I have this wonderful memory from the early 1980s in Toronto, Ontario Canada. I was standing on a subway platform waiting for the train to pull into the station when a Rastafarian man descended the stairs at the far end. With his hair piled on top of his head crammed into a hat and his erect carriage, he looked to be well over seven feet tall. He proceeded to stroll across the platform beaming with delight as if there were no other place he'd rather be than this particular station. As he pulled abreast of me he inclined his head in a regal nod and without breaking his stride let a small brown envelope slip from his hand and fall at my feet. He continued his passage through the station to the stairs at the other end of the platform and ascended with the same airy grace that had marked his entire passage.
At some point during the mid to late 1970s the political situation in Kingston Jamaica became so volatile that many people left the island country and sought asylum in Toronto. Not only did they bring with them their love of Reggae and Calypso music, many of the people who moved north were also musicians and they formed the nucleus of what became a thriving Reggae scene. Having our own Reggae scene in Toronto meant that there was enough local interest for stores to stock music from bands in England and Jamaica. The first album that made an impression on me was the soundtrack to the movie The Harder They Come featuring Jimmy Cliff, Toots And The Maytels, and other bands from the streets of Kingston, Jamaica.
From there it was only a short step to Bob Marley And The Wailers, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, Black Uhuru, and Steel Pulse. It's been more then thirty years since I heard my first Reggae album and a lot of water has flowed under a lot bridges. Marley and Tosh are both dead, Marley from brain cancer and Tosh gunned down in his home, and the heady days of political activism which saw the alliance of Punk and Reggae bands in the fight against racism are long gone.
So it was with some curiosity, and not a little trepidation, that I slid the DVD of the documentary Steel Pulse: Door Of No Return from MVD Video into my DVD player. Originally formed back in 1975, Steel Pulse had been one of the first British-born Reggae bands and right from the start had made it clear they weren't interested in compromising their sound, their beliefs, or their politics for anybody. Thirty years is a long time for any band, or anybody for that matter, to stay true to who they were and what they wanted to accomplish when they first started. Were Steel Pulse still the same band that took part in the 1978 "Rock Against Racism" concert in London's Victoria Park alongside The Clash, The Tom Robinson Band, and others?
Some of the faces may have changed among the band's members, but judging by the music and the message that comes across in Door Of No Return the soul and the spirit of the band haven't changed a bit. Directed by Michel Moreau, the documentary follows the band from a benefit concert for Amnesty International 1999 in Senegal to a subsequent tour of the United States, side trips in Africa, and a trip back to the streets of Birmingham where the band was formed. The documentary includes footage from both the concert in Senegal and their tour across the United States. Yet, just as interesting are the interviews with individual band members that sees them reflecting back on what the trip to Africa meant to them, and what it means to be part of a band like Steel Pulse.
For founding member David Hinds the band represents more than just a vehicle for playing music. In interviews with him during this film it becomes obvious that he feels he has an obligation to his audiences to be "uplifting;" informing them about African history – emotionally and intellectually, inspiring them to believe that a better world is possible, and singing about political issues that are important the world over. The chance to play a human rights concert in Africa, like the Amnesty International benefit in Senegal, was for him an opportunity for Steel Pulse to put their philosophy into action, and for the band to contribute to something larger than themselves.
It was interesting to listen to some of the younger members of the band describing how they see Steel Pulse as a multigenerational family. Back up vocalist Donna Sterling was the newest member of the band when the film was shot. She talked about how she was learning from the senior members of the band about the world and life, and that one day it would be her responsibility to pass that knowledge along to those who joined the band after her. It's in this manner that Steel Pulse has been able to maintain a continuity of intent that so many bands lose, and will ensure that future versions of the band will carry on what was started in 1975.
Musically the band remains the same interesting mix they've always been. They start with a solid Reggae core and add on top of that touches of Rhythm & Blues, Jazz, and Rap. Of course there's always been a strong Rap tradition in Reggae music with dance hall masters like Yellowman rhyming over music long before it became super popular in North America. Steel Pulse uses Rap as a break in their songs that allows them to step out and address the audience directly about an issue.
The songs that are included in the movie, and the two extra pieces of concert footage in the special features section, offer some good glimpses of the band in action. What's really quite amazing is that not only are they musically exciting to watch and listen to, they are a message band who don't let the message get in the way of the music, or being entertaining to watch and listen to. Somehow they strike the perfect balance so that the point of the song is clear, but you never feel like you're being beaten with a stick to get the point.
Steel Pulse: Door Of No Return is a great record of a great band that will provide old fans the opportunity to catch up with some old friends, and those who aren't familiar with them a chance to get to know them for the first time. Presented in both 5.1 and stereo Dolby sound, the DVD will look and sound good on most systems and makes for intelligent and fun viewing; just like the band.