Category Archives: North America
After I posted Part I of Reggae Is Weirder Than You Think, I had a few people say to me that it seemed really strange to them to think of reggae as ‘world music’, because it was just music that was part of their upbringing and as ‘normal’ as rock’n’roll. Well, that was kind of my point – reggae is ‘world music’, if by that we mean a genre of music that doesn’t have its roots in the Euro-American rock/pop or classical traditions, but we tend not to think of it this way and it might seem strange to do so. In Part I I argued for why I think we could think of reggae as ‘world music’ (whether we should think of it this way is for another time) – in Part II I’m going to suggest some of the reasons why we don’t think of it this way.
The main reason reggae doesn’t seem like ‘world music’ is, I think, a single person – Bob Marley. It annoys me when people talk about the man when they mean the band – even after Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer left, the band were called ‘Bob Marley and the Wailers’, not just ‘Bob Marley’ – but in the case of what helped reggae spread around the world, I definitely mean Bob Marley himself. The Wailers are, it goes without saying, the world’s most successful reggae band, and in terms of sales they’re more comparable to rock bands than to any of their reggae contemporaries. The story of how exactly The Wailers, or Bob Marley and the Wailers, became quite so successful in Euro-America, is a long one that more knowledgeable people than me have written about, but essentially, a combination of factors, such as the fact that they played their own instruments and so fitted into the Euro-American rock press’ idea of what a ‘band’ should be, along with the serious financial push that Island Records were able to give them, meant that the Wailers were able to succeed as a mainstream reggae band – or rather, a mainstream band who happened to play a ‘third world’ genre of music called ‘reggae’. Their success, catchy songs and Bob’s star charisma mean that the Wailers have pretty much become synonymous with reggae in many people’s minds. One of the reasons reggae has stuck around in the mainstream consciousness, unlike some other genres, is the enduring star power and fame of Bob, coupled, it must be admitted, with the fact that he wrote some great pop songs. You can, in the UK at least, still hear Wailers songs played during the daytime on middle-of-the-road radio stations like Radio 2 or Smooth FM; you don’t hear other ‘foreign’ singers like Miriam Makeba or Serge Gainsbourg, despite the fact that they had songs which were big hits in the Anglosphere too. This is kind of amazing considering that many of the Wailers’ songs include explicit references to Rasta theology – think of ‘Get Up, Stand Up’s “We know and understand/Almighty God is a living man” – or that even the titles are in patois that is difficult for middle-class British people to understand. (I know several people who thought ‘No Woman No Cry’ meant something like ‘if you don’t have a woman you won’t be upset’.) Bob Marley has remained an icon in Euro-America in a way that very few other non-Euro-American singers have. This cements reggae as ‘pop music’ in many people’s minds: Bob is familiar, therefore reggae is familiar, therefore reggae must be part of ‘normal’ rock/pop music. How could one of the world’s biggest pop stars play ‘world music’?
From the Wailers’ very early days as a ska band. Look how young they all look!
It’s worth realising as well that Bob Marley genuinely is one of the world’s biggest pop stars. He’s one of the most famous musicians of the twentieth century, famous in the same way as Elvis, the Beatles, Oum Kalsoum and… well, that’s probably about it. Think how many different products you can buy with Bob’s face on them. He is, still, known all over the world, and remains an absolute hero to many people. The Wailers’ songs about fighting for freedom have ensured that the band have been taken to the hearts of many groups of people who see themselves as suffering from oppression, and their performance to celebrate Zimbabwean independence in 1980 cemented the band’s, especially charismatic central figure Bob’s, image as revolutionaries. Rather than just a musician, Bob Marley is seen as a revolutionary hero, “a poet and a prophet” to quote a (gulp) Red Hot Chili Peppers song. The popularity of reggae in West Africa, and amongst Australian Aborigines and First Nations people in North America is linked to Marley’s image as a ‘sufferer’, a rebel and a freedom fighter. I recently heard a lesbian Maori/Samoan woman who works for a women’s refuge give a talk (long story), and she claimed that Bob Marley was a personal hero of hers, and seen as a figurehead to Maori women in “the struggle”, i.e. the feminist movement in Aotearoa (notwithstanding Bob’s own relationships with women, presumably). It’s difficult to overestimate how well-known and how loved Bob Marley is all over the world, meaning that reggae continues to be known worldwide too.
No sane person ever needs to hear any of the songs on ‘Legend’ ever again, but come on – they couldn’t half write songs
This is a bit of a reductive argument, but I think Marley is the main reason reggae has remained in the mainstream consciousness. This is reflected in the fact that pretty much everyone knows what reggae is, despite the fact that the genre nowadays is as far away from the mainstream, international pop charts as any other genre of world music. How many contemporary reggae singers or deejays could the person on the street name, except maybe Sean Paul, whose career began back in the late nineties? The version of ‘reggae’ that exists as ‘not world music’ in most people’s minds is late ‘70s roots reggae – maybe extending to the tail-end of ska and the early style of reggae featured on the ‘The Harder They Come’ soundtrack. Reggae being produced in Jamaica was actually only internationally successful for a relatively brief period, and it’s an ossified version of this that remains most people’s definition of the term. Even many latter-day international reggae stars, like Côte d’Ivoire’s Alpha Blondy or Tiken Jah Fakoly, or the many Aboriginal bands that play reggae, play in an essentially anachronistic style that doesn’t even account for the digital reggae revolution of the early ‘80s, let alone anything more recent. In the UK in particular, I think late-‘70s reggae remains in the mainstream consciousness largely due to punk nostalgia.
