While I was kicking around Jamaica a few years back, I ran into this white, suburban American kid who was head-over-heels in love with reggae. He was a true devotee. He had everything by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, the Wailers, even Dennis Brown. He was in Jamaica to soak up in reality the vibrant sounds he had heard through his headphones. He had brought his guitar with him to Jamaica and I’d often find him hanging around the square in Port Antonio, strumming away at a Marley tune, flapping his knubby dreads from side to side in obvious ecstasy. I ran into him one day on my way to a great record store I had heard about, and invited him to come along. He spoke non-stop, wondering out loud about the rare 45s and LPs that he might be able to pick to bring back with him to the States.
When we got to the store, the German owner had two turntables going on which he was sampling 45s for some Jamaican kids. “Dis one is great,” he intoned imperiously. He then dropped the needle on one of the platters, and dance hall and “gangsta” reggae tracks pumped out—loud, electronic, heavy backbeats, overlaid with frantic, hard-to-understand lyrics. After a minute or so, he would cue up the other turntable, cut the first one off, and set the second one spinning. I was digging it. My companion, however, was in distress. As he poked through the racks, I could see him becoming more and more distraught. Finally, he went up to the owner and asked him, pleadingly: “Don’t you have any Bob Marley?” Without missing a beat in his DJ duties, he turned to him and said, “Oldies. You have to look in the Oldies, mon…”
This is a long way of saying that reggae isn’t what it once was. It’s less Marley and more Method Man, less peaceful and spiritual and more in tune with the desperate situation of life in Kingston’s inner city. Life is tougher than ever in Trench Town and the transformation of Jamaican reggae in the direction of hip-hop and gangsta reflects this. But just as in American hip-hop, in Jamaican music, too, there’s been a growing backlash against the violence and sexism characteristic of much of this music.
As the title suggests, Aswad’s Roots Revival is a conscious return to the roots of reggae, a return whose aim is not to flee from contemporary problems, but to relocate the aching hope and passion for life that existed in Marley’s most engaged and political songs. With more than 15 albums under their belt, Aswad (Drummie Zeb and Tony Gad) are veterans of reggae music. They’ve experienced all of the changes that reggae has undergone over the past two decades. So who better to lead us back to the promised land?
This is gentle, soulful music, whose depth and appeal grows with each subsequent hearing. The standout tracks are those that most clearly go down to the roots: the two exceptional Marley covers (“Caution” and “Thank You Lord”), “Peace Truce” and “Roots Revival”, which amounts to a kind of manifesto for this movement. I’m less enthralled with the reggae-fied version of Sting’s “Invisible Sun” that appears here, or with the two versions of “The Best Times of Our Lives,” which include the haunting vocals of Cheb Mami. These represent a kind of pop-reggae that’s a little hard on the ears, especially in the company of the sublime horns and flowing rhythms and harmonies on the other tracks. Aswad has presented a strong argument here for rethinking reggae by returning to its roots.
Even so, I think my friend Andrew is right. There’s always something tricky about claiming to go forward by going back. Marley’s roots reggae lilted over an urban landscape of rude boys and gun men (like the kind that chased the Clash out of the Tuff Gong recording studios) not so different from today’s gangstas. For all of Aswad’s inspired playing here, Roots Revival might just be filed under “Oldies,” too.