“Back in the day reggae and ska were like a newspaper for the communities in Jamaica.” Now, with Irish reggae acts singing about gas pipelines in Mayo and street violence, it might just be serving the same purpose here. TONY CLAYTON-LEAlooks at the past, present and future of redemption songs
IT’S A peculiar thing, but for all the positive vibes that emanate from the reggae and ska movements, there hasn’t been one Irish act that has ever made a successful commercial career out of it. America has the big hitters such as No Doubt and Less Than Jake; Britain has the likes of UB40 and Bad Manners (who, for all their panto-comic efforts remain one of the most successful live ska acts around).
Ireland, however, doesn’t make the grade at all, which is not to say the interest isn’t there from musicians, but more a reflection on the tastes of the public. Irish people, it seems, engage only moderately with reggae and ska – they love it to bits at a venue, their enjoyment perhaps enhanced by beer and whatever-you’re-having-yourself, but there clearly isn’t enough love for Jah in the air to merit, let alone sustain, a record-buying or downloading habit.
History tells us, then, that indigenous reggae and ska doesn’t have much commercial clout. Aside from one-offs such as Zebra (a late 1970s and early 1980s Irish outfit) and as-genuine-as-it-can-get output from Sinéad O’Connor (whose fine, declamatory 2005 album, Throw Down Your Arms, featured tracks written by Peter Tosh, Bob Marley and Burning Spear) and Damien Dempsey, the genre is all but extinct.
Beg pardon? Did we just say extinct? Try telling that to Derek Clabby of Dublin’s Bionic Rats and Cian Finn of west of Ireland’s Intinn, two Irish acts that have been touting, respectively, ska and reggae music for years.
Without fear or favour, and in the face of commercial indifference, the likes of Bionic Rats and Intinn (and many more under-the- radar Irish acts) have been proudly flying the Jamaican flag.
Clabby (a first cousin of Imelda May, let it be known) is one of those fortysomethings who has been around the block a few times. His interest in the music was piqued, he recalls, by seeing Birmingham reggae band Musical Youth on shows such as Top of the Pops. “That interest was added to by the arrival of The Specials and their music, particularly Ghost Town, and then around that time Bob Marley was just getting bigger and bigger. And then UB40 came along. So all of that spurred me on. I was hooked straight away.”
Clabby used to be in ska band Gangsters (the name of which was directly inspired by a Specials song) and reggae band Kingsativa. Bionic Rats have been around for about five years. “I always loved the music, but I suppose what I also love is that the lyrics speak about everyday things.”
His interest in the genre is such that he travelled to Jamaica two years ago. “I’d always wanted to go there, but I can tell you that we go on about how poor we are over here, yet they just haven’t a pot to piss in. It’s rough, but their attitude is amazing, and is something that we could learn a lot from. The other thing from the visit is that I realised how similar the Jamaican people are to the Irish.”
Cian Finn’s musical education stemmed from being exposed to Sound System gigs, which, he says, were not just DJs playing music, but rather a lifestyle choice. “It was a musical education going to those nights, hearing music that would only be released on vinyl, and that you just wouldn’t hear on the radio.” Finn agrees with Clabby about the parallel characteristics of the races, as well as some shared history as slaves (Irish people served as slaves in Jamaica and the Caribbean during the reign of Oliver Cromwell in England in the mid-17th century).
“There’s something in that,” says Finn. “I was at a reggae festival in Italy a couple of years ago, and the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson was talking about Caribbean culture. He mentioned about Irish people having travelled over to the Caribbean hundreds of years ago, and stressed the connection between jigs and reels and what evolved into reggae and ska.”
The appeal of reggae to an Irish audience also, contends Finn, hinges on the dance and beat elements. “Going back to the Jamaican days, the whole thing was about the communities coming out to celebrate and dance. It’d be rare at a reggae event that people wouldn’t dance, because it’s a very interactive music. Reggae is also much more relaxed, more casual in that you could talk to people over the music, dance a bit, too.”
“I think the Irish like to get drunk to reggae and ska music,” says Clabby. “I remember we were working with a guy from Jamaica a couple of years ago, and he was baffled that we’d have a few drinks and then get up on stage. He preferred a few spliffs and an orange juice, but we like to jump around.”
Both Clabby and Finn write and sing about social topics and the relevance of history and politics. Intinn’s Rossport is, says, Finn, “about the gas fields in Mayo, and the controversy surrounding that.” Other songs on Intinn’s self-titled debut deal with drug abuse and political greed.
On the album Return of The Bionic Rats, Clabby writes and sings of street violence, social inadequacies and police injustice. “Back in the day,” he says, “reggae and ska were like a newspaper for the communities in Jamaica. It was where people learned about what was happening in their country. Listen to much of the music that was out in the ’60s and ’70s and you’ll hear how socially and politically oriented it was. Yes, of course you’ll get the softer side of the music – Marley’s Could You Be Loved, and the romantic side of things – but mostly the music was addressing what was going on in the community at the time.
