Josna Rege

200. Roots, Rock, Reggae

In 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, history, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories, Words & phrases on April 21, 2013 at 12:00 am


My first encounter with Reggae music was with Jimmy Cliff’s Wonderful World, Beautiful People in 1969, during lunch-hour at the all-girls Parliament Hill School in London. It was an incongruous setting: in a school community polarized between hippies and skinheads (with the hippie girls wearing long hair and black tights and the skinhead girls wearing very short hair and white tights), it was the skinheads who played the Reggae, while the hippies were playing the newly discovered Led Zeppelin. I was an outsider to both groups since I attended that school for only a few months, though if I had belonged to any group it would have been the hippies. The skinhead philosophy (if you can call it that) was a racist one, so it was odd that they liked Jimmy Cliff. Gangs of skinheads would lie in wait for Asians (“Pakis,” they called them all) and beat them up, kicking them with their Doc Martens, which they called bovver boots. According to their racial stereotypes, Asians were weak and passive, while the Afro-Caribbeans were masculine and liable to  fight back. Hence they left them alone, gave them grudging respect, and listened to their music.

While my sympathies were with the hippies, I thought that Jimmy Cliff’s was unquestionably the better sound; Led Zeppelin left me cold. The previous year, when I had first arrived in England, Desmond Dekker topped the charts with his hit single, Israelites, and I loved that too.

HarderTheyComeAfter moving to the United States I lost touch with Reggae music for a couple of years, but when Perry Henzell’s film The Harder They Come (1972) came to the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge (for what was to be a ten-year run) I fell in love with it all over again. I can’t tell you how many times I watched that movie and, of course, played the album many times more, over and over again, as was our wont in those days. Every song on it was a winner, from the hard-hitting title track to the achingly sweet Many Rivers to Cross and Sitting in Limbo.


bob_marley_the_wailers-rastaman_vibration(1)It wasn’t until the mid-1970’s that I discovered the Wailers, but when I did, I became a complete and total fan of Reggae, which seemed to combine the best of rhythm & blues, Third World politics, a voice for the working poor and the dispossessed, and messianic liberation theology with Caribbean syncopation, positive vibrations, and a truly global vision. It was slower and less frenetic than rock-n-roll; it had the beat, but it also had soul. We went to see Bob Marley & the Wailers three times, in 1976 at the Music Hall in Boston, 1978 at the Music Inn outdoors in Lenox, Western Massachusetts, and in 1979 at the Harvard Stadium. In 1979 we saw Peter Tosh in Sanders Theatre at Harvard on his first solo tour. It was around that time, too, that we first got to see Toots and the Maytals, and I accompanied my friend Geno backstage to interview Toots after the show.


When Bob Marley died of cancer in 1981, only thirty-six years old, it felt like the end of an era. Peter Tosh was killed a few short years afterwards, in 1987, at age forty-two. The harsh realities of the unequal, war-torn world he sang of in songs like Equal Rights and Rumors of War caught up to him in his own home. We were entering the Reagan era, and we needed all the inspiration, the Redemption Songs, we could get, but we had lost our prophets and bards. Listening to Bob Marley singing Three Little Birds, we sang along:

Baby don’t worry,
bout a thing

Cos every little thing’s
Gonna be all right

And tried to believe it.

Toots+&+The+Maytals-+Reggae+Got+SoulTo this day, I far prefer a reggae version of just about any song to the original. If you want proof of the truth of this, listen to Toots and the Maytals sing Country Roads and follow it up with the John Denver original. I guarantee that thereafter the latter will be insipid by comparison.

Listen: Roots, Rock, Reggae: this a reggae music.

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  1. Interesting to read about your affinity with reggae music. I came to Montreal in 1968 from Dhaka.At university I was involved with the international students among whom I felt closest to the West Indians through whom I was exposed to Calypso,( Mighty Sparrow, Byron Lee, Lord Kitchner etc). This then lead to Reggae but my interest was primarily in Bob Marley , I found some of the others too “tame”.Enjoyable music but not the substance that Marley had. I was also not too taken with the rockers and the folk/country music. I think it may be too far from the sub-continental music we grew up with and the need for strong rhythm / physical oomph and melody that Desi music provides. In recent years, listening to 60/70’s music I have started to enjoy the rockers much more with Queen being a particular favorite.
    Will enjoy going through some of the music you provided links to .

    • Asghar, you arrived in Canada at the same time I arrived in England, so the same music must have been in the air. Like you, once I discovered them, there was no question that Bob Marley and the Wailers were the best of the best. A little later, in the early 80s, I started listening to ska, played by what were known as the “two-tone” bands in Britain: bands like the Beat, the Specials, UB-40. Nice to receive your comment–thank you.

  2. Hi Josna
    I liked the description of the ‘uniforms’ (and values) of the hippie girls versus the skinhead girls in 1979. I went to an all-girls grammar school in Surrey in the 1970’s, but we were all outfitted in a grey uniform and blue bowler hat!

    • Thanks, E. We had a uniform at Parliament Hill, too, so the girls announced their individuality via their tights and footwear. Like the sound of the bowler hat!

  3. I remember seeing The Harder They Come but I can’t remember where I was living when I saw it. One of the best sound tracks ever. We really wanted him to reach that boat but knew he was doomed. Can’t remember when I saw the Rockers either, but I know it was years later. I did hear Bob Marley early on. I remember my singer cousin in LA sent us a piece of burlap with Bob Marley’s picture stamped on it and I used it for a curtain on the door widow when we lived in rural Mississippi. I will have to check all the links out later as company maybe coming and I need to at least sweep the floor.

    • I love the way people all over the word have been united by reggae music, and especially the positive global vision of unity and justice. Love, too, the thought of that burlap Bob Marley curtain ver the window of your door. And yes, The Harder They Come soundtrack is definitely one of the soundtracks of my life.
      Whether company came or not, at least the floor is swept! That’s when I find myself doing such things as well.

  4. Reggae music is really cool. Bob Marley was too.

  5. I think I need more education musically -you’ve encouraged me to try some different music. I was astounded by the kicking of the “Asians” at school…I must have led a protected life. Well I haven’t entirely but some things still amaze me. Did none of the school staff do anything?

    Pauleen at Tropical Territory
    A to Z 2013

    • I hope you find something to like in at least one of those links. Try “Country Roads” byToots and the Maytals and you will be won over instantly. One of my best friend’s daughters got married outdoors on her parents’ land and at her request she and her husband walked her to meet the groom to this song.
      The skinhead youths used to skulk around in groups at night and gang up on lone British Asian men. THank goodness I didn’t hear of any such activity at my school, and not on the part of the girls. For some of them it may have been just a fashion, but the ideology was nasty.

  6. Great article, love hearing about your introduction to reggae. I wish was alive when roots reggae was fresh, unfortunately bar a few acts I feel that new reggae has lost all the magic that defined the stuff of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Very jealous you got to see Bob Marley but I also saw Toots and the Maytals last year and was blown away, Toots’s voice is still incredible and seeing ‘country roads’ live was unforgettable

    • Thank you! So glad you got to see Toots and that his rich and honeyed voice is still going strong. I have just visited your amazing website and am honored that you like my post. Although you may not have gotten to see those Greats in the flesh, you are clearly tuned in to the true roots of reggae, to the spirits of the Ancestors, so to speak, with rocksteady and ska. It is your appreciation of the music in the present that counts. I can see that your site will give me hours of enjoyment.

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