People of a certain age love to wax lyrical about how amazing it was to be around in the late ‘70s when punk was a big deal, although very few of these people, in my experience at least, seem to have taken the supposed anti-establishment ideals of punk to heart. In any case, punk nostalgia is big business, and so the supposed connection between punk and reggae is often brought up in discussions of how you just had to be there at the time, man. It’s always seemed to me like the punk-reggae connection has been slightly overstated in retrospect; yes, bands from the two genres toured together, and yes there was some mutual admiration (John Lydon was well into his reggae, while the Wailers sung ‘Punky Reggae Party’), but the only band I can think of from the time who really musically synthesised the two was The Clash. And let’s be honest, some of The Clash’s attempts at reggae were pretty ropey. ‘White Man In Hammersmith Palais’ and ‘The Guns of Brixton’ are bloody brilliant, but ‘Revolution Rock’ really isn’t.
Anyway, I mean that punk/reggae bands who were around in the late ‘70s didn’t really musically mix styles, because since then the idea that punk and reggae are linked has become a kind of article of faith, and so they have become linked – on the punk side at least; not many dancehall deejays toasted over versions of Exploited singles. This lead to unlikely combinations, such as the uniquely British subgenre of Two Tone, and the amazing Bad Brains from Washington DC, a Rasta funk-turned-punk band who occasionally stopped playing light-speed hardcore punk to play regressive and fairly unimaginative reggae. Such fusions are nearly always slightly retrograde, if not nostalgic: Two Tone was, to begin with, largely based around appropriation of decade-old Jamaican records, although at least Two Tone bands knew there was more to Jamaican music than roots reggae and slightly expanded the mainstream awareness of ska. Bad Brains meanwhile were playing songs with titles like ‘I Love I Jah’ just as roots reggae was on its way out. The ‘punks should like reggae’ orthodoxy perhaps reaches its apogee in the US punk band Rancid, who take The Clash as their model for everything and so, on an album released in 1994, sang about how much they loved reggae and proved it by namechecking Desmond Dekker, who’d had his biggest hits more than 20 years earlier. No Shabba Ranks, Buju Banton or Bounty Killer for them!
To try to stem a flood of hate-filled comments from tr00 punx, I should say I do have a fondness for Rancid, despite all their flaws; I like The Specials, although most Two Tone music I’ve heard is annoyingly cheery and – sorry to sound like a genre snob – less enjoyable than real ska; Bad Brains are (mostly) awesome, and so are The Clash. My point is, though, that punk is largely a musically conservative genre, the way people think about punk is largely conservative (with a small ‘c’, punx, don’t worry!), and both of these have been responsible for freezing (a particular version of) reggae in non-reggae fans’ minds – which means that we tend to think about it in terms of rock music, not world music.
The thing is, this freezing of what ‘reggae’ means – what reggae sounded like in the ‘70s – in people’s minds is particularly odd in Britain, which is easily reggae’s second home after Jamaica. The history of British reggae is a story of how the music of immigrants more or less developed into its own genre in a new country, much like British Asian music. While British reggae has more or less followed the same trajectory as Jamaican reggae, from roots reggae to ragga deejays to a revival of ‘consciousness’, there have been British innovations, like the subgenre of lovers’ rock and the persistent interest in ‘steppers’ songs, roots and thunderously loud dub while these subgenres were out of fashion in Jamaica.
Classic lovers’ rock from the ’90s
These differences mean that UK reggae has provided something like an alternative history of reggae, a different way in which the genre could have developed after roots reggae faded from popularity in Jamaica. Moreover, reggae in the UK has hugely influenced the growth of other genres of specifically British dance music like jungle, drum’n’bass, UK garage, grime and dubstep. The rise and fall of these genres in the mainstream, along with the large populations of Jamaican descent in Britain, have meant that mainstream awareness of reggae in Britain has been sustained. As it is now, reggae remains, much like British Asian music (or heavy metal or punk, I suppose), at a tangent to the mainstream, rarely heard in the mainstream media but able to attract thousands of fans to big gigs or festivals. I’m sure that if you walk through certain parts of the West Midlands or London you’re still more likely to hear reggae than any other type of music.
There is a definite claim then that reggae is a firmly British style of music, whose development has roots in Britain almost as much as in Jamaica. How, then, can we think of it as ‘world music’ when it’s completely ‘normal’ and intrinsically British? Well, for exactly the reasons I argued in Part I. The Britishness of reggae doesn’t change anything about why we could think of it as world music. It still has its origins outside Euro-American pop/rock, whether or not subsequent developments has meant there’s some crossover. And the idea that just because something is British we shouldn’t include it in ‘world music’ is silly, unless we’re going to make some absolute, objective scale of what is ‘foreign’ and what isn’t. The folk music of the British Isles is ‘world’, bhangra and the ‘Asian Overground’ are ‘world’ and so is reggae.
