Review of 'Solid Foundations', David Katz, Bloomsbury £16.99
How has a small, impoverished island had such a massive and enduring influence on popular music across the world? New festivals keep springing up everywhere - this year it was the second Jamaican Sunrise festival in southern France, with 10,000 mostly local people showing that the language barrier made no difference to enjoying the music.
At Jamaican Sunrise we stayed up till dawn dancing to some of the artists interviewed in Solid Foundations. Reggae has always been for dancing, and has its roots in the vibrant sound system culture in working class areas of Jamaica, with different systems and artists competing at dances. This culture was often looked down upon or feared by the respectable middle classes. Reggae has also often been a protest music, an alternative news service - according to Roy Cousins, 'If you listen to reggae music, you don't need to buy the paper. Reggae music tell you everything wha' happen in Jamaica.' Political songs like 'Everything Crash', 'Police and Thieves' and 'Blood and Fire' spoke directly to the Jamaican ghetto poor (and plenty of people in London and other places around the world).
Although riven by often violent feuds between systems and disputes over payments, the sound systems have played a pivotal role in Jamaican life and attracted deep loyalties. They provided employment and education in a country where many were (and are) excluded from formal education and consigned to grinding poverty.
Whether the music has been directly political or not, it is deeply linked to the complex political situation in multicultural Jamaica. The 1950s ska sound was born out of the Jamaican poor's hopes that independence would bring radical change. Rico Rodriguez comments 'People who don't suffer like us can't perform that sound - it's a sufferer's sound. No middle class Jamaicans can play the music we play; it's a ghetto sound that we play out of instruments, real suffering ghetto sound. It sound happy, yes, for it's relief!' A minority of songs in the ska period explored African identities - a radical move given the entrenched racism against darker skinned Jamaicans generally and the Rastafarian community in particular.
The book is primarily an oral history, but necessarily periodises its subject and introduces chapters with historical information. The background information isn't always that enlightening, and it's probably best to read the book after Lloyd Bradley's excellent Bass Culture if you haven't already got a firm grasp of the economic and political context. However, the interviews provide a marvellous insight into the world of reggae and its relationship to Jamaica's turbulent history, and are as interesting and entertaining as you might expect from the musicians involved. The book stops with the digital revolution in the mid-1980s, which might disappoint some readers, but it ends with some truly inspiring words from Cocoa Tea:
'The war that a gwan down a Israel, the shooting and killing that go on a Jamaica, election business whe a gwan in America, the mad cow disease whe a gwan in a Europe, the Aids that kill all the people in Africa, we're going to highlight all of those struggles, because what? It's all of us problem together, mi brethren, so we must all come together and try and tackle it, one by one.'