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Live dread
Reggae's changed, but long-gone Earl Zero – onetime ruler of the local scene – has a new album in a classic style.

By J.H. Tompkins

I WAS READING a newspaper account of mayhem in Zimbabwe during the recent presidential elections when reggae singer Earl Zero's new album, Roots and Romance, turned up on my desk. I thought about Bob Marley's legendary concert celebrating that nation's independence in 1980 – a proud, hopeful moment – and then looked at a photo of rival gangs mauling each other on the campaign trail. One love, my ass, I thought and put the album aside.

Earl Zero dates back to Marley's reign as reggae's ranking superstar. During the late '70s, Zero had a growing reputation in Jamaica, before he relocated to the Bay Area. Blessed with a clear, beautiful voice, he became a local hero in a music scene energized by punks who had imported reggae from England along with the Sex Pistols and the Clash. You could find reggae all over the radio, reggae and rock bands shared bills like it was meant to be, and the ability to play off the beat and to know that silence is sound was the gold standard for hundreds of punk bass players who without exception couldn't get it right.

A few years earlier, in 1973, Jimmy Cliff's movie The Harder They Come and Catch a Fire, the Wailers' first release, led reggae's stateside charge. The music grabbed the Bay Area and shook it hard, opening ears and – this is true, I was there – changing lives. Reggae was an antidote to a scene buried beneath indulgent third-rate blues bands whose tedious soloing was mirrored in a youth culture that was slowly consuming itself. "Don't fuck with me," said Ivan, Cliff's rude boy character, as he carved up a duplicitous preacher; reggae was outlaws and tight, soulful songs that – were radio not so screwed up – were radio-friendly like you couldn't believe; reggae celebrated struggle and preached hope for the future. It caught on overnight.

It's not an exaggeration to say that reggae was pop music in the '70s and early '80s, an accepted if somewhat marginalized member of the mainstream. As the decade wore on, though, reggae moved to the left on the dial. Despite a steady stream of touring Jamaican stars, who played airtight shows produced mainly by Doug Wendt and Harry Duncan for Bill Graham Presents, and despite a large, enthusiastic audience, reggae slid from the spotlight. Earl Zero went MIA, from my world anyway. If much new, old-sounding reggae was being recorded, you could've fooled me.

I heard a Marley tune over the P.A. in Safeway last week – "Is This Love" – and as I left the store, these lines by Jamaican dancehall artist Buju Banton's "How Massa God World a Run" were running through my head: "Though the poor can't afford the knowledge, dem no get none / The rich man 'ave the dollars an' no want give we some."

I remember them when I hear other classic Marley songs like "One Love" and "Waiting in Vain." After all these years, I still rely on music to find my bearings; maybe I'm just a jilted lover, but it's tough these days to buy into the refrain from "No Woman No Cry": "Everything's gonna be alright / Everything's gonna be alright ..." Was that tune on the set list in Zimbabwe? I look at the world and hope seems in terribly short supply – war-ravaged refugee camps in Palestine, battered neighborhoods in east Oakland, ethnic pogroms in eastern Europe, dirt-poor immigrants pouring over the border into California.

From the heart

I explained myself to Zero when I met him two weeks later, grilling him about the difficulties of sustaining a career; I even threw in some politics and war. He wasn't feeling my reservations.

"I just bring my music to the people," he told me with a smile. "I was persistent with the roots [music], and a different style wasn't going to change me. Plus, I know a lot of people who love dancehall and other kinds of music and still love the roots."

Zero, it turns out, settled in Santa Cruz during the '90s, where he ran a small store and performed intermittently. Two years ago he met a group of young Berkeley-based musicians anchored by guitarist Jon Robin and drummer Eddie Arnold, who were to become the nucleus of the 7th St. Band. The three hit it off and joined forces, with Zero bringing along his longtime guitarist Earl "Chinna" Smith.

The collaboration led to, among other things, the 10-song (8 are Zero originals) Roots and Romance, which features a pair of alternative mixes by the legendary Scientist. I ignored the album for a week or two – my silent, obscure protest against the leaders of Zimbabwe for letting Marley down, and against Marley, for letting me down – but curiosity finally trumped cynicism. I slipped it on and turned up the volume, and Zero's voice, pure and sweet and unassuming, floated from the speakers as if a 20-year break was nothing at all.

