Do the Reggae

I have an awkward confession to make, which some of you might have suspected already …

I don’t really like pop music.

I know that this makes me a real granny.

The problem is that I love lots of classical music (see my post here about making up stories to it, especially to Schubert) and tend to find that whenever I listen to pop music, it feels a bit empty in comparison.

OK, I can hear you screaming. And I’m more than willing to accept that I’m completely wrong and that pop music is a brilliant thing in its own right. But for whatever reason, the fact remains that I just don’t get much out of listening to it.

But Reggae is the exception. I feel a deep connection to Reggae music. A connection which was best expressed in my brief but happy days of being a Reggae DJ, and which was rediscovered on Saturday night when I went to see Toots and the Maytals give a jaw-dropping performance at the Barbican.

When I was DJ-ing Reggae I never stopped to ask myself what it is exactly that makes me love Reggae so much. It’s far more similar to pop music than classical. If anything, the rhythm, riddim (instrumental bit) and chorus, are repeated so many times that I should find it really dull. A huge proportion of Reggae tunes start with a rolling snare drum, such as the marvellous Police and Thieves by Junior Murvin (here on YouTube). How predictable! (Although admittedly, how useful when DJ-ing.) Why doesn’t it bore me to tears? Why do I find that everything in me jumps awake and smiles as soon as that drum roll heralds another brilliant tune?

So I’ve had a bit of a think about it.

The feeling of Reggae is so overwhelmingly positive and, literally, ‘upbeat’. OK, etymologically, ‘upbeat’ refers to a beat of the bar in which the conductor’s baton is raised – which tends to be the last beat of the bar – but there’s something about the beats in Reggae music which always feel so ‘up’, so dancey, so looking forward to the next one.

The third beat of the bar tends to be emphasised, which gives everything a bit of a jiggly rhythm. Pop music feels to me quite ONE two three four. Live Forever by Oasis, is resolutely ‘MAYbe, I don’t REally want to know, how your GARden grows, cos I just want to fly. LATEly …’ The accent’s always on the beginning of the bar.

But in Pressure Drop by Toots and the Maytals, for instance, the guitar does its little ‘ch ch’ on the third beat and the emphasis in the lyrics is often there too – ‘I said WHEN it drops, oh you’re gonna FEEL it, know that you were doing wrong … It is YOU, oh yeah …’ (Here it is on YouTube, which might make those beats a little bit clearer.)

The emphasis just isn’t where it would be in a normal pop song. So it almost trips you up when you’re dancing, but not quite – instead it just gives you a little skip, a little lift, a little jump to your step. This third beat emphasis makes Reggae much lighter than pop music. And I guess it’s always needed to be light, given the heat of Jamaica. Just imagine dancing to it for hours in a Jamaican dance hall!

So instinctively I like Reggae’s cheekiness, its lightness of foot, its fun. It makes you (or at least me and everyone else who piled into the Barbican) unable to sit down or stand still. It makes you feel that you just have to dance.

Then there are the lyrics. Jamaica is all over them. References to places like Kingston Town and Trench Town are scattered throughout, giving rise to a kind of mythical geography of the island in the 1960s.

I first heard mention of ‘Kingston Town’ in Harry Belafonte’s Jamaica Farewell (here it is on YouTube). I was just as sad as him that he had to leave a little girl behind in Kingston-on-Thames when he went off to Jamaica. And I felt slightly proud that I knew a couple of people who lived there; until that point I’d never really rated this peripheral bit of London, next to Richmond. I started calling Kingston, ‘Kingston Town’, until one of my friends who lived there clarified the situation, telling me that there was another Kingston in Jamaica. Then everything fell into place.

But aside from a bit of nostalgia about my Kingston Town naiveté, there isn’t much of a reason to feel a connection to the Jamaica that shines sunnily through the lyrics. I would love to go there – in fact I have suggested it as a honeymoon destination (the fiancé thinks it might be a bit dangerous) – but I’ve never been.

But then there are the other places that are mentioned. The ones like Babylon and Zion that aren’t really in Jamaica. I remember singing Rivers of Babylon by the Melodians (here on YouTube) when I was at primary school. The song made me feel sad. It made me think about being an Israelite fleeing from the Egyptians, being in a strange land and weeping by a river. And I wondered why none of the C of E girls objected to singing a Jewish song all the time.

Of course, when I was older I learnt that the plight of the Israelites was used as a parallel for African slaves taken to strange lands, like Jamaica. I expect Reggae stars would feel a bit annoyed about a white middle-class Jewish schoolgirl thinking that their songs about oppression were actually about her history. But they chose that parallel, and, well, I do relate to it.

Take Bob Marley’s Zion Train, for instance (here on YouTube). Even if I don’t particularly want to get on a train to Holy Mount Zion in Israel, I still understand the somewhat complicated yearning to return to a true homeland, and have some inkling of what it means to be displaced from it.

When I discovered the phenomenal Desmond Dekker, I felt a little glow when I heard his song Israelites (here on YouTube). Yes, he’s singing about me! – I thought. Or, at least, Yes, I have something in common with him.

So that’s why I love doing the Reggae. There’s an instinctive connection to the rhythm – it’s cheeky unexpected emphasis on the third beat that makes me feel happy and dancey and keeps me on my toes. And there’s a slightly more thoughtful connection to the lyrics. Who knew that the Old Testament could be so much fun?

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