Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae


Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae, is a new documentary film by director Sasha Bader, featuring Ken Boothe, Stranger Cole, Derrick Morgan, Judy Mowatt and other Jamaican musicians of the 1960s, who reunite to help trace the story of Rocksteady. A Canadian-Swiss production In the style of Wim Wenders’s Buena Vista Social Club, Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae reunites some of the old-timers behind those great records to revisit their hits in the studio and, ultimately, to perform a live show. Along the way, they tell their stories while Bader (who holds a PhD in Jamaican music) examines the political, social, economic and cultural changes that surrounded the music. Bader smartly lets the musicians tell their own stories in a series of interviews, which are interspersed with in-studio musical performances. Stranger (Wilburn) Cole, a percussionist and singer who was a central figure in the sixties’ Jamaican music scene, provides the voice-over narrative. Here are some excerpts from the review in Toronto’s Globe and Mail, which can be accessed through the link below.

The subject, at first, seems an odd one: Rocksteady was a transitional genre, a slow and soulful style that only lasted for about three or four years, between the cranked up rhythms of ska (typified by the 1964 Millie Small hit, My Boy Lollypop ) and the more rock-influenced reggae music of Bob Marley and other bands that became Jamaica’s biggest cultural export.

Many of the rocksteady tunes are straight-ahead love songs such as The Tide Is High (revived by Blondie in 1980). Singer Judy Mowatt refers to rocksteady as taking place just at the beginning of the “consciousness era,” and the musicians collectively seem to see it as a relatively innocent time and an optimistic one in the first years following Jamaican independence (1962). Of course, it was the sixties, and some of the songs deal with social commentary about the back-to-Africa movement and the emerging “rude boy” gang violence. Sly Dunbar, drummer extraordinaire, even suggests rocksteady might have been a musically richer period than reggae, marked by a combination of heartfelt melodies and jazzy instrumental intricacy.

Poverty, oppression and exile are all themes here. Marley’s widow, Rita, takes us on a tour of the impoverished community of Trenchtown and talks about how you can hear the yearning for a better life in the music, which eventually merged into the more militant themes of reggae.

Marley, who now lives in Ghana (she was in Jamaica during filming to attend the funeral of her deceased husband’s mother), points out the kitchen in which she first made love to Bob Marley. Raggedly dressed kids still hang around in trash-filled streets, where, she says, as a girl she used to wait eagerly for garbage day to see what food and treasures she could collect.

For the review go to

For another review go to

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