Some reggae musicians have such respect for the roots of the genre that they can’t help but embody the forefathers. Modern reggae, especially the most popular stuff, has deviated in often exciting and creative ways through rock and pop influences. No problem there, but Christos DC is about as old school as the new school can get. Throughout Tessera, the instrumentation is slow, meditative, rich with skank, precision bass, and warm harmonies. Listen back-to-back with the likes of Israel Vibration, Burning Spear, and Kiddus I, and you’ll hear the direct influences.
And in true reggae fashion, the instrumentation is upful, groovy, even sexy; the messages and stories are often pregnant with fear-but-hope for the future, calls to action, and discussions on the Times.
Tessera means “fourth” in Greek, Christos DC’s heritage. He’s blended the values and culture of his ancestors with those of Jamaica and Africa, and has interwoven his current culture- the D.C./Philly area. In fact, Christos DC is responsible for developing the now-thriving reggae scene in that part of our country, as a producer and promoter. I hadn’t been aware that he too was such a prominent musician, but he’s got the vibes, man, and complete control over the sound.
His voice rarely reaches above a gritty whisper, but he doesn’t need the strongest pipes to convey deep emotion, sounding yearningly sorrowful on most tracks. This is not a blast-in-your-car-on-the-way-to-the-beach kind of album; it’s a sit and breathe kind of album, and those are few and far between.
“Life” is a highlight. The rock steady loop and the quiet horns shuffle in. “You want what you wish for,” he begins, “but you take what you’re handed/ Your works will be contested/ if you choose to be progressive.” This is the sort of poetic glue that holds Tessera together, here speaking undoubtedly to Christos DC’s own struggles to bring reggae into the modern ranks. “Yesterday is gone,” he suggests; “tomorrow may never come.”
Following, “The Desperate Ones” is one of the most upbeat songs on the list. “They hold each other’s hands/ Walk without a sound,” Christos paints the scene. The snare flare of the drums and the vibrant horns move this love song along beautifully. “They watch their dreams go down/behind the setting sun/ They walk without a sound.”
This perfect blend of classic reggae verbiage and modern creativity isn’t lost on this critic’s ear; the art of doing so is subtle enough on Tessera that I almost missed it, and of course it’s not omnipresent. Sometimes Christos drops the push for the same traditional lyricisms of those greats listed above.
He also takes on a traditional Greek song, “Ρολόι κομπολόι (Watch Rosary)”, which he performs in such a way that makes you think the song was always meant to be roots reggae laced with flute. (You can look up the original and hear how Christos made the correct assumption that this transcription could be done seamlessly.)
Tessera also features a cover of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”. Once again, it’s a wonder this song didn’t start as reggae. “Say What You Want” and “Pressure” are other standout tracks, but a true joy is “Communion”, featuring Kenyatta Hill and Harrison Stafford- two other musicians I’d add to the roots/contemporary pantheon. These heroes of sound have damn-near mastered the use of strict reggae song construction. All three also have unique and pretty voices; (even Kenyatta’s rusty grit infatuates). “Communion of the mind,” Christos strikes in the chorus, “is the union of the heart.” Kenyatta adds, “Mr. Jacket-and-tie/Why you keep telling us lies?” and Harrison’s voice, always welcome and rarely heard outside of Groundation, offers, “Selassie I made a speech to the nation/ rejecting segregation… All JAH people/ throw out the evil.” With singers like this, even when the lyrics aren’t too original, their soulfulness spellbinds.
Tessera is not overly mind-melting, but it’s also not pretentious, ugly, or passive. It’s just a very pretty-sounding album with nicely developed songs. Amen.