Special To The Washington Post
During the 1960s and early ’70s, Trojan Records was the preeminent distributor of Jamaican music in the United Kingdom, issuing more than 3,000 singles there. One hundred of those tracks are compiled on This Is Reggae Music: The Golden Era 1960-1975, a new four-CD box set tracing the development of the island’s music styles during those remarkably fertile years.
Jimmy Cliff is one of a number of reggae singers featured on This Is Reggae Music: The Golden Era 1960-1975. The four-CD box set traces the development of the Jamaican genre.
That particular golden era ? it can be argued that reggae has enjoyed more than one ? marked the zenith of the jaunty music style known as ska. Ska eventually evolved into “rock steady,” a slower style emphasizing bass and drums, and rock steady soon evolved into reggae.
Disc 1, titled Train to Skaville: Mento, R&B and Ska 1960-1968, opens with Iron Bar, an example of the old Jamaican calypso style known as mento, before moving into an array of innovative ska and rock steady tracks. Many of these well-known songs can be found on other compilations, but other reggae box sets may lack Alton Ellis & the Flames’ classic Cry Tough, or the rock-steady-going-to-reggae Ba Ba Boom.
Other early reggae cuts here include Desmond Dekker’s Israelites and Toots & the Maytals’ 54-46 That’s My Number. Each of these songs comes with an interesting story ? 54-46, for example, is based on Toots’ own prison stint on a ganja conviction ? that is duly noted in annotation by music historian Colin Escott.
The three remaining discs carry equally unwieldy titles. Disc 2 is Do the Reggay: Rocksteady to Reggae 1968-1970; Disc 3 is Black and White: Reggae Rising 1970-1971; and Disc 4 is The Time Has Come: Birth of Roots 1972-1975. Many of the songs included will be familiar even to those with only a passing interest in the music: There’s most of the soundtrack to the reggae film The Harder They Come and Johnny Nash’s chirpy I Can See Clearly Now, as well as Bob Marley & the Wailers’ Trenchtown Rock and Lively Up Yourself.
Jamaica’s fascination with American music is reflected in the cover versions of U.S. hits ? Ken Boothe’s rendition of Bread’s Everything I Own, Bob Andy and Marcia Griffiths’ take on Nina Simone’s Young, Gifted and Black, and Tony Tribe’s compelling rendition of Neil Diamond’s Red, Red Wine. Then there are Jamaican originals later borrowed by rock and pop artists, among them the Paragons’ The Tide Is High (later covered by Blondie) and Toots & the Maytals’ Monkey Man (the Specials and others).
Really, what makes this collection worth having is its comprehensiveness. This is a box set that has two radically different songs titled Bongo Man. One is the 1970 Jimmy Cliff religious number. The second is an obscure 1964 track by one Bongo Man Byfield; his is a black-power anthem set to the tune of Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World.
It may also be illuminating to have all these songs in one place. Together, they show how a tiny country’s joy at newfound independence dissolved into frustration and despair at economic hardship and hopelessness, and how that adversity led in turn to extraordinary musical creativity.