The timing could not be better for the Montreal International Reggae Festival (August 14-16). Everyone is curious about Lady Saw: her changing look, and how far she goes with her lyrics and dance moves. Everyone is also eager to hear Saw handling hits like her spectacularly raunchy song of desire, Heels On.
Photo: Maurie Alioff
Divas at the Montreal International Reggae Festival, II, by Maurie Alioff9 August 2015
Last year, the 11th edition of the Montreal Reggae Festival honoured female artists by spotlighting three divas who showed off the range of Jamaican and Caribbean female talent.
Alison Hinds, the Queen of Soca, matches Lady Saw’s proudly unapologetic sexuality. But whereas Saw comes on like a provocateur out to knock you on your ass and ravish you, Hinds’s seduction tactics are silkier, softer than the Lady’s. She has a warm, sensual presence; she moves with controlled elegance. Like Rihanna, who is also Bajan (from Barbados), Alison Hinds collaborates with Jamaican artists like Sean Paul, Jah Cure, Shaggy, and longtime reggae star, Richie Spice.
Like many of these women, who seem to be all party, the Queen of Soca works for serious causes: AIDS awareness, Women’s Rights, the Diabetes Foundation, as well as organizations for children with disabilities. One of her biggest hits, Roll it Gal, is a Women’s Independence anthem with a beach party vibe and lines like “When them fly up in your face gal / Let them know them place.” When Hinds, like many of the Queens, lures guys onto the stage for a little wining, she’s playful and funny, but she makes it clear the boys are under her thumb.
Alicia Anderson at Jamaica Day, Montreal
Soca music originated in Trinidad, an offshoot of calypso. But Hinds’s contemporary soca crossbreeds with dancehall and r&b, and its dance style is wining. Up-and-coming Montreal performer Alicia Anderson, the city’s 2006 Dancehall Queen, said during my Jamaica Day interview with her and Lady G, “Some say it's slack. For me dancing is a self-expression.” Serious churchgoers and orthodox Rastafari see wining (the horrible term twerking in North America) as a sign of dissolution. Crouched with their legs apart, girls and women raise their behinds, swivel their hips, and vibrate.
“We are born on the rhythm, born on the beat,” laughs Lady G. “It's just the drum from Africa. If you look at how Africans dance and Jamaicans, it’s basically almost the same kind of movements.” Alison Hinds made the same point in her video Faluma/Makele, which gorgeously connects wining to its African roots.
While Lady Saw and Alison Hinds are dance-oriented performers, MIRF 2014 headliner Etana (Shauna McKenzie) is a soul reggae singer in the “culcha” tradition of “conscious” music. Etana, who once studied nursing in the US, embraces righteous values up to and including her support for the LBGT movement in a country where living openly as a “battyman” or a lesbian is risky.
Etana projects a sweetness with her beautiful smile and liquid voice. While she catches the beat with her robust body, she dresses relatively modestly, no poum-poum shorts and belly baring, and she sure don’t wine.
With a vocal delivery that couldn’t be more different from Saw’s, she often delivers social critiques about economic injustice and other issues. As part of the reggae revival (which doesn’t dismiss dancehall and sometimes merges with it), she’s a Rasta woman who champions roots music, and one of her best known songs links it to romantic love: "You’re just like reggae. / You hit me like a drum. / Reggae, play chords and I will strum. / Reggae, sing out and I will come, come, come, come. / Oh reggae, you’re the one.” And like Alison Hinds, Etana links her music to its origins in Africa.
If Lady Saw is the matriarch of dancehall music, Marcia Griffiths is the matriarch of the entire Jamaican music scene. A name performer since the ska and rocksteady days of the sixties, Griffiths went legendary in her work with Bob Marley as one of the I-Threes, one of the best-known contingents of backup singers ever. (She joined Marley’s wife Rita and Judy Mowatt, who left the Rastafari movement years ago and now sings gospel).
Still regal and vibrant at 66, Griffiths can handle any kind of music from roots reggae to dancehall and funk. She has performed with artists like Shaggy, Buju Banton, and Cutty Ranks. At last year’s Montreal Reggae Festival, various dignitaries joined her onstage to honour her fifty years of performing. One of her biggest hits, I Shall Sing, defines the stance of this gracious, friendly lady, whom I met a couple of years ago and listened to her talk movingly about being on stage with Bob Marley at the last concert he ever gave.
“I think of Bob often and always pay tribute to this man in all of my performances,” Griffiths told The Gazette last summer. “I believe his music and spirit will live on forever, and I am so grateful that I was able to be a part of that whole experience.”
Last winter in Jamaica, on a warm yellow afternoon far from grey, frozen Montreal, a guy called Brainy was telling me about a Jamaican musical taste that always surprises people from “foreign.” When it comes to female singers, he like many Jamaicans loves Céline Dion.
“Do you realize,” I harumphed, although aware of the island’s longstanding love of US pop and country artists far removed from Jamaica’s deep African vibe, “in Canada and the US, a lot of people think she’s soulless. They mock her and hate her.”
A genial guy in his thirties, Brainy grinned patiently. “No, man no. Céline is 100 percent real. Nobody as good as her,” he said while peeling the glue off the wizzlah he was wrapping into a spliff. Compared to western artistes like Rihanna, Adele, Mariah Carey, and Niki Minaj, Céline rules. Bad men packing nines weep openly when she performs. Lovers of bel canto vocal style, Jamaicans are moved by how somebody like Céline pours her heart right onto her sleeve. But the big emotions must play real. When Mariah Carey tried to fake out the audience at last January’s Jazz and Blues Fest in Montego Bay, half the audience cut.
© Maurie Alioff, 2015
Maurie Alioff writes about movies for publications off and online, including Canadian Cinematographer, Take One, POV Magazine, Salon .ll., and The New York Times, and is a screenwriter currently collaborating on a documentary featuring Bob Marley’s granddaughter. Alioff is also researching other Jamaica-related projects including a magical-realist crime story drawing on stories he hears on the island.