I was walking through the local park on Saturday, and near Lakeside, the new skating rink, there were two bedreaded young guys working on acrobatic dance moves. These involved slow motion tips into hand stands, slowly rotating feet above their muscularly balanced arms, and easy dismounts into cagey ready poses, all with massive dreadlocks working as a counterbalance and a flourish, depending on the move. One of the two men was clearly the teacher, the other clearly the grasshopper, but their confidence together was collaborative, as was the roots reggae that issued from the little boom box they had set up nearby.
I was reminded of the demonstrations of capoeira, the Brazilian martial arts discipline that used to be performed between acts at SOB’s, the great dance club at the corner of Houston and Varick, still today, even as it was in the early 80s.
Which got me to thinking about how I learned of reggae music, which led to this song. The Beatles are given a lot of credit for Obladi-oblahda, which does have a character named Desmond and in retrospect is fairly ska-like. But for those of us who didn’t know Desmond Dekker’s music at the time, the song seemed like more of the British vaudeville era than something exotic and international. I’ve read that Three Dog Night had a hit covering the Maytone’s Black and White in 1972 as well, but I don’t remember that. For me it was I Can See Clearly Now, which with it’s clean sound and intoxicating beat lit up the radio that year.
It was a thing that this tune used the Jamaican sounds and rhythm, and they were glorious.
The next year my friends and I went to the movies in Port Jefferson to see The Harder They Come, the first feature film made in Jamaica, and not long after that Clapton’s cover of Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff grabbed the same sonic space as I Can See Clearly Now. Infectious rhythm and clean open sound, with spare declarative vocals, but by that point, new sounds started to bubble up. Most importantly and immediately Marley, but that was just the start that closed out the days before we knew reggae.