Since the death of Bob Marley, numerous Third World performers have been proposed to succeed him as the world’s leading reggae exponent. Ziggy Marley is one obvious choice; Alpha Blondy (born Kone Seydou) is another, more unusual, candidate. For starters, Blondy is from the Ivory Coast; he performs reggae in French, English, Hebrew, Arabic and other African languages. Rather than Rasta and Jah, he sings about the Middle East and South Africa, on records which he writes, produces and arranges himself. He’s enormously popular in Europe and Africa, where he tours frequently. Because of his global success, Blondy has come to signify the internationalization of reggae as a music and phenomenon — the true world beat.
Blondy’s LPs — beginning with 1982’s Jah Glory, later issued in France — are genuinely exciting, and should definitely be heard. Among his first few American releases, Jerusalem has the slight edge, if only because the Wailers play behind him (strengthening the comparisons to Marley) and they always sound so good. On Apartheid Is Nazism, he’s backed by members of his touring group, the Solar System Band, who are less distinctive but just as tight. The Best of Alpha Blondy contains both arrangements, offering such exemplary tracks as “Cocody Rock,” “Apartheid Is Nazism,” “I Love Paris” and “Jerusalem.” Combining roots rhythms and exotic foreign lyrics, the music is at once familiar and strange, but its depth of feeling never falters, and needs no translation. Delightfully haunting — this is reggae and then some.
Moving to a major American label, Blondy made the weird-sounding The Prophets, dedicating it to the planet Earth. Mixing synthesizers, horns, a female chorus and way too much reverb, he deftly shifts in and out of reggae rhythms with political and religious songs in English, French and Dioula. Adventurous but a bit too odd, The Prophets is not the ideal ticket to broaden Blondy’s audience.