Travel guides for music lovers
Two recent and very worthwhile box sets give themselves over entirely not to a band or record label, but to a place. Both locales are storied lands - tourist attractions known for quaint local customs, high living, and hybridized ethnicity, but also home to poverty, crime, and just enough strife to take a bite out of their easygoing reputations. The places are Jamaica and New Orleans, and they turn out to have links in musical evolution as well as lifestyle.
Slip in the first disc on This is Reggae Music: The Golden Era 1960-1975 (Trojan/Sanctuary), and you'll quickly encounter "Fat Man," a Derrick Morgan tune that, with the exception of the singer's accent and some of the background percussion, sounds yanked right off the streets of New Orleans. There was a "fat man" more famous than the one Morgan's addressing - Mr. Domino of "Blueberry Hill" fame - and reading through the liner notes we find that his music was a big inspiration to the fathers of reggae.
They were fans of all New Orleans' sweaty R&B output. (Jamaicans proved not to be big rock 'n' roll consumers, however.) The famous open-air DJ set-ups known as "sound systems" tried to one-up one another with the most obscure American 45s, and allusions to U.S. pop culture were plentiful even after the music quickly found its own voice. One early ska hit, Millie's "My Boy Lollipop," was a cover of an unknown American tune from seven years earlier.
Trojan has been releasing multi-disc anthologies of its reggae catalog for years, most of them highly specialized collections for hardcore collectors. This is Reggae Music, on the other hand, is a fantastic broad introduction for everyone from reggae newcomers to those who already have a few Desmond Dekker discs on their shelves. Organized chronologically, it presents the slide from energetic ska and rocksteady to the more stoned rhythms most folks recognize as reggae.
Listeners with a passing knowledge of Jamaican music will recognize a fair number of tracks, even before the set reaches Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley: Dekker's misunderstood protest song "007 (Shanty Town)," for instance, or his great "Israelites," which could never be understood as anything but a song about the world's downtrodden people. But most of the 90 tracks in this rich collection will be discoveries for all but serious fans. Even better, the liner notes are a smart guide through the music's development and its proliferation outside the country's borders.
If Jamaica's music became its greatest legal export, Doctors, Professors, Kings & Queens: The Big Ol' Box of New Orleans (Shout Factory) is intent on convincing music fans to leave their homelands and travel to the source. The nicely designed book accompanying the set reads like a travel guide, with advice about what to do (and where to eat, and drink, and how to act) on your visit to the Crescent City.
This four-disc set steers way clear of the chronological sequencing of This is Reggae Music, insisting that the way to experience this city's kooky melting pot is to stir everything up real good. So we get discs that jump directly from 2001 to 1957 to 1972 to 1927, or plant a regional R&B antique next to a small-band clarinet tune next to the modern electric blues of Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown (yes, he's a Texan, but he's singing about Louisiana here). Scholarship is obviously not the goal, nor is a smooth stylistic program; it's more like listening to four hours of local radio where the DJ has been asked by the chamber of commerce to spin some of his faves, with an emphasis on living artists who can draw patrons to local watering holes.
There are some baffling exclusions here (where the hell is the earth-shatteringly funky Lee Dorsey?) and some of the contemporary material is not exciting. But jewels abound as well, and the set's a good place to start exploring if the names Jelly Roll Morton, Huey Piano Smith, and Allen Toussaint ring only a faint bell. Popular names make strong appearances: Dr. John pops up with "Iko Iko," and with "Tell it Like it Is" we get a ravishing glimpse of Aaron Neville back before he turned his gorgeous glissandos into a fetish.
It's not surprising that a collection that comes from the local perspective would be programmed this way: Hometown folks everywhere hate to think of their cities as museum pieces - even when their contributions to world culture are as precious and full of life as those of New Orleans. •
By John DeFore