Review: Anthony Joseph – Caribbean Roots


Trinidad born, London based poet Anthony Joseph’s sixth album goes back to his roots and taps into a rich Caribbean groove to explore his influences. The LP is an engrossing listen, touching on many tenets of black music viewed through the lens of his musical and personal heritage. From the drawn out psych-funk of opener The Kora, to the African drumming of Mano A Mano, styles seamlessly meld together beneath Joseph’s delightfully measured, rhythmic and textural spoken word flows. 

Where the poetry/music combination can seem to many as pompous and over bearing, Joseph’s setting of lyrics to melody is naturally fluid and engaging. He lets themes run in and out of the album’s narrative with ease, never dwelling too long or getting tangled up. On tracks like Our History, he frames touchy subjects of race and politics through universal experiences, reeling off loaded lyrics of day-to-day humanity in a way that frequently earns him comparison to the late Gill Scott Heron.  

Schooled on his Grandfather’s calypso records and siting early influences such as Fela Kuti and calypso artist Lord Kitchener, Joseph was intellectually in touch with the political power of music from a young age and later vented teenage angst playing in metal bands. Now an author and university lecturer, he moved to the UK in the late 80s and became immersed in the rich art and music scene at the time. Joseph’s South London home also houses a huge record collection across a myriad of styles. 

On the LP released by Strutt, the musical emphasis is on sunny, smooth Caribbean rhythms and gleaming steel drums, as-well-as plenty of bass and reverb that works as a vehicle for Joseph’s rhythmic delivery of metaphor and narratives. On this, his sixth full length he tends away from the obliquely political but harnesses the power of oral tradition to take the listener on a more mysterious and spiritual trip. Caribbean Roots results as an altogether chilled affair. Where previous album Time had a tendency to the aloofness that dogs much intermingling of poetry and music, Roots doesn’t look to set the agenda but wind you around issues of race, politics and spirituality, massaging it into your conscious with copious reverb. 

Joseph has assembled a crack team to make this journey, including the prolific Shabaka Hutchings, who appears having recently worked with Floating Points and with The Heliocentrics. Also on hand are Jason Garde on sax, trumpeter Yvon Guillard (Magma), bassist Mike Clinton (Salif Kaita) and the trombone of Pierre Chabrèle (Creole Jazz Orchestra), while Andy Narrel’s steelpans are omnipresent throughout the album, drifting poignantly over every track. The ease with which the band fits together, as well as the assured production of Franck Descollonges, who returns again after working on Joseph’s previous outing Time, adds to the richness and contemporary feel of the album, allowing Joseph’s ideas and influences to convincingly meld together without feeling backwards looking. 

Opener The Kora, loops like the intro of a concert in finest funk tradition. It is as if he is bringing in each instrumentalist as if they are walking onto the stage, setting out their stall and staking their claim but eventually submitting to the all-encompassing groove. Within minutes of the band’s emergence it is immediately tight and unified; “these guys don’t even rehearse,” says Joseph. Jimmy Upon That Bridge is all frantic, rushing funk as the band lets loose a little, while Neck Bone is dubby swagger, spikey with touches of punk agitation amongst the Joseph’s smooth Trinidadian tones.

On Drum Sound he explores the mystic, spiritual side of music; “The sound of a drum is the sound as our souls collide.” Our History tells the more recent story of agriculture in his homeland through his family’s eyes, the cultivation of bananas and sugar, touching on the misconception of his island’s past; “we never went hungry, that was never our history,” he sings. Joseph at once paints vivid picture of the flora and fauna of the island as well as paying tribute to the basic family values, the communal subsistence and cooperation that held Trinidad’s people together. 

From the domestic to metropolitan, Slinger touches on city nightlife, all rush and hustle for women and status through its upbeat, classically urban funk. Another constant of the album’s flow is that it’s energy is never allowed to boil over, Powerful Peace tempers the pace through melding dessert blues with calypso for a hazy, hypnotic effect. 

Title track Caribbean Roots almost seems like an antidote for modern urban life, it is relaxed, restrained unhurriedly bringing in the message. With cheeky Talking Heads reverence, it is a musical place where afro-futuristic and dystopian themes and surrealism easily meld together. Joseph’s powerful yet vulnerable colonial critique over the conviction of the grooves at play bring everything together through story telling and an oral tradition entirely removed from today’s modern, increasingly online world. 

Without the sensitive touch then a poet’s social and political rhetoric can seem too overbearing for a real connection. Joseph plants ideas with dexterity and his narratives spring out organically from all around the listener such that his own dictation is anything but dictating. The South London based artist is clearly up there with Gill Scott Heron with his ability to connect to his audiences through the raw humanity in his lyrics and his voice is one to heed as he gains more prominence. Going back to his roots to add the Caribbean grooves and universal bass for the body he becomes even more down with the people, allowing the poetry to balance with a groove that primarily sets your body in motion before powerfully and assertively activating the mind. 

Buy the release HERE

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