I’m having a hell of a time knowing where to start writing about the Reggae Cowboys—a Toronto band made up of Caribbean transplants who dress up like cowboys and play not just reggae, but also blues, rock and Spanish-language spaghetti western soundtrack music all mooshed together. Perhaps, at some antipodal Caribbean alternative newsweekly, some other writer is similarly struggling to come to grips with an upcoming show by a band of Norwegians who dress like Russian sailors and play some unholy union of speed-metal and klezmer music.
It would be a lot easier to dismiss the Cowboys if their music was bland and crummy—the usual half-digested hodge-podge that results when bands ram five different styles of music together into one song and then delude themselves into thinking they’ve concocted some truly unique fusion. I can’t stand gimmicks, and everything about the Reggae Cowboys suggests a truly desperate one. I don’t even like reggae very much, and for that I largely thank its ongoing misappropriation by bands of rich white kids who fancy themselves Rastafarians just for having dreadlocks and seeing off a pound of weed every semester.
But the Reggae Cowboys—guitarists Bird “Stone Ranger” Bellony and Algernon “Click Masta Sync” Rabess, bassist Keith “Marshal K” Evanson and drummer Iain “Hitman I” Green—are really good! True to their word, they do an impressive job of marrying reggae to rock, blues, R&B and jazz without making it seem, well, gimmicky. “Mr. Hubble,” which opens the band’s 2002 album Let’s Ride, has got that unmistakable reggae backbeat, but the emphasis is on a raunchy guitar part over the typical bong-happy bass line that runs the reggae show. Rapid-fire toasting aside, it sounds more like Caribbean crossover à la Eddy Grant in his “Romancing the Stone” days—and for me, anything that shuns the narcotic thudding of reggae as currently practiced in college towns all across North America makes for a refreshing departure in an increasingly stagnant genre.
Coincidentally or not, another track from Let’s Ride sounds very much like the same Eddy Grant, only from his pre-“Electric Avenue” band The Equals. Other influences—Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, the Skatalites and the Meters—are scattered more or less evenly over these 12 tracks, perhaps the most unusual of which is a bouncy little Latin-reggae number with flamenco guitar flourishes and lyrics half-sung in peculiarly accented Spanish. The song, “Maria,” can be understood by anyone with two weeks of Berlitz under his belt, and features such inviting linguistic pile-ups as “reggae vaquero Rasta” and “bienvenido a mi fiesta/Reggae ritmo, mi bonita.”
In a way, it’s kind of too bad that Reggae Cowboys feel like they have to dangle the gimmick-bait to pique people’s interest. On the other hand, I bet they have a lot of fun touring the country looking like they stopped by one of those old-time photo booths at the county fair and never gave the clothes back—a real conversation-starter, as they say. According to the press release, the dude-ranch garb is also the band’s way of acknowledging the contribution of black soldiers, scouts and, yes, cowboys in the American West. Some historians estimate that as many as a third of the cowboys in America in the 1800s were African-American—many of them former slaves.
Anyway, after some initial misgivings, I have to admit that the reggae cowboy package reeled me in and then hooked me. I’m probably not as immune to gimmicks as I’d like to think, either. I recently parted (also with misgivings) with a record by a Japanese punk band so enamored of early ’80s Scandinavian hardcore that the members all took Swedish names and sing in Swedish, too. I fell for that shtick in about half a second. If anybody out there knows of a band of Norwegians who dress like Russian sailors and play a hybrid of klezmer and speed metal, now I’m all ears.