Project Blackbird released Shake These Trees’ to coincide with Juneteenth, the historical marker of the abolition of slavery in the United States which, as of this year, has been made an official holiday in the US. It’s taken from their second album If This Is The End which came out earlier this year. The track also features as special guest the founding member and guitarist of The Specials, Lynval Golding*.
There is a light, bubbling quality to the start of the track like pop that has been marinaded in jazz. But as the lyrics unfold into the soaring chorus of “I Can’t Breathe” there is the chilling realisation that the song relates to the issues that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. The song was actually written shortly before the murder of George Floyd and it’s a terrible indictment of excessive police force that it has also been the last words of Eric Garner (in 2014), Elijah McClain (2019), Javier Ambler, Manuel Ellis, and most recently George Floyd (all in 2020). Lynval Golding’s voice doesn’t just add gravity to the line “I Can’t Breathe” but the call and response of his voice with Project Blackbird’s singer Ming Nagel brings a glorious third voice that echoes the unity the song strives for.
The production is warm and as a clear as a mountain stream and musicality of Project Blackbird is always exemplary: from the crisp guitar playing of Alan Roberts, the pinpoint bass playing of Jamie Varley, the Steve Gadd-like tightness of Dave Tidmarsh on drums to Jon Read’s ability to find the perfect horn line and the subtle beauty of Ming’s spoken/sung vocals. The test of a great ‘message song’ is that it has to be a great song first; think of ‘Sun City’, ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ or ‘Biko’. If you are hooked in by the song, then you will be more inclined to go with the message and ‘Shake These Trees’ is an exemplar of this. It doesn’t just have the overt statement – “I Can’t Breathe” – but it is coupled with the understated power of the political drawn out in Ming’s lyrical poetry (see the lyrics below the video). I can also highly recommend their album If This Is The End.
Shake These Trees – LYRICS
If there is aught that can release a better dawn / then let it shake these trees and sing / “action is eloquence” // sister, mother / father, brother / friend or stranger / we need each other /hands above your head where I can see / hands up, get down on your knees / hands above your head where I can see / hands up, get down on your knees // (shake these trees) / hey don’t touch me / I’m minding my own business / (shake these trees) / hey don’t touch me / hey don’t touch me / ‘cause I’m down on my knees / got no weapon / just trying to get home / got no weapon on me // got my hands up and I’m on my knees / got my hands up, I can’t breathe / got my hands up and I’m underneath / got them up but I can’t breathe // (shake these trees) / hey don’t touch me / stop resisting / (shake these trees) / we can end this / stop resisting // muscle, blood, spit, bone – ambition, guilt, breath, brain / imagination, vulnerability, hope – weakness, rage, trust, pain / hustle, hatred, love – silence – so much fear / what makes us human? / and what makes us unspeakable?
*Trumpet/Flugel players and keyboardist Jon Read has toured with The Specials for years so regularly chats to Lynval Golding and he talks about how Lynval became involved with the project on Uncle Frank’s show on BBC Radio Leicester (from 2h 33m).
Review by Paul F Cook