Rock steady rules

A new documentary digs up the roots of reggae. Garry Steckles joins in this joyful reunion

Jamaican Ewart Beckford, better known as U-Roy. Photograph by Urbanimage.tv/ Tim BarrowJudy Mowatt, one of the I-Threes, the Wailers’ back-up singers. Photograph by Urban Image/ Johnnie Black

Rock steady, the music that came after ska and before reggae, ruled Jamaica for much of the mid-Sixties. It was, by all accounts, a golden era – not only for music, but for the island, and I’ve always regretted missing it. I didn’t set foot in Jamaica, one of my favourite places in the world, until a decade later. I’ve been kicking myself ever since, and, having spent much of my time recently mesmerised by a rather special movie called Rock Steady: The Roots of Reggae, all I can say is those kicks have been richly deserved. When I haven’t been watching the movie, I’ve usually been listening to the soundtrack CD. More kicks; I definitely should have been there first time round. This documentary is in the same exalted league as Buena Vista Social Club and Calypso Dreams, films that explored and rejoiced in the music of Cuba and Trinidad respectively. Like them, it celebrates the achievements of some wonderful musicians. And in telling their stories, through their words and their music, it also helps to tell the story of the islands that shaped them.

Jamaica in the Sixties was a very, very different place from the Jamaica of today. When rock steady came along, in the wake of the much faster ska, its bass-driven rhythms, oh-so-sweet melodies and usually romantically inspired lyrics reflected an island where people, even though most of them were anything but wealthy, were more often than not living happy and peaceful lives.

Rock Steady: The Roots of Reggae somehow manages to recapture the essence of that era. Its producers gathered together many of the genre’s surviving stars, some of whom have been living away from the island for decades, and their joyful reunions in the opening reels – interspersed with vintage footage from stage shows, dances and the streets of Kingston – sets the tone for the musical journey that follows.

It doesn’t hurt that most of these artists have improved with age. Singers like Leroy Sibbles, Ken Boothe, Judy Mowatt, U-Roy, Marcia Griffiths, Stranger Cole, Dawn Penn and Derrick Morgan have never – to my ears – sounded better.

It also doesn’t hurt that the producers took the high road when it came to putting together a band to back the singers. They recruited a group of studio musicians who, between them, have played with just about every major recording artist to emerge from Jamaica over the past four or five decades. The players of instruments will make long-time reggae connoisseurs drool. Oh yes, and the arrangements are by the great Lynn Taitt, the Trinidad-born guitarist and bandleader who moved to Jamaica in the early Sixties and played a huge role in the evolution of rock steady before migrating to Canada toward the end of the decade.

And let’s not forget the Tamlins, the veteran trio of backup singers, whose vibes and voices added hugely to the movie and to the absolutely essential soundtrack album. I go back a long way with these guys, and with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Lyn – to the days in the early Eighties when they were touring with Peter Tosh as members of his powerful Word, Sound and Power band and I was promoting their concerts in Montreal and going on the road with them.

So it was something of a reunion for me, too, even if it was on film.

The movie, gently and eloquently narrated by Stranger Cole, was filmed in conjunction with a massive rock steady concert in Jamaica, and my only serious quibble with the documentary is that it includes only tantalising snatches of that epic event.

The impact of this rock steady reunion on Jamaican music, which in recent years has been dominated by dancehall and its increasingly violent and sexist lyrics, can’t be overestimated. One immediate result of the movie was a massive rock steady concert at this year’s Montreal International Jazz Festival, the biggest annual music happening in all of North America and one of the biggest in the world. And the word from Montreal was that the concert, one of the free events that make the jazzfest such a special event (the other huge free concert at the 2009 festival was headlined by Stevie Wonder), was nothing short of sensational. “A fantastic event”, I was told by my old friend Andre Menard, one of the festival’s founders and its main man when it comes to booking and dealing with artists.

Jake Shenker, writing about the concert in the Gazette, Quebec’s main English-language newspaper, was equally enthusiastic. The rock steady concert, he declared, was “one of the top Montreal International Jazz Festival concerts of all time … the music was tremendous, the crowd colossal, and the vibe one of love and friendship”.

For the rock steady veterans, some of whom have eked out a living for decades playing for small crowds at small venues, performing in front of 125,000 people at one of the world’s great music happenings must have been vindication of something they’ve known all along: that the music they make is world class, by any yardstick.

I couldn’t be more delighted for them. And, true to form, I couldn’t make it to the Montreal concert. And yes, I’m kicking myself once again.

My big hope now is that the people who do the booking for the St Kitts Music Festival, a seriously fine annual event, bring the rock steady package to the island I’ve called home since the early Nineties.

The musicians

bandleader and guitar: Ernest Ranglin
guitar: Hux Brown
bass: Lloyd Parkes, Jackie Jackson and Leroy Sibbles
drums: Sly Dunbar
piano: Gladstone “Gladdy” Anderson
percussion: Noel “Skully” Sims, Herman “Bongo Herman” Davis and Uzziah “Sticky” Thompson
saxophone: Glen Dacosta and “Deadly” Headley Bennett
trumpet: David Madden
trombone: Calvin “Bubbles” Cameron
organ/piano: Robbie Lyn
violin: Jon Williams