Roots-rockin’ St Kitts

St Kitts has developed one of the most vibrant reggae scenes in the region. Garry Steckles lends a willing ear

Photograph by Garry Steckles

The contrasts could hardly have been greater.

The last big reggae spectacular my wife and I had caught had been in Long Beach, California, where the lineup for the annual Bob Marley birthday celebration was enough to make any self-respecting roots fan drool — Culture, Wailing Souls, Toots and the Maytals, Judy Mowatt, Marcia Griffiths, Ras Michael, Ky-Mani Marley, a popular youngster called Shaggy and a popular veteran called Bunny Wailer. All in a huge hockey arena, with a crowd to match.

And now here we were, just over a year later, at a very, very different reggae event: the first festival in the small Eastern Caribbean island of St Kitts featuring strictly local reggae artists.

The location was modest: the stage was tiny and you didn’t need a math degree to count the number of people in the crowd. But the two events, light years apart in many respects, had one thing overwhelmingly in common: superb reggae music. All killer, from heartfelt Rasta chants at the beginning to roof-raising roots at the end.

After almost six solid hours of music that ranged from merely excellent to this-is-about-as-good-as-it-gets, I came away from the St Kitts festival convinced that the off-the-beaten-track paradise I’ve called home for the past decade has developed one of the most vibrant reggae scenes in the entire Caribbean.

Its two most prominent reggae performers, Crucial Bankie and Masud Sadiki, are artists of world stature. They may not have broken onto the international stage yet, but either could easily have headlined that dream concert in Long Beach. Or just about any other reggae concert I’ve caught over the years, come to that.

Bankie and Sadiki have much in common: they’re exceptional songwriters — and I mean exceptional. Both have the rare and wonderful gift of creating melody lines that buzz around in your head after only a few listens. Both have something to say, and they say it and sing it with words that are both economical and evocative. And both put on scorching, highly individual stage shows.

At 36, Bankie’s the veteran. He’s been making music for 19 years — he started out playing disco. He has four albums under his belt and divides his time between his beloved St Kitts and New York. His latest CD, the just-released Home Grown, is, in my books, an instant roots classic. It’s one of those all-too-rare CDs that you love the first time you hear it — and then it gets better every time you play it. From the opening track, a gorgeous tribute to his homeland, to the roots-rocking finale Cutting up Sensi, Home Grown is chock-full of hypnotic hooks that make you want to dance and lyrics that make you think.

At 26, Sadiki’s not exactly the new kid on the block. He’s been involved in the burgeoning St Kitts reggae scene since the early 90s, and has performed in shows with some of the biggest names in the music, but it’s only in the past year or so that he’s shot to serious prominence with the release of a sensational debut CD, Blast Off. This is the second time Sadiki has cropped up in this column, and I make no apologies for pointing readers, once again, in the direction of a truly exceptional talent. I first heard Blast Off about six months back, and became an instant fan. I saw Sadiki on stage for the first time at the most recent St Kitts festival, and he quickly reinforced my belief that he is, indeed, the real thing. Sadiki draws on just about every form of reggae, from raunchy dancehall to classic roots, and he does it with passion and commitment.

With his first major European tour coming up this summer, Sadiki’s clearly a young talent on the way up, but wherever his career may take him — and my forecast is it’ll be a long, long way — he’s adamant about one thing: St Kitts will always be home. “I love it here,” he says simply.

Bankie and Sadiki are the front-runners at the moment, but the St Kitts reggae scene in general is bursting with talent. Three other outstanding performers are Sankofa, one of the leaders of the House of Judah Musical Foundation, Roy Angus and Zemenfes Kidus. All have excellent CDs behind them. Sankofa, who has a solo album ready for release, features prominently on House of Judah’s excellent Movement Rising roots/dancehall CD of a couple of years back; Roy Angus’s Right From Wrong, recorded with some of Jamaica’s top studio musicians, belongs in any serious roots fan’s collection; and Zemenfes Kidus’s Stand Firm and Strong features some of the most lyrical, heartfelt roots I’ve heard in years.