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Jamaica-Reggae Roots by Islands Magazine

Jamaica-Reggae Roots by Islands Magazine



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Published by Islands Magazine
http://islands.com/freeissue The secrets of Jamaica reggae are revealed in this featured trip by Islands magazine, including the roots before Bob Marley and the stunning photos of Jamaica's countryside. From the "Find Bliss" issue of Islands now in the Islands Store at http://islands.com/freeissue
http://islands.com/freeissue The secrets of Jamaica reggae are revealed in this featured trip by Islands magazine, including the roots before Bob Marley and the stunning photos of Jamaica's countryside. From the "Find Bliss" issue of Islands now in the Islands Store at http://islands.com/freeissue

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Published by: Islands Magazine on Jan 15, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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story by
sv Kn
photos by
Jn Wl
Singer QueenIrica grew upimmersed in thegreen landscapesand distinctivesounds that haveinspired decades oJamaican music.
the beat of
Reggae — the world’s most recognizable island music —didn’t end with Bob Marley. A pop-music expert takes to thestreets and the hills to see what stirs it up.
hocking. i’m standing in
the lobby of a Jamaican resort,and I’m listening to a BobMarley tune. Four musicians
play “Buffalo Soldier” at Sandals
Montego Bay as honeymoon-
ers sip umbrella drinks and tapfeet to the song’s unmistakable reggae rhythm. Theresort’s perfect beach, 50 yards away, runs along the
shimmering blue-green ocean. “We play a lot of Bob
Marley,” bassist Fitzroy Thompson says later. “He’sthe foundation,” adds drummer Nordy Lewis.
Of course, Marley didn’t invent reggae or its oldersibling ska. Their roots are in mento, an offshoot of calypso. And since Marley’s death in 1981, reggae has
morphed into dancehall, an electronic style resem-
bling American hip-hop. Jon the photographer
and I have come to trace those transformations. Athallowed studios and dance clubs — sites that docu-ment both gentle, spiritual reggae and loud beats —
I plan to ask key players what exactly makes reggae
reggae? How did it evolve? And where does Marley,
still revered, t into today’s mix? The answers lie
somewhere in Jamaica’s gritty streets and green hills.
The next day, we’re standing on Gloucester
 Avenue in Montego Bay. It’s a sort of mini Vegas
strip, packed with tchotchke shops and cheapbuffets. Sandals employees directed us here forthe best dancehall music. We ask Bobby, a localhustler, for the same thing. “No problem,” hesays. “Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville.” Jon and I
exchange glances. The tourist chain?But sure enough, hours later, past 3 a.m., we nd
ourselves wedged into a corner of Margaritaville,ordering Red Stripe beers, feeling the bass in ourribs and the melody in our hips. It’s mostly locals,but we spot tourist couples in ip-ops as well, all
getting into it. Soon there’s a commotion as pop starSean Kingston hops on stage to sing and spin records.“Or we can leave the slums, go to paradise,” one of his
lyrics goes. It’s obvious he’s talking about the same
“Concrete Jungle” Marley chronicled, but the boom-
ing music makes the connection seem tenuous. After his set, I elbow through the throng to ask 
how Marley’s laid-back reggae transformed into
this. In a patois I can barely make out amid the din,
Kingston says: “You gotta come back to your roots,
to your culture. I just remember my history.” Then
the crowd engulfs him. But which roots? How canone shared history produce such distinct styles?
The next morning — OK, noon — I drag Jon
out of bed and drive to the upscale Iberostar Rose
Hall Beach to meet singer Queen Ifrica. She andmanager Tony Rebel, himself a dancehall vet-eran, shufe from the cavernous lobby into thesunshine. A young man in dreads introduceshimself as a fan and hands the queen a clump of marijuana, which she accepts with a smile. Likemany Jamaicans, including Marley, the 34-year-old daughter of reggae singer Derrick Morganis a Rastafarian. She worships former Ethiopianemperor Haile Selassie I as Jah, a version of Godreturning to earth. Rastafarians smoke pot (tech-nically illegal in Jamaica) as a religious ritual and wear dreadlocks. The queen dyes her dreads the
red, green and yellow of the Ethiopian ag, a sym-
bol of Rasta deance. She hands the pot to Tony,
 who sniffs it like a ne cigar and nods approvingly.
They take us to Rose Hall, a white-brick build-
ing from the late 1700s that overlooks the ocean.
