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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

John Brown’s Body and the Easy Star All-Stars: The Ultimate 4/20 Experience?

What happened Wednesday night? Oh yeah, it was 4/20 (google it if you don’t know already). Seriously, though, John Brown’s Body and the Easy Star All-Stars brought a potentially mind-melting bill of cutting-edge roots reggae to an enthusiastic, sold-out, smoked-out crowd at Highline Ballroom. JBB are a band everybody takes for granted: they live on the road, play pretty much every major festival and have earned themselves a rep as one of the most reliably entertaining psychedelic acts out there. They take reggae to the next level: maybe more than any other modern reggae band, they’ve been responsible for pushing its evolution while keeping the spirit of the classic 70s Jamaican sound alive. Anyone who doesn’t know them should go to the band’s site and grab the two albums – including a delicious live collection assembled from last year’s tour – plus the assorted tracks that they’re giving away for free.

They wound their way into the set casually and methodically, Nate Edgar’s catchy basslines anchoring the bounce as drummer Tommy Bennedetti artfully worked the edges with some neat fills and cymbal hits. This band has always had a feel for dub, but they’ve bred it to a sticky purity. They don’t overdo it, breaking the songs down to a vortex of space echo for maybe a chorus at a time, not much more, before circling back to an earthy groove. One of the band’s trademarks has always been to have all kinds of fun with keyboard effects: switching effortlessly through every wah setting and woozy patch within reach, keyboardist JP Petronzio was obviously entertaining himself as much as he was the crowd. A recent track, So Aware blended Ethiopian influences with a couple of neat dub interludes, as did another one, basically a one-chord jam that pulsed along on a catchy, circling hook as the guitar and keys intertwined until any attempt to figure out who was playing what was a waste of time. It was more fun just to stand and sway as the waves of sound kept coming. A fierier, minor-key track, The Gold took a swipe at the current system, offering hope for a different, less money-oriented culture. Resonant and resolute in front of the band, singer Elliott Martin had the waves of bodies swaying along with him through the majestic, more traditional echoes of Speak of the Devil. A long instrumental section followed in the same vein, with another dub interlude, a sweet organ solo and a trick ending. The set wound up with the catchy, upbeat The Grass; the towering epic Blazing Love, trumpeter Sam Dechenne at one point playing what could have been the most interesting one-note solo ever done, blipping and blasting his way into and then out of the murky sonic kaleidoscope; and Zion Triad, a suite that took it up into the rafters much like how Burning Spear would close his shows back in the 80s.

If JBB represents everything that’s good about current-day reggae, the Easy Star All-Stars are the funniest reggae band alive. The crowd that stayed for them had really come out to make it the 4/20-est night of the year, and when the band launched into Pink Floyd’s Breathe (from the band’s first adventure in classic covers, Dub Side of the Moon), they went nuts. After about a minute of oscillating On the Run synth, when Jenny Hill substituted a bubbly jazz flute interlude for one of David Gilmour’s anguished guitar solos, it was impossible not to laugh. Which is why it’s so mystifying that this band’s devious, far-reaching sense of humor is so absent from their original stuff. They opened with a number possibly titled Don’t Give up the Music, a dead ringer for Gregory Isaacs’ Soon Come, delivered fervently by an animated, dancehall-style frontman. The reggae-pop they did afterward was competent, their bassist singing one number while firing off one tricky hook after another, but it never resonated more than it did when they finally did Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band and then an irresistible singalong of A Little Help from My Friends, everybody’s glowing coals raised high in the air. Their Radiodread stuff is arguably even more imaginative and lots of fun – and for obvious reasons doesn’t sound much like the originals. But when they brought up some guy from a reality tv show to embarrass himself in front of the band, it was time to call it a night and head to the train.

