My first taste of reggae music came in the form of a beat up “The Harder They Come” record in my parent's collection. Featuring a gangster-looking Jimmy Cliff on the cover, the vinyl contained roots reggae tracks by Desmond Dekker, The Maytals, and The Melodians that still rank among my all-time favorites. Eventually, I was turned on to more modern (and more popular in Jamaica) dancehall reggae. But there will always be a place in my heart for classic roots reggae.
Surprisingly, the best place to look for new roots these days is the US Virgin Islands. As first generation artists get older, less and less roots reggae is produced in Jamaica. But a group of artists from St. Croix has taken up the tradition in full force. Bambu Station is one such band; they are part of a significant shift in reggae music in the last decade.
Since the music's inception in the 1960s, few non-Jamaican artists have been able to gain international esteem. These American, European, and Caribbean bands have long struggled with the label of inauthenticity.
But the recent successes of the St. Croix band Midnite, and the label I Grade Records, have ushered in a new era for Virgin Islands (VI) musicians. Joining the scene with their own Mt. Nebo Records (www.mtneborecords.com) in 2002, Bambu Station has been slowly but steadily building a following.
Jamaican commercial reggae continues to follow a path of vacuous blingification, ala American hip hop (think Sean Paul, Beenie Man, etc.). But VI reggae hails back to the deep and meditative roots of golden-age reggae of the 1970s, a sound that non-Jamaican audiences continue to love.
At their show at Berbati's on Friday, February 9th, I got to see firsthand why this band, already hot in the VI, is ready to light a fire in the US. Roots reggae is alive and well in Bambu Station's capable hands.
I got to Berbati's as Portland reggae band Nuborn Tribe (www.nuborntribe.com) was finishing up their opening set. It was great to see these guys on a bigger stage with full sound. I see lead singer Island Joseph all the time at the Jolly Roger (where I DJ on Wednesday nights). Joseph and the band sometimes fill in for Earl and the Reggae Allstars. But on a real stage, Nuborn blossoms into sweet roots harmonies. My only complaint is that they could have pumped out even bigger sound. But definitely check out this band if you have the chance.
Joseph sees the increasing popularity of VI reggae as significant, a change that is bringing the music back to its roots. And as for opening for Bambu Station, Joseph says it was, “a pleasure and an honor, because they are one of those bands that have a lot of influence on us, and we see ourselves headed in the same direction they're going in.”
to hear my interview with Island Joseph after the Nuborn set, where he talks about his band, the soon-to-be-released debut album, and the importance of VI reggae.
KBOO reggae DJ and longtime rasta-scenester Ras Danny pumped out hot VI tracks as Bambu Station took to the stage. Unfortunately, Berbati's can be a hard room to fill, especially with an up-and-coming band. With less than 150 people in attendance, the empty spots were an early drain on the crowd's energy. Nevertheless, the band launched right into a hot and heavy roots number, looking cool and confident on the stage.
Lead singer Jalani Horton immediately took off his beanie, revealing his bald-shaven head. At first I was taken aback—like most people, I immediately equate reggae with dreadlocks and Rastafari. The scene is full of badges of honor and symbols of supposed authenticity. But as I thought about it, it seemed like Horton was showing that he had no pretensions, that his music could speak for itself, and that molds are meant to be recast.
This move set an unapologetic tone for the rest of the show. Too often I have detected a self-conscious note in non-Jamaican reggae, particularly anything produced stateside. But Bambu Station has little to fear, and play like they have nothing to prove.
Ras Danny, in an email displaying his unique spelling, provided me with band bios for the Berbati's show, “Guitar was Ricky ‘Swann' Richardson. He spent enough time with Joe Hill & Culture to have recorded 2 albums with dem, spent mosta da last 7 years inna Sagitarius Band w/Yellowman. He's a native of St Croix.
“Bass was Ras IG Beazer, live in Boston but is frum St Croix, where he has his own label, SPM Records, which has been the vehicle for many STX artist to ‘buss out'. His work can be found in many of the STX releases on other labels, from musician to producer...
“Andre ‘Andy' Llanos is drummer, been with Bambu for long time, does a lotta their production work, sings some of his own material...
“Don't know much about Cat 'cep that he is their keyboard player, and sings a wikkid fyah tune!!! And of course there is Jalani Horton, lead singer...”
