Bob Marley and beyond: The View from Argentina

I love it when I find an article like this one, which looks at something I know in my own particular way (as a Caribbean-born person) from a slightly different cultural perspective. Here Miguel Bronfman, writing for The Buenos Aires Herald, explains to his Argentinean readers his own love for reggae.

A couple of months ago I was in a well-known record store, trying to find if there was anything new in the reggae section. I searched and searched, but couldn’t find where that section even was. Suddenly, to my astonishment, and feeling a seemingly uncontrollable rage, I found that reggae albums where stocked under the label “reggaeton.” I made a huge effort to control myself, calm down and let things go. What could I do? Lecture the bored, indifferent employee on the vast difference, the irreconcilable difference between reggae and reggaeton? Tell him that there is nothing in common between them? Tell him that reggae is a towering musical and cultural expression, with a whole social history behind it, with dozens of great groups and singers faithful to a rich tradition, whereas reggaeton is a hostile, decadent expression of Latin dance music which will –hopefully– soon disappear? I felt it was probably pointless. There was no new reggae material, besides, so I was not to buy anything, and thus I finally left, empty-handed and spiritually disturbed.

And then, only a few days after, I received wonderful news from the people at Universal Records: celebrating Bob Marley’s 65th anniversary, they were putting again on the street almost all of the Island Records catalogue, and, maybe even most important, they were releasing a collection of ten albums entitled the Reggae Fundamentals (culled from that same catalogue) including many works that had never been edited in Argentina. So, after all, reggae was quite safe, at least for the time being.

Since his premature death in 1981 at 36, Bob Marley’s figure grew to reach international fame: a noble, iconic figure that needs no introductions. He represents the best, consummated expression of Jamaican reggae: a popular poet, a wonderful musician and an incredibly charismatic leader. Almost all of his songs –and he wrote a lot– are gems. He had a master touch to blend, with simplicity and sheer honesty, popular and danceable rhythms with incendiary lyrics that speak of love and fiercely fight against social injustice. His call for justice and peace remains as current and urgent today as it was in his day.

Universal has re-released no less than 13 Marley and The Wailers albums, all of them of equal musical value. There are two compilations: Legend and Natural Mystic. While both are perfect for beginners just entering the Marley universe, they lack an essential quality from the original albums: the latter are all conceptual works, or at least have a unifying idea or inspiration that subtly runs through  them. But to get to know Marley’s most famous and representative songs, these anthologies are it. You will want more, for sure.

From the earliest period we have Upsetter Revolution Rhythm, 127 King Street and Soul Rebels, when Marley was still a rising figure amidst the busy Jamaican scene. Then came the wonderful albums that would bring Marley and The Wailers a larger, international following. Helped by key producers Chris Blackwell and Lee “Scratch” Perry, Catch a Fire (released worldwide in 1973), Kaya, Survival, Uprising and Confrontation were released between 1974 and 1981, bringing Marley and The Wailers a larger following, and cementing their immortal success. The live albums Talking Blues (recorded in 1973, firstly released in 1991) and the emblematic Babylon by Bus (recorded and released in 1978) have also been re-released.

And finally, there is a 30th anniversary special edition of what probably is Marley’s best, most accomplished album (if it is fair to make such a distinction): Exodus. The title track, Natural Mystic, One Love/People Get Ready, Three Little Birds are some of the songs within: an album made of all-time hits.

But, just as reggae had predecessors like ska and rocksteady, among other forms of Jamaican music (like mento, a calypso-like, relaxed dancing rhythm), so did Marley have his own musical forefathers. He left good heirs to his legacy, too, and this is what this new collection of ten albums tries to highlight: that Marley is not the be-all and end-all of reggae, and that, though he will always be its undisputed king, there are other singers and groups that deserve to be known.

Funky Kingston and In the Dark, two albums recorded in 1972 and 1973 by the highly influential Toots and the Maytals, are presented together in one CD. Toots Hibbert –still active, well into his sixties– is generally credited with coining the word “reggae” in his 1968 tune Do the Reggay. Hibbert grew up singing in the choir of a Christian church, so the Maytals’ infectious rocksteady grooves are impregnated with a soul touch and a strong Gospel influence. Hibbert has contributed many reggae anthems, and many come from these seminal, wonderful albums.

Before becoming a soloist, Marley had formed the group The Wailers with Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh. Wailer and Tosh then went on to pursue solo careers, while The Wailers remained as Marley’s band. Can’t Blame the Youth (originally released only in 2004) brings together Tosh’s first recordings on his own, between 1969 and 1972. He has always been considered the toughest of all reggae artists, and these early tunes fully showcase his nature: rebel, passionate, violent and socially committed. In the cover photo, Tosh is wearing the Black Panthers’ fist around his neck. His songs speak of black history and suffering, and call for urgent action against injustice. Tosh also died prematurely, killed in a mysterious alleged robbery at his home in L.A., in 1982. This is crude, political reggae at its best.

The Harder They Come is a Jamaican crime film from 1972 starring singer Jimmy Cliff, and here we have the soundtrack of the same name, which contains four famous songs by Cliff including the title track, Many Rivers to Cross, Sitting in Limbo and You Can Get It If You Want. The soundtrack is completed by early reggae standards (Pressure Drop, Johnny Too Bad, Rivers of Babylon) by The Melodians, The Maytals, Desmond Dekker and The Slickers. Undoubtedly, a must-have.

