Deon Brown Gleaner Writer
If Jamaica were a giddy schoolgirl - instead of a mature 50 - then she should be grinning from ear to ear at this time. She’s after all, the talk of the town. From London to New York, Jamaica is on the lips of everyone this Jubilee August.
To celebrate the island’s 50th Independence, one of New York’s leading cultural institution’s staged a near weeklong film festival highlighting Jamaica’s global contribution to world music and culture through its indigenous and revolutionary sound, reggae.
Aptly titled Do The Reggae, the 14-film series ran at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn from August 2-6 to coincide with the Emancipendence celebrations taking place on the island.
BAMcinématek is the film arm of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), a multi-arts centre in the artsy enclave of Fort Greene/Atlantic Ave area of Brooklyn.
It is “dedicated to the country’s unique and widely influential musical tradition” the organisers of the festival, BAM said in a statement.
“Through decades of political unrest in Jamaica and racial violence against Caribbean immigrants in Europe and North America, reggae in all its forms has endured as an essential conduit for social protest, individual expression, and spiritual exploration,” they further noted.
Reggae emerged in the late 1960s, evolving from the earlier genres of mento, ska and rock steady and is distinguished by its offbeat accent and socially conscious lyrics much of it driven by its Rastafarian leanings.
A deeply influential music it has garnered international appeal and paved the way for the development of other musical forms including rap, hip-hop and reggaeton.
The film series which focused on vintage films from 1971 to 1983, takes its name from Toots and the Maytals 1960s song, ‘Do The Reggae’ where the term ‘reggae’ was believed to have been used for the first time.
The series opened with the 1978 film Rockers, set in Trench Town, the spiritual home of reggae. Although Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972) is widely considered the watershed film about reggae, Rockers, the only film by director Ted Bafaloukos is regarded as the original artifact of Rasta cinema.
It features drummer Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace’s hard-pressed life in a shanty town and the hand-to-mouth existence of the musicians of the time.
It is also a celebration of reggae music and culture, with cameos by several now well known Jamaican artistes including sax legend Tommy McCook, producer Joe Gibbs, singers Gregory Isaacs, Jacob Miller and a young Burning Spear.
To ‘nice up the place’ on opening night following the showing of Rockers, BAMcafé (on the grounds of BAMcinématek) hosted a reggae party dubbed “Downtown Top Ranking in a BAMstyle,” with Deadly Dragon Sound System and featuring legendary DJ Ranking Joe on the mic.
Included in the screening as well was Henzell’s The Harder They Come featuring singer Jimmy Cliff as island outlaw Ivanhoe Martin.
This is the most celebrated Jamaican film to date. The gems of the series were the documentaries. Alan Greenberg’s Land of Look Behind (1982) is an exquisitely profound meditation on the island-from its Rasta tenets to its still-endemic colonialist tendencies and history of tragic political violence.
Roots Rock Reggae (1977) by music documentary producer, Jeremy Marre offers a rare glimpse into the Black Ark studio operations of producer Lee “Scratch” Perry.
Highlights include founder of VP Records, Vincent Chin’s renowned record store, Randy’s in downtown Kingston; the harmony trios The Abyssinians chanting their Rasta anthem “Satta Massagana;” The Mighty Diamonds live at their peak; DJs U-Roy and U-Brown riding the riddims (rapping); and Inner Circle at their most famous, living high up in the hills of Kingston away from the “sufferation.”
A must see was the three part British documentary series Deep Roots Music (1983) by Howard Johnson which offered a comprehensive look at Jamaica’s reggae industry.
One of the most revelatory films in the entire series, and quite possibly the first feature ever made on reggae, is director Horace Ové’s documentary on the genre, Reggae, which has not shown in the US in decades.
The film series closed on August 6 with the world premiere of OnePeople, a crowd-sourced documentary comprising video submissions from individuals around the world expressing-through song, dance, poetry, landscapes, artwork, and stories-what Jamaica means to them.
Produced by Justine Henzell (daughter of Perry Henzell), this Jamaica-50 project premiered simultaneously in London and Kingston, exemplifying the nation’s motto by uniting the work of many filmmakers into the collective film of one people.