At the end of a crackling telephone line, Nasio Fontaine is in high spirits. “We just coming from Africa,” he says with obvious mirth. “We had two beautiful shows in Sierra Leone with a whole heap of people. We’ve been popular there for ten years, even though I never heard of it because of the war with the rebels; now the war is over, so they brought us in and we did two shows in the national stadium, where people even burst part of the stage down to come in.”
His first journey to the African motherland was an emotional experience for this humble Rastaman from Dominica. “When the plane start descending, I just couldn’t contain myself,” he explains. “So much tears, and when we landed I even kiss the ground. The people know every song, because during the civil war, it was Nasio’s music that they listen to that strengthened them through.”
Though Nasio claims African descent through his father, he is equally proud of his mother’s Carib heritage. “I’m in touch with the chief of the Carib Reserve,” he stresses. “Met the chief last month, and we spoke a lot. He said, ‘Don’t forget that you’re one of us, we recognise you for that.’ Dominica is a special point in terms of the Caribs, because they are under one banner.”
Nasio’s career stretches back to the mid 1980s, when he began recording in Sint Maarten. Later, he cut material in Jamaica, then, after spending time in New York, he developed an audience in the US, partly because of inspirational live performances. His last album, Living in the Positive, strengthened his reputation on both sides of the Atlantic, and introduced many Europeans to his music for the first time. Now Nasio is back with a strong new album called Universal Cry, easily his most accessible to date.
Recorded at a farm outside Boston, and given its finishing touches at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio in the English countryside, Universal Cry has a range of guest musicians who render the sound broadly appealing: Jamaican bassist Samuel “One Drop” Richards keeps things solidly in the realm of roots, while atmospheric keyboards from Studio One veteran Robbie Lynn lend a “classical” sensibility. Drummer Dean Pond from St Croix infuses an Eastern Caribbean feel, while various overseas guitarists add rock-and-roll elements and a couple of Zulu singers provide scintillating harmonies as well. But does this crew of disparate musicians — especially the high-calibre session guitarists from the rock world — point to a new direction? “Not really,” says Nasio. “The direction is always reggae music and Rastafari; consciousness is upfront. Music have no boundaries; music really is a feeling, the greatest feeling I know, and I’m not stopping no one from searching for elements that can bring out certain vibrations in the music. I think it’s all beneficial for reggae.”
The first single from Universal Cry, “She Lost Track”, warns of the perils of drug abuse; there are traditional Rastafarian prayer songs, and socially relevant protest numbers reminiscent of Culture or Burning Spear. Overall, Nasio emphasises the universality of the music. “The music is a representation of people: the music fight against separation, downpression, and unrighteousness, and the music stand for the people who stand for upfulness. I’m talking about worldwide, so if I’m in Africa, I hear people say the same cry about nuclear weapons and war and starvation, and then you go a London and people still have the same basic concerns, go to the Pacific and the people have the same concerns. This music come talk about these things, so it’s a whole universal cry. The masses are crying the same cry, suffering the same sufferation, regardless what colour, class, or race.”