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The Boston Phoenix Delightfully Dread Read

The reggae "Rough Guide" goes down easy.

By Norman Weinstein

REGGAE: THE ROUGH GUIDE. by Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton. Rough Guides/Penguin, 395 pages, $19.95.

JANUARY 5, 1998:  As reggae cognoscenti will tell you, "dread" is a word implying enormous seriousness and virtue, so when I tell you that this new reggae guide by two UK critics is totally "dread"-ful, take it as a high accolade. In fact, Reggae: The Rough Guide marks the first time in reggae's history that a book worthy of the music's genius is available. For years I've searched for such a book in the US, UK, Jamaica. One reggae store owner in Montego Bay, amazed that I even thought a good reggae book might be available, motioned to the rows of old reggae 45s lining his shelves, as if to imply that the true text of reggae resided in their grooves. True on one level, perhaps, but it's a pleasure to have a text to sit on my book shelf alongside The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD and The All Music Guide as a reliable reference to recordings and more.

Co-authors Steve Barrow (who heads the essential Blood & Fire record label) and Peter Dalton have fused a highly knowledgeable guide to the music on CD and vinyl with a concisely thoughtful history of reggae contextualized socially and culturally. Other reggae guides are just record guides. The best of the lot, Colin Larkin's The Guinness Who's Who of Reggae (Guinness Publishing, 1994) offers well-written biographies of performers and skimpy album recommendations, with many of the recordings mentioned are available only in the UK. The worst, Lloyd Bradley's Reggae on CD (Kyle Cathie Ltd., 1996), combines glib bios with equally superficial album reviews, again with a strong UK-centered discography. These books make you believe that reggae emerged from a vacuum, as if the style one day simply fell out of the blue.

Other books, like performer biographies (mostly about Bob Marley) and books about Jamaica and/or Rastafarianism, treat reggae as a Third World exoticism worthy of breathless romantic speculation. Barrow and Dalton, on the other hand, include a decent chronology of Jamaican history, from 1494 (when Columbus stumbled over the island) to the present. There is a useful bibliography and guide to Jamaican slang (essential for deciphering lyrics). But best of all, there are more than a thousand record reviews offering an amazingly detailed knowledge of the evolution of the music, placing that it within the context of the island's post-colonial history.

"Reggae" is an umbrella term, and under that umbrella there is ska, rocksteady, roots reggae, dub, dancehall, and ragga (music using exclusively computerized rhythms). These writers have a love affair with all of it, the first music journalists I've read who don't buy into the myth of reggae's "rise and fall" ("fall" marked either by Bob Marley's death, or the introduction of drum-machine rhythm tracks). So if you follow their recommendations for buying a library of "essential recordings" (several dozen albums are so designated), you'll have a glorious pan-stylistic music library rooted in all of reggae's variations.

Another of the authors' virtues involves their dedication to worthy underdogs. Figures such as singer/dubster Keith Hudson and the rootsy drummer/composer Count Ossie are thoughtfully illuminated. As for the major figures with huge discographies -- Lee Perry and Bob Marley, for example -- Barrow and Dalton do a judicious job recommending the crème de la crème.

The book's one major flaw is its superficial coverage of reggae outside of Jamaica. The US coverage tilts toward New York dancehall performers, bypassing recordings by hundreds of rootsy bands. And the African and UK coverage is stingy; Canadian coverage nil. But this limitation pales in light of the wealth of information provided about Jamaican reggae, Jamaica being still where much of the music is meaningfully nested. The discographies include US labels as well as European, stylistic developments are interpreted through cogent articles and artist interviews, even the graphics (vintage record covers and artist photos) are classy.

Barrow and Dalton take reggae seriously because they discern in its sprung rhythms and coded lyrics an old folk wisdom about how to survive spiritually in a greed-driven world, the one Rastafarians call "Babylon." That is why this book reads less like a Rolling Stone record guide and more like a relaxed yet scholarly study full of heart and soul. Talking with Barrow by phone recently, he informed me that one reason he wrote the book is "Small places like Jamaica need big shouts." There is an accompanying CD (sold separetely), but whether you buy it, or just go with the book, know that Reggae: The Rough Guide is a shout worth heeding.


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