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Reggae Rays

Michael Rose and Sister Carol celebrate 15 years of Heartbeat Records

By Nicky Baxter

AND NOW a word from our nonsponsors: "Heartbeat Culture Splash 96" is in no way affiliated with "Reggae Sunsplash," the annual Jamaican affair. The name may be confusing, but this is Heartbeat's moment in the sun. After all, it is the record label's 15th year of producing Jamaican pop music, and the lineup for the celebratory tour features an impressive array of talent. Michael Rose, Sister Carol and the Meditations are all marquee acts in their own right. Rose and Sister Carol, in particular, warrant scrutiny.

Rose ascended to reggae music's top rank as the lead vocalist and primary songwriter for Black Uhuru Mach III, the roster which represents the Jamaican dreadnought's greatest era, circa the late 1970s. This was the configuration (founder/harmony singer Derrick "Duckie" Simpson, American-born African contralto Puma Jones and singer/songwriter Rose) that seized reggae by the roots and yanked it into the modern era.

True, Black Uhuru's ascent was due as much to Uhuru's association with drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare. Still, Rose's hardcore African Redemptionism, coupled with his unusual vocal approach, proved to be only marginally less significant in the long haul. Need proof? Replay Black Uhuru's brilliant quintet of Rose-era discs, beginning with 1979's Showcase and concluding with Chill Out, four years later.

Against a backwash of unremittingly brutal beats--beats that in some ways anticipated the impersonal clangor of industrial rock--Rose's sharp but sensuous vocals supplied a humanizing element. Grafting a genuinely singular hybrid of North African and Semitic arabesques, Rose's potent cross-fertilization brooked little comparison. (Eek-A-Mouse, the only other chanter whose versifying indicated this particular influence, was much more gimmicky and loads less culturally conscious.) Rose's split with Black Uhuru in the mid-'80s was rather less than amicable, and like many a musician "a-gwan" solo, his prominence faded noticeably. His gifts, however, have remained prodigious.

On Be Yourself, Michael Rose's sophomore release for Heartbeat, the singer's idiosyncratic chatting is fully intact. Produced at Sly and Robbie's Mixing Lab studio by "Ruff" Rose himself, the album is a declaration of the artist's independence.

When the dreadlocked poet trills, "Break me loose, I've got the juice/Break me loose, I've got the roots!" he's not bragging but merely reporting the facts. "Too Short Temper" is a sly revisitation with Jagger-esque lyrics to the in-your-grill grooves he popped on Black Uhuru's "General Penitentiary." The title track is even more pointed, deriding copycats jockin' his style. Each verse is spat out with enough venom to put half of Babylon's populace six feet under. Instrumentally, the track is just as unforgiving.

"Rude Boys (Back in Town)," on the other hand, shoots the sinister stuff on the quiet, rocking a super-smooth melodic variation of "What You Won't Do for Love," the Whispers' (oops!, I mean, Bobby Caldwell's) evergreen trip to the center of soulsville. Cushy keyboards, languorous drumming, fetchingly ethereal soprano backing vocals and Rose's own keening ululations commingle to engender what should be serious Billboard action. Despite the aforementioned "oldie" vibe, Rose doesn't wallow in nostalgia. Be Yourself and its author are planted squarely in the now.

SISTER CAROL, too, is all about contemporary words, sounds and power. Carol "kicks the kulcher" but has never been one to forgo the groove in order to do so. Some connoisseurs dub what she does "dancehall," and in the broadest sense the term fits, except that her oeuvre is much wider than that.

Although known primarily for her music--Call Mi Sister Carol (Heartbeat) is mandatory--she is also a fully certified instructor, wife, mother and big-screen actor (Something Wild, Married to the Mob). Plainly, labels need not apply here. Her ever-expanding career opportunities are in part due to Carol's immigration from Jamaica to New York City in the '70s. It was, in fact, a gig at S.O.B. that captured the attention of filmmaker Jonathan Demme.

As if all this stellar talent weren't enough, Heartbeat has also lured ska king Derrick Morgan out of semiretirement for some of that old-school skankin'. This "Splash" can't (and doesn't) attempt to compete with that other reggae extravaganza in terms of sheer numbers. All too often, big numbers add up to nothing special. Quality, not quantity, is what Heartbeat's always been all about.

Heartbeat Culture Splash 96 takes place Wednesday (June 19) at 8pm at Palookaville, 1133 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $15.50 adv/$17 dr. (408/454-0600)

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From the June 13-19, 1996 issue of Metro

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