Of course, I still have mixed feelings – precisely because I first fell for reggae not for some timeless relevance but because it so perfectly fit the moment I was living in. I'm not sure a diet of memories is good for the soul.

The people I talked with did not share my reservations. "Earl Zero!" exclaimed my friend and colleague, writer-DJ-activist Jeff Chang, when I told him about the album. "He was the bomb!" Roger Steffens, L.A.-based American reggae partisan, archivist, and onetime DJ, said pretty much the same thing, adding that "Earl Zero used to crash on my couch."

A great divide

The Justice League was packed on a Monday night in mid March. The occasion, aside from the weekly Club Dread night, was an appearance by Jamaican dancehall artist Mr. Vegas. Dancehall is, loosely speaking, to modern Jamaica what roots reggae (as it's now called) was to Jamaica in the '70s. It is not so much a child of reggae as a younger cousin, sometimes close, sometimes not, that grew up separately. DJs chant or sing simple melodies over bottom-heavy, spare, repetitive rhythms. If you know nothing else about it, know this: the son of Harder They Come's Ivan, born after his death, is a dancehall artist – this is the home of the rude boy.

The DJ mixed dancehall tracks with bits of roots music and dubby interludes that were raw, sexual, energizing, and ultimately impossible to resist, liberating an aggressive, restless urban energy the racially, culturally mixed crowd was there to unload.

"Dancehall," Tomas Palermo said when I spoke with him last week, "provokes strong reaction for the same reason old punks don't understand metalcore. There's always a generational divide. Bob Marley fans were dealing with it [in the '80s] when Yellowman [the first dancehall artist to become popular with American audiences] arrived."

Palermo, currently the editor of XLR8R magazine, is also a musician, a writer, and a DJ. "The glorious thing about reggae music is that it's always incorporating all of its influences all the time," he says. "Specifically, Justin Hinds just released a new single – I don't know the name of it; I just heard it once on an Internet radio show – and he must be in his 60s. His single is ska, but it's made with dancehall instruments, all digital, and the song itself is about ska and how it's the original music."

Palermo gave props to a pair of stalwart local DJs, Spliff Skankin' and Robert Rankin'. "Spliff and Robert are two of the important figures in Bay Area reggae," Palermo said. "Spliff has shows at KFJC and KPFA and Robert on KKUP. Robert Rankin' plays more hardcore dancehall than roots or original stuff. He refuses to give into the sentimentality that allows older ears not to listen to new stuff."

Doug Wendt – DJ, broadcast activist, once a key figure in bringing Jamaican reggae to the Bay Area audiences and a tireless supporter of the music for nearly 20 years – might have the kinds of ears Palermo is referring to, although he'd be quick to tell you that his reservations started when the social vision that lured him in the first place began to fade. Certainly his credentials are unquestionable – he was one of the first local reggae DJs (at KTIM-FM in the mid '70s), and while moving around the airwaves (including stints at the Quake and KFOG) went on to promote years of wonderful reggae shows with Harry Duncan for Bill Graham Presents. When our conversation turned to today's music, Wendt, who moved to Montana during the '90s, was blunt.

"I consider a lot of dancehall crack music," he said emphatically, referring to the late '80s, when cocaine poured into Jamaica, spawning gang violence and, he believes, bad music. "I can't listen to it. Look, Anthony B is great, but what he does isn't reggae, not when some guy is programming it on a Casio. Producers don't even have to hire a band. I don't think people today in Jamaica even know who Peter Tosh is."

Steffens acknowledged the situation facing the music he loves. "Reggae is 34 years old, and it has all the problems of a mature form," he said. "It's always seeking to transform itself, but this style of dancehall isn't going to penetrate the world the way roots reggae did.

Rudie can't win

The gunslinging young outlaw in Cliff's Harder They Come introduced reggae to America, but the soothing vibe of Bob Marley's later music started its long exit. The Rastafarian-influenced music of many '70s musicians – while often providing an angry critique of colonialism and corruption – offered as an antidote to oppression not Ivan's blind rebellion but an obscure, divinely romanticized history that would somehow lead to a godly, just future. Many artists from those days never made it off the island, and without question there was music that remained closer to urban upheaval and beyond the ears of overseas listeners. But the sound that swept the world – Bob Marley's sound – was smooth and soothing, and Marley's message was compassionate and wise.

