Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Director Ted Bafaloukos’ Posthumous Photo Book Captures the Turmoil and Glory of 1970s Reggae

Ted Bafaloukos’ 1979 film Rockers is iconic in reggae circles. Its soundtrack captures many of the foremost figures from the golden age of roots reggae at the peak of their powers. The movie became one of that year’s fifty highest grossing films. And it was almost never made.

The late director and photographer reveals the drama, the turbulence, passion, and ever-present danger surrounding the artistic crucible of the mid-70s Jamaican music scene in his richly illustrated coffee table book, ROCKERS: Ted Bafaloukos + 1970s New York + Kingston + On Set Mayhem = The Making of Reggae’s Most Iconic Film, out this year from Gingko Press.

The Greek-born Bafaloukos got his start at the Rhode Island School of Design. His steamship captain father had sent him there after discovering, while docked in Providence, that the school drew students from as faraway as California. The younger Bafaloukos earned media accolades for his photos while still in college. But by 1978 he was struggling as a freelancer, largely supported by his wife’s $78-a-week sweatshop paycheck, sharing a loft at the corner of Varick and Franklin Streets with several friends.

He’d discovered reggae a few years earlier and fallen in love with it after seeing a show by melodica player Augustus Pablo and his band at the Tropical Cove, a club located above Gertie’s Discount Store in Brooklyn. He intuitively grasped the connection between the communal esthetic of reggae and the folk music he’d been immersed in at community celebrations as a child in the Aegean island village of Apikia.

Aided by his new friends from the New York reggae scene, he traveled to Jamaica and decided then and there to make a reggae movie, despite having neither script nor cast. Bafaloukos enlisted several New York friends as production crew, and a hippie neighbor with money to be the producer.

Bafaloukos’ photos from his initial expeditions are a goldmine for reggae fans. The most choice shots are black-and-white. Singer Kiddus I, with record producer Jack Ruby behind him, sits slit-eyed with both a cheat sheet and a spliff in hand at a recording session: it’s clear that this is all live, with no iso booths. A young, thin Burning Spear perches triumphantly atop the ruins of a slavery-era jail in his native St. Ann’s Bay. Jah Spear (who also appeared in the film) pops up again and again, most memorably backstage with an equally rail-thin Patti Smith, laughing it up. And Big Youth is captured on his signature motorbike on a Kingston street, showing off his jewel-embedded teeth

In full color, there’s dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry in his ramshackle, rundown original Black Ark Studio before he burned it down: from Bafaloukos’ description of the setup and gear, Perry’s engineering genius becomes all the more astonishing. A series of 1975 portraits capture Bob Marley on Sixth Avenue near West 8th Street in Manhattan. There’s owl-glassed, bearded folk music legend and experimental filmmaker Harry Smith with Burning Spear drummer (and eventual star of the film) Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace. Impressively, the book’s candid photos far outnumber stills from the movie.

Which is basically The Bicycle Thief transposed to Jamaica, with tons of classic songs and a cast comprising the most colorful people the filmmaker had met while traveling across the island. “For those who think that movies get made in the editing room, Rockers is not a case in point,” he avers. As he tells it, the film ended up being even more highly improvised than originally planned.

The problem with crowdsourcing your cast is that a bigger crowd comes with it. It ended up taking Bafaloukos more than a couple nickels to buy his way out of many pickles, several brushes with death and, as he tells it, a mutiny by the movie’s two stars, who had held out for more money. Considering how hard both cast and crew partied when they weren’t working, and how many challenges – several at gunpoint – they had to overcome, it’s a miracle they were able to finish it.

And considering how breakneck – literally – the pace of the filming was, some of the most memorable moments in the narrative are the asides. We find out that Earl Chin, who in 1975 had not yet become the legendary host of Rockers TV, is a crazy driver: gee, big surprise. The movie’s crucial set piece – a very fickle, used motorbike – ends up being delivered by none other than the Cool Ruler, Gregory Isaacs. And Bafaloukos recounts the priceless moment at Bob Marley’s Peace Concert where Jacob Miller leaps from the stage, goes up to a cop guarding the Prime Minister and offers him a spiff. When the cop declines, Miller steals the guy’s helmet and finishes his set wearing it.

