The State of Modern Reggae
"Reggae," says the driver, mentally chewing over the subject a few moments. "Dunno much about reggae," he finally offers, predictably, "but I do like Bob Marley."
Which, I explain, is a bit like my grandparents saying they don't know much about jazz, but isn't that Louis Armstrong fella really nice?
If Mr. Yellow Checker Ponytail and damn near the rest of Jah's green, predominantly Anglo universe could get past the unquestionably towering accomplishments of Robert Nesta Marley, they'd be shocked at what was lying in wait. Beyond the black-velvet painting industry (where he hangs with Elvis and Jimi) into which Marley was inducted after his martyr's death in 1981, is a universe of sexually charged, devilishly danceable music, with a spiritual center deeper and stronger than anything except the Sunday morning services at the Memphis congregation presided over by the righteous Rev. Al Green.
Surprise. In case you haven't heard, reggae is hardly the stoner hippie grooveshit you may have been mislead into believing it is by the stench of tie-dye that's clung to it at least since the turn of this decade. There's also a helluva lot more artistic merit in that riddim than can be discerned from even a cursory listen to a recent stack of local releases (see sidebar), none of which captures the fire and heart of live performances by Austin's keepers of the reggae flame, Killer Bees or Tribal Nation.
Bass Culture (Some History, Briefly)
Three or four years ago, Island Records issued Tougher Than Tough, a comprehensive, 3-CD overview of Jamaica's musical progress from the late Fifties on. It began with the caveman primitive boogie of "Oh Carolina" by the Folkes Brothers, which sounded like Fats Domino out in the bush with 50 King Kong extras banging the hell out of some hand drums. What did it end with? "Oh Carolina," covered nearly 30 years later by dancehall artist Shaggy, who filtered the song through all manner of sampling and digitizing technology that's characterized Jamaican skank since the mid-Eighties.
This is important. The message such brilliant sequencing delivers parallels the statement local reggae soundingboard Jay Trachtenberg emphasized over coffee one steamy Saturday afternoon: "What matters is the riddim." Every development in late 20th-century Jamaican music, from ska and Rock Steady to reggae, dub, and lover's rock -- all the way down to the heavily electro modern day dancehall style -- is reliant on a certain rhythmic pulse: Um-chunk, um-chunk, um-chunk. It all came about by accident, when Jamaican musicians attempted to replicate the second-line rhythms of the New Orleans R&B hits islanders would catch on American radio broadcasts coming in on the skip. The only problem is, they got the accents wrong, making the afterbeat prominent, and thus giving birth to the skank.
"To this day," notes Killer Bees singer Michael E. Johnson, "reggae is country music! It comes from out in the country."
"But you name any of the classic country singers -- Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline, Marty Robbins -- and they're all real popular down there," says Johnson's co-conspirator, Malcolm Welbourne.
This of course proves Willie Nelson wasn't insane for cutting a reggae disc (for Island), which has yet to see release. Nor were the Killer Bees nuts when they threw a heavy-on-the-dread take of Marty Robbins' "El Paso" on their CD, All Abuzz. It also hands you a pair of keys to unlocking reggae's mystery: The wailing, crying melodicism comes from Nashville, the inside-out funk from New Orleans. And from some map point in between those two outposts comes the sound of Trenchtown.
As the native noise evolved, it grew slower and heavier, and by the time it became what we now know as reggae, the skank had gained a half-beat accent: um-chunka, um-chunka, um-chunka. In addition, Rastafarianism began to infiltrate the music; the mysterious, hill-bound sect had always had its tentacles entwined in the music (the backing musicians on that first version of "Oh Carolina" were Count Ossie's Afro-Combo, with the titular leader being a Rasta himself). Musicians such as the ultra-popular Wailers became indoctrinated into the Rasta's militant, Marcus Garvey-derived, back-to-Africa message, and by the mid-Seventies, the bouncy escapism and lightweight covers of American pop hits that had characterized reggae until that point were disappearing in a puff of ganja smoke and a shake of ropey dreadlocks. The voice of reggae was now the voice of Rastafari.
Disseminating that voice on the tiny island of Jamaica was one of the most medieval business structures extant, an outgrowth of the mobile dance units called "sound systems." Owned and operated by flamboyant figures like Duke Reid and Coxsone Dodd, these musical medicine shows lived and died by their material. Since American R&B was their primary juice, these operators would take frequent American junkets to stock up on the latest hits, often scratching off the labels to preserve the exclusivity of their discoveries.
