Tue | Sep 19, 2017

The river and reggae

Published:Sunday | September 6, 2015 | 9:00 AMMel Cooke
Morgan Heritage
Chris Martin
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"Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts," Paul Simon sang in The Boy in the Bubble. While the numerous charts in Jamaica are notoriously flawed - as in lacking any shred of authenticity - the cycle of popular entertainers remains an indication of successive generations' inexorable progression through the stages of the life cycle.

Who and what is popular in music is also a good marker of time and, as we look back at the songs that were on many lips and the performers who got some measure of publicity, we can say time flies. So for some, it may come as a surprise that Christopher Martin marked a decade in music recently; it is a reminder that time marches on.

It seems not so long ago that Martin was singing Sam Cooke's A Change is Gonna Come as his signature Rising Stars song, the opening lines, "I was born by the river in a little tent/Oh and just like the river, I've been running ever since," guaranteed to get the audiences going.

The river resonates with Jamaican popular music, in a society where water plays a strong spiritual role and the stream is a communal site for washing. There are the videos with rivers - who can forget Luciano doing a somersault in ankle-deep water in the visuals for Hills and Valleys, Buju Banton taking a 'chuck off' in the Untold Stories video or the waterfall shots in It Was Written (Stephen Marley, Damian Marley and Capleton)?

Then there is a festival, Reggae on the River in California, which marked its 31st staging this summer. Assassin/Agent Sasco has the River Stone Buss Dem Head mixtape, while Rootz Underground has Riverstone, where the rock is a place of refuge:

"When I'm distressed

You know that I am blessed

Head up to my river stone

My help come from the hills and valley roads..."

Morgan Heritage's Down By The River positions the flowing body of water as an escape, not only physically but also potentially, spiritually:

"Now I'm on my way

Anyone come to see me this day

Tell them I'll be gone for the day

I'll be down by the river

Waiting for the good Lord to pass my way

I'll be down by the river

Singing songs of joy on this lovely day"

Robert Ffrench also connects the river and spirituality in Meet Me By The River, as he invites:

"Meet me by the river some day

Meet me by the river not far away

Happy happy oh Jah is taking me along

He's taking all the weak and he's taking all the strong

Meet me by the river some day

Papa Ffrenchie will be going

To Holy Mount Zion

Papa Rocky will be going to the Promised Land..."

Jordan River

River Jordan makes multiple appearances in Jamaican music, from the binghi of Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus' take on the chant, Roll Jordan Roll, to the Laurel Aitken's ska River Jordan. On the rockers side, Sugar Minott's River Jordan:

"Jordan River

Roll River Jordan

Calling us home, calling us home

We got to go back home, back to Africa

It's just calling us home

Calling us home

Mount Zion I, where we want to go

It's just calling us home

So long now we been down in slavery

And now we just got to be free..."

Dennis Brown's take on Ol' Man River (most identified with Paul Robeson) is a rub a dub delivery of the pain of slavery and the call of freedom:

"Negro man, come away from the Mississippi

Negro man, come away from the sinking sand

Cause ol man river, just keep rolling

Ol man river, just keep rolling

Along"

Then there is Rivers of Babylon, based on Psalm 147, verses 1-4, a Jamaican chant and song made into an international hit by Boney M.