Nanna by Xavier Rudd and The United Nations, released on March 17, 2015 in North and South America on the Nettwerk label, is the latest release from Australia’s multi-instrumentalist Rudd. However, unlike previous albums, this CD sees him accompanied by a full band for the first time. While he’s occasionally been joined by a drummer and bassist in the studio or on the road, he’s been best known as a kind of one-man band – playing drums with his feet, lap guitar and yidaki (indigenous Australian instrument often wrongly called didgeridoo). So the multinational nine-piece band joining him now is quite a change of pace.
What hasn’t changed is Rudd’s ability to create message-oriented songs where the music is just as important as the lyrics without detracting from the ideas he’s trying to express. At various points in his career Rudd has shown an affinity for reggae music, including a wonderful cover of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” on his second release Solace. So it shouldn’t shock anyone that he’s taken the opportunity of working with The United Nations to make what is primarily a reggae album. For those familiar with his previous discs, the themes of living in harmony with nature and respect for indigenous peoples and their beliefs expressed on this release shouldn’t be a surprise either. He has never shied away from singing about what he’s passionate about; however, this album takes it to a whole new level.
In fact, some people might be a little off-put by the message he’s expressing. It runs pretty much counter to almost everything you read or hear in the media today. Instead of propagating commercialism or expressing a political agenda, his songs are advocating finding a better way to live. On the disc’s 10th track, “Warrior”, he sings, “If she could take him by the hand/And together they could change the world/Abolish greed from every man/And spread their medicine throughout the world/And every sun would rise and fall/And restore complete balance on the earth/A brand new chance for one and all”.
His songs aren’t just about saving the planet, they’re also about personal growth, and learning how to live with yourself or with others. Both the first single from the release, “Come People” (track four) and “Struggle” (track 11) express this on various levels. In the latter he says, “One two three four/Positively close the door/Five six seven eight/Spread your light radiate/I’m moving slowly/Positive diligent/What other people think of you/Is none of your business”.
Some of you are probably squirming in your seats after reading those two quotes. What kind of new age clap trap is this guy spouting? However, step back a second, and think about what’s going on in the world these days. Governments in North America and Australia are continuing their practices of expropriating land granted to their respective indigenous populations in order to exploit them for natural resources. In the process the land is being rendered unusable because of pollution and the disruption of ecosystems.
People are killing each other all over the world because of religion and the desire to impose their point view on everybody else. As a species we are rapidly descending into a place where the world is divided into those who oppose us and those who are with us. So, just maybe, a voice which pleas for understanding and unity, no matter how he says it, deserves to be listened to without judgement or cynicism.
The other thing you have to consider is the sincerity of the person behind the message. Rudd has never shied away from his indigenous spiritual roots (he’s of mixed Aboriginal and European decent). The songs on this release are simply the most open he’s ever been in expressing them. However, he’s not saying they are the only way of being, he’s just asking us to not to ignore what we can learn from people who have a close spiritual connection to the planet. As he says on the CD’s fifth track, “Sacred”, “I believe we are one and we are sacred”, stressing his belief there is common ground between all people if we’re only willing to look for it.
Something which listeners in North America and Europe may not be familiar with are the references to indigenous Australian spirituality. Even some of the language used in songs is unique to its people – in fact, the language sung in the disc’s title song, “Nanna”, Jandai, is considered extinct. Which is ironic considering the lullaby was written and sung by Georgia Corowa, one of United Nations’ vocalists.
Adding to the disc’s Australian flavour is the fact the majority of the band are from either Australia or some of its neighbouring islands in the South Pacific. Aside from Rudd and Corowa, Chris Lane, flute, Peter Hunt, trumpet, Alicia Mellor, vocals and Uncle Eddie Elias, keyboards are all from Australia, with the latter two having connections with Papua New Guinea as well. Percussionist/drummer Bobby Alu is from Samoa originally, while Tio Lerothodi Moloantoa on bass is South African and Yeshe Reiners, world percussion and ngoni (African stringed instrument) was born in Germany. Each of them bring their own musical experiences and backgrounds to the album, and this combination is what distinguishes it from your typical reggae recording.
For while the unmistakeable reggae backbeat and syncopation can be heard in most of the songs, Rudd and company do a fine job of adding new flavours to an old recipe. Some of the songs have more of a calypso swing to them, while others aren’t going to be easily defined as any one particular genre. The end result is a beautiful polyphonic mix of sound which seems to provide the perfect vehicle for Rudd’s lyrics.
The message on Nanna by Xavier Rudd and The United Nations is not going to be everyone’s taste. Some might think it too idealistic or too radical. However, in a world full of radical problems, radical solutions which don’t advocate violence or hatred shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Whatever you might think of this disc, musically or lyrically, there can be no denying the passion and belief permeating it. This is a great album of wonderful music and thought-provoking lyrics. If you come to it with an open mind, it might just change your heart.
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