Reggae: A German perspective

BY BASIL WALTERS Observer staff reporter waltersb@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, February 20, 2011    

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WHILE it is important for us as a people to write our own history and tell of our experiences from our perspectives, we often make unflattering comments of outsiders who promote and highlight our music, unnecessarily and unfairly. The lack of acknowledgement of foreigners' contribution to the development of our musical culture, is narrow-minded and simplistic. The 'internationalisation' of reggae music didn't happen in a vacuum.

Converts across borders, embracing its message of one love, the end of oppression and racial discrimination, conveyed by our musical ambassadors, also played their part.

Two such converts are music journalists Ellen Koehlings and Pete Lilly, founding editors of Germany's upscale Riddim magazine. The long-standing musical couple, are celebrating 10 years of reggae journalism in Europe.

The popular Kingston spot, Studio 38, on Tuesday night, was the setting for the second annual Reggae International Lecture by the UWI's Global Reggae Studies Centre, which is in partnership with Studio 38.

The Global Reggae Studies Centre was launched in January 2010 with an engaging lecture by the distinguished Jamaican/British poet and sociologist, Linton Kwesi Johnson, who focused on "African Consciousness in Reggae Music," at Villa Ronai.

The choice of a nightclub setting for the public lecture was an innovative move that attracted a perceptive audience who value both intellectual stimulation as well as the laid-back entertainment environment for which Studio 38 is famous.

Koehlings and Lilly spoke on the topic Burning Illusions: Riddim Magazine Celebrating 10 Years of Reggae Journalism in Europe.

It was a lecture with a difference as they alternated, to report on reggae music from a non-Jamaican perspective.

"When we are here, we are busy conducting interviews as some of you might know, but we said, okay, we cannot say no when Carolyn (Cooper) ask us. And we have to say, we did not prepare like a lecture type of talk, but we would rather like to talk about our work as reggae journalists. And since Riddim Magazine has its tenth anniversary in 2011, it is perfect to start the celebration in Jamaica. Because even at home in the cold, it is 24/7 Jamaican music and culture that we are dealing with," was how Koehlings opened the proceedings.

"Tonight we are going to talk about journalistic writing on reggae music for a non-Jamaican readership that is not so deeply rooted in reggae culture as the average Jamaican is. So we've decided to borrow Bob Marley's expression, burning all illusions from the song Burning and Looting, out of context and apply it to the readers of Riddim Magazine who have been told lies about reggae for long enough," said Koehlings who along with her partner Lilly, have been travelling to Jamaica since 1996.

"Before we discuss the content of Riddim Magazine we find it necessary to briefly explain to you how reggae had been dealt with in the German press before the magazine, in order for you to understand why we made the decision we did about how to approach the subject."

She explained that the coverage of reggae was ignored by the mainstream media and was restricted to underground publications. Koehlings further noted that readers have been fed misconceptions, cliché and stereotypes.

She said there has always been occasionally reports about music from Jamaica in the German press and reggae was one of niche topics that mainly comes up in the summer. She said during the 70s and the first half of the 80s, coverage on reggae music was scarce. But with Bob Marley huge success there were features and cover stories done on him but those were restricted to rock magazines.

In the wake of the Marleymania, other roots acts such Burning Spear, Culture and Peter Tosh, were also given their due space, Koehlings admitted while noting that at the end of the 1970s a leading Germany music journalist came to Jamaica and wrote a two-piece article on reggae in Jamaica.

"But these articles were the exceptions. The mainstream press, more or less, ignored reggae or equated the music with mythical ganja-smoking Rastas. The harshness of ghetto life was often romanticised from an anti-capitalist view according to the motto, 'poor but happy", Koehlings told her attentive audience.

"These writers," she stressed, "had the best intention but often failed to do justice to their quote/unquote object of observation. This resulted in a naive, if not racist judgement highlighting a quote/unquote Jamaica no problem, soon come attitude. That, until today, created a misleading image of Jamaica as an easy-going place where everybody smokes ganja all day long, not acknowledging the fact that it is the lack of opportunities that leads to this seemingly inactive lifestyle. This is one of the images we as editors of Riddim Magazine are still struggling with, as it is hard to persuade potential advertisers that reggae fans don't only smoke ganja, but are in fact purchasing their products."

Lilly, after admitting that initially he was not a big fan of Bob Marley because he was a punk rocker and felt reggae was for hippies, stated that with Bob Marley's passing the German music press proclaimed the death of the reggae genre. And after that the media perception of reggae was determined by the German Boomby dance band and others that turned reggae into a carefree sunshine music evoking images of beaches, palm trees and ever-smiling Rastas.

"So finally people who fell in love with reggae had to establish their own publications... die-hard fans created their own public space. This changed at the beginning of the 90s when Shaggy, Shabba Ranks, Chaka Demus and Pliers and Snow entered the German national charts. Since Jamaican music had been perceived as sunshine music and provided a soundtrack for the summer, the German media welcome the arrival of dancehall in the summer of 1993. All of a sudden, almost the entire German media from daily newspapers to radio stations and even TV programmes were introducing this supposedly new genre," Lilly said.

Added he: "The coverage of dancehall helped the press to pep up their summer issues with a breath of fresh air and a touch of exoticism. But when the artiste disappeared from the charts, the media also lost interest in the genre. What remained were features and articles in leftist and more or less underground magazines that had just discovered that reggae was not so much reflecting their own political views of a harmonious peaceful lifestyle, but rather harsh ghetto realities that also express homophobic and misogynous attitudes."




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