Once R&B was neutered by the U.S. record business in favor of white-bread Frankie-and-Bobby teenybopper shit, the sound system operators had to generate their own material. Often recorded under conditions that were beyond crudity, Jamaican artists were exploited in ways that would've made notoriously crooked American R&B moguls like Art Rupe look downright angelic. The scenario depicted by Perry Henzel's classic 1973 reggae drama The Harder They Come wasn't all that fictitious: Many artists only saw an up-front session payment and had no hope of collecting one penny in royalties. And if the artists complained, notes Ed Ward in the reggae chapter of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, "the producer wouldn't work with them any more, their records wouldn't get played at the sound system dances, and they would fade from the minds of one of the most fickle audiences anywhere."
Meanwhile, due to a strong island immigrant population flooding Britain in search of work from the mid-Fifties through the mid-Sixties, entrepreneurs like the white, Jamaican Chris Blackwell made fortunes importing the latest JA sides into the UK. This resulted in Jamaican hits on the British charts, and tearaway tracks like Millie Smalls' "My Boy Lollipop" or Desmond Dekker's "The Israelites" even breaking into worldwide successes.
Thus, with blacks and whites living side-by-side in working class neighborhoods like Brixton, it wasn't at all uncommon for white rock musicians like future Clash bassist Paul Simonon to have as strong a background in reggae as in rock & roll. And once British punk started burning out of the white ghettos, bands like the Clash and Generation X started referencing reggae the way mid-Sixties London groups like the Rolling Stones or the Yardbirds took sustenance from American blues and soul music.
Most importantly, perhaps, was Chris Blackwell's signing of the Wailers to his Island Records label. Blackwell recognized the genius of Marley's gritty street poetry, as well as the singer's charisma and potential starpower, and set about realizing the possible goldmine within. Marley, unlike his two partners, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, was then singled out as the Wailers' focal point and marketed to the world along rock star lines. The results? The Wailers' 1974 opus Catch A Fire became the world's reggae primer alongside the soundtrack to The Harder They Come, reggae went "outernational," and Marley enjoyed the type of superstardom death only seems to enhance.
Meanwhile, Back in Austin...
"All we had to do was put `Live Reggae' on the marquee and the place would be full," says Louis Jay Meyers. A local musician-cum-promoter, who later helped bring South by Southwest to life, Meyers booked Liberty Lunch through much of the Eighties. Using that position well, Meyers was a pivotal figure in building reggae's local profile. Acts like Jimmy Cliff would occasionally play the Armadillo World Headquarters through the Seventies, while the Lotions became the first locals to go native. Meyers went even further between 1983-1988, taking a gamble on top-drawer reggae acts like Mutabaruka, Burning Spear, Eek-A-Mouse, Toots & the Maytals, and Yellowman. It paid off. Handsomely.
"Nobody knew who these acts were," says Meyers. "They were making their first tours through the U.S. at that point. And thanks to [journalists] Jay Trachtenberg and Michael Point, word got out through the media. Dan Del Santo's radio show was really strong at that point, and everybody who was into reggae and world beat tuned into Dan's show every Friday on KUT. Plus, the quality level was so high, people felt quite confident that if they went to Liberty Lunch to see a show, they were going to see a good one, even if they didn't know the act."
It was also a golden time for the music. Although Marley's death in 1981 from cancer was a shock, reggae's creative pulse was hardly dimmed. It would still be years before the influential rhythm team of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare and producers Steelie and Clevie would help morph hip-hop's electro-rhythms and technological reliance with reggae, creating a slick, club-based offshoot aptly named "dancehall." (Then again, dub reggae producers like Lee "Scratch" Perry were performing radical sonic surgery at the mixing board years before the birth of hip-hop's remix culture, while Jamaican "toasters" like U-Roy and Big Youth were rapping over reggae grooves when there was no such thing as rap.) Meantime, the Rasta fire and roots sound was burning bright, and landmark albums like Black Uhuru's Red were making an impact.
"At one point," says Meyers, "we were considering turning the Lunch into a straight reggae club, very much like the Club Caribana in Houston -- booking [reggae] six nights in a row in a Tuesday-through-Sunday type thing. That [idea] lasted two weeks!"
And as he was offering a local forum for reggae's "outernational" profile to stretch into Austin, Meyers was also nurturing a crop of homegrown reggae bands, giving opening slots to the likes of Pressure and a batch of Shreveport emigres called the Killer Bees, whose management he would later assume.
