Is reggae relevant?

Is reggae relevant?

Charles HE Campbell

Sunday, November 06, 2011

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This was the moot question on a radio interview in which I participated last Thursday morning.

Ironically, the public discussion occurred during a week in which we were honouring the tremendous song-writing accomplishments of Keith 'Bob Andy' Anderson. Also I'd been spending time at the Harry J Recording Studio observing the sheer engineering/producing genius of Stephen Stewart as he recorded and mixed instrument upon instrument, blended voices — interwoven like a tapestry of sonorous arrangements and lyrics — into what, I'm sure, is destined to become another excellent roots reggae album. Instructively, the project is being undertaken by Bermagrande, an Italian group, who've come to the cradle of reggae to nurture their nascent stirrings into our iconic Jamaican sound. This, I mention first because it is the basis of my dissent from our moot; only in Jamaica would this question arise!

Being fortuitously able to observe the sheer force of our 'little' sound from many points, I am a constant witness to how reggae impacts the world, and also, sadly, how this knowledge is lost to our people. Also somewhat of a moot is that France, unlikely as it seems, is the business headquarters of reggae and the largest single market for sale of our music both in terms of live and recorded material. It's as though we gave birth to an illegitimate child, gave it up for adoption, yet it has turned out to be our most brilliant offspring. Not only France, but Germany, China, Japan and Italy — a list I have severely truncated, have embraced our little 'Orphan Annie' as their own.

At the studio, a month-long sojourn into reggae's depths has seen such artistes as Freddie McGregor, Luciano, Tony Rebel, Queen Ifrica, The Abbysinians and The Congos lend voice to a project that, while propitious in the short-term for them, can have much longer-lasting success for Barmagrande on the other side of the world.

The band, made up of brothers Sandro and Marco Donda and Emma Lercari, do not, however, attest to the enthralment of fame or success. They measure success as more a slow burn that leaves traces of their impact and as such, don't favour the offerings of the usual suspects. Even within the aforementioned list of artistes my order was almost totally tip-tilted, an almost apoplectic look took Sandro as he mentioned the influence working with Bernard Collins had on him; Emma was just shy of likening him to a god. Their idea for the album Back from the Future was to go back to their past and rekindle with their roots reggae origin. They had departed from their reggae start through an inability to find a blend of musicians who could authentically represent the sound. But, after years of experimentation and through the mentorship of Jamaican musician, Franklin Montague, who's been living in their hometown for eight years, they were able to better hone the skill of playing reggae.

So they came to Jamaica, after first debating the merits of going to France or America, and were fortunate in their decision to record at Harry J's. It was a no-brainer for them having Stewart co-produce their album. Sandro described the eureka moment when he suggested it to his brother; "Marco, how do you feel about..?" an abrupt interruption, and an emphatic "Yes!" met his suggestion. The ease of this decision came from their knowledge of Stewart's history on landmark albums of Bob Marley, the grammy-winning offerings Calling Rastafari by Burning Spear and True Love by Toots and the Maytals and his work with Sly and Robbie — whose album with French DJ Bob Sinclair served as Bermagrande's introduction to Queen Ifrica and Tony Rebel. This endeavour serves many functions beneficial to Jamaicans, not the least of which is the opportunity for our musicians to work on such projects. Those who shared their skills included Everton and Evrol Gayle on trombone and saxophone, Evrol Ray on trumpet, Uziah 'Sticky' Thompson, Noel 'Scully' Simms and Denver Smith on percussions and Dalton Browne on guitar and backing vocals. Stephen Stewart composed and played keyboards.

It's a big production with big names; they even endeavour having the input of Max Romeo and Bunny Wailer on some songs. But, even bigger than the names attached is the fact that the names most exciting to the Italian band were those of our woefully forgotten artistes. Cedric Myton singer of The Congos and Bernard Collins of The Abyssinians are not names that incite fervour in the hearts of young Jamaicans today, but these are the people who were formative of the love for reggae music and Jamaican culture that the rest of the world embraces. To them, a decidedly more populous group than our two plus million, Reggae is far from irrelevant. So then, what are we doing?

On Friday October 28, at the tribute to Bob Andy the love and fellowship that permeated the cast of artistes, musicians and technicians backstage was so strong that it filtered out to the audience and enhanced their experience from more than just the audiovisual, but to the existential. I am convinced that when our artistes perform for a worthy cause they are at their best; they made me feel proud and patriotic.

Much love to Phebe-Ann Henry for co-authoring this article.


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