It was past midnight, and Truman was beginning to feel the dread. Inside the club Spirit, in the Morena area off Interstate 5, the mirrored ball projected white rays on the dancers, and he followed the bass line of “Chant Down Babylon." Suddenly there was nothing but the bass line — all the other instruments had dropped out. He felt it vibrating on his breastbone. Let de bass mosh up de place. He gazed into the mirrored ball as though he were trying to remember something. It was in the music, yes, but it was also in the speech rhythms of all these other black men. That lift, that catch, that syncopation.
His hand was stamped and so he’d been outside a few times (passing his hand under the black light), and he realized it’s like a house party. Inside the club was the living room, and all the other rooms were outside — across the street, in a van, huddled around cars, in the alley beside the club. There were only two couples on the dance floor now; a new disc jockey was crouched down selecting records from a wooden crate. The cocktail waitress was idle; the manager of the club was resting after a night of telling people to please not take their drinks outside. Truman wandered outside again. The parking lot was brightly lit. A black Grand Prix was parked crossways in the middle, gleaming in the moonlight neon, both doors open wide, a cassette of reggae music playing on the tape deck.
People were huddled around various cars, men bending over into car windows trying to convince women not to drive off into the night. Ras Starki, drummer for Roots of Creation, was sitting on a car hood gazing off into die night sky, his back to these people. A few blocks away the highway swerved up and off toward San Diego Bay. Down the street an ice machine (cubes or block) hummed. A circle was forming in the alley — young men and women, Jamaican, Chicano, white. Truman eased into the circle to see what was going on. Ras Maroon was on one knee cleaning herb onto a sheet of paper. He filled a bamboo funnel with the brown leaves and slipped the funnel into a hole in the lid of a jar, a homegrown version of the Jamaican water pipe. (He explains: this jar should be a coconut, but away from Jamaica he’s forced to improvise.) Truman, good-natured, wearing his old high school letterman's jacket, asks no one in particular what's going on. A Jamaican woman tells him, as though it would explain, “These other men are Jamaican.”
Music is still playing in the club. The woman touches the wall out here in the alley and says you can feel it vibrating. Let de bass mosh up de place. Others place their hands on the stucco prickles to feel it.
Ras Maroon is standing now. A piece of fiery paper is passed across the bamboo bowl. The leaves spark up brightly and crackle loudly. “Give thanks and praise while chalice blaze,” says Ras Maroon, and he sucks on the rubber tube. He cups his hand over his mouth to hold it in, turns his face skyward, and starts running in place, knees held high. It's a draw so monumental he’s hidden behind the exhaled smoke. He begins to speak, and Truman thinks, “There's that sound again. That lilt, that catch, that syncopation.” The words are about Haile Selassie, former Emperor of Ethiopia, Field Marshal of seventy-two nations. King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. There is thankfulness for this wonderful night, stars, moon. (And, sure enough, the telephone wires and a smudged quarter moon hanging over the building across the street.) The chalice passes around the circle. Everyone is transfixed by Ras Maroon, listening to his melodic voice, the Biblical words rolling, mixing with the dark rhythms from the tape deck. At one point the African syntax it so thick, the American reggae fans gathered around are as thrilled and excited as children. But Ras Maroon is concentrating his attention on Truman, the American black, his voice cajoling, pleading. The words are describing some faraway place, “Land of the Lion Dread.” It seems to be an actual country, high, arid, with a tan countryside and a beauty all its own.
The chalice has come around full circle. Truman is trying to express something; the Jamaican woman is trying to help. “You remember something you had forgotten?” Truman gazes down the alley (which stretches blocks into the distance) and says, “No. I know.”
Americans who know anything about reggae, the pop music of Jamaica, are apt to think the scene consists only of Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and the soundtrack album from Harder They Come, Toots and the Maytalls, and, maybe. Burning Spear and the Heptoncs. It’s a safe bet they haven't heard of (or heard) Leroy Smart, The Abyssinians, Horace Andy, The Meditations, Culture. Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, Joe Gibbs, Aswad, Pablo Moses, Jacob Miller, The Gladiators, Rico, Fred Locks, or Big Youth. It's difficult to keep up with a foreign musical culture where most of the new music is on singles and where there is a new Top 20 every week.
Dave Allard is the contact for buying reggae music in San Diego. In February, 1973, he was working at Discount Records on College Avenue. A friend lent him a copy of the soundtrack album from the movie Harder They Come, thinking Dave might like it. His friend was right. The only other reggae album in the store at that time was Bob Marley's Catch a Fire. By the time he moved to the Discount Records branch in Fashion Valley, Bob Marley's Burnin had been released. Allard began making contacts with various record companies, distributors, and record stores (such as Chin-Randy’s in Brooklyn, which specializes in reggae and calypso music for the large Caribbean community living in New York). He gradually discovered what other persistent inquirers into the reggae music scene discover Jamaica's musical contribution to the world is far out of proportion to the country's small size.
Allard moved to Ratner's, on Broadway in downtown San Diego, and before long he created a store within the store. Mr. Ratner had a policy of benign neglect toward Allard's record-ordering policy, and before long the reggae stock began to grow. By the time he quit (two months ago), twenty-five percent of the store's record sales was reggae. This was without benefit of advertising — word of mouth was the only means of finding that secret treasure horde of records.
Allard quit, Ratner's moved, and Ratner's reggae supply dwindled. Those bins that used to be filled with such startling oddities as Groundation by Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari are now filled with Marley and the other Island label records that can be found in most any other record store. His plan was to open a store of his one in the downtown area and sell reggae and other Third World music. But in the two months since he quit Ratner's, his home has become a store. Ratner’s former customers have gradually found their old connection.
Allard lives in Normal Heights. When I pay him a visit, his son, Dylan, is on the front porch sandpapering the paint off an old red wagon. In the living room is a life-size cardboard cutout of Steve Martin holding his album and grinning foolishly — a memento of the music store days. The bookcase is lined with titles picked by someone long interested in music and the music business: The Grateful Dead Book, Mystery Train by Greil Marcus, The Rock Encyclopedia. There is also a paperback copy of the Jamaican study on marijuana (still the most comprehensive scientific report available on the subject), and a travel guide to the Caribbean, full of tips for tourists and descriptions of flora and fauna.
And there are records — right there in the living room in cardboard boxes — and cassette and eight-track tapes of reggae. Allard’s business license lists him as Strictly Reggae Music, but he always has for sale the latest edition of Black Music-Jazz Review, an interesting publication from England that features regular reggae reviews, as well as reports on pop, disco, and jazz. I ask him to describe the records he has in stock. “There are thirty-seven reggae titles available in the United States — that is, the American releases you can get at most record stores. I have 400 titles.”
He is a storehouse of trivia. When I mentioned how strange Desmond Dekker's “Israelites” sounded back in the early Seventies, lodged mysteriously in the American Top 40. Dave begins a lengthy discussion about forgotten reggae released in the U.S. "Desmond Dekker had an album on Uni. There was a Prince Buster album on Capitol. Marcia Griffiths and the Reggaes had an album on the Sparcrib label — the logo on the label is actually a crimson ink cartoon of spareribs cooking on a grill.” These records were lost in the shuffle due to haphazard production and distribution, an old problem in the reggae music industry. “One problem is all the small record companies. They will press only so many albums at one time, and when they run out, that's it, unless the company decides to press more a year or two or three later — or unless a larger company buys up the rights for a reissue. Klik Records simply went out of business and so now you can’t order a copy of that jazzy reggae album, Negrill.”
But Allard sees a few encouraging signs for the reggae music business. One is that Joe Gibbs, a legendary producer in Jamaica, is opening up studios in New York and Canada. Another is that Virgin Records, England’s largest reggae label, will start distributing in the United States (on the Front Line label).
“When I heard that,” he says, “I called Epic Records in New York — they worked out a deal with Virgin Records to actually handle the distribution through their outlets — and they told me they never heard of the Front Line label. Now, whether the guy I talked to heard about it or not, the point is they didn’t want to talk to me; I’m not Tower Records. But I sell much more reggae than Tower Records. That’s a big problem in the record industry — the wrong people get the records. I wrote a letter of complaint to Virgin Records. In .England they understand this; they’ve been selling reggae for years and they know how to do it. They load up a van with records and take them to small-roots stores in the neighborhoods.” Allard is hopeful that Virgin Records will understand, and add his rootsy neighborhood record store to its list of outlets.
