It’s easy to forget that for a good part of the world, reggae is pop music. In Jamaica, of course, but also much of Africa, Europe, and even England, the rhythmic mix of island music and traditional rhythm and blues has had a much greater cultural impact than it ever has in North America. In the United States, reggae’s influence basically comes down to two words: Bob Marley. To that end, hipster world/roots label Putumayo’s World Reggae collection is a welcome primer.
The classic argument against reggae is that it “all sounds the same”. It’s true that while Putumayo promises a “global musical journey”, there is a uniformity among the 12 tracks representing roughly 10 countries, most recorded from 2000-2003. Midtempo rhythms, deep, taught basslines, and the trademark emphasis on the down beat are featured in songs representing everywhere from France to Algeria. But knocking this commonality as a flaw would be missing the point, like deriding Scottish music for using bagpipes.
Actually, it was a smart move of the compilers to stick to traditional “roots” reggae rather than pander to trendier permutations like dancehall, ragga, and the current Jamaican hip-hop boom that has brought us the likes of Sean Paul. Not that those variations aren’t worth showcasing, but to do so here would sacrifice the timeless quality that Putumayo is going for.
Even within its more conservative boundaries, World Reggae does feature a couple international superstars, even if they aren’t exactly household names in America or England. Multi-million selling Apache Indian, who despite his name is a British citizen of Indian (as in the country) descent, provides one of the collection’s highlights, subverting the otherwise happy-go-lucky mood of the album with the intensely brooding “Om Numah Shivaya”. It’s one of the few songs here that really reflects the ethnic heritage of its creator. Chanting, sitar and “Bollywood”-influenced backing vocals put a genuinely unique, decidedly Eastern spin on the genre. Ivory Coast native Alpha Blondie, a superstar in northern Africa, sets his urgent delivery against acoustic guitars and bright horns on “Lalogo”.
Maria de Barros delivers another standout with “Riberonzinha”, whose breezy, acoustic arrangement and singing in Crioulo (a language influenced by Portuguese) add an almost tropical feel. And Mas y Mas, a British/Spanish outfit, prove that Irish fiddle in a reggae song is not such a ridiculous idea. Their “Agua”, complete with a hip-hop-style breakdown, is bewitching. The only real dud is “O Si Keka” by Kaissa, which relies on the type of a chattering drum machine rhythm that sunk a lot of reggae in the 1980s.
As always with Putumayo, the presentation is immaculate and inviting. The sound mastering is crisp and clear; the percussion almost rolls right out of the speakers. Liner notes include photos and brief histories of each artist. A couple complaints: passing references to Marley and, especially, Jimmy Cliff seem thrown in for no other reason than to bait the millions whose reggae collection consists solely of Legend or The Harder They Come. After all, World Reggae doesn’t feature any Jamaican reggae, which is a bit strange in itself. And dub, a production technique that is absolutely essential to the cultural significance of reggae, is almost completely absent from all of these songs. Overall, though, the collection lives up to the tag line on the disc itself: “Guaranteed to make you feel good”.