Another entry in the seemingly inexhaustible catalogue of Trojan re-releases offers, by definition, nothing new, but it does on this occasion offer something that might be interesting. In these double-CD releases, there is an attention to detail together with a distinct impression that they have been compiled by someone with a love for the music rather than a manager in the marketing department. Current releases are themed along various lines including Mento/R&B, Ska, Rock Steady, Original Reggae, Roots, Dub, DJ, Dancehall, Lovers’ Rock, Ragga and Classic Reggae.
Some of these sets, it has to be said, are more necessary than others. The ‘classic reggae’ collection, for instance, does include some indispensible tracks – notably Marley’s ‘Trench Town Rock’ – but elsewhere, as in Bruce Ruffin’s ‘Rain’ or Greyhound’s ‘Black and White’, there resides a slightly depressing reminder of how reggae was pasteurised to offer up largely British hits in the late 60s and early 70s, just as we were about to embark upon a grim decade of social disruption, economic crisis and political paralysis. Nothing like today of course. The commodified version of Bob Andy and Marcia Griffith’s ‘Young Gifted and Black’, with its orchestra and strings for a Top of the Pops era, is a reminder of how the music was sometimes diluted in comparison to the original unadorned treatment (available for instance on an earlier Trojan compilation, TJPCD 001) of a song that reflects the power of Nina Simone’s proud, brave, composition.
Other releases in the series are much more interesting. The Mento and R and B themed collection is an excellent way-in to some vital and little heard music. Predating both ska and reggae, mento was the authentic music of the time, combining elements of folk, popular music and the influence of American R and B, put together in rudimentary instrumental arrangements that are immediate and genuine, and from which traces of the later reggae styles can occasionally be gleaned. Of course, this authenticity doesn’t mean that the message was important. It usually wasn’t important at all, mento being the style favoured by audiences of tourists and those who just wanted to hear something that vaguely swung or was otherwise danceable. Appreciating it for what it was is essential here. Count Lasher’s ‘Talking Parrot’ tells a sad tale of a voluble bird almost exposing the singer’s extramarital activities, a sort of mento Carry On narrative, while, in some contrast, Lebby’s ‘Ethiopia’ is a very early commentary around those who ‘want to leave Jamaica and go back to Africa’. None other than Owen Gray offers a straight 12-bar R and B account of ‘Far Love’ and, in similar style (on CD2) there is Derrick Morgan’s straightforward ‘Fat Man’. Martin and Derrick’s highly obscure ‘Times Are A-Going’ (complete with “Cavalier’s Combo”) is a superb rocksteady track incorporating what would now be thought of as a Cajun-style accordion break, 2.5 minutes of unexpected happiness. Although there are some intriguing references to the events of the time, including Lord Laro’s ‘Referendum Calypso’ and Lord Creator’s ‘Independent Jamaica Calypso’, this isn’t rebel music in any sense. Its importance is musical. It’s impossible to understand where reggae came from without hearing this.
The Dub collection is strong indeed, including the King Tubby dub of the Keith Hudson standard ‘I’m Alright’, Niney the Observer’s ‘One Trainload of Dub’ and Rupie Edward’s ‘Buck Shot Dub’, one of the numerous available versions of ‘Ire Feelings’, itself originally a dub of Johnny Clarke’s ‘Everyday Wondering’. Also to be found here is Augustus Pablo’s benchmark dub track ‘King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown’, while CD2 brings us a couple of pleasing Lee Perry dubs in the shape of the Upsetters’ ‘Sipple Dub’ (from Max Romeo’s ‘War in a Babylon’) and the great Upsetters’ dub of Marley’s ‘Keep on Moving’, powering along as though there was no tomorrow. The dub collection closes on arguably the strongest cut of all, the Taxi Gang’s (Sly and Robbie) treatment of ‘Pit of Snakes’, aka ‘Social Living’, one of Burning Spear’s finest songs and with chord changes unique in the back catalogue of reggae. The track listing on digital playback isn’t right by the way, choosing to display the tracks for the Roots collection instead, presumably as a test of our resolve.
As for the Roots set itself, we find the exquisite ‘Curly Locks’ from Junior Byles (widely dubbed of course elsewhere at the hand of Lee Perry), ‘Guess who’s Coming to Dinner’ from Michael Rose, Lee Perry’s ‘Dreadlocks in Moonlight’, Culture’s ‘Two Seven’s Clash’, and the Congo’s ‘Fisherman’, for some reason called here ‘Row Fisherman Row’. The second CD brings us Max Romeo’s ‘Chase the Devil’ and closes with the classic ‘Bredda Gravillicious’ from the Wailing Souls. It’s impossible to fault anything included here or the selection itself.
The set devoted to Lovers’ Rock adopts a fairly wide definition of a term that usually, and rightly, refers to a London-based take on the received reggae tradition and here seems to denote anything vaguely about love which is, er, quite a lot of songs really. Thus it wanders into MOR territory frequently, to numbing effect once or twice, but it does manage to include some standout tracks such as Marcia Aitken’s ‘I’m Still in Love’, along with Janet Kay’s ‘Lovin’ You’ which is, indisputably, excellent lovers’ rock.
These are some thoughtful collections of key tracks from the reggae tradition. Not all of them are great, but within these compilations are one or two unexpectedly pleasant surprises that makes the overall exercise worthwhile.
Trojan Presents series, double-CD compilation format, released Summer 2011