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Damian Marley to meld reggae styles in Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn
Reggae singer Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley performs a Winter X aprs X concert Saturday in Wagner Park. (B+ photo)
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Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley’s Grammy-winning 2001 album, “Halfway Tree,” was titled in reference to the reggae singer’s social status. The child of reggae king Bob Marley and 1976 Miss World Cindy Breakspeare, Marley lived in two worlds: his father’s musical realm, which revolved around downtown Kingston, Jamaica, and his mother’s well-to-do uptown existence. Halfway Tree is the name of the roundabout that separates downtown from uptown Kingston.But the 28-year-old, the youngest son of Bob Marley, straddled a musical world as well. From his father, he got a massive hit of roots reggae, a style that emphasizes conscious lyrics, gentle Caribbean rhythms and live instrumentation. However, in the ’80s, which were the younger Marley’s formative decade, dancehall had become the rage in Jamaica. Analogous to American hip-hop, dancehall was a fiercer type of music in its lyrics and beats. Moreover, it was a style oriented to DJs and producers, heavy on sampling existing tracks.Just as Marley, who performs Saturday in a Winter X Games aprs X concert in Wagner Park, synthesized both of his social spheres, he has also taken the two seemingly contrasting styles of reggae and made them one.

“I grew up with both kinds,” Marley said from Miami, where he spends much of his time. “My first influence is my father and my bigger brothers, when I was 3 or 4. But coming up to 8, dancehall became popular, and that was my number one music.””Welcome to Jamrock,” released in September, sports both influences. “There For You,” on the one hand, is roots to the bone, a lovely song about positivity, praise for the maker. “The Master Has Come Back,” with its sexual boasting and hip-hop beats, is contemporary dancehall.But what makes “Welcome to Jamrock” a landmark album – it is nominated for Grammy awards for both best reggae album and best urban/alternative performance – is the way various styles are blended. “Move!” cleverly mixes the parts, with samples of Bob Marley’s hit “Exodus.” Songs like “Pimpa’s Paradise,” with a guest rap by Black Thought, combine dancehall sounds with roots themes, and vice versa. For Marley, it’s all part of the same tree.”One is the child of the other,” Marley said. “Dancehall is the child of the roots. So it’s two parts of the same thing. It’s all part of the same reggae culture. It’s different seasons. It’s like winter and summer – they’re both part of the air.”

But even Marley understands there are significant differences between the two. “Roots is slower, and evokes a more spiritual thing,” he said. “The roots people try to be more conscious. Dancehall doesn’t use much live instruments.”Audiences have been known to get separated into camps. But as roots reggae has gotten a boost in recent years, the two styles are becoming more entwined.”It’s unifying a lot more,” Marley said. “The roots are becoming more popular in the world. It used to be more that you are going to either a roots concert or a dancehall concert.”Marley himself is poised to be among the big unifiers of the two styles. “Welcome to Jamrock” has been an enormous hit; upon its release, the album entered the Billboard charts at No. 7, the highest debut ever for a reggae album.

Fueling the popularity of the album is the title track, a searing critique of Jamaican culture. The song opens with a vocal sample from Ini Kamoze’s 1984 tune “World a Reggae Music”: “Out in the street, they call it murder.” In dancehall style, Marley launches into a description of what he sees as Jamaican reality: tourists on the beach resorts whose only contact with ordinary Jamaicans comes when they buy marijuana; guns, ghettos and dirty political dealings on the other side of the fence.”This is a song about what Jamaicans are living, as opposed to what tourists get,” Marley said in a 2005 interview with The Aspen Times. “Real Jamaicans don’t get the tourist experience, the beach package.”Despite the critical tone, “Welcome to Jamrock” became a monster hit in Jamaica, where it was released in 2004. Marley is pleased to see people have taken his views seriously.”In think that’s great,” he said. “In this time, we stand a lot to gain from discussing and communicating things with each other. Reggae music is great for this. A lot of music conveys heavy topics, but that’s not what becomes popular. It’s great to see people embrace a music that brings up topics that we want to discuss, as opposed to trying to make music that American people will want to buy.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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