Music and movies (Reggae)

In 1995 a group of young French film makers showed a side of Paris, a city known for culture & romance, that few tourists or cinema-goers had seen before. “La Haine” (The Hate) is about the lives of young working class youths living on the grim estates, the “banlieues”, on the periphery of the city. It is a cold eyed, beautifully filmed, life in a day of 3 friends in the aftermath of a riot. The opening credits set the tone.

Despite the disruption, even devastation, in your own neighbourhood there’s a sense of empowerment for a community involved in a riot. People who burn & loot act out of frustration, seeing themselves excluded from & discriminated against by those who make decisions which affect their lives. In 1981, even though I lived in the area, I had little involvement in the Brixton riots. I am white, I had a job, I could walk the streets at night without fear of police harassment, it was not my fight. The people I knew who were out on the streets felt that a point had been made.  The racist policies of the police would not stand, it was time to get up, stand up.

“La Haine” captures that time when choices are to be made. A youth with an attitude knows that getting hold of a gun changes his optionsHis friend, sick of violence met with violence, knows that it is time to speak his piece. It’s a gritty, grainy movie, as tough as it needs to be. Writer-director Mathieu Kassowitz captures the cultural & racial mix of modern France while we also got to see the talent of Vincent Cassell for the first time. In 2008 Cassell had his de Niro moment in the double header “Mesrine” movies. Those of us who had followed him since “La Haine” knew that he was one of the great cinema actors of his time. The dread, beat & blood of “Burning & Looting” establishes this uncompromising, militant & modern European movie.

In 1990 I had that riot of my own when a massive demonstration against the Poll Tax was, at first, badly supervised & then physically attacked. As we fought & won running battles with an outnumbered police force there was an exhilaration around Central London. I felt no desire to damage property or to steal from shops but I did want to assert my right to live in my own city on my own terms. The defeat of the police, violent defenders of an unpopular government tax, made the world look a little different when we walked through the middle of our city the next day. We did not know it at the time but our first female Prime Minister was taking her first steps as a dead woman walking that day.

Now your English skinhead movie is obviously not going to be as serious as the bloody French one. It sure isn’t “American History X” either. The opening montage of “This Is England”, a 2006 masterpiece by Shane Meadows, has plenty of social division, violence & war with enough footage of the recently deceased instigator of social disintegration & conqueror of the Falklands. There’s also Roland Rat, Space Invaders, Rubik’s Cube & a Royal Wedding. The shiny distracting baubles waved before us while those who create the wealth by their labour get shafted. I could spin you one about bread & circuses, about how nothing has changed in 30 years but I could put it no better than our Scorsese of the English provinces, “This Is England”.

So while “54-46 Was My Number” has Toots & the Maytals singing about life in prison it is not chanting down Babylon. It’s a dance yourself dizzy, skinhead boot stomp. Now your roots reggae hits the hips as well as the head but your Ska is more don’t think just dance. & that’s no criticism. British youth cults have always had their own dance music. The Ska revival of the early 1980s excavated & made its own great sounds. I can say little about “This Is England”, a film set in 1983 with a connection to such wonderful earlier British films as “Kes” &  “Scum” while still apposite to the personal & political in the 21st century. It has got to be seen.

Some time in 1970s Birmingham, in an off-Broad St fleapit (the Futurist ? Anyone ?), I saw Perry Henzell’s film “The Harder They Come”. Handsworth had come to the city centre. A packed audience, raised on Dirty Harry Callahan & Bruce Lee cheered Jimmy Cliff as rough, tough, survivin’ Ivan in a gritty, fresh vibrant snapshot of Island Life. Any chat about reggae in movies has to include this great film & a soundtrack LP in everyone’s Top 10 list. But…don’t watch that , watch this.

Director Ted Bafaloukos went to Jamaica to make a documentary about reggae culture. “Rockers” (1978) was given a thin Bicycle Thieves meets Robin Hood storyline & was released at the pictures as a drama. Studio One drummer “Horsemouth” Wallace starred in this cool, intimate portrait of life in JA, Gregory Isaacs, Big Youth, Robbie Shakespeare & others may not be the best actors but are great musicians.

This outstanding clip captures one of the island’s legends. Winston Rodney, known as Burning Spear, is one of reggae’s most spiritual artists, his connection to Africa in both his lyrics & his rhythms closer than most. Here he performs an acapella version of “Jah No Dead” a song from the “Social Living” LP, one of the outstanding run of records he released. To see the young Spear, to hear his sinuous passion. Well praise the divinity of your choice that someone was around to point  camera at this incredible performance. me, I’ll go with Jah because if Burning Spear believes that Jah lives then I’m not arguing. Nominated for best musical performance at the Academty Awards ? In our dreams.

When It Drops, You Gonna Feel It (Toots And The Maytals)

I first saw Perry Henzell’s  film “The Harder They Come”  in a rammed Birmingham cinema. It was loud, proud, colourful, smoky and so was the movie. Any technical flaws in this low budget film are more than off-set by the energy and imagination shown in telling  the story of Ivan (Jimmy Cliff), a Trenchtown rude boy who sees his only options for escape to be music or crime. Jamaican and Caribbean culture was making its contribution to British cities in the 1970s but West Indians were almost invisible in the mass media. This vibrant, compelling film put Jamaica on the big screen and got it right first time. It also had one of the great soundtrack albums. There was a lot of good music  from Jamaica and they picked some good ones.

“Sweet and Dandy” by the Maytals was the winner of the 1969 Jamaican popular song festival. Through the 60s they were one of the vocal groups who transposed the gospel-soul of the Impressions into gospel-ska. They were bang on the progression to reggae and were the biggest group in Jamaica. This song is so upfull, dance along, sing along, just feel it. I love it.

The Maytals became Toots and the Maytals. Toots Hibbert is a natural showman and a deal with a major label meant plans for him to be the next reggae superstar after Bob Marley. “54-46 That’s My Number” was written about some time he served in prison and has been a highlight of his live shows for just ever. Here, on a 1975 USA tour, the band funk around while Toots is a ball of energy and power.  Toots never sold shed-loads of records. The music seemed to be made for an international market when at this time more experimental cutting edge reggae made in Jamaica was the way to go. No matter, “Funky Kingston” and “Reggae Got Soul” are still great records. Toots had enough good songs in his back catalogue to ensure a great show.

From that run of 60s tunes I have chosen the sincere, soulful ska of “True Love” because, now that I am old, I find this straightforward tune to be so affecting and effective. When I worked on the construction sites Toots and the Maytals’ “Greatest Hits” was a surefire winner with everybody, every time. “Pressure Drop”, “Monkey Man”, even the John Denver cover “Country Roads” all sung with that warm,raspy, passionate vocal lift a person’s spirit in a life-affirming way…that’s a good thing, yeah ?