In 1973 reggae seemed poised to become the next big thing in pop music. "The Harder They Come," the film starring Jimmy Cliff, had developed an enthusiastic following in North America, and the Wailers' "Burnin'," which included the original version of "I Shot the Sheriff," had become an international breakthrough album.
Now, a dozen years later, reggae's time still hasn't arrived in the United States. Instead reggae has assumed a more modest role analogous to that of the blues. Like the blues, reggae boasts some truly gifted, innovative artists, whose impact is felt far more by pop musicians than by pop audiences.
Jimmy Cliff is trying to break out of the reggae bins at the back of the record store and to reach the prominent pop displays at the front. On his newest album, "Cliff Hanger" (Columbia FC 40002), Cliff works with Kool & the Gang producer Amir Bayyan to give a North American techno-funk wallop to the reggae beat. Unlike Third World, whose compromise between reggae and funk resulted in a mediocre muddle, Cliff uses Bayyan's horns, synths, electric drums and female vocals to supplement his reggae vocals and reggae band -- not to replace them.
No one will mistake this album for a traditional reggae record: Bayyan's synthesized drums explode like cannon beneath every song. Yet Cliff's vocals still have that island lilt; they radiate that yearning idealism so essential to every great reggae record. Of course, it helps that Cliff is one of the best singers Jamaica has produced; his voice stays strong and steady even as it rises from a gritty shout into the highest regions of his pure tenor.
Though "Cliff Hanger" contains two catchy, charming love songs, most of Cliff's songs are still devoted to the ongoing battle between the oppressed and the powerful. When he shouts that he will fight back against "the bear and eagle" by "Hitting With Music," the Kool & the Gang horns come charging right behind him. Cliff's fight hasn't changed since "The Harder They Come" -- he has simply picked up new allies for a new battleground.
Bob Marley, reggae's John Lennon and Bob Dylan all in one, left an enormous vacuum when he died at 36 in 1981. Much as Julian Lennon has tried to fill his father's place, 17-year-old David (Ziggy) Marley is trying to do the same. Like the younger Lennon, Ziggy Marley both looks and sounds like his dad. Fortunately, Ziggy doesn't resort to the embarrassingly callow ballads that Julian writes. Instead the young Marley creates a lively, rocking brand of reggae that is clearly in his father's tradition, if not yet up to his standards.
The Melody Makers include all four Marley children, but it is Ziggy who writes the songs and sings the leads. On their new album, "Play the Game Right" (Tuff Gong/EMI ST-17165), the Melody Makers are backed by many of their dad's former musicians, who give even the more derivative songs a legitimacy. The sibling singing is fresh and appealing, and Ziggy writes spry, brisk tunes that he bounces through most personably.
His lyrics are mostly cliche'd chants about Rastafarianism, though. "Naah Leggo" and "What a Plot" hold out hope that he may yet evolve into a more substantial writer. Nonetheless, nothing else on the album approaches the detail and power of Bob Marley's "Children Playing in the Street." The Melody Makers first recorded it when their father was still alive, and now they reprise it with Ziggy's maturity giving it new weight.
Bob Marley first formed the Wailers with Neville (Bunny Wailer) Livingston and Peter Tosh, who each eventually left to pursue his own career. Bunny Wailer's first all-new studio album in four years, "Marketplace" (Shanachie SM LP 010), is devoted to irresistibly contagious dance reggae. Anchored by the legendary rhythm section of drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare, the record boasts a dance-floor back beat to rival the old Motown singles. Anyone who ever enjoyed UB40's dance reggae should discover how good it can sound with a lighter touch and a real lead singer.
Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare have not only played with nearly every reggae artist but also with such pop stars as Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Joe Cocker. For their new album, "Language Barrier" (Island 90286-1), Sly & Robbie have joined forces with an all-star assembly of their North American admirers, including Dylan, Herbie Hancock, Afrika Bambaataa and Funkadelic's Bernie Worrell and Mike Hampton. Produced by Material's Bill Laswell, the record's songs sound much more like the avant-garde funk of Hancock and Material than like the leaders' reggae roots. Just the same, the album excels at what it sets out to do. The rhythms sound more human and flexible than on Hancock's records, and for their variation on Miles Davis' "Black Satin," Sly & Robbie sound like a space-age version of Booker T. & the MGs.
Sly Dunbar also plays on the more traditional reggae of Peter Broggs' "Rise and Shine" (RAS 3011) on Washington's own RAS Records. An all-star band -- including Augustus Pablo and the original Wailers -- provides a hypnotic, loping rhythm, and Broggs sings in a warm, relaxed style that's disarming.