Struggling Soldier

This is a review that I have been keen to write for a long time. But ’nuff spliff can affect your motivation levels so its been a while coming. I spent much of last year living in Hawai’i on a University exchange and I was privileged to see plenty of of high quality roots-reggae. The Hawaiian airwaves are completely dominated by roots-reggae with the likes of Katchafire on high rotation on most commercial stations. So as you would expect, there is a massive local reggae scene too. 

Ooklah the Moc, whom I had the pleasure of seeing play alongside the band S.O.J.A, were the pick of the bunch for mine. Ooklah are an Oahu-based band who began as a punk outfit many years ago. Gradually however, they shifted towards deep, heavy roots. When I arrived on the Island, they were pretty much the premiere roots group in Hawaii. On this album they collaborate with a relatively unknown ukelele picking singer from the island of Maui named Koko.

Riddim-wise this album is really a joy to behold. Ooklah demonstrate a strong foundation in the sound of late 70’s/early 80’s dancehall-roots. The band is led by their bass player, Ryan Murakami, and his bass lines provide an intricate yet heavy foundation for the group. Above his bass lines, the rest of the band create a web of inter-locking rhythms using minor key chord progressions, bubbling organs, a dirty clavinet, and a powerful horn section. The sum of all these factors is a heavy militant vibe that is particularly evident on the track Struggling Soldier.

Koko’s sweet vocals give the album a warm laid-back Hawaiian vibe that somehow sits perfectly above the deep militant riddims. His voice, though having shades of Sugar Minott and Barrington Levy, is really bloody unique and his staccato singing style really shines on the ganja anthem Style. Ooklah’s regular vocalist Ras Bird also provides really effective counter-harmonies that add a real fullness to their sound.

Koko also offers up some very conscious lyrics. On the opening track One Big Family he sings about the need for Polynesian people to unite against Babylon. The indigenous Hawaiians have been well and truly done over by the U.S. who according to international law have illegally occupied the nation since they overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy 1893. This exploitation and Americanisation of the once pristine Hawaiian Islands is a strong thematic concern throughout the album.

To sum up, this really is one of the best modern roots albums I have ever heard. Despite their warm island vibes they manage to avoid the cheesiness that can often afflict Pacific reggae groups. And they bring a stirring, old-school militancy that is seldom heard in modern reggae. If you are a fan of bands like Roots Radics and the Wailing Souls then I strongly recommend you check Ooklah out on their MySpace page. You won’t find any of their albums in our record stores but you can download them from the iTunes store.