American Reggae: Nah Give Up! - Papa Pilgrim
Date: Thu, 6 Apr 2000 19:36:17 -0600 (MDT)
From: Papa Pilgrim <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: RAW Forum <email@example.com>
Subject: American Reggae
In March, 1996 I wrote the following for publication in the Reggae Festival Guide. Since then it has been out of mind until yesterday when I received an email from a Reggaephile in Minneapolis, MN, USA. Her post, so reflective of what was written four years ago, prompts me post both the original article and her response. I hope she does not mind.
American Reggae: Nah Give Up!
by Papa Pilgrim
My first exposure to live Reggae was in a smoky bar filled with beer drinking university students less than half my age. On stage was a multi-racial group of musicians who, in the idiom of the times, were "rocking out." The lyrics were clearly understandable and the groove was familiar. The rocking Reggae was not of the one drop and the accent was not of Jamaica. It was American Reggae and I was hooked. To this day I am an avid fan of American based Reggae artists and seldom miss an opportunity to attend local performances.
Through my association with Reggae Ambassadors Worldwide, I know of at least 400 Reggae artists and groups residing in this country. Everytime I talk to someone from a distant location I hear of up to a half dozen more. My best guess is that there are close to 1,000 artists and groups based in America. Stylistically, American Reggae spans the continuum from deep roots to ragga and qualitatively their performances range from so-so to top ranking. Yet, with few exceptions, they all seem to have at least this in common: an inability to draw really large crowds for their gigs.
Why is this so? Everyone seems to have an opinion yet I doubt if there is a single definitive answer. This is my opinion (humble, of course), based, in part, on many discussions with folks associated with all facets of the "Business of Reggae Music."
Foremost, among fans, is authenticity, or lack thereof: "Americans lack the cultural vibe and if it's not from Yard, it's not true Reggae".
This is an understandably natural mind set. My first exposure to sushi was in Japan. Years later, when I sampled American made sushi, it was not the same. It "sort of" looked the same; it "sort of" tasted the same; but ... . Though it was not Japanese sushi, it was real nonetheless. What was lacking? Authenticity. The basic ingredient, rice, was likely exported from Japan for the USA market. The vegetables likely grown in California. The fish harvested from off-shore American waters. Further, many American sushi makers had never been to Japan, to experience that vibe. No wonder American sushi is distinctly unlike the Japanese product. Different, yes; unreal, no.
So it is with American Reggae. California's Inka Inka and Colorado's 8750 are not Jamaica's Roots Radics or The SANE Band. The basic ingredients come from vastly different heartlands, nurtured by different cultural vibes. Jamaican Reggae builds upon a solid drum and base groove. Americans bands favor guitar structured sounds, often breaking into a screaming, psychedelic groove that many find misplaced and harsh. The key word: different! Roots Radics and The Sane Band play real Jamaican Reggae. Inka Inka and 8750 play real American Reggae.
A second reason for smaller turn outs for American Reggae artists centers on artist promotion, product distribution, and popularity, in other words: marketing. Promotional and distribution decisions rely on supply, demand and the potential return on investments. Distribution and promotion are financial risks that many cannot take. Hence, major labels and distributors seldom undertake American projects and promoters often fail to adequately advertise appearances by American artists. Thus it falls on the artists themselves to start the popularity ball rolling and many do not seem to have the know how and/or desire to do so. Establishing, expanding and using a network of Reggae friendly people is crucial. Knowing which magazines publish independent reviews, which radio and club deejays feature independent albums and which writers will interview and write about independent artists and their work is equally crucial. Study the Reggae community wherever you go, seeking out those loyal enthusiasts who want to help.
In addition to taking advantage of the Reggae family's willingness to help, look beyond and think big. A case in point is Big Mountain. Their manager, Bruce Caplan, learned his trade in the Rock and R&B fields. Once Bruce had the attention of the Reggae audience, he, not the band, crossed over. When Bruce and Company came to town they sought interviews with the Top 40 radio stations, the major television stations and the largest newspaper dailies.
Rather than strive for prominence through the work of others, i.e. promoters and distributors, "do-it-yourself." Get your projects to the deejays, magazines and writers. Set professional standards for yourselves: "soon come" attitudes and "no shows" are rarely understood and never appreciated. Onstage, give your best, 110% of the time, whether the skankers number fifty or fifty thousand. Popularity is in short supply but not unobtainable. Gain it and the distributors and promoters will be ringing your bell.
