Feel all right: the positive power of reggae

Garry Steckles tells of some teachable moments on the positive power of reggae – and what happens when those chances are missed

Damien Marley

A trio of not-quite-unrelated anecdotes about one of my favourite topics: reggae music.

It’s no secret that reggae, while still hugely popular around the world, is nowhere near as successful, commercially, as it was in the Seventies, when Bob Marley was just about the biggest star in all of popular music, and the Eighties, when people like Peter Tosh continued to ensure that the beat of Jamaica was capturing new audiences all over the world.

Apart from being members of the core trio of the original Wailers, Bunny Wailer, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh had one thing in common: they recognised the value of publicity. They never hesitated to grant interviews, and for something like a decade you couldn’t pick up a mainstream paper or magazine without reading about them, their music, and their message. Their diligence paid off handsomely. Bob became the Third World’s first superstar; Peter was only marginally less popular.

Fast forward three decades.

Bob’s youngest son, Damian, is booked to make a debut appearance at a Womad concert in the Middle East. Womad events – the name stands for World of Music and Dance – are a huge showcase for non-mainstream music throughout the world, and I’m asked to write a feature story on him for a major regional newspaper. I know a fair bit about Damian, whose song “Welcome to Jamrock” was a monster in the first half of this decade, but I’ve never seen him live and never spoken to him, so an interview is essential if I’m to write the piece.

The Womad PR people go out of their way to organise it – and get nothing but a frustrating runaround from Damian’s management. Eventually, they condescend to have Damian grant a few minutes of his time to a handful of media people on the evening of his performance – he was scheduled to be the headline act on the closing night of a three-day Womad event in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. That wasn’t much use to me, as the feature I’d been asked to write was supposed to appear about a week before the show.

As it turned out, the entire exercise was academic. It was announced on the afternoon of the concert that Damian wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be appearing. It’s still unclear what exactly was wrong with him, but the end result of all of this was that what should have been a productive evening, with heaps of positive publicity for him and his music, was turned into something that left a rather sour taste in a lot of people’s mouths – including, I have to admit, mine.

Could Damian Marley’s apparent disdain for publicity be symptomatic of some of the problems reggae music has encountered over the past couple of decades? At least in part, I suspect it is. I know for a fact Damian’s attitude is reflected by at least one of reggae’s major labels, the New York-based VP Records. A couple of years ago, when I was doing some work for the entertainment department of one of America’s biggest newspapers, in Chicago, I tried to get VP to put me on their mailing list. I’d spotted, on their website, a bunch of classic reggae and soca CDs that I was keen to review for the paper, and I was 99 per cent certain that I’d love the music and the reviews would be positive.

VP Records, I quickly discovered, simply didn’t have a media mailing list, and they weren’t about to go to the trouble and incur the modest expense of sending a batch of CDs for review purposes – even if those reviews would be appearing in a daily with massive penetration in one of America’s major cities.

Meanwhile, all the other music writers at the paper were being inundated with product from record companies – the end result being that the entertainment columns were full of stories and reviews about jazz, blues, country, rock and a variety of other genres, but rarely as much as a word about the wonderful music being made in the Caribbean.

Damian Marley’s management, and VP Records, could learn a lesson from the people who run a company with only tenuous connections with the music business – The Cable, who provide cable television service to the people of St Kitts and Nevis.

One of my many friends there, a fan of the Montreal Canadiens, was avidly following her team’s progress in the Stanley Cup play-offs recently. And, with St Kitts being in the midst of some problems with its power supply at the time, she was terrified that the electricity would go off while she was watching a key game against the Philadelphia Flyers.

The power didn’t go off – but the cable feed did, and, a few minutes after the game started, she was confronted with a blank screen. Fuming, she promptly called The Cable’s customer service line, and was even more irate when she was put on hold. Then the company’s background music kicked in. A guy called Bob Marley and a song called “No Woman No Cry”.

As she put it in an e-mail: “Well, my whole mood just change instantly and I sat back and was singing along, and said to myself, ‘They are smart! What great music to play, because you know, when people call them they are angry’.”

It turned out the technicians were busy, and the whole call-and-hold routine was repeated a few minutes later. This time the background music was Bob again, singing “One Love”. And the effect was the same. From irate to singing along and feeling much better about the whole situation.

Strange, isn’t it, that a cable television supplier can do a more positive job with reggae music than some of the people who are making it and selling it?