Regi-regi. It’s a Jamaican phrase used to describe someone’s ragged clothes. By the end of the 1960s, when ska and bluebeat were in full flow, the phrase had morphed in to the singular reggae, used to describe the ragged, rough ‘round the edges music that was being created hourly in the studios around Kingston before blasting from all corners of Orange Street the same day. It might have been a wee bit rough around the edges, but there’s little in the way of pretence in reggae. It’s straightforward, honest and soulful, politically-charged dance music.
Unlike other musical genres, reggae in all its guises is a relatively young form of music. There were recording studios in Jamaica as far back as the 1950s, recording the local folk and calypso groups, but the ska and bluebeat sounds that would come to define the island’s musical heritage were still a decade or so away. When New Orleans jazz started to filter south to Jamaica, the locals began playing their own version, taking their cue from the freeform trumpet lines and sliding trombones of their North American counterparts. A new sound – ska –was created. The word ‘ska’ was taken from the sound the hi-hat made as it was played with frantic abandon on the off-beat – ‘ska-ska-ska-ska’. Seemingly overnight, Jamaicans had their own form of music.
It wasn’t until the locals started picking up American radio stations that things began to get a bit more interesting. The mid 60s soul scene transferred particularly well to the islands and, like a million other songwriters before and since, the local musicians were dab (or should that be ‘dub’?) hands at appropriating the best parts of the records they liked before turning them into tunes of their own. I’ve written before about this on Plain Or Pan, but to keep things on the one page, contrast and compare Aretha Franklin‘s loose ‘n funky Rocksteady with The Marvels track of the same name. Then listen to Sound Dimension‘s lightly toasted, fully roasted Granny Scratch Scratch. Talent borrows, genius steals, as I’m sure Noel Gallagher has said.
Aretha Franklin – Rocksteady
The Marvels – Rocksteady
Sound Dimension – Granny Scratch Scratch
Bucking the trend somewhat were the Staple Singers. They looked across the Caribbean at what was happening and decided to steal a riff for their own good.
Harry J Allstars – Liquidator
Nowadays, Liquidator is ubiquitous at football stadiums the length and breadth of the UK as a run-out tune for winners and losers from every division. Back at the end of the 60s, it was a quirky instrumental track, recorded by local producer Harry Johnson at his studio and played by the assorted musicians who happened to be around at the moment. Little did they know that back then, they’d be creating the sound of sunshine itself. It’s lilting melancholy never sounds anything less than fresh.
Over in the States, in a rare example of gamekeeper turned poacher, the Staple Singers lifted Liquidator‘s opening bass line and blast of brass wholesale before extending it into one of their most endearing tracks.
Eschewing the classic shimmer ‘n twang of Pop Staples’ heavily-reverend Fender Jazzmaster, they turned in a gospel-rich pop/soul classic. I suspect you know this already though.