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Peter Stenshoel's Album of the Week: Tribute to the Emperor

Peter Stenshoel brings in a new album each week ...


One decent spring day in the late 70s, a basement record sale at the University of Minnesota bookstore brought forth some rare gems for adventurous ears. As a fan of Bob Marley, Toots and the Maytals, and Max Romeo and the Upsetters, I was interested in further understanding reggae. When I came upon this full-on homage to Haile Selassie, whom I knew to be the Rastafarian’s chosen historical deity, it seemed a good place to come to grips with the music.  At the time I saw the LP as an investment in my research in the world’s music. I had no idea it would instantly become one of my favorites.

Tribute to the Emperor by Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus with Jazzboe Abubaka is an expression of Nyabinghi, a kind of spiritual stream from reggae waters which includes the kind of big bass drums one finds in Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity. The music here is rough-edged chant mixed adroitly — and psychedelically — with electric guitar solos entering and receding like a waft of breeze. Drums of various size, bass and bongo, with dead-on rhythm but at a snail’s pace, underpin tasteful jazz blasts from a trombone. (It was recorded in 1976 at Coxsone’s Studios in Kingston, Jamaica. Apparently that studio produced legendary hit singles in the 60s.) My particular favorite is “Needs Understanding,” an instrumental that just succeeds in an unearthly grace with a tottering, almost naïve, harmonic structure atop a slow-as-molasses delivery. This was the farthest thing from Bob Marley I could imagine. 

These were the days before the Internet, and nobody in the Twin Cities I knew had heard of these cats before.  But at a post-sundown birthday celebration on the Mississippi River’s west bank, tucked as we were between trees and well worn dirt paths, some real Jamaican Rastafarians happened upon us and we invited them to join us. I asked them about Ras Michael, and was told he plays in “the old way.”  Ras Michael was more concerned with spirit than with money, my informant said. I can’t be sure, but I think he said Jazzboe Abubaka was the trombone player. I’m unable to find any information about Abubaka beyond the fact he appears on this one record.

I’ve been disappointed with the other Ras Michael albums I have heard.  I’m betting the magic of this session is the pairing of Jazzboe, Ras Michael, the Sons of Negus and a crackerjack engineer.

See you next week.

-- Peter

Here's video from a Ras Michael recording session: