Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Sheriff John Brown always hated me,
For what, I dont know!
Every time I plant a seed,
He said kill it before it grow -
He said kill them before they grow.
I shot the sheriff
But I didn't shoot no deputy

Feel that music? Can you feel that? The tiny island country of Jamaica is more than a playground for beachgoing Americans. Jamaica is the birthplace of reggae, ska, rocksteady, mento, dub, dancehall, ragga, toasting, and various other musical mutations. Jamaica also brought us the Rastafari movement--a group that reveres Haile Selassie as the black Messiah coming to take the Twelve Lost Tribes of Israel back to Mount Zion on the Black Star Liner.

Haile Selassie

One of the biggest reggae stars, Bob Marley, was a rasta who brought the philosophy of peace, love, justice, and ganja smoking to the rest of the world. He started with The Wailers, and soon his music was a cultural force. It urged people to get up and dance--and also to but get up, and stand up for their rights.

The Wailers--Marley in the middle

Reggae didn't catch on right away with the lumbering American public until Eric Clapton covered Marley's classic, "I Shot the Sheriff." Before that, you had to order reggae from Island Records. I did, anyway, since my local "hip" record store was still pushing Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles, and the wildest thing available was Tom Petty. Once Slowhand Clapton cleaned up the Kingston sound reggae started appearing in the racks. It took a white guy in a white suit to bring Trenchtown to the yacht rock crowd. Marley became a superstar.

Them belly full but we hungry

A hungry mob is an angry mob
The music was danceable and political. The groove got you moving and the lyrics got you thinking about justice and peace and struggle and getting high. Each song was a communique from the Third World, a message in a bottle.

Before the reggae dam broke completely, I was working for a small newspaper in the wilds of Portland, an underground paper that followed offbeat music and lifestyles of what remained of "the counter-culture." Nobody was much interested in reggae, so I snatched up the assignment when I heard Bob Marley was coming to town. I made arrangements and scheduled an interview months in advance. To prepare, I played his records, took notes, watched "The Harder They Come," and even conducted some ganja research to catch the vibe. Total immersion. You rarely see this kind of investigative journalism. I was psyched. They put me on the guest list and arranged for a backstage pass. More important, we would talk. Me and Bob Marley.

Anyway, Marley injured his foot playing soccer and that leg of the tour was canceled. Ahhh!

I'm still a fan of the island music. Listen. Feel it. Move your feet. This is roots, rock, reggae.

Watch Part 1 of The Story of Jamaican Music: From Ska to Reggae (Part 2 coming soon!):

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