In 2001, the legendary US Gospel group Blind Boys of Alabama released an album on Peter Gabriel's Real World Records label. It was a hugely popular album which garnered the band a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. It included their version of Tom Wait's song Way Down In The Hole, which was the theme song for the TV miniseries The Wire. Their version is better than Waits' in my view.
The Blind Boys since then have won more awards and plaudits for further albums and collaborations, the highlights of which include Higher Ground (also Real World), There Will Be Light (Virgin Records) with Ben Harper, Down In New Orleans, Almost Home and inspirational supporting vocals on the hit song None Of Us Are Free, for Soloman Burke’s comeback classic album Don’t Give Up On Me. They have played with many musical icons such as Tom Waits, Richard Thompson, Mavis Staples, Funkadelic and Prince. Gospel fans should also check out the collaboration they did with Malian pair Miriam and Amadou, also blind, who they toured with and recorded several songs including Bamako To Birmingham.
And that is just since the turn of the century; the band actually began in 1939 in Talladega, Alabama. The original members first sang for a school chorus at a school for the blind. Influenced by gospel outfits like The Soul Stirrers (think of Sam Cooke and his gospel hit Jesus Gave Me Water) and the hard gospel style, which featured a screaming style of singing and dynamic performance.
Since the band has been going for 80 plus years, the line-up has changed. In 2005, George Scott died. Two more singers, Ben Moore and tenor Paul Beasley, recently died but not before The Blind Boys recorded their latest album, Echoes Of The South (Single Lock Records) with a distinctive cover that features the title in Braille (of the original members, only one was sighted). It was released earlier this year.
The album is a return to some of the band’s deep gospel roots with traditional songs like the foot-stomping opening track Send It Down, and classic soul covers like Pops Staples’ Friendship and Curtis Mayfield’s civil rights song Keep On Pushing. This hand-clapping song segues into the funky Work Until My Days Are Done. Keep On Pushing cranks the emotional power to the maximum as The Blind Boys soar over a spare backing. This and The Last Time add a poignancy to the album, given that Beasley and Scott died shortly after the album was completed (the two singers are outstanding on Friendship).
Other outstanding tracks include the falsetto-styled Jesus You’ve Been Good To Me and one of my favourites, Paul Beasley’s wonderful tenor on Paul’s Prayer, along with a soulful rendition of Stevie Wonder’s Heaven Help Us All (written by Ron Miller).
Echoes Of The South also pays tribute to the Alabama radio station WSGN, which gave the band, then called Happy Land Jubilee Singers, their first big break. And while the band’s originals have long gone, the joyous gospel groove the founders’ crafted, their blueprint for gospel-inspired music, remains intact. Truly inspirational. Highly recommended. More information from realworldrecords.com.
Another album of inspirational music surfed onto the World Beat desk this past week — Okantomi (Lulaworld Records) by Toronto-based Okan. Okan are a duo — Elizabeth Rodriguez and Magdelys Savigne — originally from Cuba, who explore their complicated relationship with their home country in their music. The band’s previous albums include award-winning Sombras (2019) and Espiral (2020). The band’s name, Okan, comes from the Santeria word for heart.
The band bases their music on the Afro-Cuban rhythms of Cuba, especially those from Santeria, the syncretic religion of Cuba, along with guajira folk music, timba, bata drums and Latin jazz, as well as sounds they have encountered since migrating to Canada, such as African and Brazilian popular music. On the new album the duo are joined by Columbian singer Lido Pimienta, pianist Miguel de Amas (NG La Banda) and bassist Roberto Riveron (Cubanismo).
The songs on the new album cover the complexities of their lives, dealing with the realities of being black and queer and Afro-Cuban immigrants. They also discuss the limitations for artists in their home country but do so in a positive and joyous way. Music for the head, the heart and the feet. Check out the band’s official single on YouTube, La Reina Del Norte.
John Clewley can be contacted at email@example.com.