“Music knows no boundaries,” announced David Rodigan on Alborosie’s debut album. “Music is an international force, an international language. From Sicily to Kingston, Jamaica, this is Alborosie. Real, authentic reggae music.”
Twelve years later and the Sicilian-born Alborosie headlines festivals around the world and has earned the respect of the entire reggae industry. A talented writer, producer and multi-instrumentalist who sings as well as deejays, he’s lived in Kingston for over a decade and is now a leading light of Jamaica’s resurgent music scene thanks to a series of widely acclaimed albums on Greensleeves.
The latest is Unbreakable: Alborosie Meets The Wailers United, released on June 29th and that’s shared with members of Bob Marley’s former backing band The Wailers.
“Bob Marley was one of my idols,” says Alborosie. “He was the greatest in terms of spirituality, musicality and everything else but this is about the Wailers, because they have a chemistry that goes beyond Bob. They are a legendary band and until the end of time their name will always be there. That’s why I call the album Unbreakable because it’s the sound of the musicians themselves and when they come together, it’s just magic.”
Former keyboard player Tyrone Downie was first of the Wailers to join the sessions, followed by guitarist Junior Marvin, bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett and his son Aston Junior, who plays drums just like his uncle, the late Carlton Barrett. Together, they bring the distinctive feel and sound of reggae’s most successful ever rhythm section to a project that also features Chronixx, Jah Cure, rising young roots band Raging Fyah and the veteran Beres Hammond. Whilst the Wailers’ classic one-drop sound is all pervasive, Unbreakable is an Alborosie creation first and foremost. Italy’s finest reggae export wrote, arranged and produced the majority of tracks at his own Shengen studio in Kingston, where he’s mastered the art of making music that combines old school influences with unbelievable freshness.
“For me, the music is like a college,” he says. “It’s a journey through reggae music, and this has been my approach from day one. When I was working with musicians like Sly and Robbie and the Roots Radics I study how they play their instruments and I do the same thing with the Wailers, because I learn such a lot from them. For example, Tyrone Downie is a musical genius and anything he plays sounds just like the record – it’s crazy! Aston Junior is also very talented. He plays a lot of different instruments like myself and Junior Marvin has that bluesy guitar sound which is so perfect. Then when Family Man comes in, that is exactly the right bass line for the song with no ifs, buts or maybes. Except you’re not going to hear the Wailers like they were with Bob Marley because I try and be more creative than that. I wanted to make a concept album where you hear my formula, but with their touch.”
Whilst there are one or two love songs on the album – with Too Rock, shared with Beres Hammond, channelling the same kind of romantic imagery as Marley’s Don’t Rock My Boat – the majority of tracks fall under the heading of “rebel music.” This is something that Bob Marley and the Wailers were renowned for, and has been a constant factor of Alborosie’s own career. Current reggae sensation Chronixx joins him on lead single Contradiction, which goes right to the heart of Jamaica’s social problems. “Too many idolise badness and slackness. Island in the sun just falling into darkness,” sings Alborosie, who’s planning to make a video that incorporates both Contradiction and Lie, a song that he again wrote with a view to exposing falsehoods.
“Chronixx is the voice of the new generation and reggae artists like him, they’re supposed to be in tune with social issues, politics and all of that,” he says. “That’s why he was the right person to do that song and then Lie is saying we need to clean up the system, y ‘know? That’s how we make the country better but it’s the people who have to change their mentality because here in Jamaica it’s they who fight the crime, and not the police and politicians. That’s the only way we can defeat the contradiction and the lies.”
Raging Fyah are a young roots reggae band from Jamaica who’ve earned widespread comparison to the Wailers. They’re the perfect choice to sing alongside Alborosie on his adaptation of Metallica’s The Unforgiven – the story of a man who found “shelter in the wrong place,” and paid for unwise decisions with his life. It’s a morality tale, partially rewritten by Alborosie that transcends both rock and reggae genres, both lyrically (given Jamaica’s love of outlaws) and musically.
