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Beyond the Pale: Getting Into Reggae

It was one of those nights, y’know. You’re sittin’ around, playing video games or chatting or what-have-you, and the laptop gets passed around, and each person gets a turn at picking a track on YouTube to serve as the evening’s soundtrack for the next however many minutes, which is both terribly exciting and terribly frightening all at once. You get the chance to sneak in another of your best kept musical secrets, but at the same time it has to fit both the mood of the evening and keep in line with what’s been played previously. It has to progress, like a thinking playlist, and evolve based on similar themes or musical motifs. Anyhow, standard practice. And then my friend Bryce puts on this track.

Now, my experience with reggae is spotty, at best. I’d mostly heard Bob Marley echoing from the dorm rooms of stoned neighbours back in first year, and the playing of Radiodread to the crowd gathered on campus during 4/20; I’d also listened to the Police. Beyond that I never really got any closer, as there wasn’t much that really captured me any time I’d listened to it. And then my friend Bryce puts on this track: “Poor Me Israelites” by Desmond Dekker & the Aces.

After asking Bryce who it was, I was intrigued, as he wasn’t Bob Marley or Peter Tosh or Jimmy Cliff (about the extent of my knowledge of reggae at the time). It made me aware that there might be an entire world I didn’t know about. But more on that later. This song swept me away! Maybe it was the repetition of “Poooooor meeeeee Israelite” after each refrain that turns your ear towards the story of a man wishing to suffer as little as possible. Maybe it was the brisk pace compared to most reggae I’d heard before, or the dramatic slow introduction before the song kicks off. Maybe it was Dekker’s high voice, syncopating all over the place. Maybe the boppin’ bassline. Whatever it was, the moment this song entered my head, it would not come out for at least a month afterwards.

Having it go round and round in there got me to thinking that I could maybe give this reggae thing a try now. I checked out the album the song came from (1968’s Intensified) and Catch A Fire by The Wailers on a friend’s recommendation. After that, as far as I could tell, I was hooked. Wanting to see what was going on in the genre currently, and after goggling at the fact that Bob Marley was still atop the Billboard reggae charts (I don’t know why I was surprised, but it caught me off guard, as my intention was to educate myself in “more than just Bob Marley” by seeing the current trends, with the acknowledgement of how huge Marley is in reggae), I pulled a couple of interesting looking albums (working on Hawai’i 13 by The Green currently), and have been about there ever since (apart from, in that period where I was listening obsessively, I went and recorded a reggae-flavoured song).

The thing that confounds me still, however, is this – did I just hear the right reggae song that got me into it or had I built up enough appreciation for some of the musical tools that it used via other music that the time was now right to accept a reggae song and, perhaps, the whole genre now? I don’t think I’ll ever quite know, but “Poor Me Israelites” gets played in my ears constantly to this day, and I’m expanding knowledge and appreciating the reggae I do hear much more than I used to, which I only figure could be a good thing.

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