Some years ago I gave world-renowned reggae historian Roger Steffens a never-played 1970s U.K. cassette box-set of Bob Marley and The Wailers that had originally been given to me 25 years earlier by my British godfather, Richard Burnett writes in this article for The Montreal Gazette.
Over in Los Angeles, Steffens’ Reggae Archives fill six overflowing rooms of his home, and contain the world’s largest collection of Bob Marley material – a collection so vast and comprehensive that the government of Jamaica, Rita Marley and the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame have all expressed interest in acquiring it.
“Now you’re part of the archives too,” Roger told me.
Steffens – whom Bob Marley himself personally dubbed “Ras Rojah” back in 1979 when they traveled together – chaired the Grammy Awards reggae committee for 27 years, has hosted five radio shows on NPR, including the award-winning Reggae Beat that was syndicated to over 130 stations worldwide during the 1980s. But Steffens is best known for founding The Beat magazine, his many books on Marley, including the indispensable Bob Marley and The Wailers – The Definitive Discography which he co-wrote with Leroy Jodie Pierson in 2005.
After presenting his internationally-acclaimed multimedia lecture The Life of Bob Marley at the Montreal International Reggae Festival (MIRF) in 2006, Steffens is back this week presenting his free three-hour workshop called The Reggae World – Spreading Out, on August 15 from 6:00 to 9:00 pm at O Patro VYS (356 Mount Royal E).
“It’s going to be a variety of thigns that will document how reggae has spread around the planet, I’ll be showing rare international videos and some tracks I’ve swept up from my international tours in places like Hawaii, Negev desert and the Australian outback. And I’ve been asked to include some rare Marley material as well. I’m going to make it as informal as possible, like you’re in my home visiting the archives.”
Steffens, now 71, speaks very highly of many of the headliners at this year’s 10th annual Montreal International Reggae Festival (MIRF), notably lovers-rock icon Freddie McGregor, who co-headlines on Aug. 18.
“Freddie and I go way back and we have a very special relationship around the song Tease My Love,” explains Steffens. “A couple of months before Bob [Marley] died in the spring of 1980, Freddie was one of the first guests on my television show called L.A. Reggae and at that point he was in midst of composing Tease my Love. He sat in a garage in the San Fernando Valley at 1:30 in the morning and played it on an old upright piano and said he was going to put it on his next album, and 21 years later he came back to our home – where we have a piano that dates back to about 1880 – and he sat at the piano and sang the same song. We had the same cameraman, the same lighting set-up, it was a very special moment for both of us. Then two years ago at the Midwest Reggae Fest near Cleveland, I showed both of those clips and then he came onstage with me right after that and we talked about the song in front of the audience. Freddie is one of my all-time favourite performers.”
Luciano will also perform at the reggae fest on Aug 18. After I first interviewed the modern-roots reggae icon in the late 1990s, Steffens asked Luciano to sign my HOUR magazine cover story, and today it sits in Steffens’ massive reggae archives. “Luciano is one of the all-time greats. He and Garnett Silk were the great hopes of returning the roots to their proper place. We lost Garnett almost immediately, but Luciano is still out there. I regard him and Tarrus Riley as the two of the most important reggae artists recording today.”
(Read my POP TART interview with Tarrus Riley by clicking here.)
Other MIRF headliners include Morgan Heritage on Aug 16 (“They are just brilliant performers,” says Steffens) and Mr Vegas on Aug 17. “We played a festival in Ostroda [in Poland] about 120 miles from Warsaw, and the festival was held in the ruins of a 19th century Prussian cavalry barracks and [Mr Vegas] sang the history of Jamaican music and blew everybody away. To witness that and to see all those Polish kids wearing reggae T-shirts was very special.”
Joining Mr Vegas at MIRF’s hugely-popular annual dancehall night on Aug 17 is dancehall don Beenie Man, whom I’ve long criticized for his anti-gay lyrics over the years.
Beenie Man supposedly apologized in a May 2012 video on YouTube (watch it below) but, as Steffens says, “Beenie Man has never really properly apologized for his earlier stuff.”
When I asked MIRF if they would demand that Beenie Man not sing any of his anti-gay lyrics in Montreal, the festival released this statement: “Since its inception in 2004, the Montreal International Reggae Festival has been anchored in the principles of peace, love and unity. The consistent overarching theme, “United Against Violence” and MIRF’s fundamental stance of respect for all persons, have been the cornerstones upon which we’ve built our stellar reputation as a first-rate entertainment entity that delivers distinctive and prestigious ‘reggae music-based’ entertainment for our audience. To date no MIRF performer has refused to conform to these principles; and for this celebratory year, with the inclusion of Bennie Man (Moses Davis) on the slate, we envision and have been assured that he too will embrace the MIRF vision of non-violence.”
Of course, the dancehall pioneer who opened the anti-gay floodgates was Yellowman. “The less said about him the better,” Steffens says.
But the last time Steffens was at the Montreal reggae festival, he told me, “After Bob died, the biggest star in reggae was this salacious, foulmouthed, homophobic, misogynistic rapper called Yellowman, and it changed the whole tone of the music. The music turned so foul, so debauched, I decided I didn’t want to be around it any more.”
So instead Steffens focused on his archives, the Grammys, his international Bob Marley tour and writing his Marley books. He is currently writing his seventh, Bob Marley: An Oral History, which will be published in 2014. “It is based on 40 years of interviews with him and 100 of the people closest to him. It will be my magnum opus and I hope it clears up a lot of the mysteries out there.”
Should you see Steffens at the Montreal International Reggae Festival this weekend, he says he’s always happy to meet new reggae fans. “Do come up and say hello,” Roger says, smiling. “If you have any questions, I always love talking about reggae to people.”
Check out Roger Steffens three-hour The Reggae World – Spreading Out workshop at O Patro VYS (356 Mount Royal E) on Aug 15 beginning at 6 pm. Free admission.
Morgan Heritage headline a stellar Aug 16 line-up on the MIRF outdoor stage at Jacques Cartier Pier in Old Montreal. Admission is $10 (yes, you read right!)
Saturday, Aug 17, is Dancehall Night with Shaggy, BeEnie Man, Kes The Band, Mr. Vegas, Tifa, Dahlia and Ras Out. Tickets $45 in advance; 60$ at the door. Gates Open at 2:00pm; Showtime: 3:00pm to 11:00pm.
Closing night, Aug 18, features Luciano, Freddie McGregor, Coco Tea, Alaine, Serani, Yellowman and Canada’s King of Reggae and Montreal homeboy Jah Cutta. Tickets $45 in advance; 60$ at the door. Gates Open at 2:00pm; Showtime: 3:00pm to 11:00pm.
Montreal International Reggae Festival runs August 16-18. Click here
for their official website.
Click here for The Gazette’s 2013 interview with festival founder and producer Eric Blagrove