And a big shout out to Winston who was playing the subway platform in the wee hours at 14th Street. This was a late one for the veteran West Indian busker with the battered keyboard and the sweet soul voice. He’s at least fifty, possibly a lot older but he’s still here entertaining tired travelers more nights than not. He might have been the best singer of the whole night. He’s sort of a live, one-man Gil Bailey Show: mention a classic rocksteady or reggae tune from the 60s or 70s and he probably knows it. He doesn’t have a website but you can take a flyer with his number on it when you throw something in his tip bucket.

April 24, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, reggae music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 10/27/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #825:

Gregory Isaacs – Reggae Greats Live

The Cool Ruler has left Babylon: we’ve lost one of the great voices in reggae music. Gregory Isaacs died on Monday, at 59, leaving a legacy of literally hundreds of albums and many broken hearts. In the last few years, if you wanted to meet Jamaican women of a certain age, you could find them swaying to Night Nurse at a Gregory Isaacs show. This live album from 1983, probably recorded about a year earlier, doesn’t have that one but it does have a bunch of hits from the late 70s/early 80s when he was one of the biggest stars in Jamaica. As with the rest of his catalog, it’s a mix of sly come-ons (Isaacs was sort of the Jamaican Jimmy Reed) and righteous Rasta anthems. His biggest hit before Night Nurse was Number One (as in, “If you wanna be my number one…) and he opens with that, backed by a terrific oldschool roots band with lead guitar, electric piano and percussion. Stylistically, the songs run the gamut from oldschool rocksteady like Tune In (check out the vintage video from Rockers TV), Substitute or Mr. Brown to straight-up pop (Ooh What a Feeling). Other big Jamaican hits in the set include Soon Forward, Sunday Morning (not the Lou Reed song), Top Ten and Front Door. The politically-charged immigrant’s tale The Border closes the album on an epic note, a throwback to his early days as Rasta rebel. As reggae went more digital, so did Isaacs’ recordings, with predictable results, although pretty much anything he did before, say, this album, is usually worth a listen. And there’s a lot of it. Here’s a random torrent.

October 26, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, reggae music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Jahmings Maccow – Man Redemption

Anguila expat Jahmings Maccow, formerly of New York roots legends Catch-A-Fire and the Enforcers, writes catchy, Bob Marley-influenced roots reggae songs that would have been right at home on Jamaican radio back in the late 70s. Fans of golden-era reggae singers like Gregory Isaacs, Johnny Clarke, Sugar Minott or Jacob Miller will love this album: if Rockers TV was still in syndication, you would no doubt see “The Rootsman”  interviewing Maccow with much enthusiasm. The production here is far more oldschool than most anything coming out of Jamaica right now, a fat riddim with real keyboards and layers of guitar. Maccow is not only a good songwriter, he’s also a good guitarist, spicing his songs with an incisive yet tersely soulful, pensive edge. The Marley inspiration extends especially to the vocals, Maccow reaching up to the high registers with the same kind of inspired half-yelp. The tunes mix slow anthems in with the upbeat, hitworthy stuff. In keeping with the classic roots vibe, the lyrics address both spiritual and contemporary issues, hence the album title, Man Redemption – a bunch of uplifting tunes that frequently address some pretty heavy issues.

The big, slow, soulful title track – a prayer of sorts – contrasts with the upbeat, obviously Marley-inspired Let Them Grow, like something off the Kaya album with tasteful acoustic guitar accents and a clever, distorted electric guitar solo low in the mix. Set Me Free is more upbeat, late period Marley-style songwriting with a nice, long, thoughtfully doubletracked guitar passage.

How Ya Gwaan Crucify is predictably a lot darker, with a Rastaman Vibration edge. The album’s fifth track, Free the Pain has a playful phased guitar solo – the tune reminds a bit of the late great Lucky Dube. After that, Put You Down/I Didn’t Come has more of a vintage 70s Manhattans/Stylistics style smooth R&B feel. The rest of the album includes the rather apprehensive Dread; Didn’t You Hear, which manages to be both pro-peace and a cautionary tale; the Israel Vibration-inflected See Them Fighting/Ghetto Walls; the gloriously bouncy Jah Jah Say, and the vivid yet understated Cry for Tomorrow. If you’re a fan of classic roots reggae, this is a welcome throwback to a time when artists basically had to at least pay lip service to spirituality and be conscious of the world around them even if they didn’t embrace it. It’s obvious that Maccow is sincere about what he has to say.

