REGGAE is not just music, it's also a cultural mission of sorts, a struggle to spread the word about Jah Rastafari. That's not to say that every reggae musician is by necessity a Rastafarian, but it is worth remarking that the most convincing reggae artists are those whose sound is fueled by that religious fury.
Ras Tesfa, for instance. Although born in Jamaica, Tesfa has made New York his home. But rather than dilute his fervor, life in Babylon on the Hudson has only intensified it. Just listen to "Rome-antixs," from his first album, "The Voice of the Rastaman," and it's clear just how little he thinks of contemporary American mores, especially when that song is contrasted against the righteous Rastafarian passion of "Black Lady-Love."
Or observe how "Cross the Tracks" updates an old racial rhyme to score a telling truth about contemporary color barriers. Sure, Tesfa takes a rather extreme view, but his delivery, halfway between Mutabaruka's zealous pronouncements and Peter Tosh's bemused wisdom, makes that stance seem all the more reasonable.
Of course, not every reggae fan listens for wisdom. For many, it's the beat that says it all, and for those fans, Joe Higgs must seem like a breath of fresh air. Although "Triumph!" manages to avoid most issues of any weight, Higgs nonetheless delivers his tunes with gritty fervor, sounding at his best like a gutsier version of Toots Hibbert, thus proving that with the right groove, meaning is often only secondary.
RAS TESFA -- "The Voice of the Rastaman" (Meadowlark 401);
JOE HIGGS -- "Triumph!" (Alligator AL 8313); Higgs opens for Tesfa Friday at Kilimanjaro's Heritage Hall.