As February heralds another Reggae Month in Jamaica, its both the best and the worst of times for roots reggae music.
In the best of times column, artistes like Chronixx are leading a kind of revival that has praise cascading from all quarters and are seemingly bringing younger audiences to the genre in droves. Also, the recent 20th Anniversary staging of the roots reggae showcase Rebel Salute, in an expanded format (two nights) and new expanded venue, has been hailed as a success at least in moral terms if not financially (no figures released, but the anecdotal evidence is of a larger turnout).
On the opposite side of the equation, we hear that the concert to honour the late reggae revolutionary and balladeer, Dennis The Crown Prince Brown had to be cancelled for lack of funds, with only an eleventh-hour intervention from Government allowing the organizers to opt for postponement. The event, dubbed the largest one-night live show in Kingston will now be held later in the month, part of a now familiar raft of activities for the annual Reggae Month.
What accounts for this dichotomy? The most obvious culprit is the ongoing shift towards youth on the part of corporate entities (hardly a anew phenomenon) who, strapped for cash in the face of a persistent recession, are putting their money where they believe they can get maximum returns (exposure and otherwise) for their brands. This means that pay parties (fetes, if you will) that eschew live music in favour of the well-worn combination of DJs (the record-spinning kind), scantily-clad promo girls and copious amounts of alcoholic beverages continue to draw sponsorship form the purveyors of said beverages and other companies who spot a bonanza in the young adults (supposedly, but that's another column) , who flock these events.
Not even the Dennis Brown event's aforementioned status as the largest live crowd-puller in Kingston kept it safe from the vagaries of corporate whim. Artiste-promoter Tony Rebel, who painstakingly built his annual celebration on the platform of no animal products, no alcohol was himself led to turn to not only a bigger venue, but one removed from the show's traditional South Coast home in favour of the Richmond estate just outside Ocho Rios. There, the presence of large hotels and mega-cruiseliners meant a steady supply of both visitors and with the capital scarcely an hour's drive away locals. Rebel has also had to partner with packaged foods giant Grace, which has brought out a line of easy-to-fix one pot veggie meals not quite as ital as hardliners might demand, but nonetheless vital from a funding standpoint to keep the now venerated event alive.
Such is the state of reggae in its homeland today, even as big festivals continue to make news and turn out homegrown competitors in France, Germany Japan and Israel. The genere, it can be argued is becoming like jazz in the US revered and active overseas, but known only to a select (and possibly dwindling) audience at home . Can Chronixx, kabaka Pyramid, Jah9 and the like lead a kind of Cahrge of the Youth Brigade? Let's hope so.
Editor's Note: Michael Edwards is an Editorial Contributor with The MNI Alive Network