Just over a year ago, Rootfire premiered the debut release from Blanc du Blanc, a dub project created and performed by a collective of highly regarded musicians spearheaded by the widely-lauded, genre-melding Chris Harford. Several months later, in January of 2021, James Searl, of Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, penned this premier for Blanc du Blanc’s subsequent release, an EP featuring several reggae versions of The Scorpions timeless anthem, “Wind of Change.”
Like Band of Changes, Harford’s rock/jam group of revolving accomplished musician friends, Blanc du Blanc features many of the same cast of players, which includes Dana Colley, saxophonist from Morphine, Chuck Treece of Bad Brains and, of course, superstar drummer Joe Russo, jaw-dropping guitarist Scott Metzger and esteemed keyboard guru Marco Benevento (all from epic Grateful Dead tribute act, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead aka J.R.A.D.)
Today, we publish an “Album Showcase” for Blanc du Blanc’s third release, titled Reggatta du Blanc du Blanc, scheduled to be released on vinyl and streaming platforms on 2/11/22. Written by guest author, Jim the Boss, a New Jersey-based reggae musician, studio engineer, producer and owner of Hoboken Hi-Fi Studio, we have also included a premiere of the track, “Secaucus Dub,” off the album.
This release is especially meaningful given its artwork and liner notes, for which Harford solicited contributions from Chief Vincent Mann of the Turtle Clan of the Ramapough Lenape Nation, a group of approximately 5,000 kinfolk living amongst the Ramapo Mountains that stretch through Bergen and Passaic counties of northern New Jersey into Rockland County in southern New York.
The Ramapough have been embattled for generations, due in part to debates concerning their genealogical origins and quest to be recognized as a Native American tribe. Purported to be descendants of Hessian mercenaries who had fought with the British in the Revolutionary War, along with Dutch traders, African slaves and Munsee speaking Lenape Native Americans, these multiracial mountain people have encountered contrasting opinions over the relevance of ethnic ancestry versus cultural and community identity in being recognized as a distinct culture. Additionally, they have been embroiled in further controversy due to their enduring legal battles revolving around the poisoning of their ancestral lands with toxic waste from the Ford Motor Company.
For decades the American education system masked truths about the genocide and thieving of land that our settlers perpetrated on the Native Americans, as well as the generations of suffering it has caused as their identity and way of life has been shattered. And, while these facts are far more recognized within our collective consciousness now, it’s important to see Native American voices amplified as they continue to fight for justice and reparations.
When listening to new reggae albums or singles these days, most of the time, it’s just an enjoyable listening experience. Rarely do I get blown away. Reggatta du Blanc du Blanc, the latest LP from Blanc du Blanc, gives me that feeling and fills that craving.
As a dub mixer and reggae producer, I find that I listen to music very critically, whether independent music or major releases. It’s just a natural tendency as I am constantly in that mindset day-in and day-out.
However, I found myself doing very little of that when listening to Blanc Du Blanc’s newest venture. It’s almost as if they all pulled up in a car and said “Jim, let’s go for a ride.” One wild ride after the next, all of these songs seem to have an underlying theme, but I am not sure what it is. It’s mysterious, it’s clandestine, almost like they want to provide a template for whatever meaning that you want to put to it. Then, the ride stops and they drop me off. But I want more!
It’s even more rare that I ever feel unsatisfied by the end of an album. Most albums leave you with a perfectly wrapped package of an ending, but Reggatta leaves it open ended. Will their next release pick up where this left off? I certainly look forward to it.
Chris Harford, the main driving force behind this album, had sent me one of the limited-edition vinyl copies of the new album. Right away, that “mysterious feeling” I spoke about met me up close. Foreign figures in what looks to be some sort of tribal dress adorn the cover. If you didn’t know, you may mistake them for people from a far-off, distant land, yet they are actually local to the New York/New Jersey area. While one of the figures is actually Chris Harford in Blanc du Blanc costuming, the other two are members of the Ramapough Lenape Nation, or Ramapough Lunaape Munsee Delaware Nation, a local Native American tribe whose historical territory stretched from Delaware to the lower Hudson Valley of New York, encompassing eastern Pennsylvania’s Delaware River watershed.
What ties the Ramapough to this work of music? Most residents of northern New Jersey will quickly recognize that the song titles are all anglicized Native American names of nearby towns or geographic areas. Harford explains their reasoning for their naming of the tracks. “I had been thinking of the recent history of New Jersey, and the idea formulated over time as we researched the indigenous names of areas in New Jersey. We wanted to make a connection to our land, and to think dub music comes from older music that is primal, and to connect it to American soil. It ties into this concept of who we are and where we are coming from.”
Wanting to bring the Ramapough culture and identity to the forefront, Harford met with Vincent Mann, the Chief of the Turtle Clan, and photographed him and another member of their tribe in their traditional garb. He also recruited Mann to pen the album’s liner notes, pictured here for additional exposure.
If you’re anything like me, you will want to pick up a copy of the vinyl version of this album. I love to absorb myself with the art and imagery when listening to an album on vinyl. It brings the whole creative work full-circle and gives a sense of completeness.
Focusing on the music, the art at the core of this well-conceived package, as I watch the needle run through the grooves on the spinning crisp white marble vinyl, I am treated to a mixture of jazz, rock and reggae. Intentional or not, I will hear them touch on a known reggae riddim or pattern once, but never again. This gives the listener the notion that they have done their homework and paid homage without outright covering a tired riddim like everyone else does.