The Keyboardist, Cat, was definitely a highlight of the night's performance. The keys are a central element of the St. Croix reggae sound. Keeping a steady, meditative rhythm, Cat was an anchor for the groove. But it was when he took over the microphone that the energy in the room began to peak. Delivered in a fiery, dancehall-influenced style, his song pulled the crowd in closer and got me dancing in earnest. Click here
to hear a sample of Cat's “wikkid fyah tune”.
Overall, the Bambu Station sound is very similar to fellow St. Croix band Midnite. It has the same long-bar lyrics, keyboard driven riffs, and laid-back sound. The chanting/singing style is also quite similar. But these similarities are not a bad thing. Instead of sounding derivative, it highlights the unique music being made in the USVI.
But Jalani Horton is aware that reggae music owes much to its founders. In fact, he began a song by saying that his music is nothing new.
“We come here on the shoulders of many,” he said, “that helped to shape and mold us into what we are today. So we do not stand here in a vacuum thinking that we are bringing forward something that is new.” He then launched into one of the more comprehensive reggae acknowledgments list I have ever heard. To hear Jalani Horton's shout-outs to reggae legacy, click here
At first I was bothered with the admission that Bambu is offering “nothing new.” Reggae is often criticized by the uninitiated for sounding “all the same.” But in retrospect, I believe the band was placing itself at the end of a long dynasty of roots reggae heroes. To ignore this history would decontextualize the music, and disregard the important performers that came in years past. Bambu Station is taking up the reigns of a musical form that no longer flourishes in the nation of its birth.
Having listened to reggae for years, I often try to pay close attention to lyrical content. Tonight I was mostly impressed. It seems like there are a few token topics that any band will cover: justice, poverty, peace, etc. While these are important issues, they are too often sung about in overly broad, wishy-washy terms. Click here
to hear a sample of a song calling for peace.
But Bambu Station largely sings topical songs with meaningful messages. Horton touched on specific conflicts such as Israel/Palestine, and the plight of the world's women. For the most part, Horton avoided the pitfall of heavy-handed preaching, which can blow a reggae show for me. I was impressed with an impassioned song about the African AIDS crisis. “More than 70% of the world's AIDS population is African,” sings Horton. Click here
to hear the band list of African nations listed with the number of AIDS deaths in each country.
But some of the songs did get a bit repetitive. Part of the meditative St. Croix reggae sound seems to be the extended repetition of a simple phrase, which serves as the chorus. Usually this works for me, but at a few points in the night I found myself wishing Bambu Station had written some catchier hooks. But the band was on fire, and so the musical side was definitely full-on.
One of the best parts of seeing a VI group like Bambu Station is that you often get the whole band, which has been playing together for years. It has become all too common to see a reggae headliner (like Anthony B or Junior Reid), with one of a handful of stateside backing bands that has only rehearsed and played with the artist a couple of times. It is usually too expensive for a promoter to import an entire Jamaican band, especially considering the added difficulty of obtaining US visas post 9/11.
USVI bands have the added advantage of American citizenship, if none of the representation in our government. So it is feasible for a hardworking band like Bambu Station to make extended tours of the US, with a whole band in tow. This means tighter grooves, more originality, and a fresher feel. Click here
to hear a tight Bambu Station dub.
Overall, I thought this was a superlative night of roots reggae. The band was fresh and full of fire. They played enthusiastically, even though the room was more than half empty. And they certainly rocked those of us who were informed enough to attend. It will likely be some time before VI bands enjoy the recognition and financial success they deserve, but I believe Bambu Station is on their way to gaining traction.
The longstanding bias against non-Jamaican reggae may soon crumble. Reggae has percolated deeply into the international sonic landscape. More people will come to realize that Jamaica doesn't hold the patent on reggae, and that innovative sounds are coming from just off the southern tip of the continental US. Bambu Station and the rest of the VI reggae scene will continue to grow, as audiences get a taste of the sweet, heavy, meditative sounds coming from our cousins in the Caribbean.
I left the show happy and sweaty, exhausted from dancing, and excited for the Midnite show coming up March 8th at the Wonder Ballroom. Bambu and Midnite were both booked by the ambitious promoter Nicholas Harris, of Olympia's Ulotrichi Radio and Productions. He booked three stops for Bambu Station, and is also bringing The Gladiators to Berbati's on March 1st.