The Abyssinians: Arise

I LEARNT to love the Abyssinians at the kitchen sink, age 7 or so. As I sang Beatles tunes in three-part harmony doing the washing up with my sisters, I felt the presence of communication beyond words, the joy of three spirits working together to create beauty greater than one could acheive.

It’s a lesson the Abyssinians learnt well, then had knocked out of them by hard times and rip-offs. Thus, Arise has one of the strangest stories in recording history, and is, in fact, a blending together and re-make of two distinct albums cut by the two feuding ‘camps’ within the trio, brothers Donald and Linford Manning, and Bernard Collins. They were persuaded to join forces again by the Front Line label, and laid these harmonies on a rotation basis in different Jamaican studios.

Thus the near-perfection of Arise is something of a miracle. It may say something for a homogenous Manning/Collins worldview that all three partners’ songs form a thematic whole. The Abyssinians are known as prime purveyors of Culture, and every song on Arise is some kind of prayer. It may be centred round African repatriation, as in Bernard’s ‘South African Enlistment’, or for freedom from a painful personal relationship, as in Linford’s ‘Hey You’, but the unwavering intensity of the lead vocals is a common factor whichever of the trio sings.

Linford’s falsetto is husky, breathy; Donald’s voice is middle-range, warm and furry; Bernard’s voice has the most arresting quality of the three, a heightened sob, an extra throb, that makes the listener shudder in responsive conviction to his ardour on ‘Let My Days Be Long’.

Unlike most harmonies that either run in parallel lines or fall into a call-and-response pattern, the Abyssinians still play vocal games reckless as tightrope walkers balancing on chairs. The tightrope walkers weave patterns with repeats, overlaps synchronisations on the beat or the half-beat, patterns as abstract and convoluted as the fragile, ornate arabesques of Arabian calligraphy. The three distinct textures of their voices create instant chiaroscuro dimensions of light and dark within each word.

More extraordinary yet each song develops with familiarity into something unexpected on first hearing; repetition creates landmarks as vitally important as the planes of a lover’s body, nuances that the ears explore as eagerly as a tongue probing soft inner crevices. Arise is a subtle seduction; I’ve reached a point where I have no favourites on this album, just a series of exquisite moments.

Becuase of Arise‘s unusual genesis, there is no one producer or set of musicians to acclaim. Of course, the Sly/Robbie Shakespeare axis lays the foundations most of the time, but the voices are a glass to focus, then diffuse rays of musicianship.

I had thought – feared – that the Abyssinians would never again equal the classic glory of their last/first album, Forward On To Zion. I find myself intrigued to hear the two original albums fused into Arise; it’s obvious that each singer of the three has a great deal to express – plus the ability to express it in a unique way. Still, that’s almost academic; as the shoo-bee-doo backing of ‘Meditation’ flows into the piercing perfection of ‘Wicked Men’, I re-discover that first inkling of music as an insight into unsurpassable bliss that touched me when I harmonised ‘Love Me Do’ at the kitchen sink.

© Vivien GoldmanSounds, 14 October 1978

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