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Melodians keep rocksteady alive

As a general rule with rocksteady — the post-ska, pre-reggae form of Jamaican vocal music — if a group’s name ends in “-ians,” it’s worth a listen.

There are exceptions; some bands without the distinction aren’t bad either, such as legendary rocksteady acts the Maytals, the Hepcats, the Gaylads and the Tennors. But the -ian ranks are strong: the Kingstonians, the Abyssianians, the Ethiopians.

The Melodians was a great trio at the forefront of rocksteady’s birth in 1965. With the death of Brent Dowe from a heart attack in 2006, the Melodians continue as a sweet-voiced duo. Founding members Tony Brevett and Trevor McNaughton will perform Friday at the Meridian, a rare chance to hear an influential Jamaican institution.

Rocksteady is a fetching musical genre that falls under the reggae umbrella. It shares DNA with its predecessor, ska, though the tempos are sometimes slower. Brass and drums were de-emphasized, and bass moved up in the mix. (The prominence of syncopated bass playing was huge in the development of reggae and can be heard in the wildly inventive playing of Aston “Family Man” Barrett with the Wailers on Saturday at House of Blues.)

In rocksteady greater attention also was given to the vocals, which owed much to American doo wop and R&B, often with an emphasis on harmonies.

Jamaica’s music industry sprang from a need to feed a culture primed to dance with DJs and outdoor sound systems that pumped out leg-shaking songs at ear-shaking volumes. Imported American music gradually gave way to an indigenous music initially inspired by it.

Sometimes the influence of American music is easily discernible. The Melodians’ I’ll Get Along Without You owes a clear debt to a song with a similar title by country-music star Skeeter Davis.

Though the musical culture in Jamaica initially drew from the States, music listeners in the States never really reciprocated the interest in Jamaican music.

Record sales speak for themselves, so most folks in our country are content with their copy of the Bob Marley compilation Legend, still a prerequisite for admission into any university dormitory. For those wishing to dig a bit deeper, rocksteady offers an important discography and storied history of under-heralded groups such as the Melodians.

If the Melodians have a calling card, it’s the single Rivers of Babylon, which was featured on the The Harder They Come soundtrack, likely the second-most-owned reggae CD in this country (though not yet a prereq for college-dorm admission). The song was turned into a Top 40 hit in 1978 by Boney M. and has been oft-covered since, including a bluegrassy version by Texas singer-songwriter Steve Earle in 1995.

Rivers wasn’t a total deviation for the Melodians, though the band’s early singles tended to focus on love. Rivers’ biblical plea for deliverance from exile (while name-checking Ethiopian dictator/rastafarian prophet Haile Selassie) represents another side of the band.

Though rocksteady could function as viable party music, it also initiated a focus on social issues that would inform much of the reggae that followed. These acts — stars in Jamaica, even if less known in the States — aren’t simply hidden in Marley’s shadow; they often influenced the music he sold to the world.

Take the Ethiopians’ Everything Crash. There’s something Yeats-ian about its center no longer holding, and then come two memorable lines: “Every day the bucket a-go to the well/One day the bottom of the bucket drop out.” I’ve yet to determine whether there’s some really old text with such a quote, but four years after the Ethiopians sang the line, Marley made it the straw/camel’s back metaphor that concludes one of his calling cards, I Shot the Sheriff.

By 1969 reggae’s skull had hardened, and rocksteady was gone. Marley became ballyhooed as the first third-world superstar, and the rich singles culture of rocksteady faded after a brief period in vogue.

Only some of these acts, including the Melodians, remain on the road, preserving an important and under-appreciated style of song.

By Andrew Dansby – copyright 2010 Houston Chronicle

source : chron.com

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