Reggae revival

Booming in Boston's underground, Caribbean riddims are about to burst back into the mainstream
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  May 21, 2009

09052_regga-main124

Upcoming reggae shows in Boston.

Timeline: Reggae in Boston

Photos from Peter Simon's Reggae Scrapbook

The climate is tropical, sweet skunk fills the air, and reggae jams are hitting such lofty decibels that I can't even feel my phone vibrate. To my right is a college kid with foggy black frames, dancing like a drunken ostrich. Beside him is a sexy tattooed co-ed, advertising her nipple rings through a sweaty tan tank top. And to my left — halfway across the room — is an island dude sporting the single fattest dreadlock that I've ever ogled. Contrary to what I would have expected, white boys are swigging Red Stripe, while Rastafarians are sipping Budweiser. "Just understand dis," one regular tells me: "It's cheapa."

I'm not in Montego Bay, or even South Florida, where at least palm trees and sweltering heat manifest convincing Caribbean illusions. I'm at the Western Front in Cambridge, eight blocks outside of Central Square and about 2000 miles from Trenchtown. And this is a typical Friday night here at the Front, where reggae and West Indian music have invigorated (and also aggravated) neighbors of the residentially situated two-story club every weekend for almost four decades. Halfway through the show, as Lady Lee (Boston's only prominent female reggae MC, or "toaster") cues her band and grabs two comparably angel-lunged male cohorts, Ajahni and Toussaint, for an encore, the spectacled kid — slipping into a sudden Pentecostal-esque spell — faints in the arms of his chesty homegirl. The music is so consuming, though, that hardly anybody notices. So, noble Samaritan that I am, I leave my Red Stripe on the bar and drag him to the bathroom to splash tap water on his face.

Reggae is now a much neglected genre. There are rarely any stories on local or nationally touring reggae acts in Boston's dailies, and there's not even a Boston Music Award for Outstanding Reggae Act. In fact, since its boom in the late 1970s — thanks primarily to the ascension of Bob Marley to international superstar and Third World ambassador, but also to a number of British artists (from Eric Clapton to the Clash) incorporating or covering reggae in their work — reggae has been marginalized by the pop-culture crowd. It's been written off as a musically adolescent tangent for slackers and hippies too stoned to know the difference. But it still has the power to mesmerize (and to cause seemingly able-bodied men to pass out).

Case in point: while the mainstream has slept on reggae, Beantown's roots and dancehall scenes are blazing, nursed by both a loyal and ever-growing West Indian population and an adventurous college demographic. There are even signs that reggae is once again ready to bite a serious slice of commercial pie in the Boston market. Recently, roots-dancehall hybrids (and North Shore natives) Nomad-I and Mighty Mystic packed the Paradise in February; the new House of Blues drew more than 1800 heads for once-Boston-based white-reggae outfit John Brown's Body in April; and fans from Lynn to Roxbury got their first dedicated Caribbean radio station, the pirate Big City 101.3 FM, in 2007. This summer's concert schedule is loaded with reggae events, from Burning Spear and Beres Hammond, to Shaggy and Caucasian prodigy Collie Buddz in June, many of which will sell out the city's largest arenas. Berklee-spawned Boston reggae champions Hot Like Fire will celebrate their 20th anniversary next Friday. Through it all, Blue Hill Avenue remains a booming and authentic strip for cutting-edge Caribbean riddims.

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