Stolen From God is an album that a lot of us have been looking forward to for a long while. Reg Meuross has taken up his narrative style again to bring us a song cycle telling the story of the transatlantic slave trade. In support, Reg has recruited Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne, representing the English corner of the slave triangle I suppose, and Jali Fily Cissokho bringing his kora to represent the African corner. Bristol and Edward Colston come in for a great deal of attention, topical since the toppling of Colston’s statue, but the story isn’t as simple as you might think – remember that Robert Burns, author of ‘The Slave’s Lament’, was also a plantation owner. How do you reconcile that paradox?
The songs here are written from the historical perspective and all of Reg’s skill as a song-writer is brought to bear to avoid tub-thumping and preaching, leaving the facts to tell the stories. Actually this approach makes the points much more eloquently than any ranting would.
Stolen From God begins in 1562 with the story of John Hawkins, one of the founders of the transatlantic slave trade. Telling lines in ‘The Jesus Of Lubeck’, from the mouth of a crew member include “I’m proud to work an honest day for an honest man for an honest pay” and “Her Majesty each man expects to bring the native by your sword or some deceit or holy word”. And so the foundation of the trade is laid down. ‘The Way Of Cain’ cites The Bible as justification for the cruelty inflicted. Reg makes the point that it was illegal to own a slave in England but it was fine to do so overseas. Such hypocrisy.
Englishmen were victims too as ‘England No More’ tells. Barbary corsairs raided the West Country for centuries and the song describes the irony of a former slaver crewman finds himself on the receiving end of the same treatment. Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne is handed the lead vocals on this one. With the benefit of hindsight real irony comes in ‘Good Morning Mr Colston’, a jolly romping tune with concertina and kora laid over Roy Dodds’ percussion and co-producer Tom Jobling’s bass. Again, Reg doesn’t overdo the condemnation and almost, but not quite, paints an even-handed picture. His true meaning is clear, however. The title track, embellished by Dan Baker’s strings, is a slave’s riposte to Colston. ‘Stole Away’ is the story of Olaudah Equiano who bought his freedom and, not surprisingly, became an abolitionist having settled in London. This is the harshest and bitterest song on the record.
‘The Breath Of England’ is another remarkable story of the trial of a slave who absconded and…no, I’ll leave you to find out for yourselves. ‘I Bought Myself An African’ features second vocals by Jali Fily Cissokho and describes how respectable businessmen found themselves dealing in slaves but in contrast ‘Bridgewater’ tells of the one of the first petitions against slavery in 1785 – and how it failed. It’s a thumping song, heavy on the drums with driving melodeon and Reg’s harmonica. ‘Stranger In A Strange Land’ has the feel of a southern gospel song crossed with a 16-bar blues decorated with Reg’s banjo and Jali Fily Cissokho’s kora. It’s the only song set after abolition – a fitting way to close the album.
To summarise, if I can. Stolen From God describes the transatlantic slave trade in a different way, putting the listener in the position of the victims. The songs are direct but make their points subtly and with compassion. The accompaniments are sometimes spare and simple, sometimes full-throated and powerful and great praise must go to Reg’s musical support. If this isn’t one of your albums of the year come awards time you have no soul.
Artist’s website: www.regmeuross.com
‘Good Morning Mr Colston’ – live: