Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggaeby David Katz
Bloomsbury Press, 396 pp., $23.95 (paper)
The history of Jamaican popular music has been told a number of times before, perhaps most comprehensively by Steve Barrow in his Rough Guide to Reggae. One of the collaborators on that project was David Katz, a Californian now based in London, whose recent biography of Lee "Scratch" Perry was met with critical acclaim. Katz has done extensive research, interviewing more than 250 people in compiling this dense oral history. And therein lies the book's strength and weakness. The casting of such a wide net and offering of such a dizzying amount of information comes at the expense of a reader-friendly narrative. Far too much time is given to the esoteric clutter of obscure singers, second-rate producers, long forgotten record labels, and barely heard singles; this to the neglect of a more pertinent focus. For instance, more face time should've been given to someone like seminal, rock-steady session bassist Jackie Jackson rather than to the umpteen insignificant characters who populate the book's coverage of that era. Over the course of 350 jam-packed pages, this quickly becomes ponderous. To his credit, Katz has gathered a staggering amount of engrossing and entertaining information. He's at his best when using overlapping interviews to tell a particular story. Likewise, the words of the Gladiators' Albert Griffiths, enforcer-turned-record-producer Tappa Zukie, and radio producer Mikey Dread provide a fascinating perspective and give a genuine depth to the music's colorful history. Unfortunately, the book ends in 1985 with the transformative advent of digital dance-hall riddems. There's little or no mention of recent reggae developments nor of superstars like Luciano, Beenie Man, or Buju Banton, who have dominated the music in the past decade. You'd best be a reggae die-hard before attempting to do battle with this informative but cumbersome tome.