Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, November 23, 2001

Reggae’s tuneful history
presented in a 4-CD set

"The Reggae Box: The Routes of Jamaican Music"
Various artists (Hip-O/Island)

Review by Gary C.W. Chun

Eight years ago, reggae music received its due in a thorough and critically acclaimed compilation called "Tougher Than Tough: The Story of Jamaican Music," a four-CD set that documented the music of Jamaica through its origins in ska, through rock-steady, reggae, the bold experimentation of dub and to its more popular incarnation as dancehall and ragga.

This just-released "Reggae Box" won't supercede the 1993 set (in fact, of the 87 tracks, 36 are repeats and one is a newer version of one of those earlier, collected tracks). But the neophyte or casual fan will find a good, if predictable, selection of favorites, plus some rarities.

The book-shaped "box" includes a fine overview of the music's development by noted writer and biographer David Katz, plus brief essays on reggae's importance to the origins of rap and hip-hop, an introduction to the Rastafarian religion that has infused the music and, finally, a helpful glossary.

While pre-reggae ska remains a favorite, fans of the music seem to gravitate to reggae as frozen at the time Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley and Gregory Isaacs were at their creative and popular peaks, and then make the wide jump to the recent "island rhythm" influence of dancehall and ragga artists Shabba Ranks, Mad Cobra and Buju Banton.

So it shouldn't be surprising that the bulk of "The Reggae Box" tracks originally compiled on "Tougher Than Tough" are from roughly those two time periods. Classics include Desmond Dekker & The Aces' "Israelites"; Toots & The Maytals' riveting soul exhortation "54-46 Was My Number"; the beautiful close harmonies of The Melodians doing "River of Babylon"; Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come"; and Eric Donaldson with his original version of "Cherry Oh Baby," a number UB40 remade to widespread local appeal.

Local fans will also be happy to find three of Gregory Isaacs' lovers-rock standards here, namely "My Number One," "Rumours" (aptly segued into a track based wholly on it, "Telephone Love" by JC Lodge) and, of course, the incredibly influential "Night Nurse."

Since the iconic Marley has already been represented on previous reissues and compilations, only two examples of his work are here, an earlier version of "Trench Town Rock" and "Roots, Rock, Reggae."

If there's any advantage "The Reggae Box" has over the earlier set, it's with the fourth and final disc. It was only natural in 1993 to end that set with the-then smash dancehall adaptation Shaggy pulled off with "Oh Carolina." Now, with eight years past, this new set can include such recent ragga masters as Capleton ("Tour"), Buju Banton (the gentle and affecting "Untold Stories") and the over-the-top toasting of Sizzla on the set-ending "Taking Over." Plus there are a couple of local favorite booty-shakers in Chaka Demus & Pliers' "Murder She Wrote" and the slow-grind explicitness of Mad Cobra's "Flex."

The disc also includes some rare and therefore welcome tracks; the classically-styled "I & I Saw Them Coming" by Starkey Banton, Morgan Heritage's sinuous and authoritative "Set Yourself Free," and the near-gospel exhortations of Beres Hammond on "I Love Jah."

And while Willie Williams' classic "Armagideon Time" was included on "Tougher Than Tough," this hard-hitter is effectively updated on this new set bigtime, with a radical bass 'n drum (and a bit of dub) workout by Dr. Israel.

Dub, reggae at its most experimental, with separate vocal and instrumental tracks being dropped in-and-out and sonically manipulated in the mix, is still underrepresented. While never as commercial, dub has an incredible influence on hip-hop, dance and electronica. But at least a couple dub-influenced tracks are part of "The Reggae Box" compared to none eight years ago. Featured are DJ U-Roy's "No. 1 in the World," Augustus Pablo's crucial "King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown" (based on the Jacob Miller "Baby I Love You So" rhythm also in this set), the ominous "War & Friction" by I. Roy and the 12-inch single version of Black Uhuru's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."

If you already own "Tougher Than Tough," you can safely pass on this "box." For others interested in reggae's roots, it's worth the purchase.

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