Archive for October, 2010

Concrete Jungle: A Fan’s Search for Reggae in Chicago

October 27, 2010

Bob Marley and The Wailers "Exodus"

Written by William Maxwell Kellerman (Originally Written in 2008)

I was deprived until Friday, January 23rd, 2008, when my prayers were finally answered. I had been away from home for about a year and a half and had still yet to experience what Chicago truly had to offer me. Finally my wait was over. I got off the southbound, Redline el train at the State/Lake stop and saw the House of Blues from across the Chicago River. It was winter in Chicago, so I was freezing.

Of all the assimilations I was going to have to make by living alone, in a city I had never been to, 1,500 miles from home, the music scene would have been the last one I had expected. I thought a city as culturally rich and diverse as Chicago has to have every kind of music.  In my hometown of Santa Cruz, Ca, where it is rumored to be the largest concentration of white people with dreadlocks in the country, reggae music is the most popular genre.

Santa Cruz Days, a yearly reggae festival, lasts three, full days and has featured acts such us Bob Marley’s sons Damian and Stephen, Matisyahu, Bunny Wailer of Bob Marley and the Wailers, Steel Pulse, Eek-A-Mouse, Gregory Isaacs, and Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace of the cult, 1970’s film Rockers. Growing up in one of the most prolific reggae music areas in the world, I was let down when I went to buy a ticket for the Chicago reggae festival in the fall of 2007. It was the first time ever the festival was to be held, was only a half day of music, and nearly $50 for a single ticket. The festival has been cancelled this year due, according to the website, to “lack of sponsors support.”

I became worried that Chicago didn’t have a big reggae scene. Judging from my first experience with Chicago reggae, I was going to have trouble finding a lot people as interested in it as I was. One way to gauge interest I thought was to investigate how many musicians were out seeking reggae musical equipment. Tim Joyce, a young, stocky man with a humongous beard, is the Director of Retail operations at the Old Town school of Folk Music. Old Town school is a fifty year old, musical landmark in the Lincoln Park area of Chicago that boasts an instrument shop, classrooms, and an auditorium, seated style venue.

“When you say Chicago, reggae is not the first thing that comes to mind. It’s not huge. On a weekly basis, only one or two people come into the shop a week asking for reggae specialty equipment or lessons.” He explained. Although the school did have a popular reggae ensemble class as well as reggae spin nights once a week in the resource center, Tim felt like he didn’t run into it much. “Reggae comes in waves in Chicago.” Tim said, citing his years as a music major at Loyola University Chicago, “When I was in college in the early ‘90’s, reggae was more on the front burner.”

To see which burner reggae was currently on, I went around the Loyola campus talking to students who I knew were originally from the Chicago area. Matt Leo is a twenty-year old, Loyola sophomore from Mount Prospect, Il. “Mount Prospect is where the Blues Brothers get their car from in the movie.” Was his answer when I asked him “Where is Mount Prospect?” He confessed, even being a huge fan of music and living near a culturally diverse and rich city, he had “never once been to a reggae show. We just don’t have those bands out here. All my friends are in jam bands, we have a strong and young jam band scene.”

Seeking out a representative of the jam band crowd, I met another Loyola student named Erik Wood. He can be seen around campus on any given day wearing a tie die or grateful dead t-shirt. Today it was both, with four dancing bears over a backdrop of splotchy, light green dye. It was amazing that with his fondness of the Dead, the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, and his vice presidential post in the campus Libertarian club, that he was strongly against drugs of any kind. He had also been born and raised in Illinois and had limited contact with reggae music.  “I have some friends who listen to Bob Marley.” He said. “Reggae is not popular here in Chicago. I think it’s a geographical thing. Reggae requires beach.”

David O’Neill is another Loyola student who grew up in the town of Los Gatos, California, which is only about a twenty or so minute drive from my hometown of Santa Cruz. We do not share the same taste in music, but he grew up a witness to the reggae scene I was a part of in high school. “It probably is a culture difference. Could have to do with climates and attitudes too. California is just definitely a more laid back attitude, and it has the beach.” O’Neill said.

Matt Leo, who contacted me several times after our first conversation to elaborate on my questions, agreed with Erik’s regional explanation. “It’s a culture and geographical difference. People in Chicago aren’t laid back.” He said. Offering a different and business-orientated approach, he supposed, “See, there aren’t any reggae record labels out here. It’s like Yonder (Mountain String Band.) They are from Chicago, but they had to move to Colorado to get signed because that’s where are the folk rock labels are.”

Reckless Records is one of the most popular and well-known franchises of record shops in the Chicago metropolitan area. It was where a lot of Loyola students said they go shopping records. I couldn’t find the reggae record section in the store off the Belmont el stop without the direction of an employee. It was a single crate of thirty some records tucked in a corner with ‘world music’ an arms length away from the main vein of rock, punk, and rap record racks.

When I asked if I could talk to someone about reggae the employee I had asked got quite excited and told me to “Check back in an hour and ask for Thaddeus.” Thaddeus Phipps was probably in his mid-thirties but kept referring to himself as an “old man”, and didn’t sound as enthusiastic as his fellow Reckless employee had about the prospect of him talking about reggae. When asked if he had seen any good reggae shows recently he answered, “I don’t get out much anymore. I’m an old, married man now.” He admitted that Reckless did have a rather “small selection. We just go through new product much faster and sell the used ones in batches. We still do fine in reggae sales.” Thaddeus endorsed Tim Joyce’s theory of reggae being streaky. “There is an audience for reggae, but it’s a different audience. People in Chicago are open music minded, but there are more niche markets.” After a heavy sigh that told me he had said all he had to say and was sorry but he “wasn’t the right guy to ask.” When I asked him why his fellow employee had suggested that I talk to him he responded, “Because I moved here from northern California and that’s all we listened too there.”

It was not easy to find a premiere reggae band based out of Chicago. Myspace music, the Internet standard for a band to publicize their music, tours, videos, etc., had zero bands in their 100 “top artists” independent label, major label, and unsigned categories respectively from the state of Illinois that identified themselves as reggae. If there ever were a band that would fit the premiere and reggae criteria, it would be the Gypsi Fari Reggae band. Gypsi Fari formed in Chicago in 1977 and, as close friends of Bob Marley, went to Kingston, Jamaica to record many of their original tracks. In 1980, they received the Jamaican peace award while opening for the famous, reggae act Third World in Kingston.

When I called Floyd Donaldson, percussionist and cofounder of the Gypsi Fari Reggae band, he answered with a normal greeting and tone and told me that he would call me back in an hour when he was done teaching his Hales Franciscan high school music class. When he did call back, it was with a thunderous, Rastafarian, “Greetings in the name of his majesty emperor Selassie I, ever loving, ever living!” This was followed by some indecipherable, Jamaican slang phrases. Once he had finished I asked him about reggae in Chicago. “We were the first! And when we started it was like, ‘What the hell are you guys doing!?!’” he proclaimed. “But reggae is for all people, people’s music, God’s music, the devil don’t like it.” Although Donaldson was adamant about reggae being still highly prevalent in Chicago, he admitted, “There is just too much music man. Music, music, music, music, music. Chicago is a ubiquity city for music, and all the Midwest has in Chicago. Competition here is so tight, some acts are afraid to come out.”

Donaldson went on and on about the popularity of world famous, reggae bands like Steel Pulse, Third World, and Eek-A-Mouse in Chicago. “Steel Pulse would sell out here twice a year.” He said proudly. However, when I pointed out to him that both Steel Pulse did not book a show in Chicago on their 2009 tour, he launched into an animated rant on how new reggae was “distorting the message. People see them and say ‘Oh no! Here come gangbanging drug dealers with girls in the videos grinding on each other, trying to have sex with each other on stage.’” He then reassured me that “That is dying out though. Roots is coming back. One God, one aim, one destiny, and youths don’t understand that. But when it does all those reggae acts are coming back in a heartbeat.”

On the way to see one such triumphant return, I felt nervous walking across the N State Street Bridge towards the House of Blues. I had been unsuccessful at convincing, even out of pity, anyone else to buy the $30 ticket to see the concert with me. A tall, Black man in a leather jacket walking the opposite direction asked me for some money and when I gave the involuntary, polite decline he asked me if I was “going to see the reggae show.” I had left my authentic, Rastafarian beanie at home because I was afraid of being the only white guy wearing African colors in the venue, and my t-shirt that features Bob Marley’s portrait was covered by my flannel, so I couldn’t figure out how he could’ve guessed.

