Natalie Pa’apa’a is the first to acknowledge that, logically speaking, what she’s doing with Blue King Brown makes little sense. And no matter how much one might believe in the concept of the modern global village, it’s hard to argue otherwise.
Based on its current single, “Rize”, and past albums like 2010’s Worldwize Part 1 North & South, Blue King Brown has done a brilliant job of replicating the sound that’s made Jamaica a long-time mecca for reggae fans. Close your eyes, and you’re right in the middle of a sweaty Kingston dance hall, a tree-trunk-size spliff in one hand, an ice-cold Red Stripe in the other.
What makes that amazing is that Blue King Brown comes a world away from the land of ackee and saltfish, Studio One, and Bob Marley. Pa’apa’a was raised and is still based in the home of koala bears, Foster’s Lager, and Vegemite. That makes Blue King Brown something of an oddity.
“In Australia, there aren’t a lot of reggae bands,” the dreadlocked singer says, on the line from a Saskatoon tour stop. “It’s still a real underground thing there in terms of it not being mainstream in any way, shape, or form. There’s no long-standing fan base of reggae, which means there’s a lot of work to do.”
Laughing, she adds: “We come from a land that’s literally on the other side of the planet from Jamaica. But I think that just goes to show the power that Jamaican music has. It’s made its way across the world, reaching us in Australia, to become a big part of what we’re inspired by.”
While you’ll also hear traces of radio-buffed modern R&B and stripped-bare folk in Blue King Brown’s sound, the dominant thing that comes through is the love of classic reggae. For Pa’apa’a, greats like Marley and Jimmy Cliff have been part of her makeup going right back to childhood, thanks to a mom who clearly had great taste in music. A seven-year stint busking on the streets of Byron Bay with eventual Blue King Brown bassist-cofounder Carlo Santone would prepare her for connecting with crowds at festivals and in nightclubs.
“To engage people on the street and get them to stick around is quite a task,” Pa’apa’a notes. “You have to get them not only to stop, but to stay for your whole show, and then to give you money or buy your CD. To pull that off, you have to be a pretty smooth operator. We managed to hone our skills to make enough money off the streets to do a demo for Blue King Brown.”
Today, the group has been championed by everyone from underground icons like Michael Franti to stadium-packing superstars like Carlos Santana. Check out the video for “Rize”, and you’ll get a pretty good idea why that is. In the clip, which is meant to whet appetites for Blue King Brown’s in-the-works next full-length, Pa’apa’a pedals around on a boombox-bicycle hybrid that looks like it just rolled off the set of Pimp My Ride. Thanks partly to its green, red, and yellow colour scheme, the bike looks like it was dreamed up and assembled on the streets of Kingston. It turns out the story behind it is even better than that, if only because it shows that Blue King Brown isn’t just drawing on a small island in the Caribbean for inspiration.
“We built that bike from scratch, and I’m really proud of that,” Pa’apa’a says. “It was inspired by a group of kids from Brooklyn who I think are from Trinidad and Tobago. The difference is that they have 10 times more speakers than the bike you see me riding on, to where they have car-battery–powered systems. Man—that is so totally cool.”