It’s mid 2012, and there’s roots reggae playing tonight, as happens every Saturday night, in the Hotel Santa Fe Bar & Grill. But this isn’t a dislocated place in New Mexico, nor is it throwback Jamaica — I’m beachside on the island of Guam, seven hours west of Honolulu / three hours east of Manila. High tide or low tide.
Nearly 40 years have passed since Bob Marley & the Wailers first popularized reggae worldwide, 30 years have passed since Bob moved on to that big sunsplash in the sky, and you can still hear Jamaican-based ska, rock steady, reggae and dub emanating from sound systems and stages in every corner of the globe.
A few years back, while living in rural Akita-ken, in northwest Japan, I used to hang out in Bliss, a street-corner drinking spot in the picturesque coastal city of Honjo. What I recall most about Bliss are three things: the long blonde dreadlocks of the Japanese surfer-dude bar master, the complete Marley oeuvre on display in CD form, and — if I remember correctly through the haze of time — an Olympic-size rasta flag (with a cannabis leaf) unfurled in the shop’s front window. To top it off, the music was invariably a soul rebel soundtrack.
We’ve all heard reggae, even those among us who still don’t quite get it. Wherever you stand though, you have to be amazed by the quantity and quality of music that has originated in Jamaica. When I visited in the late 70s, the 11,000 sq kilometer island was home to a mere 2,000,000 people (in contrast to tiny Singapore’s 2.2 million at the same time). But what a dynamic musical culture!
While I might have been oblivious to the power of reggae in 1979 (sure, I’d seen Peter Tosh in concert, but that was only because he played as an opener for the Stones), what stands out in retrospect is that no matter where I was in the west of the island — strolling through the street market in Negril, catching sunset at Rick’s Cafe on the West End Cliffs, or lounging somewhere along the infamous 7 Mile Beach — reggae was pulsing from ghetto blasters and PAs alike, and everyone within earshot was grinding their hips.
What I didn’t know at that time was that Jamaica was home to hundreds of competing recording labels and studios. One label, Island, was the world’s leading indie music brand back in the 70s, and is now a mainstay under Universal. Sound studios such as Studio One, Treasure Isle, and The Ark, the home base of early Wailers’ producer Lee Perry, made an impact through both the music and the mythology that grew alongside it. (Remember, The Ark was allegedly burnt to the ground in a splif-inspired fire, ignited by Perry himself.)
There were also thousands of professional musicians in Jamaica during that era, a good number achieving international renown, all the while leaving us with a huge catalogue of classic recordings. Many of those included astute social commentary, with others being playful or self-mocking. Performances were typically soulful and heart-felt.
This episode’s set includes an array of songs, mainly from the 70s, with lesser-known artists like Tinga Stewart and The Uniques represented beside well-established singers such as Desmond Dekker and Max Romeo. It also presents more recently released numbers with a clear Jamaican connection, starting with a pair by Abyssinia Infinite (showcasing percussionist Karsh Kale, the ubiquitous Bill Laswell, and the fine singer Gigi), a bouncing social critique by Tiken Jah Fakoly from Cote d’Ivoire, and a party song by Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars.
This is the first in a number of episodes dedicated to all and anything ska-ish and reggaesque. Bliss indeed.