Review - Reggae Britannia: Documentary & Concert BBC 11/02/11.
With the sad decline of general interest in reggae in the UK over the past 10-15 years and continued problems in the domestic industry, here was a rare and welcome opportunity to highlight this still vibrant and creative musical force and remind the wider public of its rich heritage on national TV. I've been moved to comment.
The documentary started well enough though it soon became apparent that the format was to be (the now well over-used) music-historiography. The programme narrates the development of UK reggae from its earliest beginnings as imported by the West Indian communities, through its growing popularity in general society, to its direct influence on the homegrown ska and urban genres that followed and centres around interviews with various reggae, ska and rock luminaries. Despite some great footage, the music is sometimes given too little opportunity to tell the story itself with a predictable over-emphasis on narration. Short musical samples fade in and out, sometimes inappropriately, but one can only, nonetheless, enjoy seeing and hearing such musical greatness on telly...
The earliest phases, sound system, the Trojan years, the advent of roots music and the emergence of a UK reggae sound are well reported but as punk, 2tone and 'white reggae' gained prominence in the 70s, so our attention is drawn more and more to that music. While The Specials, The Clash, The Police, Eric Clapton, The Beat, Pauline Black and others made undeniably superb music and contributed massively to our social integration, British reggae artists tend to be overlooked. We see crucial early footage of Aswad, Steel Pulse and UB40 but other leading groups, legends like The Cimarons, Matumbi, Black Slate, Misty In Roots, Capital Letters, Black Roots, Pablo Gad, King Sounds, Pato Banton, Macka B, Mad Professor, Bloodfire Posse, Papa Levi, The Naturalites & Realistics, Creation Roots (the list goes on) are not even mentioned. Cho!! We gain solider ground once lovers rock and Fashion/Saxon are highlighted. Dennis Bovell reminds us that ''lovers rock is the UK sound'' and we see some irie clips of Sugar Minott, Janet Kay and Carol Thompson but, again, so many are overlooked... Peter Hunningale, Louisa Marks, Sandra Cross, Don Campbell, Kofi, Amazulu, even Maxi Priest! Good to see Tippa Irie in action on Saxon though its a shame no mention is made of the late-80s raggamuffin sound wars and no connection made to house music and the birth of rave, jungle, bassline & grime sound systems. The popular UK dub scene of the 90s is also totally ignored as is pirate radio. Adrien Sherwood's On-USound label and bands like Dub Syndicate, African Headcharge and RDF deserve a mention, and does anyone remember Dominic?
There is, in fact, nothing at all said about UK reggae beyond Jazzy B and Soul II Soul (sic) in 1988 and the dismal closing statement reads ''... and though reggae as we knew it had passed away, its musical descendants survive and flourish''. This mirrors Lloyd Bradley's assertion (in his book Bass Culture) that quality reggae more or less died with Bob Marley, highly contentious in the eyes of most followers of Jamaican-rooted music. Such views would only be aired here in Britain. Reggae is as relevant and popular worldwide as ever. Stage shows and festivals are regularly well attended by ever widening audiences and the business is better funded in Europe, Latin America and the US (and money is made too). It is puzzling as to why decline, characterized by the demise of Jet Star Records and buyout of Greensleeves, has been so marked in the UK or why the major broadcasters fail to spot and promote any of our contemporary British reggae talents. Why do our first rate artists, people like Lloyd Brown or Roger Robin, The Rasi-Ites Band and rising stars like Guppy Ranks not even make it onto late night TV & radio shows like Joolz? We have very few UK artists of their vocal caliber in any musical genre, style or fashion on telly, innit! London used to be the 2nd capital of Reggae. It is now a backwater. Reggae Britannia sheds no light on this.
This golden opportunity to really push the music and get the message out, that reggae is a current and continuous movement here in the UK, one that reaffirms and builds on its great past. That we need to embrace it as an important segment of our musical spectrum and give it the coverage it deserves (and badly requires). And that we have major reggae talent here in the UK now, has been squandered. This over-Anglicised presentation tells it from a big label viewpoint and places way too much value on commercial success, condemning UK reggae to the 'musical history' recycle bin. My disappointment is complete. We need a genuine, grassroots exploration of the subject, one that really promotes the contemporary and places it in a proper global perspective. Maximum respect to those who continue to support the music.
The BBC concert that followed was good to watch but hardly crucial. It was great to see legends like Dave Barker, Dennis Alcapone, Big Youth and especially Ken Boothe once more. For me the special highlight was seeing Brindley Forde. Bwoy, its been too long... Dennis Bovell was MC for the night. Winston Reedy, Janet Kay, Carol Thompson, Rico, Nevelle Staples, The Selector and Ali Campbell were also there. There is little musical improvisation (apart from strings and an occasional big horn section) and a general big people's music vibe - a trip up memory lane, that, while pleasant enough, only goes to reinforce the idea that reggae is old music for old people. Once again, where were our younger artistes?
Directed by Jeremy Marre.
Narration by Ruby Turner.