Music Review: Rocksteady: The Roots Of Reggae
Normally trips down memory lane are exercises in sentimentality that have little or no interest to anybody save for those directly involved in the events being rehashed. When such excursions are married to popular music the results are as varied as people's individual tastes and how they choose to remember their own past. It's difficult to generate enthusiasm for these exercises in nostalgia if you actually lived through the era in question, especially when the music designated as being representative of the times doesn't appeal to you now anymore then it did when it first polluted the air waves. Duran Duran don't appeal to me now anymore then they did back in the 1980's and I really can't see how anybody can look back on music like that with anything other than nausea. However, there's a difference between those sordid attempts at pretending there was anything worth remembering about bad pop music and embarrassing clothing trends and celebrating a specific genre of popular music.
In Rocksteady: The Roots Of Reggae the musicians who were at the forefront of performing this precursor of reggae reunited in Kingston Jamaica to record and perform some forty years after the genre's heyday. The documentary movie made of the reunion follows them around the city checking out their old haunts and into the studio as they re-record their rocksteady hits. While the movie has only received limited release, it opened on July 24th/09 in four cities in Canada, the soundtrack, Rocksteady: The Roots Of Reggae was being released on the Moll-Selekta label.
A joint Canadian and Swiss co-production the movie probably won't get much distribution action south of the border, so the CD might just be Americans only opportunity to check out the greats of the rocksteady era coming together to play their music one more time. Judy Mowatt, Leroy Sibbles, Rita Marley, Sly Dunbar, Marcia Griffiths, and Hopeton Lewis might not be familiar names to most of today's audiences. Reggae fans might recognize the names of the three women from their time as the "I-Threes" singing harmonies for Bob Marely (and in Rita's case, as Bob's wife); Sly Dunbar as the drumming half of the ubiquitous reggae rhythm section Taxi Squad; and Leroy Sibbles from his days as the lead singer of the Heptones and his subsequent successful solo career. However, most of the other people involved in this won't be known to many people outside of Jamaica, as rocksteady didn't seem to travel off the island.
Before any of them made names as reggae stars, they were playing and recording rocksteady. In a lot of ways it seems like the main difference between rocksteady and reggae was the amount of recognition and money the performers received as compensation for their efforts. The music, at least what's been recorded on this disc, doesn't sound much different from reggae, save perhaps that it's lighter on the bass and a bit more up tempo. What makes these songs so important is they represented the beginning of the move away from ska music, which had dominated the Kingston music scene until the mid 1960's, that would eventually lead to reggae.
It was rocksteady that slowed the music's tempo and added the heavy bass that has become such a distinctive part of the reggae sound. It was also these new performers who first started to write lyrics about love and conflict. Listen to a song like "Sounds & Pressure" by Hopeton Lewis and you hear elements of both ska and reggae. The peppy horns have always been a feature of ska, but here the music is at a slower tempo and is propelled with the slower, almost insistent beat, that distinguishes reggae. Unlike reggae though there is a definite lightness to the music. While they might be talking about subjects like needing to find work or your love leaving on the next train like in U-Roy's classic "Stop That Train", the music just doesn't seem anywhere near as dense as reggae.
Listen to Ken Boothe singing "Freedom Street", with it's exhortation to walk down freedom street in order to rid the world of war and injustice. The message might be heavy but the music is a lot brighter than what you'd hear if it was sung by someone like Marley or Tosh. There is a pop element to the songs that is lacking in reggae, and you get the feeling that it doesn't take itself anywhere near as seriously as reggae does. Of course there's another big difference, you're not going to hear anybody mention Jah, or any talk of Rastafarianism for that matter, in these songs.
Now listening to these songs there's something else you have to keep in mind, the average mean age of the people recording them has to be at least somewhere in the sixties. These songs were all recorded in 2008 at the old Tuff Gong Studios in Kingston where many of the songs were recorded the first time - forty years ago. I can remember when Leroy Sibbles came to live in Canada in the late 1970's to escape the political violence that was tearing the slums of Kingston apart, and he wasn't a young man then. Yet hearing him on disc now, he sounds no different then he did all those years ago.
The same goes for all of the performers on this disc. Judy Mowat's voice is as strong and powerful as it was when she first recorded "Silent River Runs Deep" or when she Rita, and Marcia were singing harmonies for Bob Marley. These folk are ageless wonders, and they are superbly backed by musicians just as capable as they are. The rhythm section, anchored by the incomparable Sly Dunbar on drums, is so tight that you can drop a penny on it and it will bounce in perfect time. Songs like "Shanty Town (007)" sound as good now, if not better, thanks to improved recording techniques and technology, then they did when I first heard them on the soundtrack for the movie The Harder They Come, The Harder They Fall from the early seventies.
Rocksteady: The Roots Of Reggae is a wonderful collection of music from an amazing group of musicians who made history forty years ago by paving the way for people who went on to become far more famous than most of them ever did. It amazes me that rocksteady never caught on in the wide world in the same way ska and reggae did outside of Jamaica. It's far more infectious than reggae and much more accessible than ska, meaning there's no reason why it shouldn't catch on with a wider audience even now. According to Sly Dunbar a lot of Jamaicans would say they prefer rocksteady to reggae because it had better sound, singing, playing, and better instrumentation. Well, while some might argue with some of those specifics, it's easy to see how somebody could prefer rocksteady over reggae. If you've never heard this music before this is the perfect opportunity as your not going to find anybody who can perform it better than the people on this disc. One warning - there's over sixty minutes of music on this disc so be prepared as once you put it on you're not going to be able to sit still until the last note fades away.