I’ve probably gone on long enough for now. I wanted to talk about the ways in which we think about certain other types of music, to compare them to the way we think about reggae, but maybe I’ll save that for another time. Part III coming up later then, but for now, here’s more proof that there’s far, far more to British reggae than UB40 and Aswad – the best hymn to veganism I know of:
Reggae is usually thought of as part of the rock/pop canon. For example, Q magazine – a UK mainstream rock magazine, whose cover stars include the likes of Coldplay, U2 or Kings of Leon – did a ‘guide to the ultimate music collection’ issue a few years ago. The buyer’s guide was split into genres, which a top 10 albums and top 50 songs for each genre. Reggae got its own section, alongside hiphop, rock, metal, pop and electronic music, meaning ten reggae albums and fifty reggae songs were listed by a mainstream rock magazine as among the music you simply must own if you know anything about music at all. Compare this to their ‘folk’ section, which included only five albums – by Woody Guthrie, Fairport Convention, Nick Drake and, um, Devandra Banhart and Joni Mitchell. There was no generic ‘world music’ section or anything like it. Admittedly this is only one example from one shitty magazine, but it shows how much reggae, a genre of music still intimately linked to a Caribbean island with a relatively small population, is understood as simply another part of the rock/pop umbrella – ironically, more than the UK or USA’s own folk music.
Q Magazine did include this in their picks though, so they’re not complete idiots.
All Euro-American rock/pop music shares a common lineage from gospel, the blues and early R&B. From these common roots come subgenres of rock/pop as varied as boyband pop, indie rock, funk and hardcore punk. Reggae seems so familiar that we usually think of it as no more foreign to mainstream music than other ‘alternative’ strands of rock/pop like hiphop or metal. Hiphop developed out of funk and disco in 1970s New York, and heavy metal grew out of the British Midlands’ blues-rock scene in the late 1960s. From those beginnings, hiphop and metal have spread all over the world; their influence can be seen in all sorts of other genres of pop music, there are rappers in Nairobi and Nuuk, and metal bands in Sao Paolo and Tokyo. Reggae has achieved similar global reach: bands and singers from the UK to Côte d’Ivoire have attempted a ‘real’ reggae sound, and plenty of other bands have been influenced by reggae and incorporated elements of its sound into their own genres. We take it for granted that reggae is as much a part of the world’s musical landscape as hiphop or metal.
But let’s put this in some perspective. Reggae remains synonymous with Jamaica, a small island in the Caribbean with a population of about four million, to an even greater degree to hiphop’s connection to the USA, and certainly more than metal is connected to any particular country. The continued linkage is from the fact that reggae grew out of specifically Jamaican styles of music in the early 1960s, and remains the music of Jamaica in the way that son is for Cuba, or merengue is for the Dominican Republic; most of the musical innovations in those countries take that particular rhythm as the basis. (Incidentally, reggae, like merengue or Haiti’s compas, is a rhythm, as well as a genre of music, which is why lots of quite different-sounding music can still be called reggae, and simultaneously why idiots like to say ‘all reggae sounds the same’ – the basic rhythm used is the same.) In spite of this, reggae has spread all over the globe. We’re now so used to what reggae sounds like that we don’t realise how weird it is that this specifically Caribbean rhythm has become so familiar to so much of the world. Can you imagine high-street record shops or mainstream music magazines having sections on merengue or compas, in the sort of position reggae holds? (Forgive my out-of-date references, but you can change iTunes genre tags however you like, so it’s not quite the same.)
Reggae was, and remains, a genre of world music. Despite the fact that it usually involves lyrics in English (which tends to be the measure of ‘world music’ – see here), it is a genre which is rooted in a part of the world outside the UK/USA/Australia axis and retains many features which are linked to its island’s culture. Stylistically, reggae is no less a type of world music than is bhangra or Norteño music – both genres which have also grown up in ‘the English-speaking world’.
Reggae developed from several different strands of Jamaican music. Before reggae proper began in the late ‘60s, there was ska and rocksteady. Ska is described in the Rough Guide to World Music as “using fast R&B as the music’s basis, cutting out half the shuffle, leaving an abrupt series of off-beats” – in other words, it a Jamaican musical innovation that was a major contribution to the reggae rhythm. Ska was basically dance music and its success was perhaps linked to the optimism around the time of Jamaica’s independence in 1962. Rocksteady was a different musical style with, in general, less pronounced horn lines and more emphasised bass lines. Rocksteady’s lyrical content was often firmly rooted in the Jamaican experience: it was the music of rudeboys, singing about how tough they were and how crap life was in the shanty towns – I guess it was an equivalent to gangsta rap or hard-edged rock’n’roll records. Both of these genres contributed to the arrival of reggae in the late ‘60s, with the aesthetic and lyrics drawing on the specifically Jamaican rocksteady, and the music influenced by the specifically Jamaican rhythmic innovations made by ska.
Probably the most famous rocksteady song, from the classic soundtrack to The Harder They Come
Having said that, reggae has always had, and continues to have, links to the USA’s and UK’s musical cultures. In fact, every stage of the story of reggae involves the influence of US or UK music: early sound systems in Jamaica began by playing fast-paced US R&B records, the harmonies of rocksteady and early reggae groups were influenced by soul groups like the Impressions, the change in guitar and bass styles in the 70s probably owes something to funk, and since the 90s, ragga/dancehall and the various types of British ‘urban’ music, from drum’n’bass to grime, have cross-pollinated. But this isn’t unique: there are loads of examples of music from other countries being turned into something different. For example, various different styles of music in Africa have been heavily influenced by Cuban music, from Congolese rumba in the 50s (even the name of the genre comes from Cuba), to the likes of Orchestra Baobab in Senegal in the 70s. Reggae has borrowed a lot from US and UK rock/pop – and of course the influence has gone both ways – but reggae doesn’t have the same ultimate source in gospel and blues that all rock/pop shares.
