THE NAIROBI SISTERS: TAKING YOU TO THE PROMISED LAND

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The Nairobi Sisters: Promised Land (Gay Feet, 1974)

“Funky reggae” is a thing but I’m not one who needs my riddims to be laced with breakbeats. That said…when I first heard “Promised Land” in late 2016, I did think “damn, this is pretty good as a riddim with a back beat.”

I hadn’t realized that the Beatnuts had already made use of the song’s bassline all the way back in ‘92 for Kurious’s “A Mansion and a Yacht.”; it wasn’t until ATCQ looped it for “Whateva Will Be” off We Got It From Here that I took notice.

It’s hard to find much out about who the Nairobi Sisters were. The one factoid mentioned is that at one of them was Sister Terrie Nairobi but whether that was a stage name or legal name is unclear and I’ve yet to turn up much about who the other “sisters” may have been. The (slightly) clearer lineage concerns the other credited group, The Gaytones, originally founded by Judy Mowatt (of future I Threes fame), Beryl Lawrence and Merle Clemonson. The Gaytones backed a variety of artists for producer Sonia Pottinger, including on Gay Feet, the imprint “Promised Land” first came out on albeit listed as the “Narobh Sisters.” At least one source claims that Mowatt herself was one of the Sisters but again, I can’t confirm any of this.

Just to add more layers of mystery, there’s no producer credited on the two Gay Feet releases of the single (1974 and 1974) so while reasonably could assume it was Pottinger, the issue becomes more clouded once you see the song’s other versions appear in 1975. That year, “Promised Land” appeared on two separate labels, on two separate continents. In the UK, it was releaesd on the Jamatel imprint, this time with Winston Jones being credited as both writer and producer. Jones had previously worked with both Pottinger and the Gaytones for the 1973 single “You Make Me Cry” so it’s not unreasonable to imagine that he had a hand in “Promised Land” (though it doesn’t explain why the Gay Feet versions didn’t credit him).

The other “Promised Land” release from ‘75, appearing on the Brooklyn imprint Flames, is possibly the most unique of the bunch. Best as I can tell — and I don’t have all four separate releases to verify this 100% — is that the vocal version of “Promised Land” is identical across all of them. It’s the flipside dub/version on Flames that departs from its siblings. On the original Gay Feet version side, it starts with a stripped down conga/bassline intro before the main beat kicks in and the sax solo, which appears on the A-side, is present here as well. The Flames dub has some major differences:

  1. It uses the same drum roll intro as the A-side rather that conga/bassline intro on the Gay Feet dub.
  2. More importantly, the Flames dub adds a new drum kit. I initially thought it may have simply been a new mix but this absolutely sounds like someone was brought in to redo the drum track as the snare on the dub version is crisp in a way that doesn’t exist on the vocal version and moreover, the drum patterns are different too. It juices the funk factor a few levels.
  3. There’s no sax solo. Instead, you get a drum and bass break during the bridge.

All of which is to say — and perhaps I shouldn’t say this because I own a Gay Feet version but not the Flames — but if you’re going to drop coin on only one copy of this single, you probably want the Flames issue. That said, I don’t want to undersell how great the vocal version — which is the same across all of them, remember — is, in its performance, in the sentiments of lyrics, in the horn section (though that sax solo is take it/leave it to me).

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