Reggae more than just music for Alpha Blondy
September 2, 2005
Alpha Blondy was a musician well before he discovered reggae. In high school in Dimbokoro, Ivory Coast, known then as Sedou Kone, he played with the Atomic Vibrations, a high school band that played what he called “African rock ‘n’ roll.”By the time Blondy came to America, he was more focused on his education than music. A student in Columbia University’s American Language program, Alpha Blondy – a name given by his grandmother meaning “First Bandit” – figured he would return to his native country and teach English. It was a prospect he was enthused about. “I would have loved to get a degree from Columbia, and go home as an English teacher,” said the 52-year-old.But circumstances dictated otherwise. Financially, Blondy couldn’t swing the schooling. And there might have been an even bigger force turning him away from the noble job of teacher to an equally significant calling: “God have decided otherwise,” said Blondy.Reggae was first revealed to Blondy, as to many around the world, in the person of Jimmy Cliff. Cliff starred in the influential 1973 underground film “The Harder They Come.” Blondy saw the movie about inner-city life in Kingston, Jamaica, and heard the soundtrack, a hypnotic kind of music whose songs were meant to uplift the oppressed. He got his first hit of Bob Marley around the same time, hearing “Put It On,” a song from Marley’s 1973 debut, “Catch a Fire.” And in New York, Blondy had his first encounter with live reggae, when Burning Spear played in the old, beloved Schaeffer Music Festival in Central Park, sponsored by Schaeffer Beer.
Without the means to finish school, Blondy entered the music world. Hooking up with friends from Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, Blondy brought reggae, then an otherworldly sound, to mainstream rock clubs like Max’s Kansas City and 111, and My Father’s Place, on Long Island.”It was a great feeling,” said Blondy, speaking by phone from Paris. “We were a group of people, every concert you could meet the same people. And people were discovering not only the music, but other dimensions of reggae, the spiritual and the revolutionary.”It is the spiritual themes of the music, says Blondy, that has taken reggae from a being the sound of a tiny Caribbean island to the anthem of the poor – and, often, not so poor – all over the globe. Like the reggae giants before him, Blondy sings out against poverty, corruption, war and division, and seeks to comfort and unite. The audience reggae attempts to reach, the disenfranchised, can be found in New York, the Palestinian territories, the Trenchtown ghetto of Kingston.”The spiritual dimension of reggae makes it a music that can touch every social dimension in every country,” said Blondy, who lives in Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast. “Poverty don’t have a country. Every country has its poor people, its people left aside by society. All the people who are misfits, reggae gives them something. The backbone of reggae is God. For the hopeless, it becomes a medication, a brain food.”Blondy’s emphasis on the universality of the music and the message has made him possibly reggae’s most interesting contemporary figure. He sings in English, French, several African languages, Hebrew, Arabic and the Jamaican twist on English. His 1998 album “Yitzhak Rabin” is a tribute to the Israeli prime minister and peace-movement leader who was assassinated in 1995. But as much as Blondy has made himself a global reggae singer, he also maintains a focus on the corner of the world from which he came, and where he still feels he belongs.”I did not want to play the reggae that had been played in Jamaica,” said Blondy, who has made two eye-opening recent appearances at Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival. “I played my reggae. I wanted to play reggae plus something else – and that was singing in African dialects … my languages, for the people back home to understand the message in the music. I wanted my music to touch the people who don’t speak English, the Jamaican patois.”
A more pop-flavored reggae can be heard following Blondy’s appearance. Maxi Priest, a British-born singer, often goes by the title “the King of Lover’s Rock,” for his smooth, romantic songs. His best-known songs, from the early ’90s, are in the lover’s vein: “I Just Want to Be Close to You,” a No. 1 U.S. hit, and “Set the Night to Music,” a duet with Roberta Flack.Monday opens with the Motet, a Colorado jazz-funk band that takes much of its inspiration from Afro-Cuban rhythms.Sunday, Sept. 4, brings a neat mix of sounds to the main stage. The day starts with groove group Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe (see article on page 62), takes a sharp turn with the Texas country legend Willie Nelson, and closes with John Fogerty, the former frontman of Creedence Clearwater Revival.Of all people, Nelson has joined the reggae corps – proving just how universal the music is. His latest album, “Country Man,” is his first reggae album, featuring original songs in a folk-reggae mode, covers of Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting In Limbo” and “The Harder They Come,” and a duet with Toots Hibbert, the man whose “Do the Reggay” gave reggae its name. But the dreadlocked might take caution not to expect another reggae show. “Country Man,” released in July, was recorded years ago, and Nelson’s recent shows have been including just one song from the album.Fogerty, making his Jazz Aspen debut, should be the one to watch. His summer tour, with John Mellencamp, had the rocker playing many of his CCR hits. And Fogerty’s solo career has produced mostly worthwhile albums, including 1985’s “Centerfield” and 1997’s “Blue Moon Swamp.” Fogerty’s latest, this year’s “Deja Vu All Over Again,” was lightweight but a nice listen.
Sunday’s JAS After Dark lineup is topped by Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe at the Snowmass Conference Center. Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge leads his band, the Peacemakers, to a show at Mountain Dragon, and the Motet is at the Blue Door. In Aspen, San Francisco groove band Vinyl plays Belly Up.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org