Culture – Children Of Zion
Released 14 May 2021
Subtitled “The High Note Singles Collection” this 3CD set focusses in on vocal trio Culture’s late 1970s “disco plate” offerings for Sonia Pottinger’s imprint and also includes various dub versions of some of the tracks by prime studio outfit The Revolutionaries…Ian Canty hears what happened immediately after the two sevens clashed…
Culture undoubtedly made their biggest splash in 1977 with their debut album for Joe Gibbs, but there is far more to the Joseph Hill-led vocal trio than just that one record. Two Sevens Clash, with the title track’s lyrical thrust influenced by a Marcus Garvey prediction that the 7th July 1977 would see mayhem unleashed in an end of the world scenario, truly hit home in Jamaica. On that day some of the island closed down in fear of judgement day’s arrival. In the UK punk rockers, many who were cultivating an interest in reggae too, saw the song and album as chiming in with their own locally-based apocalyptic visions.
The vocal trio originally came together under the name The African Disciples the year before Two Sevens Clash, with Albert “Ralph” Walker and Kenneth Dayes (also known as Roy or Kenneth Paley) joining Hill in their initial formation. They quickly changed their name to Culture and came to the attention of Joe Gibbs via an audition at his studio set up. After scoring a number of hits, including their successful debut single This Time, they recorded debut album Two Sevens Clash which made a big mark in both Jamaica and the UK in 1977.
After recording enough material for a further LP Baldhead Bridge, they fell out with Gibbs later on in the year over the royalties for Two Sevens Clash. After this break, they joined up with Sonia Pottinger’s High Note operation, where they were often billed as The Cultures for some reason. Three albums followed that were issued by Virgin’s Front Line imprint in the UK during 1978 and 1979, but a lot of the single mixes featured here were only issued in Jamaica at the time, if at all.
Any negative thoughts that Culture may have shot their creative bolt with that first LP are quickly dispelled early on disc one of Children Of Zion, with ample evidence to the contrary being immediately and consistently provided. This initial section of the set runs as one might suspect, with The High Note single a sides mostly followed by their dub equivalents. It is pretty much a non-stop delight from beginning to end. I would imagine that anyone with a taste of 1970s reggae at all would surely glean a great deal out of the selection offered here.
Hill is at the height of his powers and the rhythms are put together in ultra-cool fashion really jump. This ensues right from opening salvo Work On Natty, which featured in another form on their Harder Than The Rest LP from 1978. It has such a natural swing to it, with the lead vocal being perfectly complemented by the backing voices and music. The Natty Dub version has a great speeded up drum effect on as it goes down into echoing dub percussive bashes and sonorous bass.
One of the very best 1970s roots reggae numbers Stop The Fighting comes next and was a barbed comment on the armed attack on Bob Marley’s home in December 1976. But it also works the trick of being very catchy and uplifting too. There no feeling of hectoring, which would have been an easy trap for Culture to fall into, but they dodge it with ease throughout this collection. The tune is presented here in its 7 inch mix and also is versioned as Fussy Dub, credited to The Revolutionaries. They have the song taken down so low that it is barely discernible to the human ear, languishing right down in the mix before the chorus brings it back in.
Hill briefly struck out on his own in a DJ style on Production Something, credited to Grandpa Culture. This is a more than decent effort in that manner, a reggae rap with declamatory shouts that even sounds even better in its 12 inch mix version heard on disc three. Joseph gives a good account of himself in a different mode, even when compared to Ranking Trevor’s excellent effort that comes not long afterwards Rockers Dub, which is cut over the top of Culture’s ride on a rocksteady rhythm Trod On. The vocal mix of that tune itself features in two 12 inch mixes, one on disc one and one on disc three. Perhaps the latter just has the edge for me, coming complete with a passionate Jah Thomas talkover and minimalist dub section.
Dog A Go Nyam Dog benefits from a really full sound and is joyfully delivered. In the latter part of the track they dive into a delightfully chilled dub passage. Pyarka, which also gets another mix on disc 3, is a lovely laidback skank which shows how Culture thrived when taking on a slightly slower tempo. The 12 inch mix of Down In Jamaica is superb, the familiar “clip clop” rhythm being spiced up with an organ swirl and Hill’s ever-emotional voice. It is a joy to behold and Black Rose, which ends this disc, has a prime brass section and some eerie keyboard sounds highlighted.
Disc two of Children Of Zion commences with This Train and is a wonderful example of Culture’s lightness of touch and featured on their High Note/Virgin Front Line album Cumbolo. They knew just when to season their socially conscious lyrics with pure reggae good vibes, which means that whereas some roots reggae could be a little difficult for newcomers to digest, Culture’s efforts slip down a treat. There’s a change on this disc as we only get five actual Revolutionaries contributions, with elsewhere the dub sections being accommodated as part of the twelve inch mixes. Natty Never Get Weary is of of Culture’s key singles, a simple but lovely beat, propelled along by the lazy lope of the rhythm which sets things up for Hill to give a priceless vocal performance.
The Shepherd featured on final Front Line album International Herb and the voice arrangements here are again crucial. Hill, Dayes and Walker add the odd touch of soul and gospel influences here and there, which endow the piece with true depth and resonance. Children Of Zion itself is very bright and danceable, pulling the trademark Culture trick of marrying important words to attractive and joyful music. The dub of Forward To Africa, known as Africa Dub, demonstrates shows the subtle instrumental skills of The Revolutionaries at their very best.
By disc three of this set we reach the early 1980s, when things were changing and dancehall was beginning to usurp the roots sound in Jamaica. Culture responded by making music that would appeal to both dancers and Rastas. The disc begins with the sumptuous reggae pop of Children Of Israel, an alternative mix of Children Of Zion from the previous platter. The rather dated electronic percussion used here may nudge it a bit towards UB40 territory, but otherwise this is the band in their element. The following spiritual Wipe Your Weeping Eyes even manages to introduce some hiccupping vocal effects and country style guitar into the musical palette – there is a lot going on here and one can marvel at the invention applied.
The charming lilt of Play Skilfully has an irresistible appeal and the soul-tinged, extended (Living) Too Long In Slavery puts over the song’s message in a very accessible and satisfying way. It is left to the big, summery groove of Tell Me Where You Get It to bring Children Of Zion to an end. After 1983 Culture left High Note and the original line up split, with Hill on his own using the name for a while, though the three originals regrouped in 1986. Joseph Hill passed away in 2006 and though a line up led by his son Kenyatta still is in operation today, the glory days for Culture were in the years that this 3CD set covers (and slightly before of course).
This really is an excellent set of top quality roots reggae, direct from the 1970s with musical talent, lyrical insight and energy to burn. The dubs, whilst perhaps not quite being the wildest sound excursions ever, are smoothly performed and work extremely well as they fit in with the songs naturally. Culture were at the height of their powers in the late 1970s, when they were arguably the hottest new act on the reggae scene and the strength of their compositions and vocal skills are lucidly depicted here. If you only ever got to hear Two Sevens Clash, this is the ideal next step.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here