I was excited to see Rusted Root at the 18th Annual Paw Paw Festival on Saturday.
But while waiting for 10:30 p.m. to roll around (11 p.m. if you include sound-check) to watch the night’s main attraction play, another band I had never heard of took the stage called The Ark Band.
As I heard the bassist sound checking with Bob Marley’s familiar “Stir It Up” bassline, the weight of a long day lifted off my shoulders as I prepared my ears for some much-needed reggae.
The band, a group of versed musicians, performed a variety of reggae standards including several songs by Bob Marley. They opened with Bob’s “Lively Up Yourself” and closed with Marley’s “Could You Be Loved.” They also covered Tony Matterhorn’s “Dutty Wine” and threw in a left-field half-upstroked rendition of Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page.”
Although the band entertained the audience, myself included, it also cemented a long-held belief I’ve held about reggae music. A thought on my reggae-filled walks to class had been confirmed.
In front of reggae’s cultural heritage and unparalleled musicality, the legend of Bob Marley looms like a shadow cast upon the perception of Jamaica’s signature music. Before Marley immortalized Jamaica’s music on an international stage, musicians had already been creating worthwhile reggae and likewise long after Marley died and became immortalized himself.
Classic reggae artists like Junior Murvin, Desmond Dekker & The Aces and Toots & The Maytals do not have half the name-brand recognition Bob Marley achieves, yet they offer distinct and nuanced interpretations of the island sound.
The burning political songs these three bands created like “Police & Thieves,” “007 (Shanty Town)”and “54-56 Was My Number” are eclipsed by Marley’s more popular themes of love and freedom, which defines reggae to many listeners. Of Marley’s political songs, only “Buffalo Soldier” achieved mainstream staying power, but fails to comment on life in modern Jamaican in favor of re-opening past wounds.
Other reggae bands have made pious religious-driven music like The Abyssinians with “Satta Massagana” and many more musicians have scored hits from marijuana-themed tunes like Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It” and John Holt’s “Police In Helicopter.”
The low-quality recordings of earlier reggae recordings only add to their rhythmic charm and sincerity. The microphones captured pure performance with timing sometimes imperfect and vocals always energetic. Even some of Bob Marley & The Wailers’ work possesses this organic vibe such as 1973’s “Catch A Fire.”
To a broad audience, many of these important cultural statements are suppressed by popular taste. It’s not fair to blame Bob Marley himself for this narrowed attitude toward the goals reggae looks to accomplish.
It’s merely how the music developed and remained. It’s not an argument of what is true reggae and what is not. It’s an investigation into why certain songs are forgotten and why others stick around.
To an extent, the legacy of lesser known reggae songs owe something in respect to Bob Marley. He shed light on other songs that exposed the cultural yearnings of Jamaica despite few of them matching the success of his own catalogue.
But I suppose when a band and its audience are sporting dreads, Rasta colors and grooving to a funky rhythm, profundity doesn’t matter all that much. It’s a fun time. Although, of course, it’s not the only narrative that reggae can offer our minds and spirits.