Roots of Creation, a group of reggae musicians who met and formed the group in the San Francisco Bay area, has been living in San Diego for three months. When I visited them they were staying with Christafari, a native San Diegan and a local version of the Jamaican soundman/disc jockey. Christafari has been trying to get reggae music on San Diego radio for years, and he promotes reggae disco dances here. Christafari first saw Roots of Creation perform at Los Angeles's Starwood club with Del and the Sensations, and later promoted their successful show last March at the La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas (two sold-out shows, standing ovations). Christafari lives in a quiet neighborhood on the fringes of Mission Hills. It’s dusk when I arrive, and some of the band members are taking advantage of the last minutes of light, kicking a soccer ball around in the cul-de-sac.
The spacious living room seems smaller because of the equipment lined along the walls. On one side, the band's equipment; amps, congo drums, acoustic guitar, disassembled drum kit. The rest of the room is filled with Christafari's sound equipment; mixers, equalizers, crossover unit, danger, tape echo unit. And there are two turntables so the music can be continuous, with segues hooking like dovetail joints. There's not much room to move among all this, but before long the men come inside and dance in the Jamaican style, a slow, arm-swinging, rocky movement, syncopated to the music. A soccer game flickers noiselessly on the TV screen.
Tonight is dub style. Dub is instrumental reggae. The "B” side of reggae singles are electronically remixed versions of the “A” side. It’s the most popular form of music in Jamaica. Dubs can be done more or less creatively, and the best mixers, like King Tubby and Lee Perry, are stars in Jamaica. On the best dubs, the music is not lost, but heightened.
Members of Roots of Creation are taking turns as disc jockey, as do friends of Christafari, Jamaican men in the U.S Navy. You must watch where you step because 45s are strewn everywhere. They look like the products of independent record companies: labels stamped by hand, the typewriter print a blurred double image, or felt-penned, or one title crossed out and a new one inked in, or the label blank. Idrins, Tuff Gong, Channel One, See Me Yah. Well Charge, River Head, Solomonic, Mummy, Cancer Kid. The names evoke images of small studios, shoestring budgets, local bands — solid roots dub music.
Tony “Moses” Wright and Rodney “Power House” Heaven are high-stepping on opposite sides of the room and chanting over the music.
- Midnight show-ah Every how-ah
- From the control tow-ah
- Babylon is fallin'
- Tell yah Ethiopia's callin'
This is another form of reggae — versions. It developed out of the disc jockey practice of chanting over dubs — chanting the news, the weather, political views, and Rastafarian teachings. Prince Jazzbo and I-Roy conducted a long feud using versions to express themselves, ‘‘I-Roy, you a bwoy." Like many things in Jamaica, the connection “versions” has with the past seems unbroken. Versions are a pop form of the testifying that goes on in the Rastafarian groundation ceremony, which has roots in Africa. Tonight the Jamaicans are chanting about the sound system itself; “midnight shower” is the theme. It's inspired by the shivering, crashing noise that goes through the sound system every time you hit the reverb. (Clive, one of the navymen, hits it with a stylish slap, looking over his shoulder, arm windmilling down just as the record changes.) Christafari says, “It’s a cultural thing. That sound reminds the Jamaicans of a sudden thundershower, which reminds them of Jah [God].” Jamaicans trade the microphone, musicians and nonmusicians alike, all trying their hand at chanting. Only one navy man declines, explaining, “Shy Rasta.”
Steve “Herb Daly” Greskin is the only non-Jamaican in Roots of Creation; he’s from San Jose. California. He and the bass player, Fitz "The President” Glay, are in the kitchen cooking heavily seasoned rice and vegetables. They are discussing band business. Jamaicans have two languages, both English. One is crisp King’s English, the other is a patois, street talk par excellence, all slide and glide and riddim. I ask Steve if he can speak it. “No,” he says. “But I can understand it now. There's a lot of African syntax. Actually, the English understand it better than Americans.” Those who fall in love with the music also fall in love with the rhythmic beauty of the language — the connection is seamless. (That these speech patterns have survived is due to many small acts of bravery, especially so in a culture where any sign of the African homeland was punished.)
