The Knowledge Network digs the roots of reggae
In the transition from ska to reggae, there was the brief, breezy, and beautiful thing they called rocksteady. Coinciding roughly with the country’s independence from Britain in the early ‘60s, rocksteady was tied to a “romantic era” in Jamaican life, as the I Three’s Judy Mowatt recalls in the film Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae. “It was the time we were living in,” she says. “It was violence free.”
Mowatt performs her 1968 hit “Silent River Runs Deep” in the amiable documentary—screening tonight and Sunday on the Knowledge Network—reuniting with some of the era’s key players for a 40th anniversary concert in Kingston. She joins heavy-hitting vocalists like a Ken Boothe, Leroy Sibbles, and a hilariously ebullient (if barely mobile) Derrick Morgan to perform their hits and offer their memories. Legendary background players like drummer Sly Dunbar and guitarist Hux Brown provide the rust-free accompaniment, while all the film’s participants offer insightful commentary.
Hopeton Lewis confesses that he entered into the genre with 1967’s “Take It Easy” because he couldn’t keep up with the antic pace of ska. A wry Dawn Penn notes that Wu-Tang Clan, Rihanna, and Sean Paul are just some of the artists that have made hay out of her monolithic 1967 cut, “You Don’t Love Me” (which she performs), and Ken Boothe sadly offers that, “New music are not uplifting people’s minds.” Most strikingly, an emotional Rita Marley visits the Trenchtown culture yard, and informs us that “this is the room where I first made love to Bob… A magic room.”
What begins as a sort of Jamaican version of Standing in the Shadows of Motown gradually (though very gently) develops some bite, with Derrick Morgan’s visit to a once grand, now decrepit amphitheatre and a sequence featuring U-Roy in an abandoned train station (complete with abandoned train) niftily illustrating the country’s decline once the “romantic era” gave way to turmoil. The beat got slower, the consciousness became political, and suddenly everything was much heavier.
It was all over by the late ‘60s. Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae does a supremely enjoyable job of telling us us why it could never last.
Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae screens tonight (June 28) and Sunday (July 1) on Knowledge.