Wednesday, November 4, 2009


What is Rocksteady

Rocksteady is the direct predecessor of Jamaican Reggae. Rocksteady has sparse rhythmic accompaniment and a relaxed feel allowing the vocalist more expressive musical phrasing and greater lyrical freedom. All these elements were retained in Reggae.

What came before reggae music? Full points if you answered rocksteady.

Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae is a new documentary about Jamaican music in the 1960s. The film covers a brief period in that country's music, a period that became the platform upon which reggae was built and upon which careers like Bob Marley's were founded.

For various reasons (and they're not just musical) rocksteady is referred to as Jamaica's "Golden Age" of music. It was actually a golden age of sorts for the island itself.

The stars of the era, such as Dawn Penn and Stranger Cole, are reunited to create an album of their hit songs, and many of the musicians who gather talk about not having seen one another in 40 years. Cole narrates a portion of the movie, talking about the musicians' reunion in Kingston and about the past, describing the transition from ska to rocksteady music.

Along the way, the movie catches up with Hopeton Lewis, who recorded Take It Easy when he was 16; it's considered the first rocksteady song.

Then there's Marcia Griffiths, who still tours and who had a hit with The Tide Is High; Ken Boothe (Shanty Town); Leroy Sibbles, who had rocksteady hits with the Heptones; Judy Mowatt, one of Bob Marley's I-Threes (with Rita Marley and Marcia Griffiths), who sings Silent River Runs Deep; Dawn Penn, singing You Don't Love Me Anymore, No No No; and U-Roy, who describes himself as a "toaster" for his spoken vocals on Stop That Train. And he talks about toasters influencing American rap music.

These are among the many artists who gathered in Kingston to celebrate rocksteady music, who take part in the film and record their hits for the reunion album.

Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae uses archival footage from the 1960s and offers a brief recent history of the island. Jamaica gained independence from Great Britain in 1962, and according to the musicians in the movie, the early '60s were a peaceful and optimistic time, with plenty of economic opportunity. If rocksteady music is remembered with great fondness, it may be in part because the island was peaceful and fairly prosperous at the time, and, according to the movie, the sort of violence for which Kingston became infamous had not yet begun.

The musicians talk about the 1966 visit to Jamaica by Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia, about the outdoor theatres where they performed, about "Peter, Bunny and Bob," (Tosh; Wailer; Marley) and about the rude boys who eventually brought guns into Kingston.

Rita Marley remembers going into the garbage in Trenchtown as a child, hoping to find food or bubble gum. By the time she appears near the end of this documentary, Bob Marley has become the elephant in the room. Your ear is longing to hear his music, but that's the reggae that came later, circa 1970.

And this is a story about what came before.