How many American Reggae fans have enjoyed live performances by Ruxie Roach, Djani Sinclair or Little Natural? They are all active performers yet I dare say none of these Jamaican artists have come to your favorite club. Why not? Simple, they have not yet risen to a level of prominence in their homeland to be considered for export. Now compare the bands and artists in our own backyard. As writer Lee O'Neill so aptly puts it, "We see all the crap firsthand, whereas we only get the Jamaican/English/African acts that are good enough to be promoted internationally." Similarly, we have all seen local and regional favorites doing essentially the same show time and time again. This creates a "familiarity begets boredom" phenomenon not conducive to drawing large audiences. The answer: strive for a "must not be missed" climate wherein folks know they may not get a chance to see your act until next season or next year.
ALL A WE
How does all of this apply to "all a we," the committed fans of Reggae music? First we can learn to understand and fully appreciate the inherent beauty of this art form we faithfully support. Reggae music, a fusion of R&B, Jazz, Soul, Mento, Ska, Rock Steady and more, is crossing all borders, political, social, economic, racial, philosophical AND musical. That it is doing so is no surprise and the fusion continues as the Reggae spreads into other countries and cultures. Reggae is foundation music, readily adapted to all styles and concepts. Listen to the Country Reggae of the former Austin, Texas group, I-Tex. Study the insane politricks of the Northern California herbal eradication squads as typified in the lyrics of Rod Deal and the Ideals. Absorb the New Age Reggae, the Zydeco Reggae, the Appalachian Reggae and seek to appreciate what one of my radio listeners referred to as "Rock & Roll Reggae." Sometimes the key ingredient, the one drop, is missing, and ofttimes the bass takes a backseat to the lead guitar, but it is all Reggae: real American Reggae.
If authenticity and major labels are beyond the reach of many American Reggae artists, does this mean they are forever resigned to small venues and smaller audiences? I don't know and I'm not sure if it really matters. I like the reasoning of Rastaman Stevie of 8750. He writes: "We are the generation of building blocks for American Reggae and our youth will reap the rewards. I am excited to be part of the foundation and am willing to work hard for nothing to make sure the next generation's music is as wicked as Buju is today." I think Stevie's words have a bit of the truth for many of us. Such is the power of Reggae music. It is here to stay and will continue crossing all borders, even those inside our minds. So, in the words of The Ark Band of Ohio, I can only encourage American Reggae artists to : "Na Give Up."
My name is Dana. I have just finished reading your article "AMERICAN REGGAE: NAH GIVE UP!"
I just want to take a moment to thank you for sharing your insight. I live in Minneapolis, MN and the reggae scene here for the most part is local. I too am feeling the "familiarity begets boredom" syndrome. We have a very small local American Reggae bands here(as you can probably imagine). The audience that follows these groups from small venue to small venue, is one of the same. A friend and I, were having just this type of conversation on Saturday. He is aspiring to open a strictly reggae club in Twin Cities area, he has to no avail been able to draw and keep the crowd he needs to be successful. I told him that it is not that the people are not there, but yet it is the mind set of the people. See my impressions were "it's a Minneapolis attitude", but I realize now it is not. The only time we find ourselves in a crowd of new faces, is when there is a national known act in town. Recently, we had been blessed with many national acts performing in this area. We have had Steel Pulse(my favorite) here twice with in a year's time. Beenie man will be here on April 9th.
I wish I knew the missing tool needed, to successfully promote reggae here in the Twin Cities. You won't find many black Americans at any of the concerts, with the exception of performers like Beenie man and such. But you will find a large culturally diverse group of people from the Caribbean islands that attend the small venue shows. We have our regulars that attend weekend reggae shows no matter what local group is playing, and then you have those who only come when the performers are from out of town(I fit into both categories). The local groups attend to play everywhere and after a while the music gets old, the faces get old, the atmosphere gets old too. It's always a treat to have new fresh faces and music around here.
How can we change the attitude around here? I am very new with this promotional thing, I actually am trying to team up with another sister promoter in the area, but she only wants to deal with "name brand" performers.
Anyway, it's nice to know that it isn't just the "Minneapolis mind set".
The ARK BAND is scheduled to performer here on April 29th, I am excited to see them. I also enjoy the RAW website, I think that I will go ahead and join, any words for a young sister, who is in search of a people who are true to the spirit of JAH?
If you have "any words for a young sister" please contact Dana at: <Dana.Y.Clark@westgroup.com>
Posted: Mon - February 24, 2003 at 08:12 PM