Going further back than ska and rocksteady, the ultimate wellsprings of reggae are Jamaica’s folk and religious music. Many people point to the folk music style called mento as an important precursor to reggae; it contains the rhythmic seeds of ska and then reggae. Mento is now probably more known than it ever has been, thanks to various compilations that have been released and the continued efforts of mento band The Jolly Boys, who have been around since the 1940s and are still performing – although, unsurprisingly, not in the original incarnation of the band.
Other folk elements that have contributed to reggae include the various religious musical traditions that exist on the island. The most famous is probably Rastafari music, although only about 13% of Jamaica’s population are Rastas, which is quite surprising to learn when you consider just how many reggae stars have sung about Rastafari themes. Traditional Rasta music includes ceremonies called grounations, which include debate and ‘reasoning’, ganja consumption, Bible reading, hymns, and –most importantly for reggae – the style of drumming called nyahbingi. The influence of this slow, rhythmic drumming can be heard on many reggae records. There doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of traditional Rasta music available, but look out for Count Ossie and His Mystic Revelation of Rastafari – the album below is available for download from the usual places.
Jamaica is more religiously and musically diverse than is often thought. Other important folk traditions include the music of the Maroons – the original settlements of escaped slaves, who have continued to largely keep themselves to themselves – and various nonconformist Christian groups such as Revival Zion, who have musical traditions that are as far from staid hymn-singing as is the rawest US gospel. Some examples of these various traditions have been recorded by the inimitable Smithsonian Folkways, and the equally reliable Frémeaux et Associés recently released this exciting double CD of archive sounds. While these various traditions are definitely separate from reggae, they demonstrate how, both musically (rhythmically) and aesthetically, reggae is deeply rooted in Jamaican culture, in spite of the influence of US and British music. There’s a lot more examples of this, perhaps the most important being the local use of technology in ‘sound systems’, huge mobile discos which led to the idea of DJs chatting over the records. Eventually these deejays released ‘talkover records’ of their own, which later developed into the tradition of toasting in reggae, examples being the likes of U-Roy, Big Youth and Dr Alimentado above. Reggae was arguably the first music anywhere in the world that was primarily recorded music – deejays didn’t talk over live bands. See also the inventive use of technology that led to dub…
It now seems odd to talk about reggae exclusively with reference to Jamaica, given that some of the biggest reggae artists have come from outside the country – Aswad, UB40 and Steel Pulse from the UK, Lucky Dube from South Africa, Alpha Blondy (who made the amazingly titled album ‘Apartheid is Nazism’) and Tiken Jah Fakoly from Côte d’Ivoire, and so on. The point of my showing that reggae is so specifically Jamaican in its roots, its music and its aesthetic is to show that we can think about it as a type of world music, rooted in local traditions outside Euro-American rock/pop, just like Cuban son, Thai luk thung, Senegalese mbalax or any other type of local music you’d care to mention.
Ivorian Muslim reggae, proving that the reggae rhythm has been interpreted in various ways…
I think there’s something to be gained from reminding ourselves that reggae is, without doubt, a genre we could call ‘world music’. Putting reggae in its context as a type of Caribbean ‘world music’ allows for a different understanding of the genre, compared to thinking of it as a cousin to ‘70s punk or to early ‘00s hiphop. It also – and I won’t go on about this here; it deserves another post, another time – allows us to appreciate the true diversity of music in the world. Recognising reggae in its specificity, as ‘world music’, allows us to give it a different kind of attention from something that would normally be thought of within the Euro-American rock/pop hegemony. We can recognise reggae as a difference, an otherness, that has become normalised. This in turn allows us to think about other kinds of ‘world music’ in a different way, given how reggae has come to interact with the rock/pop world. Should other types of music aim for such ‘normalisation’? I think this is quite an interesting theoretical issue and I’ll write it more another time (so that you can avoid that post, if you like).
Many people have written about reggae’s history and roots in ska, rocksteady and folk music: if you want to read more, Lloyd Bradley’s book Bass Culture is often recommended. I’d also point you towards The Rough Guide to World Music, as usual, although you’ll need to find the older edition since the newest edition doesn’t include a volume on the Americas (boo hoo!). Also well worth a read is the excellent Rough Guide to Reggae, if you can find a copy; it’s been out of print for ages. I don’t doubt that some of you reading this might know more about reggae than me anyway, so feel free to comment/complain below.
