Ben E. Hunter – Soul Avenger, 2021.
Ben E. Hunter has been active as a performing artist on the New Orleans reggae and folk/acoustic scene for many years now. He was born in Treme, New Orleans’ African-American district, and although his musical tastes include Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac as well as blues and jazz, his life changed when he attended a Peter Tosh concert in the early 1980s.
A Burning Spear concert he attended also had a big impact on his musical tastes : “From then on I would go to every show I could go but what really did it for me was Burning Spear. He came to this club called Jimmy’s, uptown, and just his whole approach, you know, he was so tense. He had sweat pants on, and he had this raincoat which was almost like torn, like he just came off the street, and he gave such a powerful performance”.
In 1991, Ben released his first album, entitled A Freedom Song, and the video for his acoustic number “I Remember” won the first place for music video at the Louisiana Film Festival in 1991.
In 1992 Ben’s second album, Reality Check, was released and was recorded with the Crucial Roots Band, a local reggae band he had been collaborating with for some time. In the early 1990s they appeared regularly at Cafe Brasil in New Orleans, doing both covers versions and originals.
In the 1990s Ben took part in the Bob Marley Fest tour, which was a good platform for his art and allowed him to play in such places as Phoenix, Arizona, and to meet such reggae luminaries as Joe Higgs. Out of this experience came the Live Intergalactic album which was recorded on that tour.
In 2005 Ben was forced to leave his native New Orleans because of the havoc caused by Hurricane Katrina and moved to Los Angeles :” I had friends over there, actually the guy who shot my first video over here, and I wanted to do certain things for Katrina. And then this guy came to me saying he wanted to do a video. So I wrote a song but that never panned out. So we did a documentary and on that video I did a song”. Ben ended up being the subject of a documentary entitled Baptized at Katrina : A Refugee Story”. His exile led to the recording of an album entitled Traveler : A Healing Album for the City of New Orleans (2008) which is really a love song to his home town.
Recorded at various studios like Jack Ruby’s in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, Homebass Studio,Hollywood, Florida, and Echo Beach Studio, Jupiter, Florida, Ben E Hunter’s lastest album, Soul Avenger, came out in May 2021 and continues the tradition that Hunter started so many years ago, mixing New Oorleans’ mutlifarious inlfuences with Jamaican reggae to produce what he calls “Afro-Caribbean Folk Music”.
The album is composed of twelve tracks, ranging from roots reggae to more romantic material, also taking in jazz and blues influences. The opening track, “Sould Avenger”, hits very hard with its portrayal of a society in which violence and poverty rule and in which the youths found themselves on the streets. In style and orientation, it is in the Jamaican conscious reggae tradition with the “soul avenger” as prophet testifying about the state of the society he lives in.
The track entitled “War and Lies” is cast in the same mould as Hunter the fact that the streets are “full of drugs and gunplay”.
The more romantic material includes “Take Me”, “All I Live For”, and “Love’s Last Stand” and shows that Hunter can work in various reggae-based traditions without sticking to roots reggae.
Two covers make the album quite memorable and exceptional: Hunter recorded his own versions of Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman”, an inconic tune from the psychedelic 1960s, and Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”.
One of the most endearing tracks on the album is “The Big Easy” on which Hunter sings about his native New Orleans where life “is not so easy”. It is a wonderfully evocative track with dubby sound effects like echo and a blues sound on top. It all works very well and, as Hunter knows very well, the roots of Jamaican music go back to the various musical traditions that developed in New Orleans with artist like Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew. Later on, of course, the Neville Brothers would continue the tradition with their wondferful Yellow Moon album.
Hunter’s deep voice is quite expressive ; evoking Winston Rodney (Burning Spear) and Junior Byles at times, while his willingness to tell it like it is brings to mind the late Peter Tosh.
Overall a very satisfying album bringing together Jamaica and New Orleans in a potent combination style.