Tuesday, December 4, 2018

How the Albums of Buju Banton Inspired my Passion for Reggae Music

Growing up in a Jamaican household our family always listened to reggae music, but my parents also had a taste that spanned from Bob Marley...to Neil Diamond at times. While reggae, calypso and sounds of the West Indies were honourably celebrated, so was the music of Blondie, Queen, Ashford & Simpson, and Whitney Houston to name a few. A musical family from Toronto straight back to Manchester, Jamaica, we all had an innate appreciation for all good music: period.

I can remember the Caribbean compositions of ska, lover's rock, and roots reggae as a late 70's baby; it was a natural soundtrack to outings and special events. The rhythms were soothing, and the lyrics even at times humourour to our young ears. For example, when Lovindeer released his tribute of disdain to Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, my siblings and I laughed at the patois-laden lyrics, singing along to the instant hit about the storm that ravished our island, devastating many.

Reggae music is special--albeit not always appreciated--to anyone of Jamaican ancestry. It is our music, exclusively. Now thanks to the recent UNESCO declaration, it is also a global treasure that the United Nations has committed to protecting and preserving for the social impact it has had on its listeners around the world. Reggae music is, at its core, a music for the people and by the people. A music of movement, rebellion, love, and progress.

It wasn't until 1992 that I took a deeply personal interest in reggae music, falling in love with not only the messaging but also the artistry, the performers, the instrumentation, and the culture. The artist that first caught my attention unlike any other reggae artist to date was Mark Myrie, aka Buju Banton.

Entering high school in 1992, I had already lived a brief-but-full life of piano lessons, choir practice, playing the clarinet in the school band, and obsessing over and studying music daily. It was a lifestyle for me even before reggae music became an addiction: music was a part of me. Up until then, I didn't own any reggae music of my own. My father had records, and I had to resort to borrowing the mix cassettes of my older sister. I didn't know the names of the new artists, but I knew the vibe very well. I would duplicate the mixes for myself and use them to DJ our elementary school birthday parties and dances. I was intrigued by the essence, but had yet to study the players.

Mr. Mention was the first reggae album I ever purchased, back at the Pickering Flea Market, and to this day remains one of the best reggae albums of all times, as far as I'm concerned. With tracks like "Love How the Gal Dem Flex," "Have to Get You Tonight," and "Who Say" instantly catching my attention, I would play the A side, and the B side, and back to the A side on indefinite repeat. It was "Bonafide Love" featuring Wayne Wonder that captivated me most of all. I had fallen in love with the voice of Buju Banton, with the fun and charismatic tone of his lyrics, and the rhythms have never left me to this day.

I had every track on the Mr. Mention album memorized, and as a writer, the young Jamaican swag and the loveable charm of Buju Banton also helped to inform my taste in events, individuals, and behaviour. After Mr. Mention came a series of singles from the Stamina Daddy album, released in Jamaica in 1992 containing songs like the title track "Stamina Daddy" and other favourites like "Gold Spoon." It was also around this time that I discovered the Toronto-based Friday Night Reggae Mania radio show with host Ron Nelson, and I would anticipate the weekly mixes including Buju Banton, which also led me to other artists of the era. Reggae music had captivated me, and the entire culture began to expand around me.

By 1993, I was an official connoisseur. Not quite old enough to attend reggae events in the city of Toronto, I was instead glued to my radio, and committed to keeping up with reggae news and events through Ron Nelson and also through the interviews and performances on our Canadian music station Much Music, with host Master T and the range of artists he would have in-studio for mini-concerts and discussion. When Buju's album Voice of Jamaica was released that year, I was full-speed-ahead into songs like "Red Rose," and "Deportees," as well as the more conscious tracks like "Tribal War" and fun loving hits like "Make My Day."

If I had a mood, there was a Buju Banton song that would fit it. If I had a vibe, there was a track to match my energy. Now in my second year of high school, I also became an avid story writer, knocking out a few books a year was my regular speed, and I was inspired by the sounds of reggae music in particular. While the adolescent novelist was consumed with friendships, and childish thoughts, through the imaginative dialect of reggae music, I was able to begin to explore more mature concepts, and now also give my characters a distinct Jamaican edge that I wasn't particularly exposed to from my conservative-Christian family.

To no surprise, my characters were always Jamaican-centric. My male characters had a distinctly dancehall-inspired swag, and this was the culture and the environment of which many, many stories were birthed. It was a culture I longed to explore, and the older I got, and the more knowledgeable I became about the music, the more I learned, and the more I wrote. The more I experienced, and the more I enjoyed through this music.