“It’s folk music, without a doubt. You had the likes of Woody Guthrie in America and then you had the likes of Marley and Peter Tosh in Jamaica. It’s happy music, also, but it’s commenting on things that are happening around us, so it’s sugar to make the medicine go down – for me, that’s what reggae and ska are all about.”
Let’s hear it, then, for the workers at the coalface of a music that doesn’t sell in bucket loads. From sonic rattling Sound Systems around the country and a rake of bands that clearly do it for the fun of it to those who’d rather listen to the likes of Augustus Pablo, King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry than Diana Vickers, it would seem that ska and reggae are in extremely rude health.
Besides, would they really want to do something else?
“I can’t stop now, I’ve been doing it too long,” says Clabby. “I’ll probably never sell too many records, but it’s not about that for me. I was at a bit of crossroads when Kingsativa went by the way, and I was wondering what to do. But I’m glad that I’ve stuck to what I love doing.”
SEMINAL SOUNDS FIVE ESSENTIAL SKA AND REGGAE ACTS
By far the most widely known and influential performer of reggae music, he remains, almost 30 years after his death (the 30th anniversary of his death will be commemorated next year) one of contemporary music’s most revered artists.
Aka Winston Rodney, widely known for his lyrical celebrations of black culture, Rastafarian beliefs and the propagation of universal love. He appropriated his nom de plume from former Mau Mau leader Jomo Kenyatta, the first prime minister and president of independent Kenya.
Formed in 1964, and drawn from a team of session musicians then recording in Kingston, Jamaica, The Skatalites laid the foundations for many crucial developments in Jamaican music. Their 1967 UK ska hit Guns of Navaroneis regarded as a classic of the genre.
LEE “SCRATCH” PERRY
A veritable giant in dub-reggae music terms, Perry has, along with Marley, made one of the most singular contributions to the development of the genre, and is responsible for some of the most vital music ever to have come from Jamaica.
Quite likely the finest proponents of socially and politically aware punk and ska outside of Jamaica, this Coventry band (now regrouped, minus co-founder Jerry Dammers) set up their own multi- racial record label (2 Tone), which introduced a range of UK ska-inspired bands such as Madness, The Beat and The Selector.
Marley and me A bluffer's guide to ska and reggae
Characterised by hissing voice percussion, ska is a light, swift and fluid version of intensely rhythmic Jamaican dance music. It immediately preceded reggae, and co-existed in the 1960s alongside rocksteady (characterised by a slower, pop-oriented and somewhat more mesmeric beat than ska) and bluebeat (a type of Jamaican dance music based around a shuffling, simplified blues rhythm).
Performed by pioneering ska acts such as Prince Buster (who claimed to have invented the genre), The Ethiopians and The Skatalites, the song lyrics and titles reflected street culture and political and social issues.
Over in England, meanwhile – particularly in the 1960s and early 1970s – ska was extremely popular with predominantly white mod/skinhead subculture. It remains a minority music genre, but received a much higher profile in the 1980s and 1990s through the success of the likes of UK’s The Specials, The Beat, Madness, Selector and Bad Manners, and US acts Rancid, No Doubt and Less Than Jake.
Reggae (a patois rendering of “ragamuffin man”, a term of disdain for Rude Boys, Jamaican wannabe hipsters and low-rent criminals) evolved directly from ska, rocksteady and bluebeat. Concomitant with the rise of Rastafarianism, the genre morphed into a strong religious and political movement, firmly influenced by African sounds and culture.
The music moved from subcultural to international when, in the early 1970s, Island Records boss Chris Blackwell repackaged and remastered Catch a Fire, an album by Bob Marley (from the mid-1960s, a superstar of sorts in his native Jamaica).
From the mid-1970s onwards, reggae became an international voice of protest, as well as crossing over into the white mainstream via the likes of Eric Clapton’s hit with Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff.
In the UK, reggae bands such as Matumbi, Aswad, Steel Pulse, Musical Youth, UB40 and Misty in Roots broadened the appeal, while punk rock and post-punk embraced reggae through The Clash, The Ruts and The Slits.
Listen and learn Reggae round-up
Bionic Rats play Dublin’s Foggy Dew pub every Sunday evening. They support Imelda May at the Olympia, Dublin, December 15. myspace.com/thebionicrats
Intinn’s self-titled debut album is available at intinnsound.com
UB40 play the Waterfront, Belfast, November 21; The National Stadium, Dublin, November 22; and the Royal Theatre, Castlebar, Co Mayo, November 23
The Skatalites play The Village, Dublin, November 30
Bad Manners play The Village, Dublin, December 4