July 28, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: The Itals at Metrotech Park, Brooklyn NY 8/9/07

“This is the power of reggae music,” announced lead singer Keith Porter. What he meant wasn’t clear. Maybe it was that the troupe of restless daycamp kids who had taken over the middle of the park were behaving themselves surprisingly well, or that the sprinkling of West Indian toddlers with their grandmothers remained practically silent for the duration of the concert. Maybe that was the power of reggae music. Or the power of residual THC in Jamaican breast milk. Ital is vital, yeah mon.

It’s easy to make jokes about reggae. Too easy, for that matter. Even if the Itals’ keyboardist was using a small handful of tinny settings straight from the synthesizer factory floor, circa 1983, or that whenever Porter addressed the audience, he couldn’t maintain a train of thought for more than about half a sentence, it was impossible not to sway and bounce to this band. Their day in the Jamaican sun came and went a long time ago – it was 1986, said Porter, that their hit Rasta Philosophy was nominated for a Grammy (it didn’t win). “Before there was BET, or MTV,” Porter emphasized, and he was right in a sense. The corporate entertainment-industrial complex hadn’t completely penetrated Jamaica at that point, just at the time the rapidfire deliveries of dancehall were pushing conscious roots reggae acts – the Itals among them – into the background. But they were enjoying considerably popularity on the college circuit here, one of the practically innumerable bunch of good Jamaican vocal trios with roots in the 60s, and lucky enough to find an audience among young people here when the youth of Jamaica were more interested in pursuing their own homegrown version of gangsta rap.

Typically an opening act for more famous reggae artists, with the demise or disappearance of most of their contemporaries the Itals seem to have finally hit center stage. They played as if they’d come to claim their territory, mixing major and minor keys effortlessly. The rhythm section was skintight throughout their long, practically two-hour set; their guitarist took only one solo, but it was a good one, flashing some flamenco chops as opposed to the metal that all too frequently rears its drooling head from time to time in what’s left of roots reggae. Porter’s cajoling tenor can be a dead ringer for legendary loverman Gregory Isaacs, and his two harmony singers (notably a young woman named Kayla) nailed everything, pitch-perfect, all the way through. This is hard music to sing: you can’t just hang out all verse long and then come in on the chorus.

They bookended a bunch of romantic songs – including a nice new one called Mind Over Matter – with more conscious material including Rastafari Chariot from their 1981 debut album Brutal Out Deh, widely considered to be their high point. Midway through the show, a middleaged man walked up to Porter and asked him sing his first hit, the 1967 Westmorelites tune Hitey Titey, and he obliged with a few bars while the drummer tried to play along. But it was clear the band didn’t know the song. The afternoon’s silliest moment (there are invariably plenty of these at a reggae show) saw the band seguing into a Tony Orlando and Dawn song from 1975 for a few bars. In front of the stage, a small, stout, elderly woman in a Bahamas t-shirt, swaying and waving a Jamaican flag kept giving the flag to Porter, who kept trading it off with her throughout the show. She was finally rewarded for her enthusiasm with a free cd. Beaming, she led another fan over to the roped-off area behind the stage, where they were sternly sent away by one of the roadies. The massive that turned out in full force for Burning Spear’s show here a few years ago was conspicuously absent, and the mostly West Indian, blue-collar Brooklyn Heights lunch-hour crowd seemed pretty sleepy. Which shouldn’t come as any surprise, considering the previous day’s subway flood and tornado hell. This was the last of the summer’s weekly Thursday noontime shows here that the Brooklyn Academy of Music puts together, a thoroughly irie way to play hooky from work and enjoy the unseasonably cool breezes beneath the trees. Jah give to I and I a respite!

August 9, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments