A while ago I stumbled on “In The Dark” by Sonya Spence. I had seen the cover before but somehow this woman clouded in mystery eluded me until recently. And I’m thankful that it found me at the right time to fully appreciate it. When I first got into Reggae I was instantly attracted to Roots style and everything than wasn’t full of dread vibes got pushed aside. Surely but slowly I was warming up to the other styles of Reggae that had an intricate part in the development of the genre as a whole. In retrospect this process made me appreciate the efforts that where pushing the boundaries for Reggae more and more. This is exactly what this album does. At times it almost feels like Country music played by an all Jamaican band. Contrary to the way most of Jamaican artist voiced their lyrics, Sonya has a very fragile voice and mostly concerns herself with love ballads.
Sonya Spence is like her music, a woman clouded in mystery only revealing herself to those who make an effort. After some research I learned that Sonya started to record somewhere in the mid 70’s. She combined a job as a school teacher together with her recording aspirations. Her first two singles “Jet Plane” and “I Love You So” enjoyed some success on the local scene and she soon got the attention from some bigger labels mainly High Note run by Sonia Pottinger.
Teaming up with Sonia Pottinger, one of the few female producers in the male dominated record business, had the advantage she could pursue her own repertoire without being forced to follow what was fashionable at the time. The label had more females to their roster and wasn’t afraid of experimenting with other genres. But even before the collaboration with Sonia Pottinger, she had a distinct preference in the type of songs she wanted to record and the way the music was being recorded. This was evident from the beginning. Her first recording is a cover of a well-known country song and the second a self-penned ballad led by piano with minimal additional instrumentation.
The album starts with the aforementioned “Jet Plane”. Sonya takes a soulful approach in reenacting the Country classic by John Denver. She is only guided by slide guitar and a sparsely played piano, yet she is still able to maintain that warm Country feeling. The follow-up “It Hurts To Be Alone” offers a fuller sound in terms of instrumentation. Yet it is the simplicity in the way the music is being played that gives Sonya’s warm timbre room to take the lead and tell a story about the hardship of being alone.
“I Love You So” enjoyed local success upon release as a single before her time on the High Note label. A wise decision to include it on her debut album as it is a one of the stand-out tracks on the album. As they did with the first song on the album, the arrangement is deliberately kept at a minimum. Sonya speaks in emotion rather than words as her brittle voice slowly fades out at the end of a sentence. The piano picks up where Sonya’s voice slowly retreats and underpins the emotional layer of the lyrics.
The self-penned Caribbean flavored “Damn Him” is about picking yourself up after a break-up. The music is a bit more up-tempo than the previous offerings and features a flute like underbed which evokes a bittersweet feeling. A welcome break from the devotional love songs which, although the light like a feather approach of Sonya, still carries enough weight.
“Make Love To Me In The Dark” is perhaps my favorite track on the album. Sonya’s way of handling the lyrics is what gives this song true depth. Backing vocals are provided by Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths who next to a own successful recording career were members of the I-Threes responsible for the backing vocals of Bob Marley and The Wailers. Rather than taking center stage, Sonya is able to make you feel she is right next to you whispering softly.
The rework “No Charge” starts with a conversation in which her sister’s son demands allowance for the tasks he has done that day. The mother reacts in writing that she took no charge in bearing and raising him. The song is originally written by Harlan Howard and enjoyed some success in the 70’s. It is at least remarkable that a man wrote this song about the feelings of a woman carrying a child. Nonetheless, the song carries an important message.
The second track on the flipside named “Peace & Unity” is another highlight on the album. In contrary to the previous offerings on the album, this is a so-called sufferers song and was well aligned with what was popular at the time. A rolling bass line coupled with a steady one drop beat. The short bursts of the horn section supporting the rhythm guitar ensures it is full of dread vibes. Sonya voice suits the music perfectly and carry enough authority to be taken seriously.
Sonya’s music never brought her the success she so desired and after various attempts this woman clouded in mystery faded from the scene forever. Just as her music, Sonya’s life was full of loneliness and uncertainty but never without hope. Drug abuse and liver failure ultimately lead up to her dead at the young age of 54. This album is a testament of her talents as a singer and her words linger on with the hope she found some light at the end.
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