Adopting a genre that’s distinctive to another culture can be a tricky business, and few genres are more firmly associated with their country of origin than reggae. With its foundations in traditional African music and its connection with civil rights activism, reggae will always be considered in connection to Jamaica. As a result, non-Jamaican reggae bands (particularly of the all-white variety) can get some flack, which adds pressure not only to live up to the tradition they’re following in, but also to defend their right to take part in that tradition.
That’s the difficult position that After The Ibis finds themselves in. Originating from North Dublin – a fair distance from the land of wood and water – the 8-piece roots reggae act have been doing well on the festival circuit for the better part of a decade, only recently* releasing their debut album ‘Busy Waiting’. Over the years the gang have performed with numerous reggae greats, including Toots and the Maytals, Max Romeo, and Third World. What’s immediately evident on a first listen of ‘Busy Waiting’ is that that should be no surprise: After The Ibis are a band oozing with confidence and finesse.
Lead vocalist Clare O’Kennedy jumps out in particular. Her crisp, clear voice has an indie-folk vibe to it, but fits the reggae rhythm surprisingly well. Particularly on the choruses of songs like Step Inside and Light My Fuse she shows a strong dynamic range that fits right in with the reggae trumpet and guitar, blasting her lyrics with a power that adds a lot of strength to lines like “Just roll out your soul, you know you’ll feel alright, feel alright”. Not particularly compelling as words on paper, but it somehow works when she bellows it.
Altogether the subject matter of these songs tends towards the slightly vague and mushy, generally opting to repeat the same few lines again and again rather than further exploring any themes. This isn’t necessarily a downside, and it fits the laidback, lackadaisical mood that dominates the album. What’s notable is how unpolitical this album is. The ‘70s and ‘80s saw a wealth of reggae and reggae-inspired music coming out of Ireland, most of it tending towards the rebellious and politically specific, reflecting the attitudes of the time. The tracks Fallen Soldier and Ode to the Chief seem to touch off that more militant aspect of reggae, but they seem like more of an attempt to engage on a thematic level with that aspect of the genre, rather than making any particular political statements about Ireland today. As with the rest of the album, the message is fundamentally secondary to the music.
And musically ‘Busy Waiting’ is undeniably fresh and exciting. Their size gives them a big band flavour, and allows them to layer on a variety of sounds as the songs build. The rhythm, kept bopping along by staccato guitar and drums, remains steady throughout at a chilled pace which never gets dull. A particularly interesting break from the typical reggae sound is Eoin Gillard’s jazz saxophone. Whether subtly colouring the backing music or momentarily taking over the main melody, as in their first single Dig Up or the climactic Meltdown, that smoky infusion of jazz provides an interesting contrast to the album’s dominant atmosphere. Overall, this stellar effort confirms After The Ibis as a legitimate reggae talent.
*(eh, over a year ago)