Reimagined and/or stripped-down versions of original albums can be a hit-and-miss venture but in this case, the endeavor is a worthy one. Fantastic Negrito’s acoustic version is entitled Grandfather Courage from his 2022 White Jesus Black Problems. That’s because, as compelling as the story is, the original’s dense sonics often obscured many of the lyrics. This version allows this remarkable story to breathe more freely and become more easily digestible as he chronicles an amazing real-life story from 270 years ago, elements of which are still painfully relevant today.
It’s the true story of Negrito’s seventh-generation white Scottish grandmother (Grandma Gallamore), an indentured servant, living in a common law marriage with his seventh-generation African American enslaved grandfather (Grandfather Courage); in open defiance of the racist, separatist, laws of 1750s colonial Virginia. The prevailing love story also touches on themes that still ring incisively true today, almost three hundred years later when grappling with racism, caste culture, capitalism, and the inherent human need for freedom at almost any cost.
Having unearthed all this genealogical material, Negrito in a little more than a year wrote nearly fifty tracks, eventually culling them down to thirteen songs, including the interludes, on the original. Grandfather Courage retains nine of those songs but opens with two new ones. Negrito claims to have reimagined the story through his touring band. The highlights here are the reworking of “Oh Betty” which received a Grammy nomination for Best American Roots performance, along with a new version, sans percussion, of “Highest Bidder.” Negrito claims that the track represents what he sees walking the streets of Oakland.
The piano-driven opener, “Drifting Away,” gently sways as Negrito sis in practically a falsetto voice over a light hip-hop groove, building to a crescendo as the song unfolds. Like the opener on the original, the vocals symbolize a feeling of freedom before being forced into slavery status as the violent beats of the following “Locked Down” represent. As previously stated, this version of the caustic “Highest Bidder” tones down the chanting and the African rhythms with a hand-clapped infectious beat, allowing the lyrics to come through with more clarity (‘everything-even human dignity goes to the highest bidder”). The most significant transformation through occurs with “They Go Low,” extended to a fully 11-minute all-instrumental with a lengthy orchestral intro, a saxophone solo, and an eerie orchestral movement that blossoms into brassy improvised jazz.
“Nibbadip” returns to the crisp hip-hop beat, bringing a joyous vibe through female background singers with lyrics pulled directly from Gallamore’s arrest record for “unlawfully cohabitating with a negro slave.” Now, we’re back to the duality – love on one hand, power, greed, and caste rule on the other. The couple is fighting vigorously to escape the system which is both confining and crushing. In this light, Negrito emotively sings “Betty,” about his grandfather, this time with a jazzy piano in the break. Akin to the original, “Man with No Name” channels a James Brown-like vocal in an impassioned will to survive and rise above the system. Musically “You Better Have a Gun” is softer, almost like a lullaby put to a hip-hop beat, but the message itself is clear – love can survive even the most brutal violence. “Trudoo” begins as an upbeat shuffle and morphs into a gleeful expression of freedom. The basis for “In My Head’ is Negrito’s narrative that the best music has come from the oppressed, set to yet another irresistible dance groove. The closing, guitar-picked “Virginia Soil,” is transformed into a gospel-like hymn nodding to the black and white ancestors that paved the way – “I’m gonna dance so freedom will come.”
The emotional pendulum of anger and joy is more nuanced in this version but arguably does a better job of delivering Negrito’s compelling story and poignant messages.