The two most important words in reggae — Bob Marley — will be on everyone’s lips this year. For those of us who were privileged to have been around when Bob was emerging from Jamaica to conquer the world, it’s hard to believe that 2001 marks the 20th anniversary of the death of the man many people, myself included, regard as the most significant and influential musician of the 20th century. Or, come to think of it, any century.
For reggae, the past couple of decades, sans Marley, have often been trying. There have been times, I must confess, when I’ve wondered just where this wonderful music was heading. Or, in the midst of a seemingly endless onslaught of sexist, homophobic, crude or just plain silly lyrics, all with the same tired old melody backed by the same tired old drum-machine, whether it was heading anywhere.
But now, for the first time since Bob’s passing, I’m convinced a worthy successor to the great man has appeared — an artist with vision, talent, passion, charisma and commitment and, just as important, an artist who speaks to today’s generation.
It may come as a surprise to those who’ve known me as a less than ardent fan of hard-core DJ reggae to know that I’m talking about Buju Banton, the gravel-voiced Kingstonian who’s been the ruler of the Jamaican dancehall scene for almost a decade. The Buju Banton of today, though, is a far, far cry from the Buju Banton of yesteryear — just as the Bob Marley who became the Third World’s first superstar during the 70s was a far cry from the raw talent that was Bob Marley of the 60s.
Before going any further, I should make one thing clear for the benefit of diehard Marley devotees who regard it as sacrilege to mention anyone in the same breath: Buju Banton isn’t the new Bob Marley. We’re never going to see another Marley. Bob was unique, a once-in-your-lifetime-if-you’re-lucky visionary who happened to use music — reggae music — as his chosen form of communication.
No, Banton’s not a new Marley, and I’m sure he’d be more than a little embarrassed at being classified with the man he refers to reverently as “Gong” — Marley’s Jamaican nickname.
But they do have a lot in common — enough, certainly, to convince me that Banton will be to reggae what the Rolling Stones have been to mainstream pop: not quite the Beatles, but certainly worthy of serious comparisons.
The surface similarities are fairly obvious. A magnetic, commanding stage presence; a Jah-given gift for using words so compellingly that what they have to say can’t help but make you think; and an equally valuable gift for melodies that combine instant, get-up-and-dance appeal with staying power.
It’s the not-so-obvious comparisons, though, that have convinced me, particularly over the last year or two, that Banton belongs with reggae royalty.
Like Bob, Buju actually has an organisation behind him. Unlike many superb reggae performers, he’s clearly aware that it’s not enough simply to write great music, put together a great band, develop a great stage act and wait for the world to sit up and take notice.
You’ve got to hire PR people to make sure you get your face in the papers and your videos on the TV. You’ve got to link up with a record label that has distribution clout and takes reggae seriously, and there aren’t too many of them around. You’ve got to devote large chunks of your valuable time to giving interview after interview, often to people who ask dumb questions that have nothing to do with what you’re really all about. You’ve got to accept that getting to the top is as much about hard work as it is about talent.
Buju Banton, like Bob Marley, is doing all of this. And, perhaps most important of all, he appears to be doing it all very much on his own terms. Banton, still in his mid-20s, exudes the sort of quiet confidence that was characteristic of Marley in the days when those around him referred to him simply as “skipper”. He’s part of a team, but there’s no question about who’s in command.
Musically, Banton may be on the verge of doing with dancehall what Marley did with mainstream reggae — taking it far beyond its traditional, hard-core audiences but without losing sight of its Jamaican roots.
Banton’s CD, Unchained Spirit, is a dazzling smorgasbord of everything from rip-roaring dancehall to haunting, spiritual hymns, with doses of Latin, ska and rock thrown in for good measure. It continues what Banton started with Inna Heights, his first CD to seriously court those of us with a limited attention span for raw dancehall. It’s all a long way from the raucous, controversial Banton of the early 90s — so far removed in fact that Banton himself acknowledges, unhesitatingly, that he’s grown musically in the last few years. “I was getting bored with what I was doing,” he says simply.
I finally got the chance to catch up with Banton live at Vancouver’s venerable Commodore Ballroom during his last North American tour. It was, quite simply, a revelation, a show that ranks right up there among my favourite reggae performances of all time. After the show, I had the chance to spend some time with Banton backstage. And as someone who was following reggae before he was born, it gave me considerable pleasure to tell him I now believe the future of this great music is in very, very good hands.