoire is to fall back in love with a music that is now history, but has yet to get old. What impresses is both the visceral chop and bounce of the band's rhythm section, always a trademark of Culture recordings and live shows, and Hill's sometimes messianic, occasionally playful vocals and stage patter. "Someone tell Nelson Mandela hi for me," he shouts at one point, before describing his tour of Robben Island, where Mandela was held for a quarter-century. Introducing "Tribal War," he lectures the racially mixed crowd on the insanity of the continuing urban bloodshed following the fall of apartheid. Between "Ganja Time" and "Legalisation," he throws in a mischievous "Good boys and girls go to heaven. Bad boys and girls go everywhere!"
Hill has been almost everywhere since launching Culture as a vocal trio with Albert Walker and Kenneth Paley in the mid-'70s and authoring a string of hits for a succession of Jamaican producers, including the legendary Joe Gibbs and Sonia Pottinger. At first dismissed as a clone of the more established Burning Spear, Culture quickly drew its own international following with a rockier, more up-tempo sound than that of Spear's traditional Rasta arrangements.
"Two Sevens Clash," perhaps the group's biggest all-time Jamaican hit, describes Rasta fears of Armageddon on the ominous date of 7/7/77, and helped spark an informal work stoppage while Kingstonians waited out the dreaded day at home. The song provides a rollicking encore conclusion to Live in Africa.
Houstonians who saw Culture in a post-midnight show several years back at Jamaica Jamaica on Richmond can attest to the singer's total commitment to his craft, even on a minor stopover where a token performance might have been expected. His skin shining purple-black through a sheen of sweat, the dreadlocked Hill pumped out a number of the songs featured on Live in Africa, including "International Herb," "Too Long in Slavery" and "Tribal War." The energy level and connection to the crowd of several hundred in Texas seemed as strong as this sky-high recording before 10,000 in South Africa.
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Hill's ability to sprinkle sarcasm and old-fashioned moralizing throughout his lyrics and stage performances established his reputation as a social critic as well as a showman. This latest offering testifies that both the reggae master and his playmates haven't lost a stutter step as they stretch their roots into the 21st century.