Rocking to a different beat

In the island of reggae, an alternative music scene thrives outside the spotlight

Dominique Brown of Random Chaos. Photograph by Mitro ClarkeRootz Underground. Photograph by William RichardsSeretse and the True Democrats. Photograph courtesy Seretse Small

Here in Jamrock, one thing is as certain as sunshine: reggae music reigns supreme. But thanks to a generation of youngsters raised on a diet of global music, Jamaica’s musical veins are pulsing to a newly polyrhythmic beat. Finding local fans at bars and cafés across Kingston, and a growing international audience through online communities like myspace.com, alternative bands are redefining and expanding the conventional definitions of Jamaican music. Last November, the Jamaican arm of the 2005 Global Battle of the Bands competition brought to the public’s attention a plethora of bands unseen since the 1980s. With styles ranging from punk rock to blues, folk, and jazz, the sounds were as diverse as the artists who created them.

“This is the music of the new Jamaica,” says Seretse Small, the contest’s organiser. “It’s more neo-Jamaican than alternative. Bob Marley in his day was the prototype of the new Jamaica. The way he spoke, dressed, the ideas he expressed . . . he prefigured the way Jamaicans were going to be for the next fifteen, twenty years. So did Shabba [Ranks] and the dancehall pioneers; they prefigured the generation that would follow them. Because young people today have so many more influences, the next new Jamaican will be a more globally oriented, educated, international person. That’s showing up in the music.

“The people who play alternative music aren’t doing it because they don’t like reggae. They’re doing it because they love themselves. The music is a reflection of who they are.

“The son of a Guyanese mother, the noted writer and poet Jean Small, and a Trinidadian father who played classical guitar, Small grew up in Jamaica in the 1970s with what he describes as a “classic Caribbean sensibility.”

“In the 70s we were very culturally oriented. I grew up with a vision of doing great things with Caribbean culture. Then in the 80s, [music] moved away from that. We became more commercially oriented.” Despite forays into pop and gospel, Small still holds true to his vision of using music as a vessel for the expression of a truly Caribbean cultural expression. A jazz guitarist, Small fronts the group Seretse and the True Democrats, whose distinct but difficult-to-label style is prototypic of the new Kingston music scene. “I have difficulty defining [my style],” says Small. It’s a mix of all the places I’ve been. I’ve been a pop musician, the musical director for a church, a reggae musician, a jazz artist. It’s an Afro-Caribbean pop and jazz fusion, with all those other influences . . . definitely an Afro-centric music based on rhythm and improvisation.

“A leading advocate for the Jamaican alternative music scene, Small provides rehearsal and recording space for new bands at steeply discounted prices, as well as a venue for exposure. His Old Hope Road base, the Woodshed, is home to a weekly Wednesday night live music fest that attracts audiences keen on his brand of dancehall jazz and new artists looking to hone their equally distinct styles.

“In the same way that cable TV and the internet have opened up artists to new sounds, it’s also opened up the [Jamaican] audience to more options in terms of artists, sounds, and cultures,” says Small.

“It’s Jamaican music, because the artists who make it are Jamaican. All we’re trying to do is rejuvenate and restructure that definition.”

THE BANDS ARE BACK

Video didn’t kill the radio star, but the drum machine may have been the death knell for Kingston’s live music scene. But after a two-decade love affair with the drum samples and synthesisers that spurred the growth of dancehall, Jamaican audiences are flocking back to the sound of live bands. Here are two of the bands leading the charge.

Rootz Underground

Among the marquee acts on the main stage at this year’s Air Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival was an upstart band that brought the old phrase “roots rock reggae” to life. With equal help from their mellow roots melodies and the high-octane stylings of lead singer Stephen Newland, five-year-old Rootz Underground aired their hybrid classic rock-classic reggae model to an appreciative audience fifteen thousand strong.

“Reggae really isn’t about bands anymore,” says guitarist Colin Young. “We’re bringing that back. We’re getting back to the traditional reggae sound and adding our own flavour. Our newness is in our oldness.””It’s about genres blending,” says Jeffrey Moss-Solomon, rhythm guitarist. “We mix traditional reggae with other genres we like.” In addition to Marley and Tosh, the band’s influences include classic rock bands like the Beatles and the Cure; modern rock groups including 311 and Finlay Quae; old-school reggae bands like Steel Pulse and Black Uhuru; and reggae acts from other Caribbean islands, including Eddie Grant and St Croix’s Midnight.

