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A literary treasure sounds off

Published:Sunday | May 5, 2013 | 12:00 AM
  • Title: The Encyclopedia of Reggae
  • Author: Mike Alleyne
  • Publisher: Sterling, New York

Dr Glenville Ashby, Contributor

WHEN RIDING the train in New York City, you are bound to meet fellow West Indians, and with the Encyclopedia of Reggae in tow, you are sure to make acquaintances. Eyes zero in on this glossy, voluminous and picturesque book. You surrender to the glares, giving up your prized possession for what you thought would be a moment. How wrong could you be? Your newly found "friends" turn every page with deliberation, their gaze steadied at snapshots of reggae music's giants past and present. The sheer magnetism of this work is hardly debatable.

Mike Alleyne's Encyclopedia of Reggae is unique, living up to its pedagogical title. It is, in effect, an archival document of anthropological and socio-political depth. In many ways, it's a literary and photographic compilation, leaving no stone unturned as it chronicles a transformational musical expression renowned for its clamouring social overtones.

Alleyne's work validates the overarching power of music. Reggae, more than any form of music in modern time, transcends popular culture, leaving an indelible imprint, globally. It is more than hypnotic riffs, scintillating percussion and cadenced drumbeats. Alleyne's painstaking research reflects an existential art form that ricochets unto a multi-layered platform where politics, economics, history, and religion are indistinguishable. There is that distinct interplay between lyrical content and cultural dynamics.

Embedded in reggae's expression is a cultural exuberance that is therapeutic. Paradoxically, its potential for angst, for Raising Cain is worth studying. Its ability to probe, provoke and challenge listeners is unmistakable. As Alleyne points out, every art form evolves, evoking the ire of traditionalists. Dancehall music turned the incorruptibility of reggae on its head, in the same way that soca trampled the sanctity of calypso. Many believe that rap music perverted ... desanitised America's R&B.

Alleyne hits the proverbial nail on its head when he commented that "popular music always has grey areas that don't lend themselves to easy definition or identification." He delves into the blurred boundaries of reggae which emerged with strong influence from ska and rock steady. It is a musical cross-pollination evident in all musical genres.

Understandably, Alleyne's complex and exhaustive work has the potential to ruffle feathers. Despite his best efforts and his use of qualitative and quantitative methods for accuracy, he concedes some shortcomings. "It has to be emphasised that in reggae literature, sources still vary widely on precise facts such as when or where an artiste was born, or the year in which a given album was released." Further, he writes, "there was also no evidence that record sales were consistently tabulated" or, the more damning report by a national newspaper that chart-ranking is compromised by bribery.

Bob Marley

Alleyne seemingly covers every imaginable reggae artiste and producer, from the hugely popular, to the obscure.

And although Bob Marley has become synonymous with reggae, Alleyne's undertaking is bigger than a single artiste. Not that he doesn't give Marley his due. He begins his biography with the following: "No artiste had a greater effect on reggae's long-term international profile than Bob Marley" .

That Marley, who died at 36, was given a state funeral, unprecedented for a Rasta, is testament to his importance to the Jamaican people, according to Alleyne.

The author deftly highlights the most compelling quotes by artistes, allowing for a greater philosophical understanding of their music.

Marley's: "I no have education. I have inspiration. If I was educated, I'd be a damn fool," is rivaled only by the words of an equally significant megastar, Jimmy Cliff: "I grew up economically poor, spiritually rich. Even though I had this condition, that kind of balance made me always take the downside and put an up to it."

Alleyne is strongest in his survey of Jamaica's centuries-old musical landscape. He showcases a mélange of musical styles and rhythms originating with the indigenous peoples, that includes the drumming of the legendary Maroons. Alongside photos that ably capture Maroon life and culture, Alleyne's account is concise, informative and nostalgic. Clearly, a multidisciplinary approach is needed to understand Jamaica's contemporary sound. He writes: "African oral tradition, including storytelling in song, have contributed directly to the DJ culture and what some have termed, 'sing-jay' style, in which performers use vocal style that blends talking and singing." Throughout, the author aptly lays bare the disparate, yet inextricably connected elements of reggae.

Alleyne later discusses religion and the impact of Revivalism, characterised by African and Christian practices. "Listening to the polyrhythmic percussive syncopation of revivalist drumming, it is easy to hear how reggae echoes its punctuation and emphasis."

The rare photos of Kingston - Chestnut Lane, Trench Town - the embryo of reggae are accorded due acknowledgement. "The Dungle and Trench Town sections became the province of squatters but also produced artistes whose work was infused with survivalist urgency," Alleyne writes, adding that, "it was the core of Jamaica's creative explosion in popular music, aided by the cluster of major sound systems on which 'dubplates' (soft wax acetate pre-release discs) could be tested on audience."

The indissoluble connection between reggae and Rastafarianism is yet another example of reggae's religious underpinning. The cries for repatriation to Africa, the chanting of biblical verses, bestowing prophetic attributes to Pan Africanism, and the crowning of an African King, as the redeemer - God in flesh - are reflective of redefining one's identity, religiously and culturally.

The Encyclopedia of Reggae boasts an irresistible mosaic of existential musical expression, while undressing its complexity. The result is an incomparable musical gestalt, befitting of Alleyne's meticulously detailed authorship.

Ratings: Essential

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