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Sounds of the Caribbean

Here's How to Bring the Best of Latin Music into Your Home
Larry Rohter
From the Print Edition:
Matt Dillon, Spring 96

(continued from page 2)

It's safe to say, however, that no musician from the Caribbean has found a larger international audience over the past 25 years than the late Bob Marley. He didn't invent reggae, but he did refine and popularize a style that fused indigenous Jamaican elements with flourishes derived from American rhythm and blues, taking the resulting mélange to a worldwide audience and becoming one of the best-known musicians in the world before dying of cancer in 1981.

One of the reasons reggae has caught on with non-Jamaican listeners is that its rhythms are unforgettable. At first hearing, everything seems backwards: The accents fall on the offbeat, contrary to what the ear and the body expect. Chattering guitars and swelling organs or growling clavinets emphasize the unusual rhythm, which is more often than not set off by socially conscious lyrics that address issues such as racism, poverty or the legalization of marijuana, the "sacred herb" of the Rastafarian cult. Marley perfected that formula, and its evolution can be traced in a four-CD set called Songs of Freedom that combines the best of his many recordings. The 1972 movie, The Harder They Come, also helped introduce many Americans to reggae, and the soundtrack album, with recordings by his contemporaries, remains fresh and enticing.

Yet, as great as Bob Marley was, Fred "Toots" Hibbert of The Maytals may be an even better singer. Check out The Maytals' Reggae Got Soul or Funky Kingston, with vocals that rival Otis Redding and Sam Cooke in their primes, and decide for yourself.

By far, however, the most comprehensive overview of reggae and its many forerunners and variants (ska, rock steady, dub, dancehall) is contained in a marvelous four-CD set called Tougher than Tough: The Story of Jamaican Music. Bob Marley is here, of course, but so are some other wonderful singers and groups, ranging from pioneers Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff to current stars such as the ever-bawdy Shabba Ranks and Buju Banton. Of special interest to rock 'n' roll fans may be the original versions of songs later recorded by the Rolling Stones and The Clash, among others.

Reggae's ascension in recent years has robbed a bit of the luster from the lilting calypso music of Trinidad and its more driving descendant, soca (short for soul calypso). But that doesn't mean calypso recordings aren't accessible in the United States or that the music has stopped evolving at home. The great calypso singers, with their wonderfully descriptive stage names and fondness for satiric or risqué lyrics written for Carnival celebrations each year, are all available on disc. Start with The Mighty Sparrow, undisputed king of contemporary calypso, and then work your way back through his predecessors: Atilla the Hun, Lord Executor, The Roaring Lion, Houdini, King Radio, The Caresser and Lord Invader, best known for the song "Rum and Coca Cola."

Purists may argue that the infusion of American rhythm and blues and French Caribbean influences over the last two decades has changed calypso for the worse. But others are likely to conclude that those outside forces have only enriched the calypso tradition by making it more animated. Say What? Double Entendre Soca from Trinidad is guaranteed to liven up any party with its powerful dance groove and humorously suggestive lyrics. An equally infectious companion compilation is entitled Heat in de Place: Soca Music from Trinidad, and highlights the same propulsive beat, powered by horns, drum machines, synthesizers and guitars.

Larry Rother is the Caribbean bureau chief for The New York Times and a former music critic for The Washington Post. Caribbean Music: A Discography

A Carnival of Cuban Music--Rounder (CD-5049)
Cuban Dance Party--Rounder (CD-5050)
Cuban Gold--Qbadisc (QB-9006/9016)
Dancing with the Enemy--Luaka Bop/Warner Brothers (9 26580-2)
Heat in de Place: Soca Music from Trinidad--Rounder (CD 5041)
Konbit: Burning Rhythms of Haiti--A&M< (CS 5281)
Say What? Double Entendre Soca from Trinidad--Rounder (CD 5042)
Tougher than Tough: The Story of Jamaican Music--Mango/Island (162-539 935 -2)
Zouk Attack--Rounder (CD 5037)

Boukman Eksperyans
Kalfou Danjere: Dangerous Crossroads--Mango/Island (162-539 927-2)

Celia Cruz
Celia Cruz con la Sonora Matancera--Rodven (CD-122)

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