I’ve been arguing that we should think of reggae and its relatives like ska, mento and rocksteady as forms of ‘world music’, but the question that remains is how reggae reached the point where it isn’t thought of in this way, while other similar types of music are thought of as ‘world music’. Tune in next time for Reggae is Weirder Than You Think Part II, where I’ll try to answer that question, and we’ll be discussing that Marley chap, calypso, salsa and why ‘70s punk has a lot to answer for…
Alright, it’s dub rather than roots, but I can’t write about reggae without mentioning this – one of my all-time favourites
Klezmer is the music of Ashkenazi (eastern European) Jews, that was reinvigorated and reshaped by Jewish immigrants’ encounters with early jazz in 1920s New York (as I’ve discussed here). The Klezmatics are undoubtedly the most successful klezmer band ever, and they can also make a good claim to be among the most influential and most interesting. They formed in New York just over 25 years ago, and so although they didn’t begin the ‘klezmer revival’ – The Klezmorim predate them by a decade – they certainly gave it a good kick up the backside. They haven’t really made a bad album, but this is usually cited as their best, and with good reason. If it wasn’t such a cliché, you might say that if you only buy one klezmer album…
The first thing to note is that The Klezmatics are all individually brilliant musicians. Their line-up has changed over the years, but on this album they feature trumpeter Frank London, clarinet player David Krakauer, violinist Alicia Svigals and singer Lorin Sklamberg, all of whom have gone on to be involved in various other excellent projects. The line-up is completed by bassist Paul Morrisett and drummer David Licht. The instrumental solos are never less than thrilling, and each member who plays a lead instrument gets their own showcase track – the titles ‘Clarinet Yontev’ and ‘Violin Doina’ are fairly self-explanatory. However, like the Captain Planet kids, the band are at their best when their powers combine:
As that track shows, The Klezmatics are not really exponents of klezmer in its purest form. Klezmer bands since the revival begun can broadly be divided into two groups: those who seek to recreate the sound of late nineteenth-century European klezmer as accurately as they can, and those who expand on the sounds of the genre by pushing the music closer to rock, hip-hop, jazz or even avant-garde sounds. In my opinion, the injection of rock’n’roll punch into their sound only makes The Klematics sound better, rather than diluting their music. The rock influence is not so overt as to make the music sound like a fusion mishmash; it adds an extra drive and power into their sound, upping the ante. It’s this that makes David Licht the band’s secret weapon – although he never really gets to show off his chops in the way that the soloists do, his drumming adds just the right amount of extra rock’n’roll power into the band’s sound. Given that he’s playing klezmer though, a lot of the rhythms and time signatures he’s playing would leave most rock drummers scratching their heads.
Although there is a definite rock influence – Svigals is apparently a die-hard Led Zeppelin fan – don’t think that this band don’t know their stuff when it comes to klezmer tradition, too. Many of the tunes here come from the repertoire of 1920s clarinet demigod Naftule Brandwein, who in his day was as inventive as The Klezmatics, given his raw playing style and jazz influence. On top of this, the album features tunes from the Hassidic tradition –‘Honikzaft’ even sees a section of the Biblical Song of Solomon set to an infernally catchy melody. Rather than being disparate, the various strands of influence permeate the whole album, as exemplified on this opening track, which even pays homage to the crossover between klezmer and Arabic music by featuring Egyptian percussion whizz Mahmoud Fadl:
(You can find a more ‘traditional’ interpretation of this tune on Joel Rubin and Joshua Horowitz’s excellent album ‘Besserabian Symphony’.)
The album begins to become more reflective towards the end, as Lorin Sklamberg – who no less an authority than Simon Broughton has called “the best Yiddish singer around” – sings ‘Shnirele Perele’, a Hassidic song about the imminent arrival of the Messiah. But even this is transformed into something like Queen’s ‘We Are The Champions’; you can imagine a whole arena chanting it back at the band. The final part of the album is the ‘Klezmatic Fantasy’ suite, blending together several tunes, beginning with the mournful ‘Der Yiddisher Soldat in di Trenches’ before ending with the more upbeat ‘Turkisher-Bulgarish’.
With razor-sharp but still ‘rootsy’ instrumental prowess, a respect for tradition but an equal desire to innovate, and a good dollop of humour too (come on – look at that title), ‘Rhythm + Jews’ should probably be the first Klezmatics album you buy, but it equally shouldn’t be the last…
In the world of black music, from both sides of the Atlantic, there’s three men that cast longer shadows than most – James Brown, Franco and Fela Kuti. All three relied on the talents of many star backing musicians, many of whom went on to be stars in their own right, from the bands The JBs, OK Jazz and Fela’s Nigeria 70 (later Africa 70 and then Egypt 80). But it’s the three men themselves who are always the focus. Larger-than-life performers, they transcended national boundaries and became and remain icons across the world, often for their personalities as much as their music. The music released by these three covers a long period, from the early ‘50s up to the start of the ‘90s (though Fela began a bit later than the other two), but their careers all reached a high point in the ‘70s, with a fascinating process of mutual influence occurring. Although James Brown’s influence on the other two – Fela getting more groovy and funky, and Franco introducing more horn sections and keyboards – is often mentioned, James Brown’s trip to Zaire, Franco’s home turf, in 1974 undoubtedly influenced him too.
But enough love and respect, it’s time for a face-off. All three are icons, all three played music that defies you to sit still, and all three had such ridiculous lives that they can’t be made into movies for being too inbelievable. Who is the best, most important, funkiest, most ridiculous of the lot? Le Sorcier, Soul Brother Number One or The Black President?
The other great black music icon from the same time period is Bob Marley. Although he’s just as famous and influential as Fela, JB and Franco, his music follows a different theme from the others, and there wasn’t quite the same give-and-take of influences. Also, no-one needs to hear that bloody live version of ‘No Woman No Cry’ yet again, whereas you can never hear ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine’ or ‘On Entre OK, On Sort KO’ enough.
