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Ben E. Hunter, Soul Avenger (Independent)

Offbeat Magazine

While the reggae scene in New Orleans has ebbed and flowed over several decades, guitarist and singer/songwriter Ben E. Hunter has been a stalwart leader since its early years. His latest album, Soul Avenger, is a twelve-song collection that highlights the hallmarks of his long career—powerful songs, righteous conviction, and great production values.

As the leader of Crucial Roots and Plantation Posse, Hunter had a high profile in the city prior to a ten-year hiatus for personal reasons. He was a major figure on the fertile Frenchmen Street scene of the 1990s and appeared on the cover of the June 1994 issue of OffBeat magazine. In addition to recording in Jamaica, Hunter was part of the Bob Marley Festival Tour for five years and played at the Reggae Sunsplash festival in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

His latest release is the third is a series of recordings he has dubbed “New Orleans Afro-Caribbean Folk Music.” Drawing from local traditions and his deep roots in conscious music, the songs lean heavily towards reggae, but other elements creep in lyrically and instrumentally upon repeated listening.

The call-and-response vocals, led by the outstanding Suzanne Couch, especially on one of the album’s centerpieces, “Big Easy,” reflect both the Black Indian tradition as well as classic dub reggae. “Take Me In Your Arms” percolates with an uptempo beat, a scintillating groove and an irresistible repeating guitar refrain. The snare drum at the start of “Shake Baby” could lead off any brass band tune.

The album features two covers, and both reflect Hunter’s deep understanding of songwriting conventions. Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” turns into a slow syncopated funk workout and Bertram Saulter’s harmonica grounds Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” while Hunter’s plaintive vocals allow him to make the song his own.

With Soul Avenger, Hunter continues to solidify his place in the New Orleans musical pantheon of musicians not tied to the limited genres that define the city across the world.

—Jay Mazza

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