Besides its musical influences, reggae nurtured from two forces which, in turn, were amalgamated into the music: religion and politics. The most visible religion in reggae has always been the Rastafari movement. Though a minor religion, with less than 15 percent of the island’s population, it was and still is highly influential on Jamaican music, particularly reggae. Again, Marley is the most famous of a big number of Rasta musicians.

A constant in reggae, as in Rasta literature and politics, is pan-Africanism, a “return to Africa”, where all black people would one day reach unity. The most important campaigner, politician and public Jamaican figure who worked to transform this dream into a reality was Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), a sort of prophet for the Rasta people. Marcus Garvey/Garvey’s Ghost are two 1976 albums by singer Burning Spear brought together in one CD. They are a moving tribute to one of Jamaica’s national heroes, with exquisite dark vocals by the leader and horns over contagiously slow, roots-reggae grooves. Marcus Garvey was Spear’s powerful debut, full of uncompromising religious and political messages, and Garvey’s Ghost its dub counterpart, with instrumental music charged with thick, glorious grooves. Though Marley was already on his way to stardom, this work must have been a strong influence for him. Another must-have.

96º  In The Shade is Third World’s second album (originally published in 1977), and the one which helped to established the group as one of the most enduring reggae bands of all time, with more than 30 years on the road. With an eclectic approach open to other influences such as pop and disco, Third Word has been accused of having sold out to commercialism. Polemics aside, in 1977 this was a novel sound, and the album brings beautiful pop-reggae tunes with catchy melodies.

Another pearl: Police & Thieves, by Junior Marvin, from 1977, recorded under the wing of Lee Perry, who produced the album and also co-wrote many of the tunes. There is a dense, murky sound throughout, sustained by reverberating grooves and echoes which compliment Murvin’s inimitable falsetto to perfection. The album, whose title was inspired by election violence in Jamaica, was a massive hit in the island and in Britain. It contains several hits, and the title track, already a classic, was later covered by The Clash.

In the early 50s a big process of migration began from the then-English speaking Caribbean colonies (Jamaica achieved independence only in 1962) to Great Britain. In just a few years, thousands of Jamaicans left in search of a better place to live – and with them, their music moved too. Soon Britain had its own ebullient, feverish ska and reggae scene. From those movements, some original British reggae groups begun to arise in the 1970s – probably the most famous was Steel Pulse, founded in 1975 in Birmingham. Handsworth Revolution is their debut release for Island Records, released in 1978. This is a strongly (and almost exclusively) political album, with ruthless lyrics that convey a clear feeling of urgency.

Those were agitated times, and indeed, only a few months after the album’s release many riots due to racial tensions broke out in the streets of Brixton. Not brilliant in musical terms, but of undeniable historical value.

One of Britain’s most brilliant contributions to the genre, poet and singer Linton Kwesi Johnson (born in Jamaica) is regarded as having invented the term “dub poetry,” where rhythmic readings of (usually) political verses were delivered over dub –instrumental– tracks. Johnson mastered this style, with an hypnotic singing and a mysterious voice full of Jamaican slang inflections; here in Forces of Victory he is accompanied by a fierce, grooving large band with heavy percussion and poignant horns, commanded by pianist Dennis Bovell. This is one of the most refined expressions of reggae of all times, a magnificent album by a superlative artist.

Black Uhuru, a group with a vast but uneven discography (mainly due to its constant personnel changes along the years), had to be present in this collection. Red was recorded in 1981, featuring a trio of singers: Michael Rose, US-born Sandra “Puma” Jones and original member Derrick Simpson. The album mixes reggae roots with modern touches, like synthesizers, electronic drumming, programming, and so on. Just a fine work, that lacks the profoundness of the albums mentioned above.

And finally, the most romantic of all reggae singers: Gregory Isaacs, who has been singing Jamaica’s best love songs for the last thirty years. Night Nurse, from 1982, is among his finest albums. Isaacs has a tender, gripping and exquisite voice, and he sings in a sincerely relaxed pace. There are synthesizers and electronic drumming here, too, but the music, the tone and the spirit, are completely different from Red: there is no hurry here, no urgency, and the music breathes easily, slightly bumping, caressing the listener in a warm sunset.

No, definitely: nothing to do with reggaeton. If these albums are stocked under that label, I’m not sure if I will be able to contain myself again…To honor Marley’s message of peace, I’d better go to another record store.

The article appeared at http://www.buenosairesherald.com/BreakingNews/View/41987

4 thoughts on “Bob Marley and beyond: The View from Argentina

  1. Thank you for sharing this – it’s a thoughtful article that brought back many memories.

    I’ve been reading your blog regularly, and enjoying the feeling of being in touch with some of what is happening in the Caribbean. Again – thank you!

  2. Portrait Of Handsworth Riot in 1985 – Pogus Caesar – BBC1 TV . Inside Out.

    Broadcast 25 Oct 2010.

    Birmingham film maker and photographer Pogus Caesar found himself in the centre of the riots and managed to document these images. The stark black and white photographs featured in the exhibition ‘Handsworth Riots – Twenty Summers On’ provide a rare, valuable and historical record of the raw emotion, heartbreak and violence that unfolded during those dark and fateful days in September 1985.

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