Outrageousness of personality
Franco: 5/10 ‘Excess’ could have been Franco’s middle name if he didn’t have so many others already. By 1960, only the seventh year of OK Jazz’s career, they numbered fourteen instrumentalists and six singers. By the mid-‘80s, Franco was employing around forty musicians, who made up two different bands, one in the Congo (Zaire) and one in Belgium. His band were huge, and so was he: at one point he weighed about 300 pounds. Even his death was lavish. Having released a song called ‘Attention na SIDA’ (‘Beware of AIDS’), he died from the disease that same year. There were four days of national mourning in Zaire, and the radio played nothing but OK Jazz the whole time. Although every aspect of OK Jazz was enlarged, Franco’s biography isn’t really filled with the same sort of ridiculous details as JB and Fela. His attitude to women was about as, er, un-reconstructed as theirs though, and he had, in Ken Braun’s words, “several wives and innumerable mistresses, some of them quite young and a few stolen from friends and colleagues.” It was a couple of songs about women, ‘Helène’ and ‘Jacky’, that led to Franco being arrested for obscenity, his second prison spell after having been put away for dangerous driving twenty years earlier. Franco’s life was pretty exciting compared to most of ours, but in comparison to JB and Fela’s biographies, he can’t compete.
James Brown: 9/10 There are about as many James Brown stories as there are hiphop songs built around JB samples. There’s the fact his band members had to wear uniforms, and if they didn’t wear exactly what Brown said, they were fined. Ditto for every wrong note they played. There’s the police car chase he was involved in while high as a kite. There’s the fact he was arrested for beating his thirty-year-old wife when he was in his 70s. There’s the fact he was on PCP around the time he recorded ‘Public Enemy Number One’, which is about drugs being bad. There’s the time he apparently threatened with a knife the worker who’d come to fix the electricity in his house, because he’d dared to JB’s toilet while he was there. That’s all to say nothing of his extravagant performances, featuring the many titles he gave himself (Mr Dynamite, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Soul Brother Number One, The Godfather of Soul…) and his cape routine, which even gets its own section on his Wikipedia page.
Fela Kuti: 10/10 Fela is probably about as famous for his biography as his music. Aside from his political activism, which was pretty incredible in itself, he was definitely outrageous. He and his family lived and performed nearly every night in a huge venue/village/nightclub called The Shrine. Fela declared it an independent country. He also decided to marry all his backing dancers on the same day. All 27 of them. Really you’d need a whole film to explain what Fela’s life was like…
James Brown: 6/10 Obviously JB is most famous as a singer, and even there you could argue that he’s not actually that great; his rough voice doesn’t have the effortless sound of the likes of Marvin Gaye, or the aching quality of Otis Redding. But Brown wasn’t just a singer, he was a vocalist, and his grunts, shouts and “get on up”s are some of the most infectious sounds in music. It’s often overlooked that he wasn’t a bad musician either. He relied on having some of the finest sidemen there were, from Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker to Bootsy and Catfish Collins, but he played a large part in the arrangements himself, and he could play the organ pretty well, as shown on early tracks like ‘Grits’ or ‘Devil’s Den’.
Fela Kuti: 7/10 Fela played a couple of different instruments, and surely gets points just for diversity: he could wig out on the keyboard just as easily as on the saxophone. He wasn’t a bad trumpet player either, as shown on the daft but enjoyable early single ‘Omuti Tide’ where he incorporates a bit of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ into the tune.
Franco: 10/10 No-one can compete with Franco here. His nickname ‘Le Sorcier’ (‘The Sorceror’) comes from the fact that his rivals apparently believed his guitar skills to come from black magic – there couldn’t be any other explanation for it. He’s commonly cited as about the best, and most influential guitarist to come out of the whole African continent.
Franco: 7/10 There’s a big difference between the three minute, jump-up-and-dance rumba of OK Jazz’s early stuff, and the rolling jungles of guitars that sprawl over their ‘70s or ‘80s material. There’s plenty of groove throughout, but it’s of different kinds. The longer, more intricate soukous songs can be surprisingly relaxed even as they’re musically pretty complex. There’s still plenty of motivation to sway along to them, but for me, the immediacy of the ‘50s stuff is a lot more likely to get you moving your body.
Fela Kuti: 9/10 Fela has got to be second only to James Brown. From the urgent pounding funkiness of ‘Roforofo Fight’ to the slinkiness of ‘Gentleman’, there’s probably not a single tune Fela recorded that you can’t move to in some way. Even the more sinister songs like ‘Coffin for Head of State’ have their own dark grooviness that worms its way inside your head and shoulders. Given that most of his songs easily pass ten minutes, there’s plenty of time for them to do their work too.
James Brown: Good God, I jump back, wanna kiss myself/10 He’s James Brown.
Sticking it to the Man
Franco: 6/10 Franco was surprisingly contradictory when it came to politics. Companies paid him to record songs that were basically adverts: one of his biggest hits outside Zaire, ‘AZDA’, is about a Kinshasa Volkswagen dealership, and there were also songs about brands of soap or cigarettes. It’s a short step from this to tunes praising people, culminating in songs for President Mobutu. There’s no need for a history lesson, but time hasn’t proved Mobutu to be One Of The Good Guys. Franco was never completely on the side of anyone except himself though, and he recorded plenty of songs that were critical of the status quo, often in the tradition of ‘mbwakela’, coded or allegorical criticism. He did in 1960 when Congo’s sudden independence caused problems for the region, and he did throughout the ‘70s as Mobutu’s regime really took hold. Given Franco’s position as Africa’s most famous singer, the regime relied on his support almost as much as he did on the regime’s, and undoubtedly the power wielded by both Mobutu and Franco meant each made the other uncomfortable. Franco’s imprisonment for obscenity probably wasn’t quite as clear-cut as all that.