Bassist, guitarist and producer, Robbie “Seahag” Mangano, recalled, “I was playing blues stuff. I wanted to change it and make it not like I’m copying what reggae has done before.”
Blanc du Blanc pushes the boundaries, creating the way they know best without staying inside the “reggae box,” something that, in my opinion, often hinders great musicians of the current times.
One track that sticks out to me is “Ramapo,” which begins with what sounds like some sort of long forgotten melody that could be of a native origin, and then kicks straight into a classic dub sound reminiscent of later Lee Scratch Perry mixed with Ernest Ranglin and Monty Alexander. Dana Colley’s sax floats gracefully over the heavy foundation of what sounds like a double serving of bass guitar and organ bass tones. Just as “Ramapo” pulls you in to its hypnotic groove, it’s gone, floating away in an airy delay effect.
Mangano recalls, “Two bars at a time I would be doubling things that were improvised. It could be a bass guitar line with Hammond bass pedal tones over it, or Chris would ask ‘Robbie go play the grand piano’ and then he would ask ‘Ok, Reed now you go play the piano.’ At first, I didn’t think all of this would work, but eventually it started to come together.”
Another track, “Watchung,” is the embodiment of my feeling of being “blown away.” So much texture and wild sounds happening all at once, but they don’t crowd on top of each other. It begins like a soundtrack to a horror movie and then breaks into a feel-good reggae riddim with a thunderous bass tone and a chewy wah guitar effect. If I could ever say a sound makes me physically hungry, it’s that wah effect Chris is using on that guitar line. As synthesizer tones creep in and out and the very Lester Sterling-inspired saxophone solo ebbs and flows like waves lapping the beach, it ends in the soundtrack style way it began, that eerie synth coming back, like they are bringing us back to where it started.
Reggatta du Blanc du Blanc even has a track named “Secaucus Dub,” which Rootfire premieres here today. As a native of Secaucus, this gave me a bit of a laugh, because I still feel we are a small, forgotten town in the Meadows.
Interestingly enough, I find it to be my favorite song on the album, regardless of its title. It reminds me of Mahavishnu Orchestra, but in a very basic form, with a simple driving dance beat treated by quick delay effects. The snare is powerful — like a gunshot, and the sparse Syndrum fills pay homage to people like Sly Dunbar. The two melodies, most certainly earworms, remind me of the soundtrack works of 1960s Indian producer, R.D. Burman. As with the first song “Manasquan,” I feel both have clear jazz and blues influences.
From a technical analysis, if I had never talked to the creators themselves, I would have thought they recorded and mixed this the standard dub way: Record the rhythm tracks, overdub what couldn’t be done live, mix, group tracks out to the board, set up your FX and run dub versions. Of course, the details behind the scenes are much more involved. I love learning all the mechanics of what goes on during the creative process, so it was a real treat to talk with the masterminds of this sound, which included Harford, Mangano and Reed Black, a producer, mixer, and recording engineer who owns Vinegar Hill Sound in Brooklyn, NY, where the album was recorded.
According to these conversations, in its early stages, the album was just a lot of jamming and recording. Black revealed that they would add and subtract parts from old jams and new jams to come up with the many layers you hear in each song, or they might take an old jam and record fresh parts over it.
Mangano added, “The tracks eventually became chaotic and disorganized, so I took the tracks home to upload them into Logic Pro to remove all of the mistakes like bad delays, or if there was a major chord that was supposed to be a minor chord. So, my first role was a bit of micro-producing and editing everything, so we had the cleanest tracks to work with.”
In my opinion, percussion can make a good reggae track great, a sentiment shared by Mangano and drummer Dave Butler, who spent a whole day at Butler’s Hopewell, NJ studio recording percussion with his large collection of instruments.
The tones on this album are consistent. The drums are clear and crisp, not too modern reggae sounding, but not classic either — very rock oriented, which makes sense, as Reed Black comes from a rock and indie recording background. The bass is always heavy, what I describe as the “woofy” sound, which is very reminiscent of late 60s Studio One recordings.
Black shared that he used RCA and Coles microphones, which are the creme of the crop, and that he kept the drum microphones to a minimum, three to be exact. According to Black, Dave Butler, who is an experienced reggae drummer that has toured with the late great Lee Perry, was a driving force in the creation of the drum tones on the album as he knew “how to make reggae drums sound like reggae drums.”
Once they had everything recorded and were happy with it, they began mixing the album. I had wondered why they chose not to take the traditional path on mixing this album like dubbers everywhere do. Initially, I thought that maybe these guys aren’t experienced with mixing or remixing reggae and dub, so it could be intimidating to live mix an album. That wasn’t the case at all.
At first, as a devout student of reggae and dub, Harford wanted to go that route, but as Black explained, “We were already choosing to work in that format, like a patchwork of different textures that are coming in and out, going out to different universes and then coming back to this universe, that we had already choreographed all of that stuff so it no longer made sense as a final step to do it the traditional way.”
All in all, this album is an amazing experience from start to finish, and I advise everyone that is a fan of dub, reggae, jazz, experimental or just music in general to pick up a copy. And don’t do this album a disservice by listening on your phone speakers. Find a HiFi system or a comfy pair of headphones. Blanc du Blanc put so much time into creating the amazing stereo field effects that must be experienced on a great playback system that is capable of stereophonic sound. Do your ears that favor and you will be rewarded fully.
Reggatta du Blanc du Blanc releases Monday, February 11, 2022. Fans can purchase the album digitally or on vinyl here.