"Louis Jay helped us out a lot," says Welbourne. "Thanks to him, we got to play with a lot of the masters and even tour with guys like Burning Spear. Those guys were always really helpful, and we got to learn from them firsthand. We could be more authentic, because we were taught by the major players."
Because reggae's commercial profile was growing in the states -- thanks mostly to watered-down reggae-lite acts like UB40 and Maxi Priest -- Meyers began putting a fortune into promoting the Killer Bees, hoping they would catch some of that buzz. The Bees toured as hard as any country and western band, working their independent releases until the band was placing high on CMJ's reggae charts and selling impressively. The band was even able to play the influential Reggae Sunsplash festival in Jamaica, although with little respect from the audience or billmates.
"Steel Pulse's equipment took up most of the stage," Meyers remembers, "and they wouldn't cooperate. They wouldn't even loan the Killer Bees a tambourine! I told Steel Pulse's tour manager, `Fuck you! I've helped you so many times at Liberty Lunch! You'll never get a goddamned thing from me again!'"
Various attendees of that year's Sunsplash festival report the Killer Bees' set inspired anything from polite applause to complete disinterest. Truth is, the Bees probably had (and have) the strongest and most authentic roots sound of any local reggae band, but they likely suffered the same sort of sneers reserved for white bluesmen. English reggae historian Pamela O'Gorman once remarked, "I really do believe that there is something in the so-called myth that Europeans cannot play reggae music. I think they can get the basic things out of it, they can reproduce it to a certain extent. But it's never going to have that touch of authenticity about it." So goes one theory. Whether it holds any veracity is up to the individual to decide. And you could likely insert "Americans" into the above statement and O'Gorman wouldn't even blink.
Eventually, rot sets into everything, and reggae was no exception. Meyers admits "we burned the audience out," and that dealing with Jamaican artists grew to be "a pain in the ass: getting them into the U.S., getting them from gig to gig. Plus, over a period of time, the bands started shrinking. When they first came through, we would get the big eight-piece and 10-piece reggae bands from Jamaica, because everybody down there wanted to get into the States. Gradually, the artists figured out the American way and wanted more and more money each tour. All of a sudden, the bands started getting a little smaller and a little smaller. Then, it started shifting over into the crossover bands, where the singer would be Jamaican and the band backing him up would be more American than Jamaican. The show quality then definitely started dropping."
Reggae didn't die, but its demographic certainly shrank -- at least locally; one has only to note reggae's homebase shift from Liberty Lunch to Mercado Caribe to the Flamingo Cantina, the venue size decreasing incrementally.
Jah Nuh Dead
Dare mention the possibility that reggae is either dead or at least suffering from terminally ill health and people start getting mighty defensive. "Did punk die with Sid Vicious?" asks the Bees' Welbourne. "Did rock & roll die when Elvis joined the Army?" For the better part of the Killer Bees' 20-year history, singer-guitarist Welbourne and vocalist-percussionist Michael E. Johnson have served as that band's Mick `n' Keef. As the nucleus of the rootsiest of the indigenous reggae outfits (especially in its three-piece unplugged incarnation), these king Bees can speak as authoritatively as any locals on the state of contemporary reggae.
"What happened," muses Johnson over the clatter at Shaggy's on South Congress, the Caribbean restaurant that's lately been hosting the acoustic sessions the Bees have been playing for a few months now, "is that reggae's become part of the mainstream. It's become so normal to hear that people don't hear it no more than they hear a Western tune or a rock tune or whatever. Reggae music's like a background now. Every time you turn around, it's selling cereal or Kool Aid."
"I saw an ad for a hamburger stand when I was visiting my daughter in Mississippi," smiles Welbourne, "and it was like [slipping into mock patois], `C'mon down, mon! 'Ave dis irie 'amburger!'"
"White kids are wearing dreadlocks," adds Johnson once the laughter dies down. "I think it just soaked into the American culture, just like jazz or blues or anything else."
"Reggae's been very good to us," insists Welbourne. "We've been able to make a living playing reggae the past 20 years, and even raise our families on it." Making a joke out of such Babylonian practicalities, Johnson even notes that his parents stopped asking when he was gonna give up this crazy reggae nonsense and get a real job after the Killer Bees backed up Willie Nelson last fall in a live preview of his reggae album.
