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Fantastic Negrito - The Last Days of Oakland

  by Adrian Janes

published: 3 / 7 / 2016

Fantastic Negrito - The Last Days of Oakland
Label: Blackball Universe
Format: CD


First-rate debut from Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito is born of the blues but draws from a wide palette of black music

As a title, ‘The Last Days of Oakland’ reportedly refers to the gentrification of Fantastic Negrito’s home city. As an opening track, it combines an old blues sample and comments from various voices (a technique that gives an extra dimension to several other songs). But over the course of this album it becomes clear that he is concerned with a much wider Black American and working-class experience, the music’s blend of blues, soul, rock, gospel and speech evoking historical roots even as his passion and energy plant it firmly in the present. Over a slow, unrelenting groove coupled with piano and organ flourishes, ’Working Poor’ immediately establishes a divided world where some “Sip fancy coffee/Step over body outside the door” while the majority, like Negrito, “Keep on knocking but I can’t get in”. It’s a picture that’s later expanded in the album’s most powerful track, ’Hump Through the Winter’, from the desperate rasp with which it begins (“I’ve been working three jobs just to pay my bills”) to its repeated resolve to “Keep on pushing/A little harder, a little louder”, the sentiment perhaps an echo of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Move On Up’. The music is a slick, tight funk, its stop-start rhythm and guttural organ and guitar a monument to frustration. Negrito declares, “I’ve been knocking on the door since ’94/But they still won’t let me in”, but in context this surely means much more than just his own derailed ambitions, which in the 1990s included both failed musical ventures and a life-threatening car accident that rendered him unable to play. Rather, it evokes a society riddled with discrimination, one that promises prosperity in return for hard work yet “Turns working people/To the working poor”. On the poignant blues of ‘About a Bird’, his voice glides between grittily deep and wistfully high, one of several songs where his range and ability to move between musical styles suggests Prince. But this prince is also an unashamed commoner, his lineage audibly and equally drawn from forebears like Willie Dixon. Despite the slightly intimidated lyrics of ‘Scary Woman’, the song remains upbeat in every sense, a New Orleans-style piano rippling through it as Negrito declaims about the fearsome femme with a soulful Howlin’ Wolf growl. United by a collective salty personality, the band play with heart and skill but devoid of any ego-tripping. With its lyrical references to places from Mississippi to California, and an opening lament of “No way out of here”, ‘The Nigga Song’ seems to concern a symbolic black man moving around America in search of freedom, an implicit defiance in the refrain “They tried to break him down”. The music is reduced to essentials, heavy insistent percussion, piano and reverbed slide guitar, a sound that could be decades old but played with the commitment needed to make it sound new-minted. The most explicit nod to the blues tradition is a cover of ‘In the Pines’. The song is often attributed to Leadbelly, who recorded several versions, and centres around violent death and a black girl subsequently seeking refuge. Negrito updates this to make her a single mother whose son has been killed by the police. Here the accompaniment is stripped down to ghostly organ, bass and metallic-sounding percussion, the weight of the song carried by his voice and mournful backing singers whose wordless chant evokes the older world of the spiritual, the plantation or even the chain-gang. This hint of the spiritual continues on ‘Lost in a Crowd’. Crossed with Negrito’s impassioned vocal as storefront church organ swells and handclaps click like castanets, he comes across like a hurt and angry preacher, striving to revive hope. It’s the beginning of the final phase of the album, in which religious feeling becomes increasingly prominent. ‘The Worst’ starts with a version of St Paul’s famous condemnation of the love of money, and a female chorus who acidly yet funkily describe the resulting society: “Got mine, get yours/Get yours, got mine/No way to live/Good way to die.” On ‘Rant Rushmore’ Negrito is a repentant “lifelong sinner”, stretching his “Amen’ with Stevie Wonder-like inflections, but also recalling Sam Cooke with a determined “I see that change a-coming”. Although having a Muslim background, he perfectly evokes the feeling of Christian gospel and its secular twin, soul. ‘Nothing Without You’ affirms his neediness, whether it be for God, a lover or the greater community. A bluesy ballad done in the classic manner, its gospel piano and organ touches yet again refute the false barriers between these different musics, which are ultimately the tributaries of one big river. ‘The Last Days of Oakland’ demonstrates the old paradox, that songs born of suffering and struggle can fully recognise pain and yet give the strength to carry on. Both in his life and career, Negrito has previously all but died. But in this resurrection it’s time for his reward, for the last to be first.

Track Listing:-
1 Last Days of Oakland
2 Working Poor
3 About a Bird
4 Scary Woman
5 What Do You Do (Interlude 1)
6 The Nigga Song
7 In the Pines
8 Hump Thru the Winter
9 Lost in a Crowd
10 El Chileno (Interlude 2)
11 The Worst
12 Rant Rushmore
13 Nothing Without You

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