I came to this compilation, from French label AKUPHONE, carrying some preconceptions. I knew who The Rootsman was / is, largely from hearing Andrew Weatherall play a fair few Rootsman tracks, and remixes, on Kiss FM way back in the day, some thirty years ago – sides such as Koyaanisqatsi. Mr. Weatherall also commissioned some righteous Rootsman reworks of the duo, Blue, for his Emissions label. Then there was Chris Madden`s mad, Janes Addiction-sampling, stridently stepping, revision of The Rootsman`s own Rougher Than A Lion, for Leeds imprint, Soundclash. As a consequence I was expecting this retrospective to be made up of quality digital instrumental roots, which it is, but it`s also much more than that. Tunes like Tribal Dervish are undisputed classics of that given genre. Previously picked up and dusted off by reggae reissue prince, Partial, its behemoth of a bass-line, twisting and writhing, beneath pitched shifted devotional chants, and Middle Eastern bowed strings. Reflecting its author’s then growing interest in the region, his rejection of Western capitalism, and conversion to Islam. Tracks such as Arid Land and Ancient Vibrations also fit this template. The former, banging and bouncing, full of gong and cymbal crashes, rhythmically rocking, and summoning images of a band of sub-Saharan bedouins leaping around lickin` shot. The latter, like a military procession. Heavy and hypnotic, clanking with the rattle of battle amour, accompanied by blasts of traditional reeds. Imagine the Master Musicians of Joujouka on the march. However, while the bottom end throughout is certainly seismic, some of the tracks you’d be hard pushed to describe as reggae.
The collection actually presents a surprisingly varied cross-section of work. Canaanite Call is jazzy – with a counterfeit, computerized, contra b-line – shaking to syncopated loops. Conversely, Tribute To Hasni, is totally spaced-out. Almost beatless, almost ambient. A dream-like drift into an epic echoic expanse. Stoned out of its gourd, immaculate – like Jim Morrison – out on the perimeter, where there are no stars. Its keys` minor chords ringing with feedback as they are plunged, dropped, into punishing delay. Mother Of Nature and Union Of Souls are Sufi-infused, drum-driven, desert meditations. Detailed by nomadic Tuareg blues guitar figures, sitar-like, harmonium buzz. The shadowy, ceremonial, psychedelic, percussive purr and shimmer of Spirit Of The Nile, especially, wouldn’t be out of place soundtracking a Cafe del Mar sunset. For comparison check Jose Padilla favourite, Ending, by Keith Le Blanc, or Nuel`s terrific Moonboots-endorsed Trance Mutation.
The press release points out the importance of The Rootsman, John Bolloten`s relationship with Bryn Jones, aka Muslimguaze – how influential this friendship was. None of Bolloten`s music though carries quite the same obsidian tone. It`s far more accessible. The difference like that between Jon Hassell`s solo sorties and Eno & Byrne`s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Some of the pieces presented could even be described as “balearic” – perhaps, in the same way as WAU Mr. Modo`s wonderful early/mid `90s output, impacted by rave and the second summer of love. The snake-charming sine waves of Into The Light are set to a shuffling, chunky, chug – the sort of thing that you might have happened to find hidden on the b-side of a progressive house cut, pressed up by Big Life or Skunk. Serengeti, simmers with synthesized jungle sounds. Its piano and beat recalling Talk Talk`s anthem, Life’s What You Make It. Arab Quarter is as – unintentionally – balearic as say Jah Wobble`s Invaders Of The Heart, or Suns Of Arqa affiliate Jhalib`s Mysteries Of The East. Its intoxicating, zither-ed, air, packed with the thrilling threat of the unknown, danger, and the promise of pleasure.
The Rootsman Essentials 1996 – 1998 is available digitally now on AKUPHONE, with vinyl scheduled for September.