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  • The Global South and the Jamaican Musical Tradition
  • Justin Mellette (bio)

During their 1973 U.S. tour, American funk-rock band Sly and the Family Stone employed an opening act virtually unknown outside of their homeland of Jamaica—Bob Marley and the Wailers, fresh off the release of their album To Catch a Fire. Originally slotted for seventeen shows, Marley's band was fired after four and left stranded in Las Vegas. Accounts vary as to why; Kevin Chang and Wayne Chen allege Sly fired them because "The Wailers were stealing the show," while Marley's manager Lee Jaffe wryly remarked "That's incorrect […] we just played and everybody sat there" (Chang and Chen 50, Santiago 138). Whether the truth of the matter was professional jealousy or something else, the idea that Marley's reggae sound was something new and at odds with the psychedelic funk championed by Sly's group (right off the release of Fresh, a much more upbeat album than their brooding Afro-centric There's a Riot Goin' On [1971]) emphasizes that the exoticism so frequently used to describe Marley and reggae is too simplistic a reading. As Paul Gilroy reminds us, Marley's status as a larger than life figure is fraught with complications and contradictions, as biography refuses to mesh easily with popular consumption of his work: "How do we combine his work as an organic intellectual, as a thinker and political actor, with his portrayal as a primitive, hypermasculine figure: a not-so-noble savage shrouded in clouds of sacred smoke?" (114). The lack of unity between Stone and Marley reminds us, too, that the musical lineage between American and Caribbean artists is not always easily charted. Regarding the band being fired by Sly, Aston Barrett explains, "What we were doing, it was a different concept of music from what they were used to and it obviously didn't sound right to them. Maybe we were too rebellious for them and they weren't ready for the Rastaman Vibration, coming from the throne of King [End Page 178] David. Sly Stone took us for simpletons leaving us high and dry like that," further complicating the relationship between American and Caribbean cultural production (Masouri 257).

Scholars have long noted the ways in which the isolated island space of the Caribbean led to the independent development of various musical genres, such as Calypso in Trinidad and Tobago, reggae in Jamaica, and Méringue in Haiti. The relationship between American and Caribbean music has often been reception-based, as the aforementioned Marley and Sly Stone example illustrates. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when reggae and ska had a renaissance in America in the form of various ska-punk bands such as Sublime, Less Than Jake, and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones—all largely composed of white college students—critics noted the reggae influence: indeed, Sublime's first album 40 oz. to Freedom (1992) included covers of "54-46 That's My Number," "Smoke Two Joints," and "Rivers of Babylon."

What has been less frequently discussed is the influence that American music had on Caribbean music, and how that collaboration flourished into an entire realm of racially diverse music in America and Great Britain. This essay seeks to portray the musical relationship between the American South, Jamaica, and Great Britain as fluid and triangulated and to showcase how discussing music simply in terms of lineage—e.g., Curtis Mayfield influenced Marley who influenced British punk rockers who influenced Florida-based Less Than Jake—is overly simplistic and at odds with contemporary interpretations of musicology. Roger Abrahams describes the fluidity of these boundaries clearly:

Today concise political boundaries separate the coasts of the American South from the multicultural worlds that dominate the islands. Yet all anecdotal evidence suggests far greater ties. Listen to the reggae in the streets of New Orleans or the rhumba in Atlanta. Note the moans of the blues in the cafes of Veracruz. Watch the major leagues and witness how young Dominicans hurl lightning-fast balls to become national heroes on a small island beset by political and economic woes.


My other chief goal is to consider how the fluid and complex...


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pp. 178-195
Launched on MUSE
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