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Earnest, humble Jamaican

MUSIC | An unconventional “mixtape” of gospel recordings

Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Earnest, humble Jamaican
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THE FLOW OF worthwhile unconventional or semi-­conventional devotional-­Christian-gospel-tagged albums on Bandcamp shows no signs of abating.

Foremost in the unconventional category this time is Heaven Is Better Than This: A Jamaican Gospel Mixtape assembled by the London-based record label (and NTS Radio show) Death Is Not the End. Actually, it’s two mix tapes, “Side A” and “Side B,” each 41 minutes long and each drawn from what the official description calls a “dusty heap” of Jamaican 45s from the 1960s and early ’70s. (Yes, you can hear the stylus crackling through well-worn grooves.)

Heaven Is Better Than This

Heaven Is Better Than This Death Is Not The End

Like the production (such as it is), the almost completely drumless musicianship veers from simple to primitive. But the singing (predominantly female) covereth a multitude of technical deficiencies. While it never approaches the distinctiveness, the fervor, or the abandon of American black-gospel vocalizing, there’s more than enough of the earnest, humble sincerity valued by field recorders to delight them and their fellow seekers of authenticity.

Many of the 30 selections are obscure. Some of the ones that aren’t (“Angels From the Realms of Glory,” “The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow,” “Just a Little While To Stay Here”) get enough of a rhythmic or a melodic makeover to catch listeners off guard. And although no performer credits accompany the playlists, at least one number, Astley Dixon’s “Put No Blame on the Master,” has been compiled before (on Social Music Records’ 2012 Put No Blame on the Master, Jamaican Gospel Vol. 2).

Other highlights: a spontaneous group prayer that includes a recitation of Psalm 27 intoned atop Hawaiian-sounding steel guitars and a version of the Eddie Noack country song “These Hands” sung by a killer Bob Dylan-circa-Nashville Skyline impersonator.

The mostly cross-faded cuts aren’t split, so you have to enjoy both sides uninterrupted. But while such formatting prohibits skipping from one track to another, it has the benefit of providing what the culture critic Ted Gioia calls an “immersive” musical experience—i.e., one that lasts 10 minutes or longer (a lot longer in this case) and that therefore counters the destabilizing effects of dopamine-driven swiping and scrolling.

The existence of so much Jamaican gospel may surprise listeners who’ve assumed, based on the popularity of reggae in general and Bob Marley in particular, that the majority of Jamaicans are Rastafarians. According to recent census numbers, however, Rastafarians account for only 1 percent of the island’s population while Christians account for 70.

So perhaps the real surprise isn’t that the curators at Death Is Not the End have found 82 minutes of vintage Jamaican gospel to string together but that they haven’t found more.

Arsenio Orteza

Arsenio is a music reviewer for WORLD Magazine and one of its original contributors from 1986. Arsenio resides in China.



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