Cultural Cross Pollination

A Cash Crop of Reggae Reissues

photograph by Nathan Jensen

It's apparent from the moment the bass and drums mesh in the opening seconds of "Fisherman" that Lee Scratch Perry's 20-year-old Heart of the Congos album is a masterpiece. The way Watty Burnett's booming bass voice and Cedric Myton's sweet soaring falsetto meld into a magically ethereal harmony routinely sends shivers up the spines of those hearing the Congos for the first time. The stark recognition that here lies the undeniably powerful sound of reggae we so seldom hear anymore coming from Jamaica is as undeniable now that the duo's debut was reissued last year as it was two decades ago when the album came out on a shoe-string pressing. It is quite simply one of the greatest reggae albums of all time. More importantly, perhaps, is the revelatory way Heart of the Congos so dramatically epitomizes the Golden Age of Jamaican music, a period running roughly from 1972-79. The heartical music from this era caused many of us here in Babylon to fall in love with reggae music, and its wide-reaching appeal made substantive inroads into popular music. While a good deal of music from this period has always been available to anyone willing to take the time to seek it out, recent months have seen riddem lovers treated to an onslaught of extraordinary reggae reissues from this golden period.

For many of us growing up on American Top 40 in the Sixties, the first introduction to the sounds of Jamaica came in the form of "My Boy Lollipop," an old R&B hit done ska style by a teenaged Millie Small. A huge international hit, "My Boy Lollipop" put Chris Blackwell's small indie label Island Records on the map for keeps. Many decades later, in preparation for its 40th anniversary (1959-99), Island has begun reissuing a series of seminal Jamaican music that delves into the early blues `n' boogie-based sounds that would ultimately evolve into Bob Marley's "international" sound.

The first two volumes, Ska's the Limit 1959-1964 and Rhythm & Blues Beat 1964-1969, are excellent, reminiscent of those import-only Trojan anthologies, which chronicled the infancy of modern Jamaican popular music. On Ska's the Limit, it's fascinating to hear how the earliest New Orleans-derived R&B grooves transformed into the wicked-style riddems of ska, a distinct, proud sound befitting the jubilance of Jamaica's newly won independence from England. Also on this volume are the nascent recordings of "Robert" Marley, Jimmy Cliff, and Toots and the Maytals.

For its part, Rhythm & Blues Beat is equally good, a terrific compilation featuring culturally cross-pollinated dance tunes -- Jamaican, British, and American -- all of which were distributed by the now London-based Island imprint. What you get are the likes of the Wailers, Desmond Dekker, and the Paragons skankin,' shufflin,' and fruggin' alongside B-3 organist Jimmy McGriff, Crescent city native Robert "Barefootin'" Parker, and the Spencer Davis Group with young Steve Winwood. As the set's last three tunes attest, the groove we all recognize as "reggae" was firmly established by decade's end and scoring hit records internationally.

Although it's difficult to pinpoint who exactly came up with that original, bubbling reggae riddem, it's safe to say that no one is perhaps more responsible than "the Upsetter" himself, Lee Scratch Perry. As an outrageously innovative producer -- creator of hitherto unheard-of sound effects and radical dub technology -- and the master of an arsenal of absolutely murderous riddems, Perry stands as one of Jamaican music's towering figures.

Take, for instance, an early version of Perry's studio band, the Upsetters. Featuring drummer Carlton Barrett and his brother, bassist Aston "Family Man" Barrett, the Upsetters were perhaps the first group to lay down that seminal, irresistible groove. Some of young Bob Marley's best material was produced by Perry with the Upsetters, and soon afterwards Marley would take the Barrett brothers with him to solidify the Wailers. By the mid-Seventies, holed up in his Black Ark Studio in Kingston like a mad alchemist of yore, the truly visionary and eccentric Perry had already cut a swath across the reggae landscape that was instrumental in defining its golden age.