Growing up in Montego Bay, Queen Ifrica took school tours here. “You’d imagine what it wouldbe like,” she says, motioning toward the mani-cured grass. “Slaves walking right over there.” Itell her that the slavery connection reminds meof American blues, also grown from oppression.
“It’s the same way in Jamaica,” she says.
I can feel those contradictions — oppression
and the resistance that gave birth to the music. Her
own pulsing beats support lyrics about racism and
child abuse. I’m beginning to understand where
the content comes from. But something changed to
make reggae sound so distinctly Jamaican, unique
from blues or anything American. To nd out how,
 we have to go where that sound has always come
from. We have to go downtown.
As Sandals Mon-tego Bay groovesnow, Rose Hallplantation (oppo-site page) reectsJamaica’s history.Yesterday and todaycome together inDamian Marley,shown perormingat the reggae esti-val Sumest 2009.
e get lost. the drive to
downtown Kingston climbs
into the hills before attening 
and widening into smoke andcongestion. Jon is an excel-lent driver, but he isn’t insane, which makes him unqualiedto drive in Jamaica. I slam the invisible brake asmassive Leyland trucks pass at full speed and slip
into trafc a few feet in front of us. At South Parade
and Orange Street, a raucous urban market thick 
 with pedestrians, we ask a woman gutting a sh for
directions. She points the way with a knife.
“There’s not really a lot of museums,” Damian
Marley had told me backstage at Sumfest. I’d asked
the pop star, Bob’s 31-year-old son, where to look for reggae history. “Go on an adventure,” he said.“Get out in the streets and meet the people.” Our
Kingston guide, local writer Kaci Hamilton, meets usat Strawberry Hill, a hotel owned by Chris Blackwell,
 who founded Island Records, signed Bob Marley 
and made him a star in the United States. In her tiny Honda, Kaci takes us to Trench Town, where Marley 
and other reggae stars got their start. It’s bleak —
small, hard shacks in faded pink, green and yellow. A notorious shantytown, parts of which were built on a 
sewage dump, Trench Town has been home to post-
slavery “sufferers” since the early 1900s. At Marley’searly squatter’s home, guide Donnette Dowe shows
us the burned-out Volkswagen van from which thesinger sold his landmark album
Catch a Fire
Kaci’s phone rings. We rush across town toHarry J Studio, a nondescript building where the
Wailers recorded several albums. Today, Sly Dunbar,
drummer for the great production duo Sly andRobbie, and a makeshift band of studio pioneers
are demonstrating Jamaican rhythms, including ska 
and reggae, for a TV show called
Music Voyager 
Just before the session, I coax Ernie Ranglin,the band’s 77-year-old guitarist, outside to dis-cuss reggae’s roots. In the late 1950s, Jamaicans
fell in love with American R&B stars such as FatsDomino and Wynonie Harris. Then DJs in urban
Kingston shifted from playing hit American
records at “sound-system” dance parties to making 
their own records in studios. But, I ask Ranglin,
 who invented the distinctive reggae beat? “I was
the rst one,” he says atly. He was a studio gui-
tarist back then. “Where we got the ska from — it was from New Orleans. But instead of the beat on
the ONE, two, THREE, four, it’s on the TWO,three, FOUR. You see? That’s theonly difference.” It was 1959, and producer Clement “Sir Coxsone”
Dodd desperately wanted a fresh sound to set himapart from his competitors. He met with guitarist
Ranglin one Sunday and —
!You make it seem so simple, I tell Ranglin. This
 was a revolutionary innovation! Without that impor-tant shift in the beat, there would be no Bob Marley 
— not to mention Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, or even
the Clash, the Police, UB40 and Gwen Stefani.
“It had to be something we can say, ‘It was ours,’”
he says. “We needed something to identify ourselves.”
Then he heads back into the studio. I feel like I’ve
just spoken with Thomas Jefferson in an open-collarshirt, who has excused himself to go inside and rewrite
the Declaration of Independence. So why haven’t you heard of Ernie Ranglin?
A crew rom the
Music Voyager 
TVshow flms ErnieRanglin (acousticguitar), Sly Dunbar(drums) and othermusicians layingdown Jamaicanbeats. Ranglin(opposite) says heinvented reggae’sdefning rhythm.
“Instead of thebeat on the ONE,two, THREE, four,it’s on the TWO,three, FOUR. Yousee? That’s theonly difference.”
Hear the beat
Jamaica episodes of
Music Voyager 
air starting in February onPBS and National Geographic channels. Get more info at
touching bob

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