Reggae's Happy Warriors - Messenjah review by Nicky Dread

by Nicky Dread.

You start to get a bit worried when the doors aren't open at 8:30, and the band's still inside, bubbling away, and making everyone feel slightly wanting. Someone mutters something about "not another late one", but have no fear, that was about the only negative thing during last Friday's night of blistering reggae, Messenjah stylee-a-lee-a-lee!!!

Formed in 1980 by current bassist Errol "Skip" Blackwood, Messenjah began as a collection of local musicians including present drummer Raymond "General" Ruddock. Blackwood knew the sound that he wanted, but couldn't find the right musicians. Through a friendship with Eric "Babyface" Walsh, a DJ at a Kitchener community radio station, Rupert "Ojiji" Harvey, a Toronto-based solo artist heard of the band. Ojiji began jamming with the band, and has been a moving force ever since. After establishing the core Hal Duggan was added on keyboards and vocals. Since those early days Tony King has come and gone as percussionist, now replaced by Haile, formerly a member of Messenjah's road crew, and now an integral, and exciting, musical contributor.

Like a spirit unleashed they launched into their first set with an inspiring, unreleased anthem "Happy Young Warrior", a song that established one of the band's characteristics, their superior harmony singing. The capacity audience needed very little enticement to skank their way to the dance floor. Messenjah ran through a slew of old favourites like "Shagnatty" and "Arrested", along with a really touching "Angels", a song Ojiji dedicated to his ailing brother. "Skip" Blackwood gave the already fully-tuned audience a real thrill just before the break with his rocky dub of "Punky Reggae Party", Bob Marley's tribute to the 70's union of dread and hardcore music.

Messenjah's first recording venture was the 1982 album "Rock You High", which they independently released. This album established the band as one that took care with their recording ventures. Craftily produced, its eleven tracks provide a well-rounded introduction to the writing and musical directions of co-leaders Blackwood and Harvey.

The regional success of Rock You High influenced WEA Records' decision to sign the band for Canadian releases. Their first endeavour was the national re-release of Messenjah's first album. Interestingly enough, WEA chose not to make any changes to the music or album cover, a fact that attests to good ground work on the band's part. An EP, Root Up, containing four remixed tracks from the album helped Messenjah gain greater exposure while on tour.

The band has a strong commitment to playing in as many places as possible. As Ojiji puts it, "It's tough to break out of being a local band. The only way to do it is to move away, stay away for a long time. We don't play the club circuit, we play the college circuit."

Messenjah display a great confidence and joy on stage. Even when the infamous “technical difficulties” crept in to delay things, drum and bass jammed away. The second set was highlighted by Hal Duggan's rendition of "Summer In The Wintertime", another as yet unreleased song. It set the perfect easy-skanking mood for "Rastaman Say" and the most bewitching rendition of Marley's "No Woman No Cry" that I have ever seen. The audience were, at that moment, utterly convinced. And they had every reason to be that night. Peter Clark Hall may never sound the same again.

The second album, Session, released in early '84, received a reasonable amount of radio airplay, but cross-Canada sales were lower than expected. Even though a single and video, Jam Session, were released to bolster the album, and introduce the band's music to dance-clubs, the band and WEA made the decision to part company in late '84. Since then Messenjah have been working on a soon-to-be-released US album.

Their music appeals more to a white middle-class audience, than a rootsier reggae audience. That's fine with Ojiji. "The record companies are not interested in roots groups. What they're trying to do is break into the rock market." And as Hal puts it, "we’re in Canada, we’re influenced by what's around us. But we still love our roots music."

The necessity for hard work never bothers Messenjah. They are supported by the belief in their music, and their faith in Rastafari. Ojiji always sees things in their general context. "There's a lot of white groups that are taking parts of reggae, and getting recognized for it. If you don't have progressive black groups to compete with this, then you're going to be totally exploited. We've got to be sharp. We're not competing with reggae groups. We're competing with groups!!"

- Draft copy for The Ontarion, 01 October, 1985.

Posted: Fri - February 7, 2003 at 12:11 PM