Dancehall, on the other hand, can be as thick as mud and, as Steffens pointed out, is a poor fit for international audiences. And maybe that's part of the point, because what can't be understood can't be co-opted.

In a 1994 article for African Arts, Louis Chudei-Sokei examined the differences between older reggae and dancehall culture. "The sentiments of ragamuffin music and culture," he wrote, "are very different from the nostalgia and longing for 'elsewhere' that characterizes much of the kind of reggae and cultural production that comes out of Bob Marley's generation. The 'Waiting in Vain,' 'Back to Africa,' 'Rasta Waan Go Home' exile narratives have given way to cultural productions from those who see the new battles as immediate and local – through gun sights and across dirty inner-city streets. [It's moved from] the aesthetics of exile and absence to an aesthetic of raw, materialistic presence.

Global remix

As reggae and its relatives have circled the globe, non-Jamaican artists have ignored traditional expectations in favor of imaginative new approaches to the music. The conversation between hip-hop and dancehall is intense and ongoing. In England during the '80s, a onetime-punk producer named Adrian Sherwood took a love of reggae and a lot of interesting ideas and produced a seminal collection of albums inspired by the dub music found on heavily remixed instrumental B-sides, or versions, of reggae singles – first created by Jamaican producers in the '70s for DJs to toast over during their sets. Côte d'Ivoire native Alpha Blondy became an international star; American R&B star Lauryn Hill wrapped her arms around Marley's music (and, literally, around Rohan Marley, Bob's son, whom she married) with "Turn Your Lights down Low," from the Bob Marley tribute album Chant down Babylon.

DJ Sep, producer of the weekly Dub Mission night at the Elbo Room discovered reggae through dub and dub through the studio work of Sherwood.

"Sherwood first got me interested," she said. "He was from the post-punk movement, but he loved reggae, and he brought people to the studio and recorded it in a dub fashion. What he did in the studio with, for instance, African Head Charge, was incredibly imaginative."

As a DJ, Sep is versatile enough to open for Kruder and Dorfmeister one day and old-school reggae artists the Meditations the next. The challenge and the attraction she experiences are clearly outside of the arc reggae once followed. "What I like, what keeps me interested, is the possibility of innovation," she says. "I'm not interested in music that sounds like something else or that everyone is familiar with. If it wasn't for this challenge, I'd get a job that wasn't so demanding."

Here and there

Tony Moses came to the Bay Area from Jamaica shortly before reggae did and over the years became well known in local reggae circles as a DJ and a supporter of the music. Although he's active today, with a weekly show on KPOO, 89.5 FM, he took some time off in the mid '80s.

"I stopped," he said, while sitting at a table in a north Oakland Jamaican restaurant, "because the essence of the [new] music was just generating cash. Roots reggae had for years been cultivating the minds of people with good stuff. Then here comes no more substance, abusive ideas to women, and gun talk. People from my generation wanted substance. But once I saw the attitude changing in a number of good new songs – recordings by Beres Hammond, a great brother, Luciano, [the late] Garnett Silk, and oh, even Capleton – I decided to come back."

In the middle of a long conversation, Chang interrupted my attempt at sweeping generalizations about the production and consumption of Jamaican music to make this observation: "Look, you have to always remember that people in Jamaica don't experience the music the same way we do."

Certainly there were a few huge cultural gaps between Bob Marley and many of his Bay Area fans: "who feels it knows it," as the Wailers once sang – words to consider, but don't get carried away; nothing worth knowing comes easy. There were – how can I say this strongly enough? – problems in translation.

Old-school American-born fans brushed aside matters like the Rastafarian belief in Haile Selassie as a messenger of God (not to mention the very existence of God). The whole thing – the ritual, the underpinnings, the beliefs, but not the ganja – seemed a bit unreal by local standards. In the end, American fans created a vision of the music and a man – Marley – that worked better in direct proportion to its distance from the source.