For a healthy dose of the Upsetter's brilliance, it's hard to beat Island's Arkology, a 3-CD set of Perry-produced music recorded at Black Ark from 1975-79. The 52-track collection includes oodles of rarities such as unreleased songs, alternate mixes and takes, a slew of extended mixes that first appeared as 12-inch singles, and of course, plenty of dub-wise sounds. If nothing else, this set demonstrates Perry's skill as a dub master.

It's particularly amazing listening to Arkology and realizing that most of what you're hearing was recorded on a four-track. But as Perry explains in the liner notes: "It was only four tracks written on the machines, but I was picking up twenty from the extra-terrestrial squad; I am the dub shepherd." And, indeed, one listen will confirm how his sonic innovations have greatly influenced a myriad of trip-hopped, tranced-out, electronica-laden progeny in the two decades since these sides were recorded.

As for the riddems, by the mid-to-late Seventies, the beat had changed from the bouncy effusion of early reggae to a much harder (some say militant) sound known as "Rockers." It's the rootsy sound most associated with reggae's heyday and Perry was again right at ground zero as Arkology is quintessentially roots rockers music with the dynamo riddem tandems of Sly & Robbie (known in those days as the Revolutionaries) and Mikey "Boo" Richards (now drummer for the Wailers) with bassist Boris Gardiner pumping out the crucial grooves. Highlights include classic tunes and dubs of Junior Murvin's "Police and Thieves," Max Romeo's "War in a Babylon," the Heptones, the Mediations, Mikey Dread, and even an unreleased song from the aforementioned Heart of the Congos session. And for those who want an outstanding complement to Arkology, check out Upsetter in Dub on Heartbeat Records for another dose of inspired madness from this same period.

Although Island Records was the primary source of reggae music for the U.S. in those days, relatively little of Perry's Black Ark material appeared here on LPs, and much of it, including the Congos' debut, remained unavailable. It took the upstart Blood & Fire label then to finally bring much of this material stateside for the first time last year. Based in London, and again, highly reminiscent of the forthright and respectful way Trojan presented reggae a generation ago, the nearly two dozen reissues the label has put out thus far are state-of-the-art in terms of substantive content and artful presentation.

These releases primarily feature the astonishing work of legendary figures like dub maestros King Tubby and Prince Jammy and Scientist teaming up with the loquacious, outrageous rantings of DJs like Jah Stitch, I Roy, and Tappa Zukie. The best of these collaborations draw heavily from the Rastafarian consciousness that greatly inspired the reggae community during this tumultuous time in Jamaica's social history when political upheaval and its concomitant street violence was the order of the day. While the Congos reissue is the cornerstone of this incredible series of classic roots-rock reggae from the golden age, other releases worth seeking out are U Brown's Train to Zion, Jah Stitch's Original Ragga Muffin, and Horace Andy's set of disco mixes, Good Vibes. One listen to any of these Blood & Fire reissues makes you immediately realize they don't make reggae albums like this anymore.

Two other small labels currently reissuing some fine music from the late-Seventies and early Eighties are Shanachie, one of the first labels to regularly release reggae albums in the U.S., and the Dutch-based Munich Records, which markets its operation right here in Austin. The former indie has put out some inspired compilations of late, such as the classic dub collections In the Red Zone and King Tubby Meets Lee Perry: Megawatt Dub, and a beautiful collection of vocal harmony groups called The Power of the Trinity, which features the likes of the Mighty Diamonds, Wailing Souls, Black Uhuru, and Culture.

The Munich label, meanwhile, has begun rivaling Blood & Fire with their scorching sets of early-Eighties dancehall on their Majestic Reggae series. By this era, the beat had changed from the high-stepping Rockers of just a few years earlier to a slower, smoldering nightcrawl created by the Roots Radics Band. For the first time, the music was actually being called "dancehall" and a whole new generation of producers, singers, and deejays were ruling the roost.

