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In Tune: The "Others" . . . With no disrespect to Bob

by Chris Alcantara, A & E editor

 

I love reggae music. The real reggae music that is. The music that was made in the late ‘60s through the early ‘80s before the digital “dancehall” era took over; I’m talking about the roots.

 

Roots reggae was much more than just music. It was a statement. It was mind set. It was a mouthpiece for the oppressed. It was about changing lives. Whether politically charged anthems or smooth lover’s rock, everything from the skank of the rhythm guitar, to the driving bass lines, to the sincere lyrics had a specific place and purpose. In short, it wasn’t made to be listened to, it was made to be felt.

Of the artists who created this sound, it is undisputed that Bob Marley is the forefather of reggae. Bob Marley’s contributions to the advancement and acceptance of reggae worldwide are literally immeasurable, but, respectfully, there were others. And I find myself becoming annoyed, perhaps in my naivety that not all share my affinity for reggae, when friends complain that “all you listen to is Bob Marley” as if Marley were “be all and end all” of reggae.

In fact, there were many extremely talented and determined youths whose struggles brought them out of the Jamaican ghettos through reggae music at the same time as Marley. I have compiled a short list of singers and players of instrument that I feel helped define and give an identity to the music that many have come to love.

Bunny Wailer
While he started with Marley, and was one of the founding members of the Wailers, as in Bob Marley and the Wailers, Bunny Wailer definitely emerged as one of reggae’s preeminent solo artist. After leaving the band in 1974 to embark on a solo career, Neville Livingston (real name) conjured up some of the most enlightened and uplifting music of the genre. Wailer’s strength and conviction remain cornerstones of reggae music to this day and will far into the future.

There may not be and may never be a reggae album to match Wailer’s first solo release, Blackheart Man (1976). This album embodies everything that is Rastafarianism and reggae; the struggle, the oppression, the hope and glory of Jah; it’s all here, mixed in a beautiful blend of melodies and rhythms. Completely written, arranged, and produced by Wailer, this album defines the fundamental nature of roots. “In a family of 10, and raised in the ghetto/Hustling’s the only education I know/Can’t grow no crops in this concrete jungle/A situation like this is getting to tough to handle/To keep battering down sentence/Fighting against conviction.” (“Fighting Against Conviction,” Blackheart Man)

Peter Tosh
The rebel spirit and the struggle have always been integral parts of reggae, and simply put, Peter Tosh was the struggle. The quintessential rebel spirit, Tosh was abused and beaten on numerous occasions by Jamaican authorities for his beliefs, most notably after his tirade against the Jamaican government at the One Love Peace Concert, when he was beaten by at least 10 police officers who only stopped because they thought he was dead. The musical talent within the Wailers, Tosh actually taught Marley how to play the guitar and referred to him as his student early on. Like Wailer, Tosh opted for a solo career in 1974. “The time came to see what was inside of me…I did not come to this Earth to be a background vocal” (Peter Tosh, www.ptosh.com). Reggae lost its most fearless freedom fighter on Sept. 11, 1987 when gunmen entered his Kingston, Jamaica home and shot him. He was only 43 years old.

Tosh’s first solo album was named for the song he is perhaps best known for, “Legalize It,” a cry against the insanity of outlawing marijuana. My favorite, however, is his sophomore solo effort, Equal Rights. Filled with Tosh’s strong social and political standpoints, this album takes the listener on a ride from the fiery “Downpressor Man,” to the devout “Jah Guide.” For those looking for a little something extra, I strongly suggest the I Am That I Am acoustic album: just Tosh, an acoustic guitar, and his thoughts. Few albums give a more authentic insight to the true essence of reggae music.

Steel Pulse
For the last 30 years, Steel Pulse has been “chanting psalms” about everything from racial injustice to environmental neglect to political tyrants. The band not only took home a Grammy for its 1986 release, Babylon The Bandit, but with numerous nominations including their most recent, African Holocaust, its clear their message has spread far beyond their African brethren.

Before adopting the more radio-friendly sound that shot them into superstardom, Steel Pulse, the most popular reggae band to hail from the U.K, was strictly roots. Handsworth Revolution (1978) is packed with prophetic social commentary backed by intense grooves. The ideals of this album are summed up in a few lines from the opening title track: “So let’s join hands my bredren, make the way for our children, and their children, ensuring that they get their life’s fair share of equality. Doesn’t justice stand for all mankind?”

Next issue: Israel Vibration, Dennis Brown, and Culture

 

 

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