Today, personally curated by Steve McQueen, ‘Small Axe (Music Inspired By The Original TV Series)’ has arrived via Motown Records UK. Small Axe is the anthology film series by visionary director Steve McQueen, consisting of five films that portray stories from West Indian communities living in London from the 1960s to the 1980s.
This musical accompaniment features covers of iconic tracks from Michael Kiwanuka and Tiana Major9, original score from Mica Levi, spoken word pieces by the renowned Linton Kwesi Johnson, and classic tracks that feature in the series, in their original forms.
Mica Levi’s tracks are sheer instrumental, with the opener ‘Protest’ evoking exactly its title, with an incredible visceral feeling to the drumming and noise. Later, ‘Old Bailey’ is grim, a drawn out piece in spite of lasting less than a minute, squeezing despair into a short length.
Sprinkled throughout the album are spoken word tracks written by Linton Kwesi Johnson, performed by Johnson himself and members of the series’ cast. Most powerful of these is ‘New Crass Massahkah’ spoken by Johnson, a six-minute attack on the way society and the media portrays young Black people, with upbeat reggae punctuating the quiet anger of some of his words. Similarly striking is ‘Uprising’ performed by Sheyi Cole, who starred in ‘Alex Wheatle’, and is a shorter poem but tightly packed with passion, featuring a strong melody and audience participation.
Perhaps most notable on the album are the renditions of iconic songs performed by contemporary artists. Mercury Prize winner Michael Kiwanuka gives a rich version of ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’, easily living up to the versions from legends such as Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin, and US artist Tiana Major9 offers a slick, modern ‘Silly Games’, a track which features heavily in Lovers Rock.
Speaking of Lovers Rock, another highlight from the album is the second version of ‘Silly Games’ present here, taken straight from the movie. Janet Kay’s version is mostly intact, between some dialogue from the movie and an impressive acapella of the song’s ending by the actors, conjuring imagery of the blues party.
Unchanged classics also dot the album, present due to their usage and influence on Small Axe. There’s not much to be said about ‘Pressure Drop’ by Toots & The Maytals and ‘Got To Give It Up’ by Marvin Gaye that hasn’t already been said, but in the flow of the record, their presence is organic, fitting perfectly with the modern covers and spoken word.
As an accompaniment to Small Axe, this record is perfect, capturing so much of the Black joy, beauty, and love present in the movies. Though even more additional original material would have been welcomed due to the excellent performances of Michael Kiwanuka and Tiana Major9, as well as the spoken word poetry by Linton Kwesi Johnson, everything about ‘Small Axe (Music Inspired By The Original TV Series’ feels natural, and the record can stand alone as a separate, thought- provoking piece of art.
Words: Jack Oxford
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