There were dozens of groups like the Melodians in Jamaica in the late ’60s — vocal trios that could harmonize sweetly or testify roughly, and came up through the rock-steady scene that evolved into reggae as we know it, singing love songs over off-beat rhythms. What they came up with after joining forces with Chinese-Jamaican producer Leslie Kong, though, was something different: a slinky, funky, political sing-along that’s also a hymn in disguise.
The song is inspired by the Book of Psalms, one lyric being about homesick slaves longing for revenge, another about hoping for divine approval of the singer’s art. The crucial tweak the Melodians made was changing the the line usually rendered as “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” to “King Alpha’s song.” That’s a Rastafarian turn of phrase: King Alpha is a reference to Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. This is a modern song of exile and a plea for deliverance aimed equally at heaven and the dance floor.
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