From Roots To Riches

How do you make a buck off reggae? Rip off the rhythms and throw out the rasta.

With reggae stripped of its spiritual leader, the fad-mongering pharaohs of the corporate music kingdom began to try to figure out how to line their wallets with a reggae marketing strategy that would sell. Trouble was, reggae, with or without Marley, essentially remained a cult item and a commercial oddity (even the best-selling albums never moved more than 100,000 copies). Reggae didn't catch a fire with the masses, due in large part to its radical politics, which just didn't fit into a doctrinaire marketing ploy. The two-tone ska revival helped somewhat to introduce at least one style of reggae into the public consciousness, yet it too ended up a commercial pariah. Reggae, with its attendant religious/political fervor and outlaw ganja-blowing image was best left to specialty labels or to fanatics who made annual pilgrimages to Jamaica to buy the latest vinyl and see Sunsplash, the annual Woodstock of reggae.

Not until other non-reggae artists (the Police, the Clash, Talking Heads, Stevie Wonder, Grace Jones) picked up on reggae did the corporados who write the marching orders in the music industry begin to view reggae as something other than an unpredictable loss-leader.

Now the corporados have figured out that they can capitalize on reggae by simply cutting the baby in half, separating the epiphanal, message-bearing tenets of Rasta-bred reggae from the movin' and groovin' musical feel-good part of reggae. Witness the success of Reggae-Lite perpetrators Bobby McFerrin, UB40, and Maxi Priest, the commercials, the clothing, and especially the dreadlock extensions. The music, originally designed to glorify Jah, now sells cars, cereal, and fake hair.

The Valley got a chance to witness the co-opting of reggae up-close last month when the Wailers, Bob Marley's original backing band, limped into the Sun Devil House to warm up for Reggae-Lite band Third World.

This version of the Wailers did include a few of the original surviving members, but Marley would no doubt have administered the "rod of correction" to the group had he joined the jarhead collegiate audience at the ASU-area watering hole.

In the absence of original drummer Carlton Barrett, who was murdered last year, the band began by staggering its way through two stunningly awful Marley covers. Then the Wailers segued into a couple of original tunes off a new album, I.D. (If I.D. stands for identity, the Wailers have a severe crisis.) Lead guitarist Junior Marvin kept ripping out Eddie Van Halen-type riffs that sounded like a rhino giving birth in a machine shop. Every so often, screechy keyboards would peal off on a run or two, only to be drowned out by the murky drum/bass mix. By the time the band got around to its lousy closing covers of "Exodus" and "Get Up, Stand Up" (lots of woy-yo-yo's, handwaving and benighted repetitions ad nauseum of the word "irie"), it was apparent that the Wailers just weren't connecting with themselves or the crowd.

Reggae-Lite also reared its head last month at the Reggae Sunsplash show at Mesa Amphitheatre, headlined by limey poseur band Steel Pulse. The group's style loads up on the synths, and its heavily-mannered originals use highly-processed Marley-isms in pacing and vocals. Steel Pulse successfully connected with the crowd's desire to feed into the "island thing" without getting its hands (or its audience's) dirty. Steel Pulse's surface polemics and socially conscious lyrics were saying one thing, but there wasn't much in the music to back it up. The band's inorganic presentation befitted its name.

What does all this bode for reggae's future? For one thing, reggae is here to stay. But the electronic media and print ads, fashion merchandisers and Reggae-Lite bands have turned reggae into a stylistic Fortunato's Purse, removing the music from its spiritual roots. Even Bob Marley's son, Ziggy, is in danger of turning into a Reggae-Lite commodity in the hands of his producers, Talking Heads Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz.

Reggae as fashion also means a great disservice is being done to Jamaican artists who refuse to buckle under to the whims of corporate marketing schemes by keeping the true spirit of reggae alive. Burning Spear, Culture, the Itals, Israel Vibration, Toots Hibbert, Foundation, Bunny Wailer, the Gladiators, Alpha Blondy, and Mutabaruka have all seen the havoc that Babylon can wreak with the almighty dollar and want as little to do with it as possible.

Restoring the house of worship and driving out the thieves and moneychangers is going to test the resolve of Rastas and roots aficionados alike.

For now, the corporados don't seem to be tiring of using reggae to suit their marketing desires. When will big business let go of reggae, leaving the music to chart its own course? Perhaps it won't be for a long time if the mega-popularity of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" is any indication. Then again, it might be next season, when fashion hounds decide their dread-extensions aren't so "irie" after all.

Dreadlocks, reggae's most visual element, now adorn the heads of today's leading fashion victims by way of hair extensions.

It is truly a dark day for reggae when Maxi Priest's bilious cover of Cat "Kill for Khomeini" Stevens' "Wild World" goes straight to No. 1 on the U.K. charts.

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