Jamaica Magazine

Book Review – Great Spirits: Portraits Of Life-Changing World Music Artists

About the Book

What do such artists as Bob Marley, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Nina Simone, and Sun Ra have in common? All created uniquely powerful musical art that had a profound effect on their audiences. Through their music and their lives they became forces for liberation, challenging the established order and inspiring people around the world to look at life in new ways. So great was their originality that to a large extent they created their own musical genres, and listeners claim the music leads them to a higher state of being.

Great Spirits: Portraits of Life-Changing World Music Artists presents personal encounters with some of the most interesting and important musical artists of the past fifty years—Bob Marley, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Nina Simone, Sun Ra, Augustus Pablo, the Neville Brothers, Yabby You, and Nadia Gamal. Based on the author’s meetings and interviews with these giants, the pieces reveal the unique essence of each musician as a person, as an artist, and as a force for social change. Spanning the realms of jazz, blues, reggae, gospel, African, and Middle Eastern music, these artists epitomize musical creation at its highest level.

do such artists as Bob Marley, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Nina Simone, and Sun Ra have in common? All created uniquely powerful musical art that had a profound effect on their audiences. Through their music and their l


Review – Stan Evan Smith,  Senior Music Writer, Jamaicans.com

An executive for Shanachie Records, Randall Grass works for the music company that introduced American audiences to the reggae music in the 1970s. The Philadelphia-area writer, musician and band member of the Philadelphia band Gumbo has written extensively about African and Caribbean music for publications such as The Village Voice, Spin Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Beat, Musician, Downbeat and New York Times Book Review.

In addition, Grass has contributed to the books “Reggae International,” “The Rolling Stone Record Guide,” “The Alternative Papers,” and “Reggae, Rasta & Revolution.” Grass was also the host of the “Roots Rock Reggae and World Beat Dance Party” programs on WXPN-FM, in Philadelphia from 1979-1991.

Now, Grass has parlayed his extensive knowledge of world beat music into a new book “Great Spirits: Portraits of Life Changing World Music Artists,” published by the University Press of Mississippi. “Great Spirits” profiles eight significant recording and performing artists, or “great spirits,” of the 20th century.

One of the “Great Spirits,” is Bob Marley, whose photo is missing from the book’s cover. The omission is unusual since most books written about Marley usually feature his image because the Marley brand sells. Still, Grass, an astute public relations observer, may not have wanted Marley’s outsized image to dwarf his less-known peers.
However, the book isn’t about Marley, though he is indeed a great spirit. Instead, it takes the reader on Grace’s personal journey through his experiences and interviews with eight inspirational performers and life-changing artists.

Besides Marley, Nigeria’s Fela Anikulapo-Kuti also makes an appearance. The two musicians are arguably the Third worlds two most important recording and performing artists of the past century. Both were musical giants whose transcendent work has been profoundly influential. In “Great Spirits,” the author delves into their lives, examining the nature of their music and what made their music so life-changing for so many.

Grass, an astute musicologist and perceptive writer, delves into the lives, music and historical significance of Marley and Kuti. He manages to write about them without succumbing to their myth and mystique. He doesn’t obscure their humanity, which many writers are wont to do. Instead, he rakes up their tempestuous and tortured lives, as with Nina Simone.

Besides “High Priestess of Soul” Simone; Grass outlines the lives of the enigmatic jazz space cadet Sun-Ra; and even the Neville Brothers. He also introduces readers to lesser-known but equally-important artists such as the recently deceased Vivian “Yabby You” Jackson; Egyptian dancer Nadia Gamal; and reggae multi-instrumentalist–guitar, piano, organ and xylophone–the late Augustus Pablo aka Horace Swaby. (Pablo was my schoolmate at Mico Practicing School in Jamaica.)

The choice of ethereal dub master Pablo and Yabby You are surprising choices since neither one is commercially successful,  or particularly well known outside reggae circles. Grass and his label’s long history and association with Pablo and Yabby You (Shanachie introduced Pablo to music audiences in America in 1970s) make their inclusion less surprising.

Yet Grass places them comfortably among their more notable and successful peers while highlighting their kindred spirit. Equally interesting, as a choice, is jazz spaceman Sun-Ra. Not because Ra doesn’t belong, they all do, but Ra, Grass’ former Germantown neighbor, is a musician whose cosmic contribution parallels the other musicians, though he has been less commercially successful than say Marley. The other surprising inclusion is Asian belly dancer Gamal, who is not a musician. Her inclusion as a “great spirit” will be a pleasant surprise for a lot of readers.

Pablo took a little-known musical instrument, the melodica, and revolutionized it, transforming it from essentially a child’s toy– by manipulating and interpreting minor chords on the pentatonic scale–and turning it into the instrument that became a staple of Jamaican reggae and dub releases in the 1970s. Pablo’s moody understated compositions with their focus on minor chords reflected his reticence and tendency to avoid the limelight.

Grass is correct when he said that Pablo’s introverted nature accounts for him never achieving commercial stardom. (The shy Horace Swaby I remember at Mico shunned the limelight.) Pablo’s influence on modern Jamaican music shaped the so-called “rockers” era, despite his having had only one hit on the island, his 1971 single “Java.”  While he developed a cult following and wasn’t as commercially successful as Marley, Pablo however achieved the critical acclaim his music garnered from mainstream publications such as the New York Times and Newsweek magazine.

“Great Spirits” takes an intimate look inside the world of these eight artists, showcasing their complex personalities and artistic development as influential forces in the world of music. Spanning genres from jazz to blues to reggae, gospel, African and Middle Eastern music, these artists symbolize music at its highest level.

By sheer force of personality and originality, these “great spirits” created their own musical genres. Their music challenged the established order and became forces for liberation. Their art inspired people around the world to look at life in new ways interpret songs of freedom and social change.

“Great Spirits” presents nontraditional artists on the right side of social justice in a world gone mad. Grammy-winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis noted that “art without a social context is irrelevant.” These eight performers’ art is not only relevant; they are also provocateurs who challenge humanity’s conscience.

 About the Author:
Randall Grass is a record executive, musician, and freelance writer. He has written about music for several periodicals, including the Village Voice, Spin Magazine, and the New York Times Book Review

Where to buy the book:

Purchase Great Spirits: Portraits of Life-Changing World Music Artists at Amazon.com                

About the author

Staff Writer