James Brown: 6/10 Like Franco, it’s not easy to label JB as either a total sellout or a full-on fight-the-power rebel. He famously sucked up to Nixon, which hardly endeared him to… well, anyone much. But one of his most powerful records is ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud’, recorded in the midst of the ‘60s’ climate of political activism. It’s a record that JB said people were waiting for him to make: as one of the biggest black stars of the time, people wanted to know if he’d take a stand. If you were being uncharitable you might argue that it was a canny commercial decision for him to record the song, but its militancy and directness doesn’t leave you in any doubt that he meant it, too. As his attitude towards his band and his various arrests show, though, JB didn’t seem to think too much about whether he was sticking it to the Man or siding with him, as long as it helped James Brown.
Fela Kuti: 10/10 What rock bands are famous for protesting? The Sex Pistols, the Clash, Bob Dylan maybe? Fela makes them all look like Daily Mail hacks. Famously outspoken and a constant critic of Nigeria’s government, he was so disgusted with the status quo that he declared his home a separate country, and was famous and charismatic enough to be able to pull off a stunt like this. The government had had enough by this point though, and the army stormed the compound, beating Fela, raping his wives and killing his octogenarian mother by throwing her out of a window. Fela’s response was to record more songs criticizing the government for their brutality, including the furiously angry ‘Coffin for Head of State’ and ‘Zombie’. In and out of prison for various offences – some political, some simply for drugs – Fela never kept quiet and even ran for president at one point. His son Femi is continuing the family tradition: when he was given a Land Rover as a gift by a political party, Femi drove it round Lagos with ‘GOVERNMENT BRIBE’ painted on the sides.
Impenetrability of discography
James Brown: 6/10 Compared to most American rock singers, Brown recorded a lot of singles and albums, but stacked up next to Fela or Franco, his oeuvre isn’t too difficult to navigate – the key albums are quite easy to find, and there’s a lot of good compilations too. The only difficulty comes from the hundreds of low-budget comps that recycle badly-recorded live versions of the same songs.
Fela Kuti: 7/10 It’s famously difficult to pick just one Fela album, because he recorded so much, and because most of the records pretty much sound the same, in terms of quality as well as sounds. Although most of his more famous albums are easy to find, good luck tracking down everything… unless of course you go for the boxset of The Complete Recordings, as rereleased by Wrasse records. Even this doesn’t quite include everything though, omitting some of his earlier highlife-style records – although this shouldn’t really bother anyone except obsessives and collectors.
Franco: 9/10 His career lasted about forty years, he released something like 150 albums and nearly one thousand songs. There is a lot of Franco music out there. To make matters worse, it’s been promoted surprisingly badly in the English-speaking world: for a good while, there were only a few compilations available, none of which really include much information about the songs or the other musicians involved.
Recommended starting point
Franco: Despite the history of rush-job compilations, Franco’s legacy has been given the treatment it deserves in Stern’s marvellous two-volume Francophonic compilation, which get full marks in terms of length, song choice and notes.
Fela Kuti: Despite it being difficult to recommend one Fela album above any other, ‘Zombie’ is probably the one that gets named most often. It’s difficult to make good compilations of Fela’s music, given the length of most tracks, but ‘Anthology Vol. 1’ is a good start, taking in some nicely obscure early highlife records, the first developments of the Afrobeat style, and a couple of funk odysseys like ‘Water No Get Enemy’ at the end too. Just get that Complete Recordings boxset though, you’ll want it in the end anyway.
James Brown: For pretty much any other musician, recommending a four-disc boxset as a starting point would seem ridiculous, but for James Brown, it’s mandatory. ‘Star Time’ covers everything from his early material with the Famous Flames right up to his collaboration with Afrika Bambaataa. As well as including more hit songs than you can shake a stick at, it ranges from doo-wop through funk to hiphop, and so it’s also a potted history of late twentieth-century US black music. Can’t be recommended highly enough.
Native Americans are, like Australia’s indigenous people, still suffering the effects of the European colonial expansion and, like Gypsies (Roma and Travellers) in Europe, are one of the few groups of people it’s apparently still OK to stereotype. Even the cover of this record seems to suggest that stereotype: the powerful Indian brave, in harmony with his native land. Deeply saddened by the white man’s crime, he can only bow his head in silent dismay, the two feathers in his hair drooping to show his grief.
Thankfully, the musical contents of this compilation sweep away such daft images by proving that Native Americans today produce a wide range of music that can be just as mournful, joyous, introspective or fun as music produced by any other group of people in the modern day USA. And tt is the Native peoples of the US that are focused on here; although polar peoples such as the Inuit and Yupiik, and the various tribes that live in Central and South America are, of course, ‘Native Americans’, their musical traditions are various and very different. Although we should expect diversity from ‘Native Americans’ anyway, as even if we only use that term to mean the Plains tribes, it covers a huge number of ethnic groups – Sioux, Navajo, Apache, Oneida, Cherokee and so on – all of whom have languages and cultures which are less similar to each other than English is to Persian. In spite of this, there are similarities across Native music, and various strains of them are well represented here.