Both Sister Irie, hostess of "Conscious Party," a Sunday afternoon air shift on KAZI that presents a healthy mix of classic and contemporary reggae, and Flamingo Cantina owner Angela Gillen present copious evidence of a strong pulsebeat in the reggae system: For starters, summer always finds a plethora of "Bob Marley Festivals" throughout the country offering everything from international reggae superstars to fledgling local talent. These um-chunka-fests draw enough humanity and Babylonian cash that the State of California even erects official green-and-white road signs directing traffic to their area's rasta-fests.
Irie and Gillen also speak of a return to a certain rootsiness and rasta ethic in performers like Luciano, who's been enjoying the closest thing to a Bob Marley-like frenzy any reggae artist has seen in a while. Most compelling, on a strictly local level, is one fact Sister Irie brings up: Of all KAZI's programming, it's the reggae slots that bring in the most money when it comes to donation drive time for the community radio station.
Besides that, only a complete fool would walk away from the Flamingo Cantina still believing reggae went with Marley to his grave. It's hard to deny that there's more spontaneous joy and less backstabbing and posturing to be found at local reggae shows than in any other native music scene. The Flamingo and Shaggy's may be more diminutive than Liberty Lunch, but bands like the Killer Bees, Tribal Nation, and the heavily electro Raggamassive manage to consistently pack these joints with groovers ranging from young white college kids looking for some cool dance music to the clot of Deadheads that have come to characterize reggae audiences over time.
This latter development is especially puzzling to anyone who tuned in during the early reggae/punk alliance. Trachtenberg and Irie are both insistent that Jerry Garcia's early endorsement of reggae cemented a connection with hippie culture sometime in the Seventies; Island Records publicist Sarah Weinstein's off-hand observation is more fun: "It's probably an excuse to smoke pot." More problematic, however, is that the aforementioned local outfits manage to work up an in-person fire and vitality they have yet to equal in the studio.
The way Louis Jay Meyers sees it, all that reggae needs both here and abroad is some fresh blood. "It's great the Killer Bees are still going and doing good," he says. "But really, every reggae musician in town plays in every band, and those bands are all composed of guys who at one time or another were in the Killer Bees. These are men in their forties. They're raising families. They're not as young as they once were. They don't have that hunger. And that doesn't translate well with the young audience any musical form needs.
"On top of it all, CMJ and Gavin both discontinued their reggae charts. There's no way for reggae artists to be able to determine their progress. Reggae is mostly sold from mom-and-pop stores. These shops are not tapped into Soundscan. This means they don't report into Billboard, that there's no way to chart how much they're selling. Record labels want to see a band working hard, selling records on their own, developing their own audience. How can they present an effective argument, if they have no means of gauging their impact?"
Meyers is hopeful that the mainstream success of ska-flavored outfits like No Doubt and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones could be the panacea for what he sees as an ailing reggae scene. "Look at the Mighty Mighty Bosstones," he says. "Admittedly, that's whitebread ska, as white as you can get. But maybe their success can spark an interest, make young musicians go back and study the Studio One records and things. Maybe that's all reggae needs to be revitalized."
Truth be told, reggae as it was known in its Seventies/early Eighties heyday is no more dead than rockabilly, which, I suppose, makes the Killer Bees, High Noon, Raggamassive, the Flametrick Subs, and long-running international practitioners like U-Roy and Burning Spear the Charlie Featherses and Ronnie Dawsons of the genre. But just as rockabilly eventually mutated into what we know as rock & roll, reggae has mutated into dancehall and ragga. Dub, the blackest and most sonically daring of reggae's innovations, is now so much a part of the dance/techno/rave culture, that the Flamingo Cantina's Gillen points out that last year's Dub Syndicate show drew a completely different, alien audience than the ones drawn to standard issue reggae shows.
Even jungle, which has been sinking in as part of the current electronica invasion, is nothing but reggae's riddim cranked to thrash-metal velocity. And as Marley's grave is continually plundered for fresh product, studio wizard Bill Laswell's latest brainstorm involves recasting Marley's most rebellious tracks into ambient/trance settings. The results, creepily, are like 21st-century dub.
Is reggae dead? Gee, I dunno. Virtually all classical music was written in centuries past -- does that make it any less relevant? No, just less au courant in the commercial marketplace, which demands novelty like a vampire demands blood. Babylon should simply heed the advice of vintage toastmaster Dr. Alimantado: "If you feel like you 'ave nuh reason for living/Don't determine my life, my life."