The most animate patrons I met in the lobby were a French, tourist couple who were visibly upset, “It’s sold out! We came so far!” the man yelled in a thick accent. It wasn’t sold out at the time, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if it were. The Wailer’s, band of Bob Marley, an artist synonymous with reggae music, were set to perform the album Exodus in its entirety. With hits including “Jammin’”, “Three Little Birds”, and “One Love”, Exodus was Time magazine’s “best music album of the 20th century” and widely considered Bob Marley’s greatest and most popular work. I was relieved when it actually did sell out. An opportunity for this culmination of reggae music in Chicago did not go unnoticed.

I stood in the middle of the floor level crowd towards the back but was still close enough to see the faces of the musicians. When the band came out, they proceeded to play an eight-minute instrumental, featuring solos by the various instruments. Jam band enthusiast Erik would have approved. The guy next to me did not. He turned his shaved head to the two girls he was with and linked several complaints together as, “This is long.” “I don’t know this song.” “Is this song off the album?”

When lead singer Elan Atias eventually took the stage and kicked into Rita Marley’s upbeat “So Much Things to Say Right Now”, there was an incredible amount of applause and cheering in the crowd. However, no one in the crowd started singing along until the fourth, driving track of “The Heathen.” Atias ran up and down the stage the entire show and was flailing his limbs animatedly, far more enthusiastic than anyone in the crowd. Several times over the course of the show he would stand over the edge of the stage and extend his arms to the crowd as if in plea, like he wanted something more from them. When they were rounding out the set with “One Love”, I had an arm put around my shoulders and my waist on opposite sides to find I had been assumed into a swaying
chorus line with a dozen other concert goers. Singing along, hand in hand, I was overcome by optimism. I think they got it.

The band took a short break after the first set and returned to play for another two hours. Every time they finished a song, either Atias would just start singing another Marley song or the entire band would turn and look at the bass player. Sixty-two year old Aston Barrett is the only original member of The Wailers band. Aston, his brother Carlton, and Bob Marley were the creative forces behind the songs and act that made Bob Marley world famous in the late ‘70’s early ‘80’s. So the half a dozen times when the band turned to their leader in Aston on the bass, he would just shake his head and say “Keep playing. Keep playing.”

After nearly three hours of Bob Marley songs, most attendees had had their fill. I progressively had made my way to the front as more and more people trickled out and put my forearms up on the chest high stage and listened intently to the ballad of “No Woman, No Cry.” When I turned around I saw that most of the crowd had left or retreated to the bar.

The opening band, Tomorrow’s Bad Seeds, lead singer Moises “Moi” Juarez raved, “Amazing. All these people in such a cool venue is really sweet.” Moi had taken the stage and received a terrific crowd reaction when he came out during The Wailer’s encore to sing Peter Tosh’s third verse in the militant “Get up, Stand up.” Tomorrow’s Bad Seeds band manager, known only as Steb, was also pleased with the Chicago turn out. When asked about other crowds in comparison to Chicago’s, he answered, “The crowds have been crazy everywhere.
People just hear the name ‘Bob Marley and the Wailers’ and they show up in numbers no matter where it is.”

According to Steb’s experience, Chicago can appreciate reggae music just like any other place across the country. I was still skeptical until this past April when I bought an album for the first time in years. It was a complete, reggae cover of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I copied it onto my lab top and haven’t seen it since because everyone I meet at Loyola University Chicago wants a copy of it. I did not expect it to be so widely accepted and desired because I thought it dangerous to take a band that a lot of young people here at school were familiar with and present it in a genre that they’re not familiar with. “Its really good, like really good.” Matt Leo assured Erik Wood as I handed it to him. Erik got back to me that same night to tell me that is was amazing and he gave it an enthusiastic “9 thumbs up.”

Go figure that it was a reggae Beatle’s album that brought it all full circle. Music is always referred to as the universal language, and that must be true if reggae music can reach all the way out to a place where everything dies in the cold for five months out of the year. There is reggae here in Chicago, even though there is no beach.

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