Tribe of Djembe provides musical pleasures
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., April 28, 2002) – Tribe of Djembe’s main task on Saturday night at Club Helsinki was providing the rhythms for dancing – deep, phat, Afro-Jamaican reggae rhythms. And in that the group succeeded famously. The proof was on the dance floor, where the majority of the clubgoers were bouncing up and down, propelled by the dynamic snap and pop of the drums and the incessant bottom of the electric bass.

But there were also some pleasures to be had by those who came merely to listen to the quintet, as the group offered musical elements beyond its mere function as a dance band. And the combination of the two – being creative musically while sacrificing nothing to the primary function of instilling a party-like vibe – is rare and not always easy to come by.

Ricardo Ricketts was a congenial frontman, rhythm guitarist and vocalist, leading his band through its mix of classic, Bob Marley-style reggae with occasional forays into ska, dancehall, soul and other styles. But mostly Ricketts stuck to reggae’s core classical style, singing inspirational love songs and anthems in a sweet voice that owed as much to Jimmy Cliff as to Marley.

Ricketts provided reggae’s signature chunky, off-beat chords on an acoustic guitar, while guitarist Benoir added the leads and various other effects on electric guitar. On “Sexy Dancer,” Benoir’s axe evoked the sound of a steel drum, echoed by the keyboardist, and Benoir also added responsive vocals to Ricketts’s calls. Benoir’s guitar was all echo on “For Your Love,” and Ricketts put the number forth with a good-spirited enthusiasm that at times outshone the command of his vocal presence.

“Holding On,” a tune by Shabba Ranks, had a more gritty, dancehall-reggae feel, and Ricketts toasted on the number – the Jamaican version of spoken-word rap. The musicians replicated the studio arrangements of dub music, variously dropping out of the mix one or two at a time, enhancing the feeling of the music’s depth or texture.

Several tunes evinced more of an American soul influence along the lines of Toots Hibbert’s soul-reggae style. “Oh, Girl” sounded like it could be a Motown song, and Benoir peppered it with blues-rock licks. Benoir also threw a rock guitar solo into a version of Bob Marley’s “Wait in Vain,” on which Ricketts did a fair approximation of the reggae pioneer’s talk-sung vocal style.

“Wise Man,” based loosely on Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (a song Dylan first performed with a reggae arrangement 25 years ago) had more of an upbeat, jumpy ska feel to it, with the keyboardist adding horn-like bursts of color. But the group’s most creative moment in its first set may have been its very first number – an electro-funk version of the theme music to the TV show, “Mission: Impossible,” which updated the rhythms to the contemporary dance sounds of hyperkinetic “drums ‘n’ bass,” with Benoir lacing the keyboard modulations with jazzy bebop guitar lines.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 30, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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