Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Reggae Royalty In San Francisco

Tony Rebel and Queen Ifrica – July 9, 2011 at The Rockit Room, San Francisco.

Reggae royalty paid a visit to the fog-engulfed Inner Richmond venue Rockit Room with the Queen taking center stage. It wasn’t Rita Marley in this case but 36-year old Jamaican vocalist and deejay Ventrice Latora Morgan, also known as Queen Ifrica.

Morgan is the daughter of ska pioneer Derrick Morgan and she intentionally spells Africa with an “I” in the Rasta speech tradition. She rose to popularity with songs that address taboo topics including incest and political violence while her stylish casual attire and magnetic stage presence evoke Erykah Badu or Lauryn Hill. Morgan charm literally shines through: On stage she’s quick to blast you with huge warm smile that lights up the room.

Morgan was joined by her partner and fellow cultural deejay Patrick George Anthony Barrett a.k.a. Tony Rebel. Barrett broke through as a performer in 1992 with the album Rebel With A Cause and also founded the popular annual Rebel Salute concert in Jamaica. Like Morgan, Barrett tackles sticky social issues on songs like “I Can’t Recall,” which lambastes political ineptitude while “Another Bill Again” addresses working class economic woes. Morgan and Barrett don’t tour California often, much less mid-sized venues, so this was an anticipated night for the S.F. reggae massive.

Morgan’s strong rhetoric, modern take on the traditional Rasta lifestyle and rich music repertoire has captured the interest of women in particular. She’s neither a shrinking violet nor a gratuitous sexpot but a potent songwriter whose music transcends gender and lives up to her “Fyah Muma” nickname.

After opening DJ Vinny Ras did his thing with Coo Yah’s DJ Denekah rousting the crowd on the mike, Morgan made her royal appearance backed by the Gumption Band. Barefoot and draped in an ankle length black gown and chunky red beads, Morgan launched into songs from her 2009 album Montego Bay in rapid succession. Morgan leapt, jumped, bounced and otherwise made the stage seem like a trampoline with her lively delivery. Songs like “Lioness On The Rise,” “Over I” and “Keep It To Yourself” resonated with the crowd of boozed up post-college kids, serious dreads, women dressed up in frilly skirts and three-inch heels and a smattering of ballcap-bedecked DJs.

Morgan’s set included her anti-skin bleaching anthem “Brown Skin” and she received a heartfelt “reeeeewind” ( a call to start the song over) from the audience when she lunched her current conscious club hit “In Times Like This.” Her delivery alternates between soaring sung choruses and speedy rap couplets that travel twice as fast as the beat. It’s not fast like Chicago rapper Twista, but you get the point. An odd moment came when she performed her anti-incest ode “Daddy” – she had the crowd swaying contently to a song about sexual abuse. She capped things off with “Don’t Sign,” set to the same music as Delroy Wilson’s rocksteady classic “Movie Star.”

In a stroke of luck we were invited backstage to meet her Highness. Although she projects a stately image on stage, Morgan only stands about 5’3”. However, her genuinely warm personality and thoughtful answers about her California tour, connection with fans and the hopeful and the healing force of her music elevated her to the highest heights in our opinion. She’s a queen for sure.

Veteran deejay “Tony Rebel” Barrett did not disappoint either. He took stage just minutes after Morgan and fired off the spiritually inspired “Jah Will Never Let Us Down.” His set was more explicitly Rasta, with songs like “If Jah,” and “Know Jah” (a.k.a. “Haile-Haile-Haile-I”) inspiring the crowd praise with him. Barrett was in good spirits too, smiling, explaining the song lyrics for “Sweet Jamdown” and generally pleasing the audience with a tight, professional performance.

A highlight of the set was “Fire” that rides the Tamlins reggae cover of Randy Newman’s tune “Baltimore,” which Barrett also sung. His set also included the nosy-neighbor complaint “Chatty Chatty” and an ad-libbed cover of Bob Marley’s “Soul Rebel” (“I’m a rebel, Tony Rebel”…). Overall, the crowd was into it start to finish and Barrett proved that he deserved his Jamaican star stature.

The Rockit Room has become the go-to spot for touring reggae acts, recently hosting up-and-coming Jamaican outfit Rootz Underground and reggae legend Freddie McGregor in the past month. And although Billboard and iTunes sales charts have been dominated by US “college reggae” groups like Rebelution, SOJA, Matisyahu this show proved that there’s still a passionate following for Jamaica’s indigenous musical output.