A Reggae Golden Jubilee: Oxymoron?

by delarue

 What would you put on your ultimate reggae mixtape? If this is your thing, you gotta start out with the national anthem of reggae, the Abyssinians’ Satta Massagana, right? Then there’s the classics: Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear. For the sake of the Wailers, you’d probably want something from Bunny, right?

Then there’s the golden age. The tape wouldn’t be complete without Jacob Miller…or Big Youth. U-Roy, Freddie McGregor, Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs…plus don’t forget Steel Pulse, Linton Kwesi Johnson. Aswad, Lucky Dube, Culture and Israel Vibration! Imagine the dilemma for would-be compilers of an official “greatest reggae album ever,” doing the heavy lifting to get all the rights clearances, versus those of us who just download whatever we want.

At this point, enter the Reggae Golden Jubilee, a 4-cd compilation only available at record stores. On face value, the idea of putting former Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga in charge of selecting the tracks – ostensibly, at least – is ludicrous. Until you realize that Seaga – a Harvard-educated Lebanese-Jamaican – got his start in the music business. And he wasn’t unsuccessful: having introduced ska to an American audience at the New York World’s Fair, he rode hits by Prince Buster, Joe Higgs and Delroy Wilson to the point where he was able to sell his studio to the Dragonaires’ Byron Lee for a tidy profit.

So here’s what’s on the box set. Seaga, predictably, is at his best in the early years. Lots of obvious stuff: Millie Small’s My Boy Lollipop, but also Justin Hines & the Dominos’ caustic Carrry Go Bring Come. There’s the Folkes’ Bros.’ mento original of Oh Carolina…and also the Paragons’ original of The Tide Is High. Other obvious choices include the Maytals’ Sweet and Dandy and 54-46 Was My Number, and Desmond Dekker’s Israelites. There are three Marley tracks, two of them outtakes at best: It’s Alright, an early version of Trenchtown Rock, without the Wailers, and a dubious outtake of Kaya. Likewise, Peter Tosh is not represented by, say, Get Up Stand Up or even Bush Doctor, but by an obscure dub track from 1969, Them A Fi Get A Beatin. Likewise, Big Youth’s colossal debut single, S-90 Skank isn’t here; in fact, there’s nothing by Big Youth here at all.

And that’s the limit of a reggae compilation in the internet age. As a holiday gift for a young person who’s just discovered roots reggae, this is a $60 treat. You get Hopeton Lewis, Alton Ellis and the Ethiopians. There’s Many Rivers to Cross, and The Harder They Come – the concluding 100th track. There’s only one Burning Spear cut – that’s Marcus Garvey – but there’s also Junior Byles’ Fade Away. There’s classics like the Mighty Diamonds’ The Right Time, Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves and Culture’s Two Sevens Clash. On the flip side, there’s Gregory Isaacs’ Number One…but not Night Nurse. Likewise, Freddie McGregor, Johnny Clarke, Ken Boothe, Jacob Miller and, if you count Black Uhuru (why no Sinsemilla here? Seaga is in his 80s and doesn’t smoke anymore?) aren’t well represented.

The rest of the box set is pretty predictable. On one hand, it takes serious balls for Seaga to go for the original Wayne Smith classic Under Mi Sling Teng. But there’s nothing unexpected post 1980. Chaka Demus & Pliers’ Murder She Wrote; Dawn Penn’s remake of No No No; Buju Banton’s Untold Stories (but NOT Boom Bye Bye); and token inclusions from Luciano, Sizzla, Lady Saw and Elephant Man, nothing particularly radical or unexpected. It’s easy to argue that Jamaican reggae went to hell in the 80s; but why no American bands – no Groundation, no Lambsbread, no John Brown’s Body? And for that matter, the omission of Steel Pulse practically disqualifies this whole venture. Answer: dis ere about Jamaica, mon, in every possible positive and negative way. Even the title breathes unease: a Golden Jubilee? That’s for the queen of Babylon! As Lord Creator says on his wonderful 1962 ska hit (one of the deliciously obscure early tracks included here), Independent Jamaica!