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How reggae dug its British rootsAs a new BBC documentary shows, the irresistible rhythms of Jamaica changed the course of pop music
Reggae pioneers: Aswad, with Brinsley Forde Photo: REX FEATURES
Steel Pulse Photo: REDFERNS
It would be hard for a pop fan of almost any listening preference in this
country not to have been touched, in some way, by Jamaica’s irresistible
rhythms. Everyone from second-generation West Indian expats, through to
skinheads, punks, and clubbers on the contemporary R&B scene has fallen
under their spell.
Its cast list includes not only countless famous artists from within the UK’s
immigrant community, but also the likes of Paul Weller, Jerry Dammers from
the Specials, and even Boy George, all of whom attest to reggae’s influence
on their own life and music.
In the latest instalment from one of BBC Four’s most authoritative documentary
strands, Reggae Britannia assesses the impact Jamaican music has had on
British culture. To coincide, there’s a concert at the Barbican in London,
where many big names from the UK reggae scene are due to congregate for a
“I wanted it to be a positive story,” says Jeremy Marre, the film’s director,
“to show how reggae in this country evolved, and impacted on British music,
society and even politics, and how reggae, as it evolved here, took on a
kind of Britishness. It evolved its own style, flavour and lyrics, which
were specific to these islands.”
Marre’s credentials are impeccable: as well as having directed parts of the
Soul Britannia series, he shot a lurid documentary in Kingston in 1977,
called Roots Rock Reggae and went on to make distinguished documentaries
about Bob Marley and the late-Seventies British reggae scene.
Reggae Britannia confidently plunges straight into the psyche of West Indian
immigrant kids, spiritually marooned in British cities in the Sixties. As
all corroborate, they found themselves clinging to the ska and rocksteady
tunes released here by Trojan Records, and Chris Blackwell’s fledgling
Island label, as a kind of badge of their identity and heritage.
Strikingly, David Hinds, the singer with top-flight Brit-reggae group, Steel
Pulse, recalls his bewilderment, as one of three or four black children in a
school class of 30 in Birmingham. He would be bombarded with information
about the Battle of Hastings and the Spanish Armada. Though he was born
here, he felt that he was being taught about someone else’s history.
Then, he started bringing his imported records into school – “something that
was ours” – and he began to feel understood, where once he’d felt alienated.
For two musicians who feature prominently both in Marre’s film and in the
Barbican concert, Reggae Britannia evokes strong memories of that foundation
era of West Indian culture in Britain. Brinsley Forde’s band Aswad started
out backing stars such as Burning Spear in the mid-Seventies, but he says
that “we wanted to use reggae as a vehicle to tell our own story, of being
in England, in inner-city London”.
Basing their sound on the ascendant “roots” style forged by Bob Marley’s
Wailers, Aswad initially found it difficult to cross over into the
mainstream, because “we were struggling against this misconception that
reggae music made outside Jamaica wasn’t authentic”.
Dennis Bovell, who arrived in Wandsworth from Barbados aged 12, and grew up to
become London’s leading dub producer. He remembers how, in order to get his
records a fair hearing, he would ensure they looked like imported
“pre-releases” from Jamaica. He even went to the lengths of buying a
“dinking machine”, which knocked out a large hole in the centre of a
seven-inch record, as all Jamaican singles had.
However, as Reggae Britannia vividly portrays, there was growing empathy for
Britain’s black youth in the economically grim late Seventies. That cultural
exchange, which had begun with immigrant kids bringing their ska tunes into
school, became a two-way street, when punk rock began to flaunt its
obsession with reggae, with bands like the Clash covering reggae hits such
as Police and Thieves.
“Suddenly,” Bovell recalls, “I was in Linton Kwesi Johnson’s band, opening for
the Sex Pistols at the Rainbow. To begin with, the crowd were shouting,
'F--- off!’ Then Johnny Rotten came out and went, 'Oi, leave him alone –
he’s my mate!’ They all shut up after that and even applauded.” Bovell went
on to produce the Slits and toured with Ian Dury.
Also at about this time, Brit-reggae groups such as Steel Pulse, Aswad and
Misty in Roots began to break through, while the explosion of Jerry Dammer’s
2 Tone label in 1979-80 cemented the punk/reggae bond with a fully
integrated, uniquely British sound.
Reggae Britannia reaches its climax, however, when UK reggae finally achieved
its own identity via a syrupy, soulful new sound.
“Jamaican reggae was pretty macho,” says Bovell. “Girls were mostly singing
back-up to guys who didn’t even sing that well. So we thought, 'Let’s get
these girls to the front, and do like the Supremes in reggae.’ ”
One of the first female singers, whom Bovell and his team recorded, was Janet
Kay, whose soaringly high-pitched Silly Games climbed to number two in the
pop charts. In order to differentiate from his roots and dub productions,
Bovell started up a new label called Lover’s Rock, which gave a name to the
“We were trying to stamp out scuffles in the dancehalls,” he recalls. “Plus,
roots was all quite political and biblical – all about prophesy and
Armageddon. We wanted to have a lighter side, for people who like love
songs, sweet lyrics and harmonies, who wear tonic and mohair, and go out on
the town, and comb their hair instead of wearing dreadlocks.”
In an era bulging with divergent youth lifestyles, Lover’s Rock swept through
Britain’s cities, inviting, as Bovell jovially suggests, racial union of the
purest kind. It was this sound that Aswad further evolved with Don’t Turn
Around, which ultimately became a number-one hit.
“For us to have that sound,” says Brinsley Forde, “was really just part of the
culture of growing up in this country. It was important. Many years later,
my kids came back from school one day, and said, 'Aswad’s in our history
'Reggae Britannia’ is at the Barbican, London EC2 (020 7638 8891), on Feb 5
and on BBC Four on Feb 11
Sunday, 6 February 2011
Posted by SKA WALES at 23:15