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Mysticism, Truth and Reggae : Black Uhuru Takes on Spiritual, Political and Social Matters as Well as Musical Growth

April 21, 1993|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Black Uhuru's Garth Dennis has a deep, solemn voice and a flair for speaking in dramatic tones, as if every sentence were a prophecy. His Jamaican patois is as dense as his manelike dreadlocks, but his message is easily understood.

"You watch the news, and it's all negative," Dennis said during a recent telephone interview. "But there's great, wonderful things happening all over the world. People dwell on the bad things, but they should look for the good in their soul at the same time."

Black Uhuru, which performs tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, has been one of reggae's guiding lights since its formation in the early '70s, and one of the most pointedly political and spiritual groups on the scene as well.

In the midst of jury deliberations in the Rodney King case, and in the wake of the last week's assassination of African National Congress leader Chris Hani in South Africa, Dennis seemed to be trying to keep things in perspective.

"People go to the moon and research in the sea, but they don't care what happens on Earth," he said. "I'm not for hurting and burning, you understand what I mean? I'm for justice ."

Black Uhuru's latest album, "Mystical Truth," continues the group's tradition of addressing social and political concerns, with songs that touch on racial injustice and world hunger.

The album also features a sullen, ominous cover of War's "Slipping Into Darkness" that would seem to contradict Dennis' apparently sunny disposition. Even the group's name is politically significant: "Uhuru" is Swahili for "freedom."

Black Uhuru has roots stretching back to the dawn of the reggae movement in Jamaica, before Bob Marley and the Wailers brought the syncopated sounds of the islands into the concert halls of the world.

"I grew up with Bob (Marley) and Bunny (Livingston, also of the Wailers)," said Dennis, who declined to disclose his age. The Wailers "was formed in my home in Trenchtown. Myself and Joe Higgs used to live in the tenement yard. Joe was mentor to everyone. He was an inspirational vocalist very early, responsible for harmony structure and things, you know?"

Dennis, along with Duckie Simpson and Don Carlos, formed the original Black Uhuru in 1971. In its early years, the group didn't stray from Jamaica, and never became as popular as the Wailers. Numerous personnel changes have characterized the group throughout its history, perhaps further hindering its potential popularity among the pop-music mainstream.

*

Dennis left the group in 1977 to form the Wailing Souls, and Carlos went on to pursue a solo career. In Black Uhuru's most familiar incarnation, Michael Rose and Puma Jones fronted the group, and the estimable "Riddim Twins"--Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare--spearheaded its musical development. But Rose left the group in 1985, and Jones died of cancer in 1987.

It was at a jam session during the 1987 Reggae Times Awards that the three original members reunited for the first time in a decade.

"Don Carlos and I were on the bill (as solo acts), and Black Uhuru was there with Duckie and Junior Reed (Rose's replacement)," Dennis said. "There was a little buzz on, you know: 'Why don't you three guys get up there together and do it again?' We started singing together, and the people appreciated it so much. The previous (version of Black Uhuru) had one person dominant up front, but this is like three guys, three main voices. I think it adds more to it."

The group has since released three albums on the Mesa/Bluemoon label, and Dennis says it remains as vital as ever. "Black Uhuru continues to be one of the strongest forces in reggae, and in the music world as a whole," he said proudly.

But reggae music has undergone some radical, evolutionary changes since Black Uhuru's earliest days, with ragamuffin rap, dance-hall deejay and dub poetry now part of reggae's more expanded tent.

Yet according to Dennis, the spiritual nature of the music and sense of camaraderie between musicians prevents any growing pains or professional bickering between variant stylists.

Included on Wednesday's bill are Andrew Tosh--son of the late Wailers co-founder Peter Tosh--and reggae/hip-hop toastmaster Louie Rankin. Dennis said he welcomes the infusion of new blood.

"I don't see the need for fussing and things. The music gets bigger and wider and grows in different categories, you know? In America, there's tussle between Queen Latifah and M.C. Hammer and Ice-T and Tone Loc, between Michael Jackson and Michael Bolton. But in reggae, the market is so wide. There's this brotherhood; there's no room for division. The music can go as far, far, far, as possible."

* Black Uhuru, Andrew Tosh and Louie Rankin perform tonight at 7 and 10 at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. $22.50. (714) 496-8930.

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