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Sensi Magazine

Roots Down

Mar 30, 2019 02:47PM ● By Dan McCarthy
Right around the time Jimmy Carter was working his way through his first term as President of the United States, stretching across much of Ronald Reagan’s aAmerica, something novel was happening in The Hub.

It seems amazing to claim, but while the country was focusing on the birth of reggae as a palatable music form attractive to local ears, the era was being defined by the sounds coming out of Jamaica, New York, London, and the other cities where the classic roots rock reggae sound were being attached to.

However, as chronicled in the fantastic new locally born project, Take Us Home: Boston Roots Reggae From 1979-1988, one of the first outposts of the birth of a true American reggae scene was one of the first regions in the continental US to not only “get” reggae, finding a massive cult audience at first by way of 1973’s midnight cult classic The Harder They Come, reggae legend Jimmy Cliff’s landmark B-movie Rasta godfather flick, Boston suddenly was getting attention as the new proving ground for any international reggae act looking to tap into the popularity of the music taking root in America.

But beyond the crossover appeal largely fueled by white affluent college students aiding in what could be called one of the first truly gentrified cultural kaleidoscopes the emerging scene was emboldened by both the love and interest in the music and culture and the connecting force cannabis had on both the students and the immigrant West Indian/Caribbean/Jamaican culture suddenly rising in the Bay State. The Hub was also becoming a lush new landscape for DIY self-production of reggae acts and music, backed by a network of clubs, singers, and local and international musicians that came together to form the early, organic Boston roots scene.

That scene, as compiled, researched, and contextualized in Take Us Home, is backed by deep historical knowledge, archival material, and the boon of rich tales after the team tracked down many of the original artists from the era. And it’s all been pulled together via local music journalists Noah Schafer and Uchenna Ikonne along with Jeff Swallom, founder and owner of Cultures of Soul records.

We caught up with Swallom and Schafer to talk how the project assembled, the challenges, the glory of a life spent deep in the back of local vinyl stockpiles, and how cannabis and music improbably connected two vastly different cultures together in Greater Boston.

This is such a unique slice of mostly forgotten local cultural and music history. What was the seed kernel that brought the idea to life?

JEFF SWALLOM (JS): I’m always trying to find local releases I’ve never seen before. Always when I’m in a shop, or down in Washington, DC, or Pittsburgh, PA, always trying to find local releases I had never come across. In Boston, I’m always looking for hyperlocal things and kept noticing a lot of reggae records that were new to me. Then I noticed they all had Boston-based addresses on them, which piqued my interest. I had never known there was such a robust local scene here back then, producing their own original reggae albums and songs, and from that, looking at labels and jotting down names led to tracking down the artists, getting more information about the time and place and stories from people we were contacting that would send in old flyers from the shows they performed at or attended. It was a realization there was this strong community for reggae back then that most people don’t even remember.

NOAH SCHAFFER (NS): It was a great era for reggae every-where, for sure, but I think to a large extent the Boston reggae scene was ignored because the other cities were pumping out so much stuff. So, a lot of the reggae bands that were emerging in the US and Europe were focusing on their regions. Boston had two in the area, which were cornerstones for this project: Zion Intention and the I-Tones. Both were from here but wound up finding wide regional audiences across the US.

JS: I knew Noah from other folks in the area obsessed with vintage R&B world and reggae music in the area. [Local music historian Brian Coleman] suggested him for this project, and teaming up with Uchenna [Ikonne], we became kindred spirits.

Was it just a supreme love of the music that created such a novel crossover community, especially on the heels of a very turbulent racial powder keg era known for "violent racial polarization," as you've phrased it?

JS: That, and cannabis (laughs). It was the music that brought people together, the authenticity of the culture that came through, even more so when vintage clothing stores and Rasta culture food was being embraced by these college kids seeking it out after The Harder They Come became a big cult classic here. It brought both groups together, absolutely.

NS: Carly Simon’s brother, a DJ and writer, photographer, and reggae expert, was a big part of that emerging scene back in the day. I interviewed him, and the first thing he talked about was the scene coming together that otherwise wouldn’t know each other. And the thing that sort of caused the melting pot really was the ganja. What else would have moved those white college kids to open their minds to something so foreign? And where else could you find good weed but the reggae scene, which was very much the center of the cannabis scene by and large, back then?

JS: [The reggae scene] may have been something they were curious about and wanted to be a part of culturally and musically, but it coalesced via cannabis.

The compilation title. Explain.

NS: Danny Tucker. He was a tough one to find. He had been a major local presence for a decade, then moved back to the Caribbean so it took a little digging, but once we found him (and others), everyone involved got really excited to be a part of it, could see what we were after.

JS: We used his song “Take Us Home” as the compilation name. This idea of a stranger coming to a foreign country so different from his home and using music to take us there really distills what this project is all about. So many of these artists are immigrants from Jamaica who wanted to work for a better life for their kids, and here’s Danny Tucker, a hard-working guy doing surgical tech at Beth Israel back then while playing music, then retires from his job and goes back to Jamaica to just chill and continue to make music.

What help did the scene get from the arbiters of cool in their heyday? DJs, critics, anything?

NS: Well, when the I-Tones broke into Boston rock radio, it was WBCN that did it. Charles Laquidara made them a song of the week, and then local channel V-66 started playing a video the band made for it. They got the crossover air and video play and began playing every club and college eventually living full time off playing reggae in Boston from all of it.

How hard was it exhuming such essentially lost material, music, old flyers and promos for the DIY shows, as well as actual anecdotes and tales from those who lived it?

NS: The main thing was locating the artists themselves. We did some research via the David Bieber Archives, and I got quite a few things from the Boston Globe archives. But Jeff is a collector and has been collecting these Boston reggae records for years.

JS: I’ve been obsessed with music since a kid, was in a few bands, then a DJ, then a collector turned obsessive for turning up vintage local music. I stopped listening to new music after 2006. I had so much music that had never seen the light of day to take in.

NS: Jeff came up with his dream list of songs he wanted, so to actualize it in terms of the historical record, interviewing them, as well as compensating them for the licensing of their work, Jeff found the songs and had to find the artists for us to do our part. It sounds like these guys are finally getting their due and proper.

NS: Yeah, this project compensates those artists that made this great music and helped build the culture, who most of the time didn’t do so well the first time around. They were either recording on other labels in that era putting your own record out wasn’t that easy so the fact is that a lot of these bands and artists did emphasize a real DIY aesthetic that was basically the same for us and this project.

Was there one group or artist you connected with that sort of opened the Pandora' s Box for you?

NS: It depended. One of the guys, Errol Strength, was easy to find because he’s still singing every week somewhere in Boston. He has this loyal audience who comes to see him. But he’s one of the few, as when the music scene would pay less and less, people got day jobs or left the area, but Errol is one of the few still at it. Just loves to sing and needs a mic and his band.

JS: The key connector to finding the artists that were part of the scene and the realization that something bigger was there was Abdul Baki, who played in Zion. The enthusiasm and excitement he had was infectious, the stories he had made it encouraging that this was a project with a real story behind it, not just disparate artists playing on their own into obscurity. Once we started finding people, it confirmed there was a real scene there. And there still is today to a degree.

NS: There’s still a good scene here, most often at Bull McCabe’s in Somerville, who has two to three bands on a weekly residency. Lots of session players, brings people together from the Camberville Caribbean community who probably wouldn’t hang out otherwise. The tradition of reggae in Boston being a rare melting pot very much continues in its way today.