Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae
directed by Stascha Bader
( Canada, 98 minutes)
June 13, 11:00 AM, SIFF Cinema
Somewhere between the driven mod soul of ska in the early 1960s and the deep vibes and protest of reggae by the 1970s in Jamaica was a happy, spiritually-lifting, very well played style of music called Rocksteady. Director Stascha Bader used the opportunity of a recent 40 year home reunion of many of the scene’s favorite musicians, singers and players such as Stranger Cole, Hopeton Lewis, Judy Mowatt, Marcia Griffiths, Derrick Morgan, U-Roy, and others to give a wonderful oral history of the period, embellished by excellent vintage footage and fresh interviews with the artists.
Ubiquitous and extraordinary session drummer Sly Dunbar introduces the form by saying that Rocksteady players are remembered very well by fans of Jamaican music, because the genre featured “the better playing. Vocalist Lloyd Parker claims it began in 1965, and Hopeton Lewis says, “It was because ska was too fast. I couldn’t play that fast!” (He adds, “I might have been lazy.”) Judy Mowatt remembers singing to trees as a little girl, then hitting them with a stick when they didn’t applaud for her. She grew up wanting to be a nurse, but like many other women who ended up singing, realized how healing music could be. “When I saw how people reacted, I realized I could be a soul doctor, a soul nurse.” It was a struggle though, as many of the early producers could be tersely demanding. “They would yell at you for not being on key; I had to go into the studio on tranquilizers!” Marcia Griffiths adds, “We didn’t get any money, but we were able to sing honestly from our hearts.”
Many of the players in the mid-60s Rocksteady scene came from a specific Catholic Boys School in Kingston, which had been founded about a hundred years before. ‘Stranger’ Cole (who had gotten his nick-name from his family due to his not looking like anyone else in the family when he was born) started in the music business for two ice cream cones, when he sang on Jackie Edwards’ “Send Me Darling.”
“It was the times we were living in,” Mowatt says. “They were peaceful. You could walk around in Trenchtown and Jonestown in the middle of the night and not be harmed. Women didn’t feel under attack.” This positive vibe from a period before crime changed the cities these creative young people grew up in makes Rocksteady significantly different from the grinding American-influenced ska and darker tones of reggae. Within a couple of years, other young people would be moving into the cities to find work, and not finding it, many would turn to crime. Exploitative politicians would even hand out guns to the local “rude boys” (gangsters) to settle scores and define territory. There were many protest songs against this, even in the Rocksteady days, before things would change so drastically. And many of the era’s best musicians would even leave Jamaica altogether, such as Jackie Mittoo and Alton Ellis moving to faraway places like Toronto to find a living.
Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae is one of my favorite films in the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival, mainly due to the joy and exuberance the artists have in describing their more innocent times, but also both old and new clips of brilliant Rocksteady songs being performed: Judy Mowatt at the beginning of the period belting out the divine “Tide Is High” (which Blondie later covered), The Melodians’ achingly soulful “Rivers of Babylon” from 1968, and even Hopeton Lewis singing a gospel song at his church in Brooklyn, where he now lives and pastors. Dawn Penn, the daughter of a ship captain and a nurse, may claim that her Jamaican pop hit “You Don’t Love Me (No No No)” was simply to “put food on the table,” but when you hear it in this illuminating and delightful film, it feeds the soul.