Until the late eighties, only one foreign musical culture, Jamaica's reggae and its antecedent ska, had managed to exert a major influence on rock & roll. With the passing of reggae's primary architect and prophet, Bob Marley, the Kingston-based vocal trio Black Uhuru appeared poised to assume the mantle of reggae's leadership. At a moment when the music was in critical need of a strong new voice, Black Uhuru's finest album, Red, shone with all the musical intensity and political fervor of the Rastafarian movement.
Black Uhuru, formed in 1974 by singers Derrick "Duckie" Simpson, Garth Dennis and Don Carlos, took its name from the Swahili word for freedom (uhuru) and cut a handful of Jamaican singles that failed to attract much attention. After several lineup changes, Black Uhuru solidified as a trio consisting of Simpson, fellow Kingstonite Michael Rose and American social worker turned performer Sandra "Puma" Jones.
Along the way, Black Uhuru also replaced its original producer, Jamaican dub master Lee "Scratch" Perry, with the bass and drum battery of Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar. The thunderous drumming of Dunbar and heartbeat bass of Shakespeare were already earning them a reputation as one of the world's finest rhythm sections. Black Uhuru's first collaboration with them — which was also the first recording for Sly and Robbie's Taxi Records label — caught the attention of Island Records president Chris Blackwell (the man who introduced Bob Marley and the Wailers to the world). The group made its debut on Mango/Island in 1980 with Sensimilla. On Red, released the following year, the propulsive, electronic sound of the band solidified.
Red is a plea for cultural revolution and religious faith. From the opening "Youth of Eglington," a call not to arms but to thought and clean living for Rastafarians, through the closing "Carbine," which counsels patience to Rastas in the diaspora, Red strives to send a message of hope to a people in cultural exile. Along the way, Black Uhuru celebrates the naturalist and nationalist roots of its lifestyle.
Despite critical raves for both Red and for Black Uhuru's live shows, American audiences proved largely indifferent to a seemingly impenetrable foreign culture. The lack of success, coupled with business squabbles, led to the dissolution of what is considered Black Uhuru's definitive lineup. "We'd be one of the strongest reggae bands ever if we could have avoided the jealousies," says Simpson.