Archive for May, 2011

Marley only tip of Reggae mountain

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags , , , , on May 17, 2011 by Todd

As music fans across the world honor reggae great Bob Marley this month on the 30th anniversary of his death on May 11, 1981, the one-time underground bandleader stands as the universally recognized face and sound of a music once marginalized to the far corners of the US charts and little understood outside of its home port of Jamaica.

While Marley’s career has certainly served as the commercial peak of reggae music and culture since he first broke through to semi-international recognition in the late 1970’s, his untimely passing at age 36 served to not only propel the man and his art into the realm of legend, but, unfortunately, cast into the shadows the wealth of both veteran and upstart musical talent throughout Jamaica that was poised to emerge in the wake of his unprecedented success.

In a very true sense, outside the confines of his former home, interest in reggae music other than Marley’s seemed to vanish along with the man himself.

For a brief moment during the mid-late 70’s, Jamaica was the center of the world-music universe, drawing on forces both elemental and modern, earth-rooted and forward thinking, to conjure a music that seemed exotic and achingly familiar. At the time, Jamaica was in the final flowering of a musical renaissance that had begun in the 1950’s, with the advent of the folk music mento, which combined with elements of jazz and rhythm and blues, developed into ska. As the tempo slowed in combination with the popular dances of the day, rocksteady, a short-lived style that reigned for roughly two years, replaced ska on the local airwaves and jukeboxes. Slowing the tempo even farther and bringing the bass and drums to the forefront, reggae emerged in 1968 and would go on to dominate Jamaican music for the next two decades, mutating ever farther from its roots in the process.

By the mid 70’s, Jamaica, an island roughly the size of Connecticut, could reasonably be said to contain more musical talent per square mile than nearly any other place on the planet. Marley and his vocal group, The Wailers, cut a series of classic discs with the islands resident madman producer, Lee “Scratch” Perry, reggae’s answer to Phil Spector and one of the most important musical sound sculptures of the twentieth century.

During the same period, groups of equally talented, innovative young musicians were drawing on the new sounds and militant spirit taking form around the local religion of Rastafarianism to create their own, deeply spiritual, melodic takeoffs on the rock and soul music from the U.S., combining these influences with the new rhythmic innovations and lyrical freedom ushered in by reggae.

A much deeper and stylistically diverse music than most non-Jamaicans have ever realized, reggae’s crowning decade saw the full maturity of the music’s “Roots” period, as artists such as Burning Spear, The Abyssinians, Toots and the Maytals, The Mighty Diamonds, and Jimmy Cliff turned their unique gifts to music that was at once harder, more impenetrable, and at times, deeper than Marley’s increasingly commercial output.

In the Revolutionaries, which combined the talents of drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare, the music could also boast one of the finest studio house bands this side of Booker T. and the MG’s and Motown’s Wrecking Crew. Heard on literally hundreds of albums throughout the period, the duo would eventually go on to produce some 200,000 songs, making them two of the most prolific recording artists of all time.

Another major component of the music during this period was the innovation known as Dub, an early form of the art of song remixing conjured by producers such as Perry and Dub originator King Tubby. While, even in its toughest moments, most reggae contained a certain buoyant stride in its Caribbean-stoked rhythm, Dub offered the dark side of the Jamaican musical moon, a world where shards of voice, organ, and bass leap out and then drift into the ether, where space and time bend and stretch in ways that may have interested Newton and Einstein.

That much of this music was created in primitive studios amongst an atmosphere of gang violence and political turmoil, by artists who lived in dire poverty on the edges of modern civilization, is simply to marvel at the unprecedentedly prolific output of these musicians.

While reggae was primarily a music devoted to singles, a number of classic albums were also produced during this period. Having been signed to the major label Island Records, Marley released two strong collections, Catch a Fire and Burnin,’ both featuring a heavier rock influence while muting much of the overtly Jamaican elements. Later in the decade, he would record what still stands as the all-time classic live document of the music during an appearance at the Lyceum Theatre in London.

Back in its birth land, the music continued to evolve throughout Marley’s ascension in the world press, culminating in dense, startling albums such as Culture’s Two Seven’s Clash, Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves, and Burning Spears Marcus Garvey. In 1977, The Congos, a vocal trio of singular power, released Heart of the Congos, a collection of songs that seem to drip with the humid winds and dank soil of Jamaica itself. Sounding like nothing so much as an ancient field recording of dance music excavated from the ruins of an alien civilization, the record stands as the crowning achievement of the strange, hypnotic music that was being incorporated into the work of mainstream rock musicians like Eric Clapton and Paul Simon.

Unfortunately, outside of Marley’s Americanized hybrid, few in the states would ever hear many of reggae’s finest moments. While the innovations of its top producers would influence modern music forms from rap to techno, Marley’s death virtually brought to a stand still the wide spread fascination that seemed to have built around the music and culture.

In the years since, of course, Marley has been celebrated as a cultural icon, a fixture on the dorm walls of countless trust fund hippies, praised for his one-love ideology while the harsher truths and finer points of his life and music are conveniently sanitized.

While I would wholeheartedly recommend a number of the man’s works, I would also suggest delving into the singularly rich history of reggae, and Jamaican music in general, that Marley both learned from and helped inspire. The treasures to be unearthed there consist of one of the deepest repositories of American and African influenced music to be found on earth, music that through a unique confluence of geography and history, melds the influences of Pentecostal hymns (see the recent Keith Richards produced Wingless Angels albums), rhythms shaped by the reach of slavery throughout the Mediterranean, and American popular music of the twentieth century, a musical brew strangely similar to that which gave rise to the blues in the U.S.

With the abundance of recent CD releases documenting this rich period in music history, any music fan interested in expanding their ears and deepening their knowledge should seek out these works that Marley himself, surely, would have praised wholeheartedly.

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