All I knew about reggae in high school was Eric Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff.” The summer I graduated would be the beginning of something new. On an afternoon at UVA and a night gazing into Poe’s sealed room on the The Range, I would start a journey into understanding the music of Jamaica. At first I think I was probably just a reggae loving wannabe, but the truth was coming from an unlikely person and in an unlikely place.
The unwrapping of wisdom may come at any time. Butterflies floating by may stir the consciousness about the cumulative effects of wind. A free refill at a restaurant may inspire a movement to help feed the homeless. Who knows why this is the way, but wisdom is everywhere and we must be wise enough to find the value in our experiences.
My first steps into real reggae happened at the University of Virginia. It’s been too long to remember which building, but the band was the Awareness Art Ensemble. Having grown up in Williamsburg with the powdered wigs and mullets in training, I had not seen dreadlocks before. The long bands of hair were hypnotic, each piece swaying to the beat and expressing the emotion of the singer. I have no idea what songs they were singing, but I can see those dreads dancing against the white wall of the concert hall as if I was still there. I crossed into the same zone as the dreads and my mousse matted pre-gray hair rocked that easy beat until the show was over.
After the show, a few of us decided to walk around the campus. This was the last night of the Young Writer’s Program and we had permission to stay out as late as we wanted. I wanted to enjoy the night for all it was worth because in a couple of weeks I would be starting college and truth be told, I was nervous about the whole thing. The music had started something in me. It freed me of small-town and opened me up to a new vibe. The next day I went home and it was back to the routine, Busch Gardens and putt-putt.
Finally, it was time for college to start. I arrived with a few things, but most importantly my cassette case that was full of music. It was still a less than diverse collection of classic rock and roll, although EWF, The Commodores, and Michael Jackson claimed a few slots. Those first days of college are rough and I didn’t know anyone on my side of campus. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to stay, but the bookstore would change my attitude about Norfolk. It was there in a long line with an armful of overpriced books that the next step of my reggae journey would be taken. In a bin next to the checkout area were “Super Saver” cassettes. On top was one called, “Sense of Purpose,” by Third World. I went ahead and made the investment of $1.99 and headed back to my dorm.
UVA was my first. It was quick and left a feeling that resonates today. ODU was second, but in no way sloppy or less meaningful. Perhaps destiny had stepped up and put “Sense of Purpose” in my path to see if I was serious about reggae or just a player looking to score whenever the mood was right. I wish I could have said that I was a serious reggae student at this point, but my knowledge lacked depth and the wrinkles of knowledge that come with an acceptance of the energies swirling around a person. My visits to Peaches in downtown Norfolk would be battles between my familiarity with Dire Straits, Phil Collins and Bruce Hornsby and the risk of anything in the reggae section. I added Bob Marley’s, “Legend,” to my collection and would proclaim myself as a fan of reggae.
The fates led me back to Williamsburg. After wading in the world outside of what I knew, I was back in the friendly confines of the Colonial Capital. Classic rock kept dominion over my musical tastes and rap never grabbed me the way Run DMC and Aerosmith hoped it would. I was a reggae fan and my collection had grown to include UB40. The thing about wisdom is that we don’t know what we don’t know and it takes the influence of a teacher to show us the avenues to greater knowledge. I was going to college and working in the most sanitized health club ever. There were no weights, just compressed air and days filled polishing chrome that collected more dust than sweat.
One day the door to the club opened and the new guy came walking in. He was no deity, but the light behind him gave him a sense of grace. He was freakishly thin, ridiculously tanned, and braided his blonde hair to start growing white boy dreads. I have no idea how he got his job because he knew nothing about fitness, smelled of cigarettes, and had no sense of hospitality. He would be my reggae guru.
“What’s up, man. My name’s, Chris.”
“Cool, I’m Rob.”
With that began what would never be a friendship or even a working relationship. Rob would not last in the fitness center for more than a few weeks, but he would survive in the gift shop out front for a few months. During his time behind the door he would help me to understand that there is more to the reggae culture than listening to Bob.
“Chris, what kind of music do you listen to?”
“I don’t know. Lots of stuff, classic rock, punk, reggae.”
“Reggae? Who do like there?” he asked.
“Third World, UB40, I guess that’s about it.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you’re just another reggae fan poser. Do you have a record player?”
“No, but my brother does.”
“Cool, I’m going to change your life.”
Rob came to work the next day with a crate full of albums. He put them on the counter in the locker room and told me to take them home, turn off the lights, and just listen. When I got home I crawled through the closet of my room into the closet of my brother’s room and grabbed his turn table, which also had the capability of dubbing records to tapes. Getting through the closets was tough. The walls were pitched, shoes were everywhere, and the record player was hard to carry while I was hunched over. Stepping back into my room allowed me to stretch out like a baby taking those first few breaths.
The first album I played was by Aswad. The singer came on and said, “This is live and direct. You know what live and direct means. It means it’s live and direct.” I was hooked. There was an energy in the recording that took me back to UVA. I felt joy in the rebel lyrics and could see the dreads flying again. Burning Spear, Toots, and Peter Tosh would follow. All were inspiring. All brought influence. The music was taking me higher than I had been because no body I knew listened to this stuff. It was tapping into my independent streak and allowing me to grow. I could appreciate the importance of Bob Marley in the context of these new-to-me artists. I could feel what Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones had tried to do, but real reggae was elusive and this collection was helping me find the groove.
Then I played Gregory Isaacs.
Finding wisdom is an awesome weight. When I heard Gregory Isaacs singing, “Night Nurse” and “Mr. Cop,” I was in a different place. I felt happy, excited, and angry. His voice gave off a sexy vibe, but cut to the bone with it’s commentary on whatever the scenario was. Gregory was different than Marley and he would never get the commercial accolades that have followed the Bob Marley industrial machine, but he opened my awareness of reggae’s potential for happy protest.
I dubbed each album and cherished the cassettes as if they were an audio new testament. Each group were Jamaican prophets spreading the gospel to enlighten me. Their messages still call with insistence. Each Spring I find myself needing to escape the doldrums of Winter and queue up some reggae. One summer I found myself in the serenity of thousands in a dusty Tennessee field dancing for an entire Ziggy Marley concert. On a cab ride to the airport in Boston, my friends and I were serenaded by the driver passionately singing a Gregory Isaacs medley. As I’m writing now, it’s hard to type because my fingers want to keep the beat with Aswad’s, “Not Guilty,” which appropriately enough is playing on Easter Sunday. Coincidence? No.
Wisdom comes in strange ways. We have to be ready for it and the deliverer of such messages may not be obvious. I hope that my reggae experiences have allowed me to be wiser. Maybe listening to reggae is nothing more than entertainment and the wisdom I carry is in knowing that there is more to the world than Bob Marley. Maybe it’s in knowing that digging a little opens a person to a greater variety of life.
As Gregory said, “I like it like that.”
Photo Credit: By Foto: Dubdem e FabDub. dubdem sound system. (Dubdem Sound System :: Jamaican Tour 2009) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons