I’ve never been to the Seychelles, and always assumed that I wouldn’t. In my head, I had filed it alongside such fanciful destinations as Shangri La or Atlantis or The Bounty Advert. Places I could never get to.
Pal of mine, he gets about, though. He does films. He was out in the Seychelles a bit back, and the place properly knocked him out. During his wanderings around the island he heard a song playing on a local radio station and decided he wanted to use it in his film, so he set about finding the musicians. He eventually got put in touch with Jahna Ranks and the Jah Bless Crew. Hospitality was extended, accepted and enjoyed. Songs were sung, films were made, friendships cemented. This was about a year ago now.
Last week one of the Jah Bless Crew came to Hull on a return visit. The other day my pal asked me if I’d like to meet her. He knew I was a reggae head and he said her album was good. So two days later she called round for a cup of tea.
Jahna Ranks is a well-known female artist on her own patch. She’s released five albums and countless mix tapes, most of which have found their way into every discerning home in the Seychelles. Some of those albums have been with The Jah Bless Crew – Champion, Blondie Ranks, Jazz La Ton and Kiddosi, Jahna’s writing and life partner. Her latest long player, “Searching” was recorded in Kenya with various Jah Bless members and other guest musicians and collaborators. She has also played gigs in Germany, South Africa, London and Kingston Upon Hull. “Searching” is a record that she says will “look out beyond the Seychelles to the rest of the world”. It is also the first of her albums where all the lyrics are in English.
I decide against putting the CD on while we’re sat chatting. The last time someone came round my gaff and insisted I listened to their CD in their company, it turned out to be a thumping folk-rock workout by a frightening boy-girl combo with matching motorcycle crash helmet haircuts and a fixation on The Corrs. So I keep the disc in its case and put the kettle on.
I tell her I’ve never been to the Seychelles and ask what it’s like.
Paradise, she says.
What, really? Like how you imagine heaven to be?
Exactly like that, she says.
I ask her what she sings about.
Everyday people, she replies. The voice of the people, the book of life, the Bible. Or rather, the “lost Bible” Kebra Negast, which is favoured by followers of Rastafari.
She tells me she’s on a journey, a mission to spread her music around the world to “make God proud … make the people of the Seychelles proud.”
I ask her what she would do if she sold millions of record worldwide. She says that her heart is in Africa, and that she would help the starving children of Africa.
What about Live Aid?
It failed, she said.
Because the leaders are corrupt.
All of them, she says.
Jahna starts singing one of her tunes, “What Dem Fighting For?”
Does she think music can change the world? It can change people, she says. Positive righteous music can energise and inspire. You start changing the world by changing people, she says.
I ask her what if she became a massive superstar and made loads of money.
The blessings are more important than any money, she says.
Jahna says she wants to write the perfect song about peace and love. That’s her ultimate ambition, to distil these sentiments into a simple and profound truth that can touch people in every corner of the planet.
"The last time someone came round my gaff and insisted I listened to their CD it turned out to be a thumping folk-rock workout by a boy-girl combo with matching motorcycle crash helmet haircuts."
We talk about reggae for a bit. I play her The Clash’s version of “Police and Thieves”. She’s never heard it before. She likes it, but doesn’t recognise the tune. I put on Junior Murvin’s original. We listen backwards and forwards between the two. She tells me about the Seychelles record industry which seems to be set up in much the same way the old Jamaican record industry was fabled to operate: powerful local promoters, select DJs and cash hungry producers running the show, with varying degrees of integrity. She’s had her share of trouble, she says.
Jahna talks about her mission to go all over the planet spreading her music. But this is not said with the usual demented X Factor style dedication to self-promotion. There is no desperation here; Jahna just says the words with a smile of quiet and calm self-belief. She says she will never give up, and I believe her.
We have some cheese sandwiches and a game of football in the back yard with my little lad. She’s got a handy left foot and knows where the goal is.
Later on, when Jahna has gone, I put the album on. First sign of a penny whistle, I think and, it’s going straight in the bin.
Well, she can certainly sing. She sounds a bit like Beverley Knight. At first, Jahna’s influences are all fairly easy to spot - Lauren Hill, Marley, bits of hip-hop and dance hall. But after living with the songs for a few days the record grows and unfolds, it finds its own voice, and becomes something else - a personal testament of hopes, fears and beliefs set to beautifully bubbling music that’s always spare, considered and infectious. Like a lot of Jamaican influenced music, it’s ultimately an extended personal prayer to Jah, but one that skips, shimmers and two-step glimmers across about ten different musical styles And always with the human condition at the core of each song. And in doing so, it not only transcends its influences, it grows wings, takes flight and soars above them.
There’s sad and stately gossip pop here in the shape of “More Muney”, the most achingly beautiful song I’ve heard about being skint since Toots and The Maytals' “Time’s Tough” But there’s exuberance too, the Creole meets Kenya dance step of “Semana O”, and “Real Loverman”, which demands a man who is “a leader not a playa.” The importance of positive male role models is touched on again in the gut wrenching “Daddy” a song that opens bare the rawest of wounds, only to heal them up safely again with tears of joy. If you don’t feel this music touching your heart, then you probably haven’t got one.
Parts of “Searching” are just sublime, like Van Morrison sharing a spliff with Candi Staton while a radio plays classic pop music in the background. It’s a long prayer to the creator of the world in the shape of an exuberant love song enthralled by love, nature and the simple joy of being alive in a world you can never understand.
I’ve never been to the Seychelles. But if I ever did, I imagine that this is what it would sound like.