What’s up with reggae? 

Three recent releases breathe life into neglected styles

Bob Marley died twenty years ago (Jah forgive me). All these years later, reggae still seems to be stuck in a sort of post-Marley funk, trying to find new directions after Bob took roots music and, well, perfected it. Fans who were introduced to Jamaican music through Bob Marley have become disenchanted with the stagnation of reggae, the recent domination of hard-hitting dancehall and the often-levied critique that “reggae’s all the same.” Or is it? A number of recent releases have initiated a return to more meaningful roots music and suggest that, lucky for us, there is reggae after Bob Marley.

“Roots” falls into that increasingly large category of words that can mean any number of things depending on who you talk to (not a smurf—a smurf). Traditionally, roots reggae is that which concerns itself with the life of the ghetto sufferer, the Jamaican reality, and is usually associated with the years 1975–80. Roots music in large part came hand-in-hand with the rise of Rastafarianism, which emerged in the late 1930s after Ras Tafari Makonnen assumed the title of Emperor Haile Selassie I, King of Ethiopia, in 1931. The doctrines of Rastafarianism, dealing largely with spiritual and social salvation, were a source of hope and pride for many Jamaicans living in a small, economically challenged country with a colonial legacy of inequality in the backyard of the richest, most powerful country on earth. Toward the end of this golden age of reggae, events began to conspire to bring the hammer down on Jamaicans and their music. The 1980 elections (in which, with a little help from the CIA, Michael Manley lost to U.S.-backed Edward Seaga) saw a drastic increase in violence while the subsequent neoliberal regime cut spending on social services and health care. And then, of course, in 1981 Bob Marley died. The music changed almost overnight. The righteous, hopeful buzz of the ’70s gave way to a bitter resignation.

Dancehall trends began to appear more frequently on recordings and DJ style rap-like presentation rose to the top with the favorite themes being guns and sex. These often graphic descriptions of violence and sex are referred to in Jamaica as “slackness.” Dancehall is still immensely popular, as is raga (reggae played with predominantly digital instrumentation), but emerging from the fields of audio-porn, taking root in the strange musical landscape of the 21st century, is a roots revival. Jamaica in the 1970s will never happen again, but a handful of new releases have “roots” that can be clearly traced back to that golden age.

Among these is the first widely distributed effort of Midnite. Their album, Unpolished, has an old-school studio band sound free of the digital domination found on many new releases. The sturdy rhythms on this album will tickle the reggae receptors, but what will keep you listening are the lyrics. These are apocalyptic songs with thoughtful, potent lyrics that hint at a shifting of order and impending judgment. In the song “Kaaba Stone” singer Benjamin Vaughn preaches resistance to the wickedness of “the fascist world ambition of consolidated economic greed” and “industrial aggression.” The truth is that these songs, soaked in justice and retribution and the consequences of “civil-lies-ation,” will challenge and likely frighten you. But despite the obvious anger driving much of this music it remains a call for peace and equality, as is evidenced in the lyrics of “Due Reward:” “Revenge is not in our plan/We only plan to rebuild a broken man and start living.”

Another new roots release, Divine Madness, is a collection of material recorded at Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Black Ark studio in Kingston between 1974–78. The CD comes with a 26-minute interview with the still living legend of dub (a studio reworking of a song produces a sparse instrumental rhythm track). This foray into the “dub”ious sounds of the Black Ark is a great collection of Lee’s work containing the classic tweaked echo and reverb of dub with various vocalists including D.D. Dennis, The Viceroys, Augustus Pablo and Perry himself on a couple tracks. This is a must-have for Lee Perry fans as well as a good introduction to the ethereal crashings and smashings of his craft. Listening to this collection one gets an image of the infamous Black Ark studio afloat on the high seas, portholes closed, clam-bake style, echoing snare drums like waves crashing sporadically against the hull.

For those with more of a lover’s rock bent, there’s Beres Hammond’s new release, Music is Life. Born in Kingston in 1955, Beres Hammond has been a constant presence in the reggae scene for the last two and a half decades and today is often considered the great contemporary Jamaican vocalist. Beres has made his share of roots music, but like legends Gregory Isaacs and Dennis Brown, he also delves into romance. On the track, “Rock Away,” a current top-ten hit in England and a global reggae chart topper, Beres sings his respect for the R&B and soul singers who heavily influenced him and calls for a return to the more meaningful music of yesterday. “Right now we need a brand new start/people everywhere need more music from the heart.” Other noteworthy tracks include “They’re Gonna Talk,” the most popular reggae song for 2000, and “Dance 4 Me,” a duet with the ever-so-talented Wyclef Jean. In a recent interview, Beres said “Music can do what a politician can’t do or the pastor in a church, and I’m saddened by the fact that a lot of folks who are producing music can’t see that.” Here is some music that says something. The question remains: Is anyone still listening?

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