Aston Junior produced One Chord, which is a song of resistance. “All I need is one chord to start a revolution,” reads the chorus. “Pass the microphone, make me voice my contribution. Most of them are yesterday, today I am the future.” There’s a line in it about how a well-known Jamaican entertainer told Alborosie he should stop doing reggae and “sing like Pavarotti” – an insult that he’s met with humour and no little skill. Winning acceptance didn’t come easy, as he admits on Table Has Turned – a confessional born out of the bullying he was forced to endure as a youth, and especially once he’d started to grow his now almost floor-length dreadlocks.
Real name Alberto D’ Ascola, he was born in the Sicilian town of Marsala. After relocating to Milan during his teens he played in a variety of bands before forming Reggae National Tickets, who regularly toured Europe during the mid-to-late nineties. When the Tickets were invited to perform at Reggae Sunsplash in Jamaica, Alborosie immediately fell in love with the place and jumped ship. Weeks later he was hired as an engineer at Gee Jam studios in Port Antonio – a tropical hideaway on Jamaica’s north coast where No Doubt and other foreign and local stars like to record.
“I left everything behind when I did that,” he reflects. “I left my family, my girlfriend and everything I had back in Italy just to come to Jamaica and start something new, and to follow what was there inside of me.”
He’d arrived in Jamaica in time for the Millennium, although his breakthrough wouldn’t happen until several years later with songs like Kingston Town and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, issued on his own Forward label. His debut album Soul Pirate soon followed. He then signed to Greensleeves for a series of bestselling albums beginning with Escape From Babylon – the sleeve of which depicted him leading musicians of all races from the ruins of modern civilization. Dressed in red, green and gold, he was shown pointing the way forward like some Rastafarian Pied Piper. The analogy fits, since his traditional, yet progressive approach has proven highly influential among Jamaica’s new wave of reggae artists.
Mystical Reggae co-stars Jah Cure, and it’s a track urging the younger generation to recognise reggae’s pioneers hence the line, “from the vinyl shops to Soundcloud, teach yourself some history.”
“Yes, because we have to respect the legacy,” insists Alborosie. “I always think of myself as a forever student. I learn from Jamaican people daily – not just musically but in everyday life, and I always respect the culture. I don’t come to Jamaica to argue or fight with people. I come to learn certain things and there’s never a time when I think to myself, ‘I arrive…’
Unbreakable, featuring Hawaiian singer J Boog is an up-tempo crowd-pleaser that’s tailor-made for his live set. It’s “the Kingston groove that makes you move, straight from the elders to the youths” and the effect’s electrifying, just as on Bob Marley tracks such as Exodus or Could You Be Loved. In the lyrics of Under Control he discusses state and corporate surveillance, whereas Live Conscious advises listeners to “know where you’re going and where you’re coming from,” and warns them to “be careful of miscalculations and never let down your guard.”
“Reggae is not just music you listen to in the car or when you’re taking a shower, because reggae is also a lifestyle,” he explains. “It’s about how you lead your life, and it has to say something. It’s political yes, but there’s a spiritual element in there as well. At the end of the day, reggae is a message so we need to spread it around.”
He’s remarkably self-effacing for someone who’s recorded – and held his own – with some of Jamaica’s finest musical talents, but that’s something we’ve now come to expect from him, despite the huge strides he’s made since first arriving on the island.
“I never came here to be popular,” he says. “I never wanted to top the charts or be a billionaire. I don’t care about that. I just wanted to be close to the music that I loved, and that I couldn’t find in Italy. That is the main story behind my journey so all I want to do now is contribute to the genre and bring it to the next level – to carry the flag, or even just help someone else carry the flag like the Wailers, because they were inspired by those sessions, just like I was. Sometimes it takes a little man from foreign to come and reshuffle the thing so that people can understand something for themselves, y ‘know? Someone will give them a little ingredient for the pot then boom! That help them bring it back now, and the soup tastes good again…”
John Masouri, May 2018.