For an exquisite sampling of this era, check out the Linval Thompson-produced Jah Jah Dreader Than Dread, the singer-DJ combinations on Tristan Palmer Meets Jah Thomas in Disco Style, and the irrepressible hitmaker Johnny Osbourne's Nightfall Showcase. All feature heavy doses of crucial, low `n' slow Roots Radics-style riddems, and are sounds as near and dear to me personally as my first trip to Jamaica back in '82 when the whole island was grooving to this vibe; these lovers-rock riddems will remain forever ingrained in me as part of that first mind-blowing, life-affirming experience.

The career of outspoken reggae superstar Peter Tosh encompassed every period and style of Jamaican music thus far discussed. A founding member of reggae's most popular and influential group ever -- the Wailers -- Tosh established a solo career early on, making albums under his own name, often on his own Intel Diplo label. His music had a distinctively militant bent, which won him accolades from fans and critics but incurred the wrath of Jamaican authorities. When Bob Marley died in 1981, Tosh immediately became the spiritual focal point for reggae music internationally, a position he held until his tragic death in 1987.

Honorary Citizen on Columbia's Legacy series is the long-awaited Peter Tosh retrospective whose three CDs each cover a different aspect of Tosh's lengthy career. Disc one is the best, an incredible collection of Jamaican singles mostly from 1967-75, the earliest ones (some of them very rare) here being released under the Wailers' name on their short-lived Wail 'N Soul 'M label. Other gems include: the Lee Perry-produced, Upsetter-issued "Rightful Ruler" credited to Hugh Roy and Peter Touch, which was the first record by the patriarch of Jamaican DJs, U-Roy; the Intel-Diplo-issued "Can't Blame the Youth" with Aston Barrett on bass and Bunny Wailer providing harmony vocals; and a murderous dub version of "Legalize It."

Disc Two contains all previously unreleased live performances from Tosh's 1982 North American tour. Backed by his formidable Word Sound and Power band, which was comprised of core members of the legendary Soul Syndicate and aided by the Tamlins on backing vocals, this was an especially heartfelt tour coming just a year after Marley's passing. The third disc, Hits and Classic Album Cuts, turned out better than one might have expected; the few over-produced tracks from the Eighties don't totally distract from the more cogent mid-late Seventies period, which gave us anthems like "Stepping Razor" from the Equal Rights LP, "Igziabeher" from Legalize It, and the title track from Bush Doctor, released on the Rolling Stones imprint with Keith Richards on guitar.

In all honesty, I wasn't a big fan of Peter Tosh. His albums never moved me the way those of other reggae artists did. I saw him live at Southpark Meadows in 1983, where he appeared at the end of a phenomenally successful reggae season that had seen an endless string of great shows come through Liberty Lunch. By contrast, Tosh's outdoor extravaganza was a bombastic ego-fest in which he entered in a flowing white gown to the strains of hallelujah and then proceeded to make it perfectly clear that he was the reigning King of Reggae. The music, at least on that particular night, unfortunately took a back seat to his ravings. From that point on, I more or less ignored him.

By the time of Tosh's death in 1987, reggae was a couple of years into its transformation to computer and keyboard-driven electro-riddems and dancehall had thoroughly supplanted the rasta reggae of the preceeding decade. Tosh's international sound and fiery oratory for "equal rights and justice" had long ago fallen out of favor back home as slack-mouthed deejays had become the order of the day. Perhaps because of dancehall's continuing reign as the dominant form of reggae in Jamaica, Tosh's substantive, roots-based aesthetic and his contribution to the Wailers legacy has survived and grown worldwide.

As the host of a weekly reggae radio show, I consistently receive more calls requesting Peter Tosh than any other artist. Perhaps befittingly, the collection of music on Honorary Citizen is a persuasive reminder to those of us who weren't huge Tosh fans of just how vital and important a figure he really was in reggae music.

Jay Trachtenberg hosts "The Dreadbeat Club" on KGSR 107.1, Thursdays, 11pm-midnight.

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