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Performance: Black Uhuru

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BLACH UHURU:
Although its lineup has changed often over a 27-year career ("Duckie" Simpson is the only constant), Black Uhuru has remained true to its fierce Rastafarian politics and haunting vocal harmonies. The group's most popular period coincided with Michael Rose's membership, when the vocal group was backed by Jamaica's finest instrumentalists, with songs made distinctive by "Puma" Jones' descant and melodies that suggest Hebrew cantillation.
The original (and mid-'90s) Uhuru (Swahili for "freedom") was formed by Duckie Simpson with Garth Dennis and Don Carlos. They played clubs around Jamaica but failed to attract much local attention despite their Top Cat single "Folk Songs." Dennis and Carlos quit soon after (Dennis to join the Wailing Souls), and Simpson brought Errol Nelson and Rose to Uhuru. Their next singles, "Natural Mystic" and "King Selassie," found their way to England in 1977, and U.K. distributor Count Shelly issued their first album there.

Nelson left the group to join the Jayes, and Simpson and Rose recorded some singles as a duo. After cutting a couple of songs with producer Lee "Scratch" Perry, they teamed with drummer Sly Dunbar (an old friend of Rose) and his partner Robbie Shakespeare. Uhuru's "Observe Life" was the first single Sly and Robbie produced and the first issued on their Taxi label. Simpson and Rose were then joined by Sandra "Puma" Jones, a Southern-born American with a master's degree from Columbia University who had come to Jamaica as a social worker. Her only professional experience had been as a dancer and backup singer with Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus. With Sly and Robbie the trio recorded its best-known singles, "General Penitentiary," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," "Plastic Smile," "Abortion" (which was anti- and was banned in Jamaica), and "Shine Eye Gal." Showcase followed. After its release, New York City radio station WLIB sponsored Uhuru's first appearance outside Jamaica, a concert at Hunter College, and Island Records signed the group to its Mango subsidiary. Sinsemilla (Black Uhuru's American debut) and Red were recorded in Jamaica with Sly and Robbie and their Taxi All-Stars (Keith Richards added his guitar to the former).

Rose's move to New York at the time of 1982's Chill Out was reflected in the album's urban subject matter. Island tried to build on its success by remixing Anthem for American listeners. Although it won a Grammy for Best Reggae Album, Rose was unhappy with the band's direction and left soon afterward; he has remained active, releasing numerous singles and albums, including Proud (1990), Be Yourself (1996), and Bonanza (1999).

Junior Reid replaced Rose on Brutal, and dance-music specialist Arthur Baker joined Sly and Robbie in the production booth. Jones left before the recording of Positive (she died of cancer in 1990) and was briefly replaced by Janet Reid. In late 1987 original members Dennis and Carlos joined Simpson onstage during a Jamaican awards show. They decided to make this impromptu reunion permanent, recording the Grammy-nominated Now. Ice-T added contemporary hip-hop elements to "Tip of the Iceberg" on 1992's Iron Storm.

By 1995, old animosities (mostly over money) were reignited and Uhuru split yet again. But Dennis and Carlos continued to tour using the Black Uhuru name and in 1997 were taken to court by Simpson, who claimed the exclusive right to the Black Uhuru trademark. Simpson prevailed, and he premiered the latest version of Black Uhuru, with Jenifah Nyah Connally and Andrew Bees, on March 21, 1998, in Negril, Jamaica.

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