The types of music whose genealogical trees are rooted in New Orleans are about as many as the number of bands you can see on any Saturday night. Blues, jazz, zydeco, and rock ‘n’ roll all owe some degree of parental debt to the Crescent City. One type of music not traditionally associated with New Orleans is reggae and the music of the Caribbean.
What we today know as reggae, however, finds in its origins the synthesis of two distinct sounds: mento, a music popular among the poor of Jamaica in the early forties, and New Orleans R&B, whose syncopated rhythms found an audience via the clear channel transmissions of American radio stations such as New Orleans’ own WWL-AM. Conversely, the evolution of the “New Orleans sound” owed a significant debt to the music brought to Louisiana from Africa and the Caribbean by slaves in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
The rhythms of Louisiana roots music also show traces of the slow skank and 3/4 time one drop synonymous with the traditional reggae rhythms. It is even rumored that one of the early patriarchs of the Jamaican music scene, Coxsone Dodd, spent time in the early fifties in the fields of Southwest Louisiana as a migrant sugar cane cutter. If true, he undoubtedly absorbed and was influenced by the many Cajun and zydeco styles common to the area.
The month of June marks the return of reggae to the city. The Jamaica Jam ’89 and the third annual Reggae Riddums/Sunsplash wlll transform New Orleans’ City Park into an unlikely Mecca of Caribbean music, crafts and food.
The music kicks off on June 4 with the first annual Jamaica Jam ’89 at City Park Stadium. Beginning at 1 p.m. audiences will be treated to a day of Jamaican music and culture, featuring international stars the Wailers and Third World. In addition, such locally based acts as the Shepherd Band, Percussion Incorporated, and Ritmo Caribeno will showcase their locally infused takes on traditional Caribbean styles.
The Wailers cut their musical teeth in the company of such legends as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, and participated firsthand in revolutionizing music worldwide. They were in the forefront of the long-standing linkage between reggae and the Rastafarian movement, with its deeply spiritual roots in African mysticism. Following a self-imposed exile following the tragic death of Marley to cancer in 1981, the Wailers began touring on their own and forged their own musical identity in 1984. In the last five years, they’ve introduced a new generation of fans to the musical heritage of Jamaica, drawing upon the tradition of Marley yet incorporating many contemporary styles.
Third World, together since 1973, have established a reputation as one of reggae’s finest and most respected live acts. More than any of their Jamaican contemporaries, Third World has strived to fuse their native roots with American pop, rock and soul.
In addition to the locally-flavored reggae of the Shepherd Band, such eclectic sounds as merengue, salsa, zouk and soca, virtually spanning the southern hemisphere, will be represented by New Orleans-based Percussion Incorporated and Ritmo Caribeno.
The spirit of the Caribbean continues on June 11 as the Reggae Riddums/Sunsplash returns to City Park’s Old Driving Range. For the third straight year, Reggae Riddums will host the New Orleans leg of the annual Reggae Sunsplash world tour, offering the widest variety of reggae available north of Kingston. Headlining this year’s event will be the English band Steel Pulse, formed in 1975 and reportedly boasting a larger local following than virtually any other reggae artist. Dance hall style reggae will be represented by the unique stylings of Jamaica’s Sugar Minott (the reigning “King of Lover’s Rock”) and Half Pint.
Also appearing at this year’s festival are female vocalists Marcia Griffiths and Sophia George, the fine Jamaican rhythm section of the 809 Band, the local reggae sounds of the Plantation Posse, and South African reggae artist King “Lucky” Duhe, whose vocals reportedly bear a striking resemblance to the late Peter Tosh’s. Veteran singer, songwriter and producer Tommy Cowan will emcee his fifth Reggae Sunsplash tour, receiving able assistance in City Park from the New Orleans Saints’ own Bayou Rasta, Bobby Hebert.
Reggae Riddums this year expects in excess of 8,000 spectators to descend upon City Park to sample the sounds, art, fashion and cuisine of both Jamaica and Louisiana.
Tickets for both events are available at all Ticketmaster locations or call 888-8181 to charge tickets by phone. Discount tickets for Reggae Riddums/Sunsplash are $10 through June 3.