While the genre-blending approach could sound contrived, Rootz produces a remarkably consistent sound due in no small part to the chemistry and the two-decade long friendship between its members.

“The trick,” says lead singer Stephen Newland, who writes most of the band’s music, “is that we’re bringing it from the soul. We’re not trying to add on anything or sample anything. We’re just creating. Audiences respond to that.

“With their first album, tentatively titled Turn the Tide, due out this year, Rootz is poised to take advantage of the new appetite for more diverse Jamaican music. The group plans to launch their own label, Riverstone Records, to provide a platform for other artists with a similar vision.

“We’re representing a lifestyle,” says Moss-Solomon. “Long before we were a band, we were living the life. It’s about living at one with nature, living at one with each other. Getting off the beaten path. It’s an earth vibes.”

“The Rootz way of thinking is a creative way of thinking,” says Newland. “We want to give voice to that in every way we can.”

Random Chaos

As the name of her band suggests, 27-year-old Dominique Brown defies convention. An architect, interior designer, singer-songwriter, and poet, Brown resists all labels but one.

“I’m an artist,” she says.

“That’s my life.”

Brown attended Kingston’s Hillel Academy, the upscale private school and unlikely musical hotbed also home to Sean Paul and Damian “Junior Gong” Marley. Though surrounded by reggae all her life, Brown’s love, she says, “was always for the loud noises.” Her influences include childhood heroes like Madonna, Nine Inch Nails, and contemporary groups like Skunk Anansi and the Guano Apes. She stopped playing at age sixteen to concentrate on the more practical pursuits of finishing her education and finding a job. In 2005, the music bug bit again, and Brown founded the band to capitalise on what she saw as a growing demand in the Jamaican market for more innovative music.

“Random Chaos,” says Brown, “is a take on the deconstructive movement in architecture, where you tear apart theories and put them back together. [The band] isn’t about a style. We’re a piece of art in progress. Jazz, rock, punk, heavy metal, gospel . . . I love music. I use all the sounds in my head.

“Those sounds find their way to an audience through a voice that has earned Brown comparisons to old-school jazz singers. “Older people hear me and wish I would sing straight jazz,” says Brown. “The young crowd thinks our sound is strange. They like it, but they don’t know what it is. We’re not sure either. We’re just us,” says Brown. “We’re music.”

Other Players

The Purists: Roots reggae makes a comeback with new bands including Battle winners Live Wyya. Other contenders include Aluta Continua, Ajani and the Real Roots of Culture, C Sharp, Marcus I and the Revolutionaries, and No Credit.

The Rock Stars: Taking third through sixth respectively in last year’s Battle of the Band competition, rock acts From the Deep, Downstairs, and Black Zebra lead the heavy metal charge.

The Hybrids: Gunsmoke Battalion blends rap and hip-hop with dancehall; Airplai blends reggae with neo soul; Cusser and the Storm flavours its grunge punk sound with the lightest of reggae touches; and the Ray Darwin Group adds a world-beat sound to their brand of contemporary reggae.

Where to hear them

With weekly open-mike nights and scheduled performances at haunts like Red Bones, Carlos Café, and Weekenz, any night is a great night for live music in Kingston. “There’s a new alternative music reality,” says Seretse Small. “[A] group of people who don’t identify with the mainstream cult of dancehall and contemporary commercial reggae.”A sample week’s worth of offerings in Kingston:

• Tuesdays: Village Café, 20 Barbican Road (876-970-4861)

• Wednesdays: The Woodshed, 94 Old Hope Road (876-946-3200)

• Thursdays: Tony’s Bar at the Chelsea Hotel, 5 Chelsea Avenue (876-926-5803)

• Fridays: The Grog Shoppe at Devon House, 26 Hope Road (876-926-3512)

• Saturday: Up on the Roof, 73 Knutsford Boulevard (876-929-8033)