Roger Steffens likes to recall the day in 1973 when he found out about reggae music in a Rolling Stone article by Australian journalist Michael Thomas. Steffens plunged into his lifelong passion for reggae when he zoomed in on Thomas’s statement that it “crawls into your bloodstream like some vampire amoeba from the psychic rapids of Upper Niger consciousness." Since he first heard Bob Marley’s debut album Catch a Fire, the writer, actor, radio host, and brilliant raconteur has become a reggae authority with a worldwide reputation, author of several books about Marley, the guardian of a gigantic personal archive of reggae material, and friend of many Jamaican musicians. Marley called Steffens “Ras Rojah.”
Reggae music sprang from calypso-like Mento, quick-footed Ska, and Ska’s relaxed follow-up, Rocksteady. Driven by chunky bass lines and skanking off beats called “onedrop,” reggae mashes up African inspirations with r & b, blues, soul, jazz, and Latin accents.
As Steffens said during the multi-media show he dropped at 2013’s Montreal International Reggae Festival, a musical form created on a tiny island shot past every possible boundary and rooted everywhere. From Scandinavia to Japan to Israel, which some say hosts more reggae performances than Jamaica itself, millions link to reggae’s churning beat and verbal eloquence.
“One good thing about music when it hits, you feel no pain,” sings Bob Marley. From old-time church songs to roots reggae to brash dancehall tracks hyped at last night’s parties, music frees Jamaicans. When slavery finally ended, they suffered British colonialism (still in place when reggae popped), and following independence, a toxic mix of government corruption and grinding deprivation. Violence plagues JA (although not any worse than big American cities, Jamaicans tell you), and yet it has long been a creative wellspring for the English-speaking Caribbean and the world.
Jamaican singer Tessanne Chin, recent winner of NBC TV’s competition, The Voice, is one of innumerable stunningly talented vocalists on an island where music is everywhere all the time, and almost everybody sings. In the afterglow of creating Arcade Fire’s new album Reflektor in Jamaica and Haiti, the band’s leader Win Butler said that no matter how hard AF tries, it can only hope to emulate people who make music like they breathe.
Richie Spice in Montreal
Jamaican music tells you all you need to know about the country’s wild swings between blessed love and smoldering anger, sweet laughter and bitter hopelessness. It shouts out their drive to survive, fierce self-assertion and craving for pleasure, beauty, and wild celebration. Freedom at all levels.
During slavery days, Britain’s treatment of the human property it shipped to Jamaica’s staggeringly lucrative sugar cane plantations was a gold standard for brutality, worse than even Louisiana’s. When England ranked as number one slave trader in the world, refined British ladies and gentlemen were not even dimly aware of the misery their country inflicted for the sake of sweet tea in their porcelain cups. Moreover, British cultural institutions must have benefitted from the vast revenue that sugar brought in. Ian Thomson in The Dead Yard, his disturbing book about the tragedy in the island’s past and present, writes about a notorious nineteenth century slavemaster who dealt with the disobedient by subjecting them to what he wittily referred to as “extravagant pain.”
Thomson reports that following abolition, Governor Edward Eyre suppressed a Jamaican social justice movement so viciously that even nineteenth century British toffs found him distasteful. Some, like John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, and Thomas Huxley, thought he should be tried for murder. Meanwhile, Charles (“God Bless Us Every One”) Dickens backed the Governor as a bulwark against the anti-empire “savagery” he feared, as did Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and Alfred (“Red in Tooth and Claw”) Tennyson.
In his day, seminal horror novelist Matthew Lewis (The Monk) worried about the suffering of slaves on his family’s Jamaican Sugar plantation and tried to ease their plight, but of course did not free them. Lewis freaked out his pals Lord Byron and the Shelleys when he filled them in on where sugar came from. Samuel Johnson, bless him, who ensured the well-being of his butler, an ex-slave, and left the man all his assets, horrified the chattering twits at a dinner party by toasting the violent slave revolt in Haiti. And Billy Blake, an abolitionist, wrote: “Let the slave grinding at the mill run out into the field;/Let him look up into the Heavens and laugh in the bright air.”
Although reggae emerged in the aftermath of this nightmarish history, it never went all nihilistic and Sid Vicious, like the angry white boys who formed punk bands at the time Marley and other performers were going international. In contrast to punk’s enraged flailing, you could say, as Roger Steffens does, “Reggae is the beat of the healthy human heart at rest.” (Ironically, punk bands like The Clash were infatuated with reggae, and of course Sting and The Police mimicked its rhythms.)
From its inception, reggae music linked up to the anti-colonial, back-to Africa, enlightenment-seeking Rastafari movement that originated in the 1930’s. It became the only widely popular recent music to transmit religious and political beliefs, and many other outgoing messages. Jah-struck roots reggae (or “culture,” pronounced “culcha”) works like gospel music.
All Black American and Caribbean music flows from the church - Pentecostal, Baptist, Revival. Artists from backup singers to full-tilt geniuses like Ray Charles, Charles Mingus, Aretha Franklin, and Marley were immersed in religious music. Toots Hibbert of the Maytals sang in a choir, as did onetime Marley backup and star in her own right Marcia Griffiths. Dancehall queen Spice kicks off her raunchy live shows by invoking Jesus. When venerable Lady Saw, whose hit song Heels On is a hymn to raw sex, told the press that she’s thinking of switching to gospel, no one in Jamaica batted an eye.
Hot shows, like last fall’s Montreal gigs by Jamaican royalty Luciano and Richie Spice, are all swaying torsos, waving arms, pelvic thrusts. It’s a party, it’s church, it’s connecting with deep African vibes. Some believe that the word reggae’s origins are African, maybe Yoruban.
Tarrus Riley and Dean Fraser, a legendary sax player
Montreal’s annual Montreal Reggae Fest, a world-class, three-day, summertime event that attracts thousands of music lovers, highlights first, second, and third generation roots reggae legends like Jimmy Cliff, Luciano, Morgan Heritage, Freddie McGregor, Taurus Riley, and Romain Virgo. Saturday night at the fest is different. The program spotlights dancehall reggae, which back in the 1980s began to usurp roots music as Jamaica’s genre of choice. Dancehall’s huge success on the island and worldwide (Montrealers at the Reggae Fest love it, Tessanne Chin channeled Lady Saw during one of her performances on The Voice) doesn’t impress those who keep faith with what they call “conscious music.”
This is part one of two parts; follow this link to part two.
[Photos: Maurie Alioff]
© Maurie Alioff, 2014