Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Playboy Music

Because reggae would seem to be about things that most North Americans don't much care about--going back to Africa, loving Jah, smoking too much marijuana--it's been strictly cult music in the U.S. since Bob Marley died. But as anyone whose synapses have been reorganized by its groove knows full well, reggae's surface is, well surface. Its content is the deepest rhythm in music, a rhythm that motivates the heart and pelvis with out, as Satchel Paige might have said, angrying up the blood.

In the Eighties, reggae has continued to evolve in its own way--rhythmically. Where in the Seventies spacy studio dub ruled, now guitarists and pianists improvise around the beat, and horn sections add curlicues that are intricate but rarely fussy.

If you're ready to praise Jah for 45 minutes, try the chants on Ras Michael & the Sons of Negus' Rally Round (Shanachie). Because this compilation is selected from many years of real cult music, the rhythms may seem reassuringly familiar despite their funde-drum base. So too, on Yabby You's 1983 Shanachie compilation One Love, One Heart, though I'm ever more taken with this religious recluse's current Fleeing from the City--never before have nursery hymns danced so jammingly.

For those who prefer their sex straight, love man Gregory Isaacs has lifted himself from a long slump on Private Beach Party (RAS). Predictably, the sex is better when Isaacs comes at it sideways--not on the title cut but on "No Rushings" and "Promise Is a Comfort." No such reservations apply to Joe Higgs's first U.S. album, Triumph (Alligator). Higgs was an early mentor of Bob Marley and, like his genius protege, he always combines the personal with the prophetic and the politicial. And just as Marley would have, he has evolved rhythmically--his groove is the deepest and the wickedest of any record here.

Playboy, Apr. 1986


Mar. 1986 May 1986