By Andrew Clarke/ Western Sound System Fed.
Visit a handful of college houses in this town, and chances are one in every two or three will be sporting a Bob Marley poster somewhere on its slightly dirty white walls. True, Bob Marley possesses one of the most well-known and respected faces in music, but for many the world of reggae ends with the last note of Marley’s CD “Legend.”
Reggae music was born in Jamaica, representing a synthesis of American soul, R&B, and pop with the more ancient rhythms of the island’s predominantly African-descended population.
Throughout its development, the music became closely associated with Rastafarianism, a religion and ideology based on clean and natural living, worship of an African god, and eventual repatriation of all African-descended people to the mother continent.
Because of its close association with Rastafarianism, reggae music tended to veer away from the lighter and softer topics sung about in its contemporary American popular music. Where the Reverend Al Green would croon and wail about how tired he was of being alone, reggae artists would rail about how tired they were of being poor, of living in huge, dirty ghettos; and of how they would escape to live a life of harmony and peace in the hills.
Of course, this is not to downplay the incredible amount and quality of politically and socially charged music produced in the United States. What is remarkable, however, is that such a wealth of music came out of an island the size of Connecticut. As a result of this incredible music movement, reggae has become known throughout the world as a music of protest and resistance to oppression, inequality, and injustice and has extended its influence far beyond the hills of Jamaica. Just look at the legacy of Bob Marley, a household name all around the globe.
Over the last few years, one of the most potent and prolific reggae scenes has come out of the tiny island of St. Croix, one of the American Virgin Islands. The Virgin Islands, a chain of islands occupying the Lower Antilles just south of Puerto Rico, are divided into American and British protectorates, the American portion consisting of St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John.
St. Croix, the largest of the three islands, is spread out over roughly 100 square miles.
The history of the Virgin Islands, like many of its Caribbean neighbors, has been marked by successive rebellions, mirroring the struggles for freedom of other islands, particularly Jamaica.
The economy of the Virgin Islands has traditionally been carried by tourism, the archipelago seeing over 2 million tourists per year— the islands have long been an escape for Americans fleeing the frigid northern winters, taking a week off of work to enjoy piña coladas, calypso music, and sparkling blue Caribbean waters.
However, since the mid-1980s, a new economy has been developing in the Virgin Islands, particularly in St. Croix. Spearheaded by bands like Inner Visions and Midnite, who performed to a sold-out crowd at last year’s High Street World Music Festival, a new and unique form of reggae music has been developing on the island, and it has been taking the reggae music world by storm.
Whereas Jamaican reggae music has been typically becoming more and more hard and urban, moving closer and closer to American rap, the musicians of St. Croix have been stepping backwards, developing a style that is characterized by slow and heavy rhythms, sparse instrumentation, and highly conscious and political lyrics. Indeed, St. Croix has been enjoying what many refer to as a “roots revival,” and it shows no sign of letting up.
The music scene on St. Croix is highly dynamic— it seems new artists and bands are cropping up every day, and the musical community is incredibly tight-knit. Artistic exchange is constant, with older, more established bands like Midnite bringing promising new talent out by producing albums and bringing young musicians along on their international tours. The musical output of St. Croix is especially amazing considering the population of the island, just over 100,000.
One of the most gifted young musicians to come out of St. Croix recently calls himself Batch, and he will be performing at the 2005 High Street Arts & Music Festival with singer Ras Attitude and their band, the Zioneers.
Julian “Batch” CumberBatch was born in St. Croix, forming early contacts with the music scene there. He began his career as drummer for roots veteran Danny Tucker, before creating, with his two brothers (Eddie ` IDE’ and Reggie ` IGE’) his first group in Boston, the Motion. The group won the “Best Reggae Band” award five times consecutively at the Boston Caribbean Festival.
Eventually, Batch returned to St. Croix to found the record label V.I. Zion Records with longtime friend and collaborator Bryan “Ras Attitude” Goodwin. Together they have been working through the label and independently to assert a “strictly conscious music for the spirit.”
Batch, Ras Attitude and the Zioneers headline the Red Square Main Stage at the High Street Arts & Music Festival. Their performance begins at 8:00 p.m.