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Back in the late 1970s, roots reggae was conquering the world: Bob Marley was an international superstar, the innovative production techniques of dub had just been developed, and every ghetto youth from Kingston wanted to be part of a harmony vocal trio. It was an unusually fertile period, and the concerns put forth by the reggae artists of the day - African liberation, spiritual revolution, the Rastafari religion and lifestyle - found deep resonance with a worldwide audience.
Flash forward to the 21st century and the biggest reggae star is crossover dancehall artist Sean Paul, whose lyrics typically revolve around parties and women. Nevertheless, the reggae artists of the '70s remain deeply influential. Many of the classic groups have returned to touring, and two of the biggest from that era, Black Uhuru and the Abyssinians, perform together this week in Tel Aviv.
Black Uhuru was formed in 1974 as a roots harmony trio led by "Duckie" Simpson. After several lineup changes, it found its groove with the additions of singers Michael Rose and Puma Jones. Working with the seminal rhythm section and production team Sly and Robbie in the late '70s and early '80s, Black Uhuru created a new sound, mixing roots harmonies and dub, produced a string of hit records and toured with the Police and the Rolling Stones. In 1985 they won a Grammy for their album Anthem, the first year a reggae category was introduced.
Jones, originally an American sociologist, left the group soon after and passed away from cancer in 1990 at the age of 37. Rose, a driving force behind their classic hits such as "Guess who's coming to dinner?" left to manage a farm in rural Jamaica and subsequently enjoyed a successful solo career.
Simpson, however, recruited new members and kept touring and releasing albums. At one point both Junior Reed and Don Carlos - both successful reggae artists in their own right - were part of Black Uhuru. Later they attempted to tour without Simpson under the Black Uhuru name, but Simpson prevailed in court and retained the name.
A few years ago, Michael Rose, whose unique vocal style is often seen as a crucial component in the early success of the group, reunited with Simpson to tour as Black Uhuru once more - a move highly appreciated by reggae fans.
The Abyssinians are a harmony trio that possess one of the most distinctive sounds in reggae music and are contemporaries with greats such as the Wailers (Bob Marley's original trio with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh), the Congos (who performed in Israel a few months ago), Israel Vibration, Burning Spear and others.
Formed in 1968 by Bernard Collins, Donald Manning and Linford Manning, the Abyssinians only released their first studio album Satta Massagana in 1976. The title track, a spiritual anthem sung in both English and Amharic, was already a classic because it had been released as a single back in 1970. "Satta Massagana" eventually became known as "The Reggae Anthem," and has spawned countless cover versions, some of which became hits in their own right.
After a brief and unsuccessful brush with international stardom, the original group disbanded in 1980, with each member pursuing solo careers while Donald Manning continued to tour under the name but with new members, including singer David Morrison. The Abyssinians only released one album in the '80s, although many re-issues and dub versions of their work were released in the ensuing decade, indicating a lasting interest in their music.
The group had a reunion in the early '90s which saw them playing some major festivals, but it was short-lived. Then in 2004, Collins re-joined with original member Manning, and, along with Morrison, launched a new version of the Abyssinians which has seen several successful tours of North America and Europe.
Black Uhuru and the Abyssinians perform on Wednesday and Thursday, November 14 and 15, at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv, 53 Kibbutz Galiyut St. Doors open at 9 p.m., with the show beginning at 10. For tickets, priced at NIS 159, call (03) 518-8123.