The night went on until the dread — which is both a tenet of Rastafarianism and a reaction to the music — was thick. Then a rhythm track came on which excited the entire band. They lined up and began singing in a deep, rich gospel harmony, true reggae ensemble part-singing. (The reggae scene began schizophrenically in Jamaica: studio bands that laid down instrumental tracks, and also part-singing groups like the Heptones. The group now known as The Waiters is a combination of the vocal trio The Wailers — Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh — and the studio band known as The Upsetters, centered around the Barrett brothers. The trend now is to have one up-front star singer — due no doubt to the success of Marley. Burning Spear is no longer Delroy Hines, Rupert Willington, and Winston Rodney; Burning Spear is now Winston Rodney and a band. This trend may explain why Roots of Creation doesn't do part-singing when they perform on stage, but reserve it for living room parties.)
Christafari rivals Dave Allard as a non-Jamaican expert on Jamaican culture, and like Allard, he enjoys discussing the subject. In particular, reggae's development from Pocomania to mento to ska to rock steady to reggae. Pocomania was an early African cult in Jamaica which included among its rites a trance state achieved by syncopated breathing.
“We would call it hyperventilation,” says Christafari. This rhythmic breathing eventually became the “skank” — the unusual accent on the second and fourth beats in reggae, the chunka-chunka rhythm guitar which is so noticeable the first time you hear reggae. Mento is Jamaican calypso, Caribbean island music before it was influenced by rock and roll and the blues. The form that Jamaican pop music took in the early Sixties was ska. Most of the elements of current reggae were there in ska, but ska was faster and looser. “Over the years the music has slowed down and tightened up, with the drums and the bass coming forward. In ska. the horn section played the part now played by the rhythm guitar, and the horn section also played the melody. The melody is the rhythm and the rhythm is the melody.” Christafari gives the last sentence a rhythmic snap, as though he's quoting a song lyric. It's a good brief definition of reggae. Ska seems to be enjoying a small revival among local reggae fans. Uptempo, horn-dominated, sometimes it sounds like bouncy TV theme music, but there's an undercurrent of pain expressed, an element of desperation, of fleabag hotels and junkie jazz. The Skatalites, Prince Buster. Tommy McCook, and the great Don Drummond are some of the masters of this form of Jamaican music, the roots of reggae.
Christafari puts on a ska record and says, “Try dancing to this.” His point is clear, it's nearly impossible. Most of the changes in the music after ska seem dictated by the needs of dancers. The music slowed down a bit and became rock steady, which gradually became reggae. The changes in the music also reflect the increasing dominance of Rasta on Jamaican culture. Rastafarianism is a cult which worships the late Haile Selassie, former Emperor of Ethiopia, and believes that repatriation to Ethiopia is the way of redemption for black men. “Rasta is Jamaica,” a Jamaican told me, and though some Jamaicans would deny that, it does appear as if the Rastafarians went off to the beaches and hills to protect the national identity until the colonial sleep was over (Jamaica was the last country to be released from British colonial rule, in 1962).
After a few weeks of overcrowded living at Christafari’s, Roots of Creation found an ideal place to rehearse — a large, isolated house, with no neighbors to complain. Three months later they played to a less-than-capacity house at Straita Head Sound in La Mesa. Two weeks after that, and acting as their own managers, they played to a larger-than-capacity house at the Starwood in Los Angeles, second billed with Peter Tosh. Twenty thousand people showed up and it made the national news. It was the weekend the Rolling Stones played at Anaheim Stadium, and the crowds showed up due to a rumor that Mick Jagger would be there (he wasn't).
Roots of Creation is still in San Diego, and that may be a good sign for the local reggae scene (reggae fans in the United States get few chances, to hear the music live). The group should soon emerge from their rehearsal house and begin playing local clubs.