Blowtorch digs Timbuktu, saying, “It has the best atmosphere of any nightclub I've ever seen.”
I asked him what moves the crowd most in that atmosphere and here are his picks…
1. Roland Alphonso --"Ska-ra-van" (Take 3) (Top Deck reissue 7", originally released 1964 or '65)
One of the delightful surprises of Sunday nights at Timbuktu is how many people love the vintage ska. In fact, it is the most effective means of getting people on the dance floor. One night I played 10 scorchers in a row, and everybody in the place danced. To reward them, I threw on Fishbone's "Unyielding Conditioning," and it cleared the floor. It must be those damn modern production techniques.
"Ska-ra-Van" is an explosive instrumental version of Duke Ellington's "Caravan," in case anybody was wondering. The guitar is slashing, the selecter is dashing. This one magnetically extracts people from their chairs.
2. Rod Taylor -- "Ethiopian Kings" (from Freedom Sounds compilation LP “Reggae All Star,” originally released 1977)
This is a steppers, meaning a reggae song with bass drum on the one and three, with amazing syncopated snare drum work, probably by Sly Dunbar, to me the finest musician in Jamaican history. The guitar and piano jump out of the mix like heat lightning on a quiet summer night.
Rod Taylor's vocals sound hilarious -- "King Solomon, he was a black man; King David, he was a black man; King Moses, he was a BLACK MAAAAN!" -- but they tell the truth, which one must try to do at some point in the dance. What amazes me is how couples over 50 will dance to militant minor-key reggae songs like this or, say, "Marcus Garvey" by Burning Spear, as couples, meaning ballroom style, holding each other closely and grinding against each other very slowly. I've seen this from Milwaukee to Brixton. It is something to see!
3. Prince Far I -- "Survival" (Wambesi reissue 7", originally released 1983)
This bass-heavy rockers track is one of the last recordings Prince Far I made before he was killed in September 1983, the same month Mick Jones was kicked out of The Clash -- not a good month for music. When the bass first drops in and Far I's voice drops below its usual frequency of ground-shaking thunder, it's one of the most astounding moments in the history of recorded music.
This song, which first appeared after Far I's death on an album called “Umkhonto We Sizwe,” is important at Club Timbuktu because one of our Sunday night regulars was in Umkhonto We Sizwe (Zulu for "Spear of the Nation"), the military wing of the African National Congress. They helped free black people in South Africa. Our South African constituent knows and loves Prince Far I's music largely because of this connection.
4. George Nooks -- "Tribal War" (Joe Gibbs reissue 7", originally released late 1970s)
I'm going to spin this heavy steppers song every week until these evil wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are over, and until the genocide in Darfur is stopped. George Nooks, known in his deejay incarnation as Prince Mohammed, turns in one of the most hauntingly beautiful vocals I've ever heard over this hard-driving Sly and Robbie (a/k/a the Professionals) rhythm. Sometimes I substitute Dillinger's "War Is Over" deejay cut of this song, an instant dance floor magnet. Beautiful as it is, I look forward to the last time I have to rock this one.
5. Johnny Clarke -- "Stop the Tribal War" (Attack reissue 10", originally released 1975)
Here is a rarity: a recording by a Jamaican artist against repatriation. Johnny Clarke sings, at the end of each chorus, "I man born here, and I don't want leave here." This may be the most affecting vocal by one of the most spiritually stirring vocalists ever to come out of Jamaica. The Attack 10" of this fast minor-key roots reggae one-drop includes a deejay version by U Brown and a King Tubbys dub version. The drumming, by Sly's fierce competitor on the kit, Santa Davis, is ferocious. See no. 4 for why I rotate this one so frequently of late. I look forward to the day when this song is no longer so relevant.