What Bafaloukos never mentions is residuals. He ended up retiring to a villa on the Aegean. it would be interesting to know how much Horsemouth, his co-star “Dirty Harry” Hall, the Montego Bay mystic named Higher, or the Reverend Roach and his A.M.E choir, to name a few of the cast members, came away with.

August 19, 2020 Posted by | Film, Literature, Music, music, concert, reggae music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Burning Spear – Jah Is Real

Roots reggae long ago took a backseat to dancehall, and relatively few of the musicians who still play it are Jamaican. In fact, it’s something of a miracle that Winston Rodney AKA Burning Spear is still alive at 63, long after so many of his contemporaries – Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown, Jacob Miller and others – died under tragic, often violent circumstances. It might also be something of a miracle that Burning Spear remains not only lucid (after all that ganja), but arguably still as vital and important as he was thirty years ago.

 

Throughout the decade of the 1970s, Burning Spear was one of the most popular artists in Jamaica, second only to Big Youth. While most reggae hits from whatever era you choose are party songs, Burning Spear’s work was always serious, defiant and historically aware. Like Peter Tosh, his signature songs mix frequently scathing social commentary with Rastafarian mysticism. Burning Spear’s musical style, however, is strikingly different from many of the best-known reggae acts of his era, characterized by long, hypnotic, even trancelike anthems that in a live setting can go on for ten or even twenty minutes while the band breaks them down into spacey, echoey dub. While he’s been writing, arranging and producing for himself for decades, this is his debut on his own record label, Burning Music. It’s also his best studio album in a long, long time.

 

Unlike much of today’s reggae, this album has rich, 1970s production values, layering clinking guitar, bubbling organ, bright horns and backup singers over a fat, bass-heavy groove. Grandfather, a cautionary tale, traces the history of slavery around the world and warns that “slavery coming back again.” On the catchy No Compromise, Burning Spear announces that “My music eye opener music…hail to the one who never look back in the race.” With its Afrobeat guitar feel, One Africa is a fervent, Marcus Garvey-style call for unity. People in High Places calls for accountability from politicians; Run for Your Life snidely chronicles Burning Spear’s entanglements with the record industry, and how it’s imploded in recent years: “Distribution is so desperate…without the artist there is no company…Upcoming artists should take a stand, get some understanding before you sign.”

 

Clocking in at over eight minutes long, Step It is one of the amusingly interminable list songs that Burning Spear writes every so often. This one chronicles his travels around the world, namechecking just about every city he’s ever played, obviously tailor-made to be a live showstopper with a long instrumental break that threatens to turn into dub but never does. Stick to the Plan is a call to musicians to stay independent and original: “Remember reggae music never used to play on the radio…trying to roadblock us because we so original.” There’s a happy account of an outdoor reggae festival and another happy tale, this one about a reggae cruise, along with more bitterness returns on Wickedness, another tirade against the music industry: “Since 1969 they’ve been robbing, they’ve been holding onto what is mine,” Burning Spear laments. It has the ring of authenticity: innumerable musicians from the 1970s, not just reggae performers, have successfully sued for royalties they were never paid. The cd’s high point is You Were Wrong, a caustic, minor-key anthem with the same feel of Burning Spear classics like Door Peep or Cry Blood. Any way you look at it, this ranks with the best of his studio albums, including the classic Marcus Garvey, or Hail H.I.M, recorded with the Wailers. Longtime fans will find this a delightful throwback; otherwise, this is as good an introduction as any to one of the world’s greatest reggae artists. Burning Spear plays Irving Plaza on August 31 around 10 PM, advance tix highly recommended at the box office.

August 19, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments