Reggae, Can it Survive Without Revisiting the 70's?
I grew up on reggae music. It was the food for my soul. Most of the music that I was listening to was not playing on the radio. It came from the sound systems in the area and the jukebox in the bar. Jamaica was full of the vibrancy of the music. If the music was banned on the radio, or I couldnít wait up until the reggae music was played on the radio, late in the night, I didnít have to worry, because come Saturday night, the soundman would string up his set and start to play. The sound was powerful and strong and it traveled. I could stay in my house and hear the music, or I could hope that my uncle was going to the dance and I could go along with him.
If I didnít hear the music from the turntables of the soundman, I would hear it from the jukebox when someone punches up their selection. There was only one jukebox in the area, but it didnít matter. It was centrally located, and I had to pass the bar to get to my house. I remember singing songs I had heard on the jukebox, and encountering the wrath of my grandfather, who felt that some of the lyrical content was not appropriate for me. That didnít stop or discouraged me.
The Ska music with its heavy emphasis on horns was the driving music form until it changed to Rock Steady. Each decade had its share of sexually suggestive music; "Push Wood in the Fire" was not fit for airplay and of course, Clancy Eccles' "Fattie, Fattie" was considered too sexual for that time and not appropriate for radio either. Only way to hear them was in the dancehall, on record or from the jukebox.
The seventies brought about a change in the music. The beat was slower, and more artists were singing about social issues, getting back to their roots and ready to change the world.
Listening to the radio, I heard Dennis Brown "Created By The Father," on a windy day, when the leaves were coming off the big ackee tree in the yard. "No Man is An Island" is one of those early songs that have a special place in my reggae heart. I remember that six selection 45" of Ken Booth, with "Silver Words," and other songs on it. Who can forget Carl Dawkins, "Satisfaction," or Scottyís "Teacher, Teacher?"
Independence Day was always a joyous time of the year. There would be the traditional street dance. One year, Marie Garth and Neville Willoughby provided the music. The hot dance was ĎButter" and there was the x-rated version to sing, when no adults were present.
When the transition from Jamaica to New York came about, it was a joy and a disappointment. I was happy to be in New York but the culture wasnít the same. There were jukeboxes but no reggae music in them. There were many radio stations, but no reggae playing. It took a while before I could go to parties. When I was allowed to go, the pleasure of finding a corner and a good dancing partner was what those basement parties were about.
Searching the radio for something to listen to, I came across CBS FM and heard Desmond Dekker, it wasnít enough but, it filled a space in my heart. Further exploration of the radio led me to an A.M. station with Wesley Morgan. Gil Bailey was not a concept in my mind or ears until much later on. The next sound I heard was Ken Williams on WLIB, another AM station. His format was calypso and other forms of music. When he was allowed to play reggae, it was only for the last fifteen minutes, before the station signed off. He tried hard to fit as much music as he could into those fifteen minutes.
It was a pleasure waiting around for Saturday evening to hear Jeff Barnes on WWRL, but the ruler of the decade was Ken Williams. Looking back, at the time, I realize how precious those fifteen minutes were, and how sweet the music sounded before it came to the end with the, "We have come to the end of our broadcast day . . ." announcement. I can still hear "Toothache" and anything from the Revolutionaries playing in my ears. Hey Ken, are those tapes available for sale?
In the meantime, to satisfy my need for the music I grew up with, the record shops and friends coming from Jamaica would provide me with the latest music. Over time, there were outdoor parties, especially on Sunday evenings at the Restoration Plaza in Brooklyn. When that venue was no longer available, it was the parking lot at Medgar Evers College on Carroll and Nostrand Avenues. Ken Williams was responsible for these outdoor ventures; he was the popular DJ at the time.
When promoters started to book reggae acts for New York, I was there, enjoying the music, and dismissing the talk about gunshots and the rowdy behavior of some of the patrons. Sugar Minottís first New York appearance at Hunter College was a wonderful show. Yes they did fire shots, but that was outside of the venue, after the show was over.
Reggae shows were booked at Madison Square Garden (or the Felt Forum) I canít remember which, but Dillinger was there in his three-piece suit. Gregory Isaacs and any other artist that came to town meant that I would be at that show. The fee was reasonable and artists did their best to put on a good show.
Going to Eastern Parkway was not about the floats, but about the music that was blasting from every yard along the parkway. When one set closed down, I would just move on to another until I got to the subway station at Franklin Avenue to meet my mother at 1 a.m. Sometimes, the last gathering would be in the little park at Washington and Classon Avenues. That was the site for the sound system, "Crystal Image." I can still feel some of those vibes.
As this millennium comes to a close and I embark on a new one, I keep asking myself, how will reggae survive? I listen to the radio and I hear everyone talking about the growth of the music, but I am wondering if we are listening to the say sound. People are saying they are on seven days a week. Others are saying that they are taking over the world, and ray, ray, ray, but what is the use, if the time is long and the quality of the music is so limited. When we only had the fifteen minutes of reggae radio in prime time, the time was spent, trying to play as much music as the fifteen minutes could allow.
So I am listening and wondering, wondering and listening, and asking myself, how come the radio programs are so boring?" Every week itís the same sound, sometimes there is a surprise, and a little change is heard, but that is short lived. I know reggae as a music form, got started before the nineties and the eighties, so how come the DJís are so limited in what they can play?
Recently I was listening to an interaction between a Jamaica DJ and a New York DJ. The Jamaica DJ was saying that he hadnít heard a Third World song in a long time. Why is that? Couldnít he play that particular music instead of the garbage that he was playing in the past? The New York DJ also made a similar comment about a Peter Tosh song. I ask the same question, couldnít he play that artist, with all the time he has on radio?
Listening to reggae is getting to be a bore. Most of the time is spent promoting oneself, with electronic promotions, instead of bringing to the people, a real cross section of what reggae is all about? Buju and Sizzla did not invent culture music. Ever play a Burning Spear, Gladiators, and The Abyssinians? Capleton didnít strike the first match. Play Devon Irons, (The Upsetters), "When Jah Come." Garnett Silk was not the only young reggae singer to die tragically. Does the name Hugh Mundell ring a bell?
Donít wait until the artist is dead before you play the songs, and I hear how great he or she was. Tell me about them now, when they are alive, so that they can hear it too.
There is no variety on the radio, except for the two DJís on college radios and in the Reggae Schoolroom, who are conscious of the music and can draw for a selection without waiting for Rodigan to call. How come non-Jamaicans seem to have a better understanding and appreciation of the music than their Jamaican counterparts?
I hear people bragging about what they have, but I am more interested in what you have to play. Use the time wisely, and introduce the listeners to what the reggae sound is all about.
When you step into the new millennium take a look back at the past. Remember what Marcus said, "A people without a past is like a tree without (reggae) roots." Look at the areas of the music that need to be changed and improved. Use the music as a tool to educate, eradicate, and agitate. Donít be afraid to confront the artist, even if heís your good friend and heís not being true to the music. Do I really need to hear the "N" word and the bleeps in the songs? So you want to sample, go ahead and sample the best. Leave the garbage where it belongs.
The one rhythm thing canít work in the next millennium. Variety is the spice of live, and people should be hearing that in the music. When the radio is turned on, I know who you are. I donít need a reminder every five minutes. Donít tell me that you are taking over the world; let me hear about it in the music you are playing.
The "barrelism" in the music should be discouraged. I am referring to all those singers who sit around waiting for the song to come from foreign so they can run their reggae version; similar in concept to people waiting for the barrel to come, with all the foreign goods inside. If the DJís refuse to play some of these "songs" it can only encourage the singer and promoter to try creating instead of re-mixing.
Didnít Jamaica originate a musical sound, in studios with only two to four tracks? When the technology was limited, the quality of the music was superb. People were amazed at the quality of the sound. At one time, if the music wasnít mixed in Jamaica, it wasnít authentic. Where are the reverbs, echo, drum and bass and the live musicians that use to dominate the music? Now we have computers, and everybody is a producer and everything sounds the same.
I hear people referring to drum and bass as a new music form. Isnít that what reggae music is all about? Didnít the reggae producers make that possible? So how come reggae is missing the vital parts that made it what it was? Every stereo component now has bass, mega bass and boost bass, but the music that Jamaicans are producing need an extra treble button before the music can be heard.
Where are the writers? Yes, I know about the shottas and the obsessive fear of the batty man, isnít there anything else going on that I need to hear about? It would be nice to hear American artists rushing to sing over our music, that is, if they can understand what is being said, Marley aside.
So radio personalities, producers and singers of the music, get back into the music before it is lost. Be selective in what you play, promote and produce. Make reggae the envy of the world again. Let them wonder how the sounds were produced. Let the singers be articulate and audible. Donít turn the culture of the music into some kind of joke where everybody with a computer is now an expert on producing a reggae sound.
Take from the old millennium the things that made the music great and build and improve on them in the new millennium. Let reggae music, the Jamaican sound, live on into the millennium.
Mi deh yah now!
MORECULTURE.COM COPYRIGHT 2003 J. MCFARQUHAR
For graphics info contact Jahja@yahoo.com