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Why Reggae?

What's your favorite type of music? Chances are it's from the time you were young, probably even a teenager. This is likely due not just to the memories songs can evoke like nothing else, but perhaps due to your brain's history as well. There's a mass movement of thin hype about neuroscience these days but from my own nonscientific surveys and experience, each generation tends to venerate the music they loved in school. This neuromusical theory would hold that the musical sounds we hear most in adolescence tend to lodge in our very brain cells and structures, forever to be recalled as “the good old stuff” — whether that’s old folks waxing nostalgic about swing music or Sinatra, aging hippies trying to recall the Grateful Dead, punkers arguing over which 35-year old album from their fabled youth was best, or what have you.

For me, it's “roots reggae” — the original stuff from the 1970s, mainly — that seems permanently lodged in my psyche. I was a teen in the 1970s, and rock music had peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s and devolved into “mellow” or even insipid California sounds (The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac), disco (can't recall any) and then punk, which struck me as more of a humor genre at the time. Some of this stuff was all right but, with the exception of The Clash and a few others, it was all missing the fire and vision and experimentation that had exploded in the 1960s, led by The Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Hendrix, Traffic, the Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead, and others of the time. The “prog rock” of Genesis and Yes was attempting to fill that void, with limited success — it was just too cerebral to truly move me.

Then, while in college, I began to get earfuls of Jamaican reggae. I'd heard a few songs on the radio, mostly from the first reggae film, “The Harder They Come” — the title track by Jimmy Cliff and a few other catchy numbers. Then a few other Jamaican artists, getting American recording contracts, began to be heard: Bob Marley and the Wailers, of course, but also Toots and the Maytals, Burning Spear, and soon former Wailers Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. This sound was revelatory to me — instrumentally, lyrically, rhythm-wise... spiritually, even, although I could not name what that might mean. Some of it was just driving soul/funk music, some of it was funny, some of it romantic, but it all had that beat identifying it as reggae.

My ears wanted more, all I could get. Vinyl LPs from Jamaica were hard to find but I found them, at Southern California flea markets and small specialty record shops. Soon I had coveted LPs by the likes of The Heptones, Lee “Scratch” Perry, the Mighty Diamonds, Big Youth, U-Roy, and many more. The memories evoked by these and others, such as green-covered debut LP by Third World that matched my then-girlfriend's kimono and eyes, are permanent. But even more lasting was the elemental sound and reggae beat, a turned-around accent in the “riddim” that became so normalized to me that even I, as an amateur drummer, soon could not quite play “straight” rock without re-training.

As Tosh sang, I was afflicted with “reggae-mylitis” — an addiction. I was not about to adopt the Rastafarian faith that underpinned much if not most of the best reggae, nor was I ever much of a pothead, but there were times where it felt like a physical thing, like my soul and body agreed with a bumper sticker I once saw that simply said “I MUST have my DUB” (dub music being the remixed, elemental, largely instrumental, drums and bass echo-ey reversions of reggae songs). Friends and girlfriends, when asked 'What album should we put on” would reply “ANYthing but reggae, please.” I often ignored that. The truly romantic but still rhythmic “lover's rock” sounds of stars like Dennis Brown, Gregory Issacs, and others were irresistible to most anybody once they started anyway.

When reggae artists came through on US tours, I was there, from Bob Marley onwards. I once saw Cliff do four concerts in two nights. I'd drive for miles to see Spear or Tosh or well, almost any of them. And when reggae festivals began sprouting up, I was there, excited to catch a long list of heretofore mythical bands and singers in person. I missed the first couple of years of the once-fabled Reggae on the River (ROTR) on the south fork of the Eel River — called “hippie pee creek” by locals on those weekends — but then attended, religiously or almost so, twenty years of those shows. I went from a freeloading journalist — I had submitted a piece to the reggae magazine of record, The BEAT out of Los Angeles, and been accepted as one of the reggae scribe tribe — to a volunteer, to staff, ending up as director of “hospitality” backstage, making sure the bands were treated well. As part of this gig, the highlight of many attendees' years, I met many of my musical idols — not always a smart thing — but made lifelong friends as well. Those baking weekends, starting early and ending with a 3am trudge back to camp under stars and through redwoods, will never be topped. And musically, the rosters of artists at some of those festivals were legendary, with a seemingly endless list of top names, one after the others, any of whom could headline anywhere else they played.

Then things went a bit sour, at least for me. One could cynically say it was my aging, but I don't think so. What had drawn me to reggae in the first place is what changed. In the 1980s and especially into the 1990s, a newer form of both instrumentation — computerized — and singing arose which, while perhaps evolutionarily logical, lost the “conscious,” political, spiritual aspect and vibe of roots reggae. “Dancehall” this was called, and, true to form, those who were kids a decade or more after myself saw this as true reggae. Cest la vie and such is time, but qualitatively, the message in this music was more of boastfulness, materialism, and even misogyny, homophobia, violence — or purely indecipherable, as the words were very often grunted and yelled rather than sung. But the kids loved it. And thus, one more generational gap. When we had a first “dancehall day” at ROTR — yes, a concession to youthfulness and the need to keep them interested — the vibe and violence both backstage and in the festival was so strikingly different than before that we vowed to spread out dancehall artists from then on. But in the broader reggae world, dancehall came to dominate (and ROTR melted down in a mess of financial and other disputes, only to return in more recent years — revived, for sure, but undeniably a musical shadow of its former self so far).

So far as festivals go, though, my soul was saved (again?) by the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival. It started in the Sierra foothill town Marysville, a place seemingly benighted by a Walmart mall which had sucked the life out of the old downtown, then migrated to another fairly crusty place further up the road called Angel's Camp, and then settled for the past decade in Boonville. Regardless of the locale, I found their musical offerings on par with the best ROTR had put together, with even more of the hard-to-find earlier Jamaican sounds like rock-steady, plus, yes lots of music from other parts of the world. It's been of that fine quality, with a good size and even better vibe, ever since, and true to form, I went from journalist to staff — turning all I love into work sooner or later, but still enjoying it immensely. The true reggae can get harder to find, but there are constantly newer, younger reggae singers and players trying to revive the magic that made reggae explode worldwide in the first place. And the love of reggae led me far afield into music from Africa, South America — really all over the planet, for which I am grateful.

And again, just what was, and is, that reggae magic? Jamaican singers perfected harmony singing, often in trios, they heard from Motown and other American soul singers, sometimes on the radio floating across from Florida. They slowed down the rhythm, turned it inside out, added their own special production effects, and added even more historical, cosmic, spiritual, political, and just plain baffling messages in a unique blend that, in the person of Bob Marley and many others, made Jamaica “the loudest island in the world” in terms of the amount of music recorded and how far and wide it spread. Marley was really only the very visible and charismatic tip of that musical iceberg. It endures, like few other musical forms, even though a relative tiny minority of reggae fans are truly Rastafarians or otherwise strongly identify with the core spiritual and political messages therein. I had long recognized and accepted that, in California at least, the majority of reggae fans were, like me, Caucasian. And Caucasians who affected Rastafarian ways, such as dreadlocks and Jamaican accents and slang, tended to strike me as not much different than wearing blackface. But “judge not,” as Marley advised in one of his very first songs. And in any event the best reggae seemed, and still seems, to aspire to a positive, hopeful message, of struggle both spiritual and political, of even transcendence.

Of course it could be one of those “if you have to ask...” things. Actually, that's likely as good an explanation for reggae-myelitis as anything. Or, as Jamaicans might say: “Who feels it, knows it.”

(Steve Heilig is one of the festival MCs for SNWMF this weekend.)

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