Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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An Outsider's Guide to the Inside World of Reggae

Whatever the future of reggae music in the U.S.--and that future looks very good--it is still an esoteric commodity here. But not as esoteric as might be expected. There are hundreds of thousands of English-speaking West Indians living in the metropolitan area and this population commands its own music distribution systems. Any interested outsider can plug into New York's indigenous reggae network before the record companies' corporate push begins.

West Indian music--which means calypso, the traditional form of Trinidad, as well as reggae--can be heard on at least four New York area radio shows. The best of these is Jeff Barnes' fast-moving informative show on WWRL from 6 to 9 every Saturday evening. Direct competition comes from Ken Williams' slot on WLIB from 5:45 PM Saturday until sign-off. Arnold Henry's 6-to-10 Sunday night show on WBLS-FM features more of the calypso music which Henry, a Trinidadian, prefers. Gilbert Bailey, a Jamaican, advertises four shows on WHBI, but only one of them (7:05 to 7:30 PM Wednesdays) is on at night. The others start at 6 or 6:05 AM on Monday, Tuesday and Friday mornings.

The most reliable source of live Jamaican music in the metropolitan area is a good-sized club called York Manor, at 94-21 Merrick Blvd., Jamaica, Queens, two blocks south of Jamaica Avenue. On Friday and Saturday nights, the house band at York Manor is an exceptionally solid group called The Magnificent Debonaires, who perform calypso and straight soul numbers but concentrate on reggae. When possible, the club also features Jamaican recording stars, but I've never stuck around long enough to see them in action--by all reports, the club doesn't really start to move until two or three in the morning. No matter--the Debonaires are several cuts above any house band I've seen at a rock, dance club, and I intend to return to York Manor soon.

At the beginning of this year, the only American reggae records available were seven good but obscure singles on Shelter and the larger catalogue of Steady Records. Steady, an independent label owned by a former Caribbean talent agent, Art Trefferson, is the American arm of Ken Khouri's Kingston-based Federal label. Trefferson aims for a more vivid mix on his releases, which can be good, and overlays strings and choruses, which can't be. Like most independents, he has suffered from spotty distribution, although major rack outlets now carry his product.

Steady offers a series of reggae samplers, as does Trojan, the leading English reggae label, but the Steady collections tend to fulfill reggae's Muzak potential, while the Trojan series seems to feature one warmed-over American soul record for every cut that suggests the dynamic and lyric potential of Jamaican music. So the best introduction to reggae continues to be the first-release of Chris Blackwell's and Denny Cordell's brand-new American reggae label, Mango--the soundtrack album from The Harder They Come. That's the record anyone whose appetite has been whetted ought to invest in first.

One reason to begin with samplers is that they collect singles, the natural medium of a jukebox music like reggae. For obvious economic reasons, American companies prefer to market LPs, and no doubt all of the forthcoming American reggae product will be sold that way. The best source for Jamaican records in the New York area is Chin Randy's, 1342 St. John's Place, Brooklyn (212-773-8289). Chin Randy's distributes in addition to retailing, and will accept mail orders COD. A smaller shop farther out on the Island is Mart's, at 114-12 Merrick Blvd., Jamaica (212-526-6223). Both shops will happily permit a sample in-store listen, just the way they do it in Kingston. The following rundown of those Jamaican artists most likely to succeed in the U.S. will suggest singles that might be worth trying before investing in an album.

Led for 10 years by singer songwriter Toots Hibbert, now only 25, the Maytals might be described as a Jamaican equivalent of the Beatles. Young Jamaicans apparently find their good-humored gospel robustness somewhat old-fashioned and unsophisticated, but the group seems certain to sign with an American label--probably Mango. White reggae buffs in Great Britain and the U.S. consider their Greatest Hits (on Beverley's) the best single-artist reggae album. It contains "5446 Was My Number," about the year Hibbert spent in prison for a marijuana conviction, and it is also available as an American single on Shelter.

If the good cheer of the Maytals is reminiscent of the Beatles, then something in the anguished rhythms and harmonies of the Wailers finds its rough spiritual analog in the Rolling Stones. Their music is so singular that unless their stage presence is more accessible, they may have trouble in the States. Their American album, Catch a Fire, on Island, lays back and stretches out in the tedious album-as-art tradition. But Soul Rebel, on Trojan, is better, and leader Bob Marley did write "Stir It Up." "Trenchtown Rock" on the Wailers' own Tuff Gong label, is a definitive city reggae single, if you can find it--I located my copy two hours before leaving Kingston.

Warner Bros. has signed two prominent reggae soloists, Jimmy Cliff and Ernie Smith. Cliff is an old-timer who has always tried to be creative, with mixed success, so his album will have to stand on its own. His best single is "The Harder They Come" on Mango. Ernie Smith, winner of several international song contests, may turn out to be the first middle-of-the-road nightclub performer to come to Warners since Dean Martin, but he's sure to do it with flare. Representative single: "Pitta Patta" on Steady.

Who else will be signed will be conjecture. Desmond Dekker has been with MCA for years and has never done as well as he deserved--another label might bring him away from Great Britain and closer to home. Dennis Brown is a 17-year-old crooner who has a Jamaican hit with the old Rays' song, "Silhouettes," that might succeed in this country. Denny Cordell says he'd like to go from studio to studio in Kingston with Brown recording an album, if he had the time, but if he doesn't another label will probably pick him up. Anyone who wants to take a chance ought to sample Big Youth's dee-jay style. The recommended album is Screaming Target (on Gussie) which is nowhere near as foreboding as its title. Single: "The Bight Fight" (Gibbs).

N'day, May 6, 1973