It's a late April night in Memphis, Tennessee, 1990, and the pint-size reggae innovator Toots Hibbert is standing tall on the stage of the Skyway room in the Peabody Hotel, surveying the crowd gathered in front of him in a slippery, fleshy knot. He's just blazed through close to two sets of hits dating from both before and after he gave the music its name -- if not its conventional spelling -- back in 1968 with "Do the Reggay," a long-time anthem in his Jamaican homeland. He addresses the crowd between gasps for air, soaked with sweat and beaming with the satisfaction of a professional who's about to finish a job very well done. As he did during the first set, he promises to close the show with what he calls "the true reggae." Then he takes a long breath, wraps a small, glistening hand around the duct-taped microphone, and summons a wail that taps into the power of nearly 200 years' worth of prison chants and field hollers.
"Say get up, mistah," he shouts, and the Maytals, his five-piece band, answer with a hard, solid thump. After three more thumps, Hibbert and the Maytals launch into a breakneck version of "54-46 Was My Number," a hypnotic, two-chord stomp written by Toots after his arrest in 1966 for possession of marijuana. The song is a classic -- its refrain alone defines the spirit of reggae as masterfully as Elvis's high, breathy moan on "Good Rockin' Tonight" defines rockabilly's redneck swagger and greasy sexuality. "Give it to me one time," he screams at the Peabody crowd, just as he screamed the same words more than twenty years ago on the original, repeating the line and being met each time in pile-driving unison by his band, who knock one thump, two thumps, three, and then four in response to Hibbert's commands. Then, departing from the original, Hibbert begins a three-word chant as the song shimmies toward its climax, repeating it at least twenty, maybe thirty times: "It's the reggae, it's the reggae, it's the reggae . . . , " on and on, as if you needed a reminder of what you were hearing -- as if the music hadn't already convinced you that nothing in the world can match the experience of hearing a damn good reggae song being played by a damn good reggae band.
Unfortunately experiences like that have been rare on the contemporary reggae front; even Hibbert, one of the music's few surviving pioneers, hasn't made an album in eight years. Then too, the music has enjoyed crossover success more frequently in recent times, the most since Bob Marley's son Ziggy scratched the Top 40 in 1988 with the exuberant single "Tomorrow People." Artists such as Frankie Paul and the Marvin Gaye-ish crooner Beres Hammond have kept their American major labels happy with albums that have found popularity among the world-beat smoothies who sip their Third World culture from the fountain of NPR. In the dance clubs of most major U.S. cities, meanwhile, the synth-driven reggae offshoot known as dancehall has been jockeying for turntable space with the mountain of anonymous beat-crazed twelve-inch records erected each week by the toilers of the techno underground, turning the likes of Shabba Ranks and Shaggy into clubland heroes.
Yet reggae -- for years the most soulful, poetic, and rhythmic island export around -- has lost much of its soul and poetry, its rhythmic heart sold out for the cheap, instamatic beats of a drum machine. Embraced by a cult that will apparently sway in reefer-cloaked abandon to anything with a fat bass line and a chunka-chunk guitar riff, reggae has for years been adrift on a sea of mediocrity. The party line among the music's few disgruntled partisans is that reggae lost its focus after Bob Marley's death in 1981, his brain, lung, and liver cancer robbing the music of its most vital and globally renowned figure. In fact reggae was in a tailspin long before its king took ill: Survey the kajillion different compilations that popped up during the music's heyday (the mid Seventies to the early Eighties) and you'll hear its sonic decay A endless attestations of Rastafarian faith, tributes to the almighty ganja, and tepid declarations of romance and lust. Some good records were produced in the Eighties, of course, most of them by the melodica-playing dub innovator Augustus Pablo and the vocal trio Black Uhuru. Some of the music's current hotshots also arrived at this same time, yet none of them -- not Yellowman, not Eek-A-Mouse, not Sugar Minott -- has shown the ability to move the music to any worthwhile new level.
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With its ample borrowings from American rap for its verbal rhythm and beat-heavy backdrop, dancehall at least indicates that some reggae artists are looking for new ways to maintain the music's vitality. And when the formula works A as it does on Shaggy's wonderful remake of the reggae standard "Oh Carolina" A it can erode the cynicism of even the most doubtful curmudgeon. However, unlike rap, which exists on the strength of its voices and the brilliance of its sample-laden musical montages, dancehall is bereft of almost any melodic vocal charm. The tongue-twisting techniques of dancehall's singers are there to serve the beat, not enhance it. For nonstop dancers, that's fine. But as anyone who's bought a few house records knows, what sounds good at the nightclub doesn't always kick it in the living room. And when it's bad, dancehall can be the most annoying music on the planet.
Reggae's traditionalists, meanwhile, have merely added canned drums and layers of rinky-dink synthesizers to the same old lovers-rock pop shtick that signaled the music's decline at the close of the Seventies. Even the two most noteworthy acts slated for Saturday's Bob Marley Festival -- Ziggy Marley's Melody Makers and Inner Circle -- have done little to invigorate the music. Sure, both have netted crossover hits: the former with the aforementioned "Tomorrow People," the latter with the 1987 hit "Bad Boys," which is used as the theme music for the TV show Cops. Neither song, however, is worthy of the finest work that came before it: "Trenchtown Rock," "Mr. Brown," and "Get Up, Stand Up" by Ziggy's dad; Toots and the Maytals' "African Doctor," "Funky Kingston," and "Sweet and Dandy"; Peter Tosh's "Stepping Razor" and "Maga Dog"; or albums by Burning Spear (Marcus Garvey), Culture (Two Sevens Clash), and Black Uhuru (Showcase).
What does it say about the music's current condition that of the new releases issued by Ras, a Washington, D.C., label that is highly respected among reggae diehards, the only one that booms with any authority is a reissue? Taken on its own merits, that reissue A Double Barrel, a collection of early Seventies instrumentals by the brothers Dave and Ansel Collins -- might sound like a mediocre album by Big Youth or Augustus Pablo. The songs are big and wobbly and loopy like most Jamaican instrumentals of the era, and none are really essential, which makes Double Barrel a document for archivists and completists only. But put it on after spinning the new Ras discs by such dullards as Junior Reid, Sugar Minott, and Yellowman -- or Ziggy's recent Free Like We Want 2 B A and the Collins set suddenly becomes an out-of-nowhere revelation, a reminder of a time when reggae overflowed with visionary craftsmen and militant prophets and groove-obsessed rhythm warriors. When the last cymbal crash fades and the last bass line rumbles to a close, you can't help but wonder just what the hell happened to this music.
The Bob Marley Festival takes place Saturday, February 10, at the Bayfront Park Amphitheater, 301 Biscayne Blvd; 358-7550. Performers include Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, Inner Circle, Le Coup, Johnny Dread, X-High, and Enta Jesu. Showtime is 1:00 p.m. Admission is three canned goods or three nonperishable food items to benefit the Camillus House.