One of the more obvious, perhaps, is the flute. The Native flute, which is a tradition more or less shared by the Plains tribes, takes a slightly different form each time it is made, and so even the scale the instrument plays depends on the maker and the player. While there is a traditional repertoire of semi-improvisatory tunes (many of which were used by men to seduce prospective lovers!), the most famous players now play original compositions, often helped by synthesisers. This sort of thing can sail perilously close to ‘New Age’ waters.
This genre is well represented on this comp, with two tracks from R Carlos Nakai (Navajo/Ute), probably the most successful exponent of the Native flute, as well as the above track from Bill Miller (Mohican), and a track featuring Robert Tree Cody (Maricopa/Dakota Sioux) playing flute along with synth and chanting backing vocals. Don’t get the impression that any of it is very ‘traditional’, but it’s all pleasant enough listening that doesn’t become too bland or tokenistically ‘ethnic.’
That chanting is another important part of traditional Native music. In many Native traditions, the human voice is the only melodic instrument, and a lot of Native songs feature vocables – that is, sounds with no literal meaning – rather than lyrics, as the sound is the most important thing. When lyrics are important, for example in songs used for healing ceremonies or other rituals, it’s often the case that outsiders are not permitted to listen anyway. Thus, there’s quite a few examples on this compilation of solo singers performing songs with vocables, often acapella or accompanied by one drum. Listening to three minutes of someone singing meaningless syllables solo doesn’t sound very appealing, but the nuances of the various singers’ voices ensure that most of these tracks stay engaging. The compilation opens with a Zuni sunrise prayer sung by Chester Mahooty with a drum, and the penultimate track is ‘Sacred Mask Dance’ performed by Ed Lee Natay, one of the first Native singers to be recorded in a non-‘ethnographic’ context for his seminal album Natay: Navajo Singer. Here he is singing the same sunrise song that Mahooty performs on this album.
A slightly different vocal tradition is shown by the song from the duo Primeax and Mike (Oglalla/Yankton Sioux and Navajo, respectively), who are members of the Native American Church, and sing ‘peyote songs’ which are used as part of the Church’s peyote rituals. Chewing the hallucinogenic seeds of the peyote plant is the Native Church’s sacrament, and traditionally, worshippers sit in a circle and take it turns to sing as the seed’s effects take hold. Primeaux and Mike perform the songs as a duo, harmonising and using studio recording techniques to layer the vocals, which creates a calm meditative effect which is quite different from traditional peyote singing which is always solo, accompanied by very fast drumming.
Female singers are well represented on this compilation too, with Judy Trejo (Paiute) performing a song apparently sung as part of the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance movement was part of one of the last great pushes by Native Americans to fight against white colonists, but sadly it culminated at the Wounded Knee massacre – so it’s an fascinating historical document to be able to hear a song from that time. The other female singers here take more contemporary approaches, singing along with guitars and keyboards. These include the trio Walela, who feature country singer Rita Coolidge exploring the sounds of her Cherokee ancestry – although again, the synthes only just stay on the right side of Enya.
Although most Native music is performed solo, the last of the three main strands of music is definitely social – music for powwows and other group dances. The point here is not only that several people make the music, but also that there are no spectators – everyone joins in singing and dancing. Again, this means that recordings of the music can sound much less exciting than the music would if you were there to see the performance. That’s certainly the case for the Basket Dance performed on this album by Los Garcia Brothers [sic] (from the San Juan Pueblo tradition), which lasts nearly seven minutes without much variation in the percussion or singing. Far more exciting sounds come from the Victory Song performed by the Blackstone Singers (Cree). You’re unlikely to have heard singing like this from anywhere else in the world: high, wailing vocables which sound almost other-worldy. Of course it’s repetitive, with the thumping, relentless drum, but the vocal sounds are so intriguing that that doesn’t really matter.
This is followed by a track by the powwow group Black Lodge Singers (from the Blackfoot nation), performing a song in a similar style, but with those wailing voices singing the lyrics, “Mickey Mouse, Minnie, Pluto too, they’re all movie stars! Disneylaaaand!” It’s a good example of how powwows see a meeting of traditional sounds with the realities of Native children growing up in the modern-day US. This same exchange process took place at the end of the nineteenth century when the Tohono O’odham people, who live on the modern-day Arizona/Mexico border, were influenced by German immigrants and Mexican music to create an accordion-led genre called waila, or more commonly ‘chicken scratch’ music. This comp features a track from the leading modern chicken scratch band, Southern Scratch. There’s no vocals, no solos or even much intricacy at all: it’s dance music pure and simple.
Overall then, this compilation provides a fairly good overview of the main currents of Native music, although it’s not quite perfect. While it’s important to acknowledge the big influence that hiphop and reggae have had on Native music, unfortunately the best thing about the rap group represented here, Without Reservation (geddit?), is their name. Oddly, the comp also doesn’t include an example of any Native singers influenced by folk-rock ‘protest songs’, despite the fact that singers like Buffy Sainte-Marie and Floyd Westerman were very important in giving Natives a new, mainstream political voice in the early ‘70s (and beyond: Sainte-Marie won an Oscar for a song of hers in the film ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’; Westerman is also an actor who appeared in ‘Dances With Wolves’). So it’s not perfect, but as a rough guide to the music made by Native Americans, from Ed Lee Natay’s 1950s recordings up to late ‘90s hiphop experiments, including most of the major genres, it does a pretty good job.