While much of the innovation in reggae has emerged in the United Kingdom, its champions and stars hail everywhere from southern and western Africa to Poland and from Canada to Australia. One place which has been notable for its absence is the subcontinent. There is probably no seaside shack in Kovalum or Goa that doesn’t blast out Buffalo Soldier or One Love, hippy faves and massive hits of the aforementioned Mr Marley. And heaven knows the supply of gaanjaa and dreadlocked beardymen is healthy from the Khyber Pass to the Ganges delta. And yet, musicians and fans in India and surrounding countries seem to have given reggae the cold shoulder.
But the scene is gradually changing. Over the past several years, three and a half decades after the passing of Bob M, reggae is at last finding a home on the sub-continent. And not just in cheap beach shacks in Goa. Be warned, some of the bands we highlight this week are very, very good. Strap yourself in and let's take a yatra-e-reggae, desi style.
Om Namah Shivaya
The place to start of course is by paying respect to the original "reggae man," with Indian roots. Stephen Kapur, UK born and bred, took the music scene by storm in the late 80’s as a DJ and then in the 1990 as a performer in his own right. Drawing on the rich cultural springs of a Thatcher-era underclass of disenfranchised East Indians and subcontinentals, Kapur, now calling himself Apache Indian, mixed bhangra with raggamuffin music and dancehall rhythms, to create a new form: bhangragga. Before the likes of Buddha Bar compilations became ubiquitous, Apache Indian was pulling together East and West in a way that honoured the essential intoxicating pulse of reggae. In this clip he cleverly trades on the Old Testament references to the Almighty (a classic reggae trope) to praise the ultimate Hindu deity, Lord Shiva himself.
This clip showcases the "dub step" sub genre of reggae nicely: prominent electronic beats laid on top of an ocean-deep, throbbing bass. Political messages come through the lyrics and dancers who don the Anonymous mask, the current age’s ultimate anti-establishment hieroglyph. Delhi Sultanate (Taru Dalmia) is the godfather of India’s reggae scene acting as DJ, singer, producer and all round cultural maven for those with a thirst for fresh sounds.
Rough and Mean
Ska, the original musical blueprint of reggae, came out of African American R&B and jump blues of the sort made by Louis Jordan. R&B singer Rosco Gordon’s preference for emphasising the 2nd and 4th beats (the "off beats") as he played the piano is often credited with being the spark that set the reggae fire. But of course Jamaicans mixed mento (Jamaica’s first music) folk and church music and huge amounts of brass to create a lively, light and exciting proto-reggae. In India, the Skavengers, with Delhi Sultanate on vocals, innovatively add social comment and political agitprop to what is essentially a non-political form of reggae, and create urgent and uncompromising music. This clip is gritty and like its title, rough and mean. Fantastic!
Away from the in-your-face activist sort of reggae served up by Delhi Sultanate and the Skavengers, fusion outfit Kalpavriksh create an essentially Indian soundscape driven by a simple but addictive "rock steady" rhythm. The harmonium, tabla and bansuri seem to be made for reggae music, adding a particularly South Asian masala to the gentle groove. But the standout aspect of this wonderful track is the raw but passionately delivered lead vocals. Every bit as compelling as Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer or I Roy.
Awairayen Sith Sansindei Wairaya
Around the same time Apache Indian was forging his brand of reggae/bhangra, down in Sri Lanka, a young man named Rohanta was falling in love with the voice of Bob Marley. In that voice he heard something that made him take up the guitar, grow some righteous dreads and dedicate his life to reggae music. Affectionately known as the Father of Sri Lankan reggae, Rohanta’s voice is eerily reminiscent of his hero. Choosing to sing in a straight shooting classic style, his Sinhala lyrics are a wonderful reminder of how Jamaica’s 20th century music is equally at home in the ancient lands of South Asia.
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