6. Jamaica Duke and the Mento Swingers -- "Wings of a Dove" (from “Yellow Bird” LP, Dynamic, released in the '60s or '70s)
Mento was an early-20th century Jamaican folk music usually performed by singer(s), acoustic guitarist(s), maraca player, banjoist, penny whistler, and somebody on 'rumba box' (large thumb piano), often wrongly called calypso because the tunes are usually uptempo and often risque. Jamaica Duke, a singer and guitarist, fronts this great mento band playing the usual Jamaican folk standards, e.g., "Yellow Bird," "Jamaica Farewell" and this lovely Jamaican folk song, most famously recorded as a ska song by the Wailers.
Not only is “Yellow Bird” (whose cover sports a yellow-tinted cheesecake shot of a lovely woman in a bathing suit) almost totally devoid of double entendre or slackness, Jamaica Duke's gentle tenor voice is arrestingly sincere and touching. This version must have been recorded after the Wailers' version, since Duke plays a nice ska upstroke on his guitar throughout. Irony-free, y'all.
7. The Wailers -- "Bus Dem Shut (Pyaka)" (Impact! 7" reissue, originally released 1966)
No matter where I spin this two-chord rock steady cut, people freak out, because it just explodes from the speakers. The recording has a dynamic feel that is really hard to get working digitally: everything on the record sounds loud, but it's not really the case. Everything just sounds good, and thus you want to hear the record louder. As a vocal group the Wailers had some raggedy work (e.g., "Maga Dog," "Straight and Narrow Way," and "One Love") and some really precise harmony pieces. This record proves that they could sing tight harmony as well as anybody. While I love all their songs -- except maybe "Adam and Eve" -- for different reasons, "Bus Dem Shut" strangely sounds better to me -- and to the dancers -- every time.
8. U Roy -- "Every Knee Shall Bow" (Jaguar 7" reissue, originally released 1975)
More proof of my assertion that Sly Dunbar is the greatest single musician to come out of Jamaica, which is saying a lot because there's so much greatness there, but also saying very little, since Jamaican music is essentially democratic in terms of performance. Sly's snare hits on the two and four never sound like rock cliches, maybe because he leaves out the bass drum so selectively.
Johnny Clarke's original vocal version of this tune is powerful enough to pack the floor and resurrect socialism in Milwaukee, but U-Roy's deejay version, with a much noisier mix featuring jarring guitar stabs and his most deranged vocal ever, is jaw-dropping, an astonishing performance up there with the Sex Pistols and Ramones for violent ecstasy.
9. Fishbone -- "Unyielding Conditioning" (from Columbia LP “Give a Monkey a Brain and He'll Swear He's the Center of the Universe,” released 1993)
The last great gasp from the most underrated band of all time, "Unyielding Conditioning" is a battered optimist's attempt to overcome cynicism and defeatism. “Give a Monkey a Brain...” was Fishbone's last album with songwriter/guitarist Kendall Rey Jones and MVP trombonist/keyboardist/vocalist Chris Dowd. Drummer Fish nails Lloyd Knibbs's jazzy style of '60s ska drumming, the whole band sings with fantastic power and unity, and singer Angelo Moore finishes the song with a ridiculously upbeat baritone sax solo. Probably due to its very clean sound, this song is a bit of a dud on the dance floor, but to me, it's like an adrenaline injection.
10. Ghost -- "She's All" (Colin Fat 7", released 2000)
With an slightly husky Arabic-sounding soprano and otherworldly sense of melody, the suitably named Ghost is the most haunting singer I've heard since the late Garnet Silk. Ghost's songs are all strange, almost shapeless paeans to someone in the great beyond, and the biggest surprise of all is that Ghost is a man. Born Carlton Hylton, Ghost has been making really strange records over heavily syncopated computer rhythms for at least 10 years. This stripped-down stop-and-start love song is the most requested song on the Mighty Django Hi-Fi since "Under Mi Sleng Teng" and "Bam Bam." Somebody always asks me about this record whenever I rock it. I've probably helped Ghost sell a few records.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.