It seems impossible that someone wouldn’t immediately take to the quintessential reggae classic “Satta Massagana”. Yet when the Abyssinians recorded it at Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One in 1969, he shelved it for two years; in ‘71 the band had to buy it back for £90. Not only did it become a juggernaut of a hit for the vocal trio, it also set the tone for melodic, spiritually focused roots reggae in the mainstream. Interestingly, at the time only one of the three singers—Donald Manning—was Rastafari. Yet nearly 40 years later that song remains biblical in Rasta folklore.
What are the “roots” of reggae, really? We can trace it back to the African griot tradition and the imported folk stories carried to the Caribbean during slave times. Indian culture planted seeds in the mid-19th century as indentured servants mingled with local Africans and introduced important concepts (karma, redemption) as well as nutrition (Ayurveda, ganja), of which would eventually define Rastafari.
Musically, reggae was an interesting concoction of traditional Nyabhingi drumming and chanting set to the tunes of airwave-dominated American R&B, soul and jazz; ska was the Jamaican flip on these. We can probably attribute Toots (of Maytals fame) for coining “reggae”, though it was already a fusion of many forms by that time. Like any art or culture, reggae did not just appear from nowhere, and its roots spread in many directions.
Today, the Golden Age of this song form remains birthright to a handful of important names, three of which are seeing new light from Heartbeat Records: Bob Marley, Lee Perry and the aforementioned Abbysinians, whose Satta Massagana is crucial to the development of those sweet honey harmonies indicative of roots reggae. The three “previously unreleased” tracks, including extended mixes of “Abendigo” and “Poor Jason Whyte”, are nice but unnecessary. This is one of the most important documents regarding the mindset and spiritual musings of Jamaican culture; the original 15 will stand against time for as long as humans have ears to listen with.
While we scratch our heads wondering how Dodd could have shelved this masterpiece, irony abounds: that a collection of rare cuts from young Nesta should arrive from the same studio seems fortuitous. There is no end to the “rare” Bob Marley albums clogging the World section at Virgin Records, yet due to shoddy (or no) licensing laws, so much has been pirated or simply remains in the public domain—which is not necessarily a bad thing. Yet Heartbeat has bragging (and publishing) rights to many recordings that cannot get released otherwise, and these 18 cuts, Another Dance: Rarities from Studio One, is a great example of temperament and patience.
This is another sort of roots; not so much the term in the Abyssinians sense, but in the Bob Marley sense, which means: ska-based, horn-heavy and upbeat precursors to the eventual Island catalog. The excellent “Ska Jerk”, a doo-wop “Lonesome Feelings” and premonitions in the form of “Cry to Me” and “One Love” show the concrete by which Marley’s musical kingdom was built with. Muddy, analog and fuzzy, there seems no better way to listen to the melancholic guitar and straining vocals of “It Hurts to Be Alone”.
Lee “Scratch” Perry, Photo (partial) by Drew Goren, subwaysleeper.com
Before becoming famous (and infamous) at his Black Ark studio, Lee “Scratch” Perry was tooling around Studio One, experimenting with ska in much the same way as Nesta. His musical concoctions were a bit slower, yet featured equally melodic hooks—the title track from Chicken Scratch: Deluxe Edition rivals the soulful integrity of any of his counterparts. Indeed it was Perry that would record many of Marley’s early classics, and some argue that those pre-Island acetates were far superior to anything later released. Perry’s work as producer was unrivaled in Jamaica; he was far more fascinated by sound than music, resulting in the first experiments in dub by cutting and looping tapes with scissors and Scotch tape.
The 18 tracks on this re-release predate any of these mind-bending auditory experiments. While Scratch stepped away from the mic for most of the ‘70s, producing much more than singing, this album reminds of his fine, distinct vocals. Like the Marley material, it is much more jazz- and R&B-based than what we today consider “roots” reggae, though the adjective is more than fitting considering that the soulful sounds of the Abyssinians and later Marley grew from this sonic template. Listening to these excellent songs reminds one of what happened before the burning of the Black Ark, and the subsequent demise of the entire genre.
The ‘80s were not a good time for reggae. The Jamaican record industry (not to mention their British counterparts) is notorious for cutting costs, often at the expense of the artist. When drum machines became available on the island in the early ‘80s, live drummers were no longer necessary—or at least the producers thought so. The result was the revival of dancehall, a style that started in the ‘50s but was redefined to encompass the tinny, brassy beats of primitive electronic posturing.
As much as a shame as it was, this is still often the case today. While dancehall has, for the most part, borrowed much from hip-hop production, they still lean toward rocking electric guitars and overbearing synthesizers (old and new: Bob Marley’s last album, Confrontation, finished after his death, hints at this unfortunate trend). To get to the roots of reggae today we must, for the most part, travel back. As the circular nature of time has it, however, a whole crop of youthful upstarters is turning to the warm bass and spiritual messages embedded in the excavation of Jamaican folklore.
When his track “Can’t Satisfy Her” received massive airplay in 2005, I-Wayne was thrust into a surprising spotlight. Soulful, bluesy roots reggae carved a niche on hip-hop radio, and the 26-year-old singer watched his debut ascend the charts. Two years later and his latest, Book of Life (VP), travels farther in reverse. While a quick snippet of hip-hop appears on the album’s closing cut, “Natural Ites”. this is one of the smoothest albums of 2007 in any genre. The production is incredible, clean; he’s taken the best of technology to bring out that warm, penetrative bass, weaving drums, horns and guitars into the blueprint tastefully. Above it all his springtime and sultry voice take flight.
Like his forebears, I-Wayne’s intention remain clear: freedom, integrity and, of course, love, that good deep and passionate lover’s rock kind of sensation men like Gregory Isaacs imprinted on our aural souls. He gives a verbal headnod to cultural and spiritual warriorship in “Smart Attack”, while “Free the People” is thematically brilliant, on par with “Satta Massagana” in defining a generation and mindset. And for the sucker of heart songs, “Need Her In I Arms” and “No Vanity Love” fill that craving. “No Unnecessary War” speaks for itself, while the incredible “Could A Never” is his own “Fisherman Style” from the first Congos record: hypnotic, invasive and gorgeous.
While I-Wayne leads this roots resurgence at 28, it is even more startling that another is doing so at half that age. Of course it never hurts to have Damian and Stephen Marley in your corner. Releasing Superstar on their Tuff Gong label (and produced by Damian), it’s difficult to discern where these fortunate sons begin and Javaughn ends. And it doesn’t matter; the album is fierce.
The opening cut, “Present of Love”, admits traces of Horace Andy with intelligent production skills that have underlain all Marley releases. It’s not a complete album, quite yet, yet we’ll forgive Javaughn. There are plenty of credible songs and his heart is in the right place. His lyrics focus on the same as I-Wayne and the Marley brothers, obvious in song titles like “Rich Quick Mentality”. And one listen to the yuletide cheer of “Santa Claus (Do You Ever Come to the Ghetto)” will have you hooked.
To navigate the future, a proper understanding of history is essential. And this history is not relegated to any specific geography or genre. It could be a glance into the past of your subconscious, fishing for treasures primordial and revealing. Some claim hip-hop to be dead, and others can say the same of reggae. Of course that’s more a marketing ploy than reality.
Like the roots of old and those of new, music flows stream-like from the hearts of these artists into an ocean of humanity. That spring is ever flowing, and while it may take a bit of navigation to arrive, the trip is always worth the journey.