Monday, June 3, 2013

Universal Rebel: Roots Reggae Rocks

The generator was as loud as a chain saw with its own marshal amp.

The concrete, steel and glass of the tall buildings aligning Exchange Place plaza create an amphitheater effect, enhancing volume and adding echo to the audio at events held here, a favorite spot to end parades and other city-wide events.

Sunday was the JC Bike Ward Tour, where the ever-growing population of JC cyclists ride their bicycles to every ward (if this was New Orleans, wards would be called parishes) of our fair city, ending up here by the waterfront/financial district, where food and beverage vendors had encamped, alongside other community organizations. A stage had been set up by the Katya memorial.

The music was loud.  Unfortunately, the generator running the amps was just as loud. At first I thought there was a construction crew nearby. The explanation was that Sandy – Sandy devastation is now the go to excuse for all civil dysfunction – had knocked out the publically available electricity down here at Exchange, thus the need for noisy generators.

I got there at the tail end of the event. A sunny Sunday – the predicted thunderstorms were apparently postponed. I settled in to catch some sets by the concluding acts. It’s a tough gig for musicians:  outdoors, imperfect acoustics, lots of distractions and an inattentive audience, who are there for reasons other than your performance and busy jabbering with each other.

Early in the hot weather season, cabin fever still lingers and everyone is just happy to be out of their cramped apartments, heavy garments left in the closest, seeing people they haven’t seen for weeks, months. Better bike tour than last year. Did you read that article about rising bike thefts? I heard that there were 5,000 people who turned out to vote for  Fulop, even though 75 percent of the voters didn’t vote at all? Between the conversation and the booming generator, who can hear a band?

Universal Rebel is a reggae fusion band – the fusion is mainly hip-hop, long-breath lyrics against beats but the beats are the familiar reggae rhythm. The result is a bona fide dub band,  but not just a karaoke loop of that island beat, the drummer added some fierce frills, working off of and with the keyboard player, who energized the laid-back back beat with chord changes more suitable to hard rock or classic R&B that both sprang forth from and argued with the rock steady rhythm section.


Their first song had a nifty refrain about Babylon too long, the exuberant lead singer, leaping and pogoing, his thick dreadlock mien whipping around like a convulsive hydra as he gestured to the band and the crowd, proclaiming jah-love and blessedness. The optimism was infectious, proving there was still plenty of life in this stage. He was backed up by a voluptuous singer, a siren in summer clothes and with a haunting voice, soulfully underscoring the vocals at center stage.

After their opening number, something about too long in Babylon, a song was introduced by someone you “may have heard of” called Bob Marley. It was I Shot the Sheriff, but the arrangement was completely subversive  turning the opening verse into an extended prologue before breaking out the familiar chorus. I am familiar with both the original and the Clapton hit; they deconstructed this number before bringing it back to what we all know, making it anew.  It took a while before you recognized the song; the recognition when arriving was not one anticipated, a typical Wailer cover. Far from it. Here was a band doing something new with Reggae, not just imitating a club-med juke box.

The audience members who cared – I had now become one – found that making the effort – and effort was required – to ignore the relentless generator was rewarded. A series of lively reggae flavored originals following, the hip-hop lyrics stretching out the jams – overseer,  chanting down Babylon, freedom, Jah – the familiar tropes but updated.

Reggae –and Rastafarian theology --- is always about liberation – freeing your body, freeing your mind, freeing your soul -- it’s Christian, but also ecstatic and mystical. This celebration of joy seemed as much a part of Universal Rebel’s mission as the politics of liberation.

One of the songs – Lookey Looks – decried the surveillance culture of our contemporary technology drenched society, yet against a Caribbean rhythm that your body could not resist. The breakdowns, the jams, the spaces between the lyrics, the dialog the drummer and keyboard were having with each other, added a welcomed, classic-R&B/Soul edge to the reggae.

Of course, this may seem like an innovation now – Reggae has long been mainstreamed – but when the genre was new and still dangerous, it was a Jamaican garage band interpretation of American Soul & R&B (Stax and Motown); Dub added poetry and protest, with Rastafarian ethos bringing a liberation theology steeped in identity politics and Christian mysticism, furthering this form of African American dance music, as it was reinterpreted by fellow musicians of the African Diaspora, whose historical memory also include the brutal subjugation of slavery. Universal Rebel made this potent mix new again. By returning to the roots (roots rock reggae) of the music, they seemed to suggest a new chapter in this genre was being written. Universal Rebel reminded us that rebellion is still necessary – and can still feel good.

The din of the generator echoed, vendors were eager to go home, volunteer staff were breaking down the canopies, but Universal  Rebel rocked on. It was hard to ignore the interference, but it could be done and the effort was well rewarded.

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