Reggae revival

By CHRIS FARAONE  |  May 21, 2009

"These stations have not only been instrumental in keeping Caribbean music alive in Boston," says Rodigan about off-frequencies like the now-defunct Choice 102.9 FM. "They're also the reason that someone with just a few hits gets heard enough that they can come to town and pack a show." Adds Lady Lee, who hosts a weekly Sunday hour called the Lion's Den on Vibe 105.3 FM: "The scene is very alive here — you can always hear the music no matter what time it is and where you are."

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Last month, Toussaint and Ajahni joined forces with Lady Lee at the Western Front in Cambridge. Lee — Boston’s only prominent female reggae “toaster” — says the local scene is still “very alive.”

Front and center
One major factor in Boston reggae's iron legacy is the Western Front — which opened outside of Central Square in 1968, and which began hosting regular shows around 1971. Currently home to nights like "Fiya Fridays" and live roots and "soca Saturdays," the Front has been a long-time Hub sanctuary for visiting acts like Colorado's Cool Runnings and such local heroes as the I-Tones and Zion Initiation — even though it's had its own troubles. Today, it stands as the only local venue to survive long after an infamous tragedy, when, in February 1987, two men were shot (and one was killed) during a concert. The rest of the troubled clubs folded or switched gears after just a few months.

"It has been consistent, because we change with the audience that's out there," says lifelong Western Front owner Marvin Gilmore (whose son, David, teaches guitar at Berklee). He must be doing something right — there have been no problems for more than two decades, and operations on Western Avenue appear to be business as usual. "I like reggae because it brings peace, and because anybody can dance to it," adds Gilmore. "We have maintained that vibe and that blend here for that long, and we have done it quietly — with no publicist or anything."

While the Western Front has been the rare constant, Boston's reggae community has for the most part been nomadic — always relying on the same word of mouth on which the Cambridge staple built its rep. (Gilmore used to have a crude Web site, but didn't bother renewing his URL and now has no online presence whatsoever.) The earliest mega tours came through Paul's Mall and the old Boston Music Hall on Tremont Street, while in the 1980s major draws generally rocked the Channel in Fort Point. After the latter closed in 1991— around the time the dancehall reggae subgenre caught fire — the energy mostly transferred to the Windsor Cricket Club in Mattapan, where giants including Shabba Ranks, Shinehead, and Super Cat made their Boston debuts.

Perhaps the most cherished recurring live reggae bill came every Sunday night at Bill's Bar, where Kyle Russell's band Dub Station backed hundreds of singers in its 13-year run, up through last year. After that stint, Russell's group — which has also collaborated with such respected artists as Abijah and Jus Goodie on US and Jamaican tours — sporadically swelled Bill's until its sudden closing this past March. "I moved to Boston in 1986, when it was known as the place for reggae," says Brazilian-schooled Yale grad Russell, who, in the past few months, has begun to expand his KRucial Reggae promotion and management venture into California. "Even though reggae has always suffered from reverse colonialism — in that people automatically consider it better if it comes from somewhere else — there's a continued momentum around Boston."

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