The recent Grammy Award in the reggae category brought howls of disagreement from Jamaicans mainly because a band comprising white Americans — SOJA — walked off with the prize. I gather some felt the award was the preserve of Jamaicans.
I, for one, am not surprised as I think anyone familiar with the international music scene would have seen this coming.
Decades ago, when American performers used to visit, strangers from Kingston would turn up at my family home in Brown’s Town to take one of my brothers with them to work on some of these shows. Why would that be necessary, I had wondered? This is what I learnt.
These performers would arrive with their music sheets and distribute them to Jamaican band members for rehearsals. Then, and only then, was it revealed that some of our musical stars could not read music. So there was a mad scramble to find people who could sight-read. Sight-reading — also called prima vista — is the practice of reading and performing a piece in a music notation that the performer has not seen or learnt before. Unfortunately, people with this skill were scarce in the entertainment industry.
Late last year an employee of mine introduced me to his son and proudly announced that the boy would enter the music industry as a singer. I liked the lad, and we got to talking. I discovered that he did not know the rudiments of music, like the seven main musical notes, the five introductory notes, how note values represent musical sounds, or how rest values represent the silences in music.
I told him about the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts and was in the midst of making some other suggestions when he interrupted me politely: “Sir, Sir, no, that not necessary, Sir. My friend know a guy who have a ‘riddim’, and him seh a can jus gwaan work wid dat.”
I am told that this is where modern reggae is heading.
Professor Stephen Buggie is a college professor who hosts Tropical Reggae Show on KGLP-FM radio in New Mexico. In preparation for one show, he asked: Which reggae musicians have a college degree? Here are some gems in response to the question:
• “Who cares which reggae artists have a college degree?”
• “Many reggae artists hold graduate degrees in Ghettology from the University of the Streets. Some hold PhD degrees (poverty, hunger and deprivation). These Drs of Reggaeology can out-think, out-reason and out-flex most of these stiff, privileged reggae wannabe ‘authorities’. “
Well, now we know.
Shabba Ranks thrilled a New York audience with thousands of screaming girls many years ago. At the show’s end, a reporter asked a young attendee what she thought of the performance. She became weak and dreamy-eyed, describing how fantastic the experience was for her and how sexy his voice was. Then, as the reporter moved on, she shouted to him, “But what is he saying?”
Very few seemed to have taken notice of this profound statement and preferred to remember Shabba’s ackee/hockey statement. These seemingly unimportant issues all contribute to foreigners winning reggae Grammys. This is the third time, but an all-white American band?
I met Bob Marley in 1976 when I was the coach for The University of the West Indies football team. He loved football and wanted to “kick” with the squad during training.
I had never seen him drive, and sometimes I took him around. It was his off-the-cuff remarks that later opened my eyes to some of the traits that made him the success that he became.
One day I mentioned that I had never seen any of his records in the jukeboxes on my frequent sojourns in various inner-city communities. He responded. But I will not repeat what he said.
On another occassion he was talking to someone on the phone at the Porter’s Lodge at Chancellor Hall when he mentioned that he had a responsibility to communicate with the people who could buy his records. So “bun patwah. And if that is culture, culture haffi bun to. How I an I fi a tell people my story an my feelings and dem nuh know wah I an I a seh? Dat mek sense? How much a my record ago sell?”
I have no knowledge of him receiving formal training, and I never heard him using specific musical terms and phrases. However, what he said and how he did things seemed to suggest that he was seized of the importance of proper preparation.
One needs to pronounce one’s words effectively to make sure that the audience can connect with the lyrics of the songs. So strong dialects and accents just won’t work. One has only to listen to Marley’s music to understand.
I have seen 60,000 people at a football match in Britain and 120,000 at a stadium in Africa singing his music — word for word.
How much of what is being currently offered can be put on a music sheet? What are they saying?
I can recall Marley being approached by a group of people to perform at an event. He declined. They were shocked. It was a fund-raiser for something they said was close to Marley’s heart. Later, he agonised over his refusal, but said he would never go on to a stage unless he was fully prepared.
We have been blessed with an abundance of natural talent. Unfortunately, it is being squandered because of our attitude, feelings of entitlement, and belief that preparation is unnecessary.
Our cricketers once exhibited talent and class, becoming world-beaters in the process. After years of this dominance, our opponents, after a day’s play would bathe, eat, and then sit down to a formal session to review the day’s performance and plan a strategy for the next day.
What were our team members doing during this time? Where were they? What time did they stagger back to their hotel to rest for two hours before the next day’s performance? So is it any surprise that the cricket ‘Grammy’ is elsewhere now, too? This is just one example.
Being hungry and fatherless are no longer the prerequisites for producing quality music.
Lionel Richie, multiple Grammy-winning songwriter and singer attended Tuskegee University. Roberta Flack was so impressive as a classical pianist she got a full scholarship to Howard University to study music at age 15 — among the youngest to do so. She has been honoured not just with Grammys but other awards for the quality of her music.
The top nine reggae albums sold under 30,000 units last year. All of them were beaten by Marley’s 32-year-old Legend.
Shenseea’s first week of sales for her debut album was under 5,000 after the millions her label spent. Koffee’s Destiny didn’t do any better. But Marley moved almost 12,000 units the same week.
A university degree is not a prerequisite to producing good music. But it does suggest that one is taking one’s craft seriously.
The singers and bands that attain acclaim all have one thing in common — the audience is able to distinguish their lyrics. So maybe aspiring artists need to stop looking for a “bredda wid a riddim” and start creating original music with discernible lyrics.
Glenn Tucker is an educator and a sociologist. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org