Many first-wave U.S. reggae fans were drawn to the music's politics – the rejection of first-world decadence and the postcolonial exploitation of nominally free third-world countries like Jamaica. "The first time I saw The Harder They Come, I knew I had found the kind of music I'd been looking for," DJ Wendt said. "It had everything – great politics, great music – that I couldn't find in rock."

But as the decade wore on and turned into the '80s, the political situation changed, as did aging stateside fans who were becoming less involved with social issues and music. For Jamaican-born reggae boosters, though, giving up on the music they had grown up with wasn't an option – it was part of their DNA.

Conversation with old-school reggae fans – true believers – was often enough to make an earthbound Babylonian like me look for reasons to believe too. Spliff Skankin' turned me on to the Congos' incredible Lee Perry-produced Heart of the Congos, an album that becomes richer and deeper with each listening. John Bent is so energetic that the reggae archive stored in his memory constantly threatens to bust loose. "I knew Bob personally from before, and I couldn't believe he was playing here," he said. "And then, within a couple of years the world would know him. It was an amazing time."

Reggae's explosive debut rocketed the music into the limelight, and Bent's subsequent deep involvement with reggae and the community around it has shaped his adult life.

All about the music

Earl Zero certainly seemed unperturbed by debates about the changes in and vitality of the music. "Dancehall and reggae," he observed with his ever present smile, "these are two different things. My style is true. If people like my music in Santa Cruz, that's good. I don't worry about who they are and what else they like."

Rather than dwelling on contemporary context, he remembers recording with the Offs, a hell-bent punk band who played reggae often and badly. He talks about cooking food for people who came to see Word Sound and Power, a movie he appeared in as a member of Soul Syndicate before moving to the United States.

The heart and soul of an April 8, 1981, profile of Zero published in the Bay Guardian, written by then-arts editor Bruce Dancis, comes in a few short words Zero used to describe his childhood. "Music was essential," he said. Twenty-one years after his conversation with Dancis, when asked what he'd been doing in recent years, Zero offered few details beyond this: "No matter what I was doing, music was always the main thing."

Many rivers

Music inevitably evolves from generation to generation, but it wasn't inevitable – unless the forces of global capitalism are tools of fate and not corporate giants – that Jamaica's evolution as a nation would be ruthlessly worked over during the '80s and '90s, spawning poverty, desperation, and anger in the process. You can follow a line from there to the dancehall scene.

Music in Jamaica travels as always in the grooves of the hundreds of 7-inches recorded and released every week. Dancehall has its own young stars, and the influence of dancehall is felt in the recordings and performances of even the more roots-oriented modern artists, like Luciano, Hammond, and Blender.

The face of pop music is ever-changing, and musicians inevitably fade, disappear, or die. But music, once recorded and popularized, remains behind. The music that shaped the lives of roots reggae's graying audience – the work of Marley, Cliff, Toots Hibbert, Dennis Brown, Joe Higgs, Culture, the Congos, Third World, and many, many others – is stored safely on record shelves and in their hearts, a source of strength from another time. And, old or not, it still manages to inspire new fans – like Neal Riordan, a sometime DJ at UC Santa Cruz's KZSC, 88.1 FM. "I first started to listen to classic reggae," he said, after telling me he'd missed the Mr. Vegas show because he wasn't old enough to get in. "And at that point I didn't like dancehall very much at all. Then, as I listened and learned more about all of the music, I got into it."

It's a sure bet that in 25 years when that time comes, the Jamaican youth of tomorrow won't be giving Sizzla, Beenie Man, and the rest of today's stars the time of day. The generational changing of the guard is as predictable as sunrise, and roots reggae is headed for the horizon. Still, the luminous vision that emerged in the music's golden age – tough, radical, and inspired – has weight beyond musical style. The legacy of '60s and '70s Jamaican music won't be complete until the sufferers, as they were called, oppressed peoples worldwide, right the wrongs of the past. History will have to look further than the pop charts for the final judgment on that. Earl Zero plays a CD-release party at Dub Mission with DJ Sep Sun/7, 9 p.m.-2 a.m., Elbo Room, 647 Valencia, S.F. $7. (415) 552-7788. Thanks to Harry Duncan and Robin Balliger for their help with this article.