It was around this time that I was officially old enough to make my own life decisions, and found myself with a driver's license and a full social agenda that always included me partaking in reggae music in one way or another. I began to date. I began to attend parties, my curfew slowly extended...and my passion for the music and culture automatically grew with these new freedoms. By the time 1995 hit, and the Til Shiloh album was released, my dedication to reggae music was solidified. A close friend of mine with a never-ending list of connections in the music industry, invited me downtown with her one Saturday afternoon when Buju Banton was in town for a concert. Still only 17, this was my introduction to the cross-city travelling and entertainment that would consume my late teens and twenties. But at this particular moment, it was a true experience. We ended up at the Much Music studio on Queen Street, and had what would turn out to be one of the most memorable afternoons of my life. To this day.

Standing on the sidewalk, we saw a tall, slender, dark-skinned young man with a white bucket hat, solemnly sipping on a cup of tea with his foot perched behind him against the wall of the Chum building downtown. Buried in the collar of his winter coat, he sipped, and shivered. We stared. He stared back, with a mischievous smile. Is that Buju? I had to wonder, but his casualness and independence made us think otherwise. It wasn't until members of his entourage and band approached that we realized we were in the company of the great Buju Banton that entire time.

He laughed at us, because we were young and timid, but he also said hello, obliged us with photographs, autographs, and a his drummer even handed me a signed copy of his 12" single "Sensimilia" for me to take home, along with "Til Shiloh" tour stickers. With our Buju Banton swag in hand, we also made acquaintance with Wayne Wonder, and stuck around Much Music to watch Buju's performance of his album. In an unfortunate turn of events for me, I was not allowed to accompany my friend (already 19 years old) to the concert that evening, but I was content to go home with my personalized memorabilia, which only further cemented my appreciation for the artist.

Favourites on the Shiloh album: most definitely "Champion" and "Murderer," as well as "Not an Easy Road" and "Wanna Be Loved." It's safe to say that next to Mr. Mention, this album definitely holds a special place in my reggae heart: it is permanently made significant in my memories.

By the time Inna Heights was released in 1997, I was finishing high school and entering my first year of post-secondary in Windsor. Buju transition from groovy and upbeat dancehall tracks, into more conscious, spiritual, and message-driven lyrics that were a definite mirror to my own personal consciousness and internal growth as a Black woman, and as an independent thinker. Songs like "Hills and Valleys" and "Destiny" were chart-topping hits, as well as personal favourites, for the inspirational words as well as the soothing riddims.

Buju was evolving, and as a fan, I was evolving as well. He was one of few artists that I had consistently listened to over the years, and I appreciated the direction he was heading in as I was transitioning into a new reality of living on my own in another part of the province, as well as stepping into higher education and self-reflection. Tracks like "Circumstances" and "Give I Strength" were like fuel, while songs like "Love Sponge" and "My Woman Now" still provided the light-heartedness and loveable personality that was expected from Buju.

At this point in my life, there was no comparison. Reggae was the be-all and end-all of music as far as I was concerned. I could still enjoy R&B, hip hop, pop music, and house, but it was reggae music that filled my dorm, my headphones, and heavily influenced my lifestyle and preferences.

The next few albums from Buju Banton, while still powerful, seemed to be released in succession over the years without my knowledge of the entire body of work as a whole, but instead by a few memorable tracks. The Unchained Spirit album in 2000, and 2003's Friends for Life definitely made it to my Napster download list, but I was not as quick to purchase the albums as I had been in previous years.

It was a different time. Cell phones emerged. Digital music was taking over. Technology was pervasive, with chat rooms, email, and other distractions taking the place of the old-fashioned cassette/CD Walkman movements that I was used to. Now, I had a plethora of music available to me as I downloaded songs 24/7 with a vengeance and built my CD collection proudly. Mix CDs were popularly consumed from the flea market, or through copying, and I spent so much time in the club and at the dancehall that I was drawn to what was new, what was hot, and what the DJs were playing. While Buju's popularity was definitely consistent, and his rank in the reggae hierarchy unchanging...his tracks were not as popularly played in the venues I frequented, as upbeat sounds and digitized riddims were taking over.

Dancehall was changing, and while I went along with it for the most part, I also found that it no longer moved me the way it used to in the 90s. I transitioned into culture music, into other genres, and I didn't have the same daily pull to Buju Banton as I once did. I was getting familiar with other artists. I was starting to travel. I was distracted by life, and without deliberately seeking his music out, I found that I didn't encounter it as much.

In 2006 his album Too Bad was released, which had a few big tracks like "Driver" and "Too Bad" that brought Buju Banton back up to a party vibe, in the forefront of reggae, and into my visibility again. It was around this time that I caught him live at a Redemption event in Toronto (in July of 2007), and had the pleasure of hearing the new songs live, as well as some of the oldies-but-goodies. Old enough to now attend his shows, and now living full time in Toronto again, this particular concert was definitely not going to pass me by.

At the Kool Haus venue on Queen Quay, Buju and his live band put on a great show, and I was happy to have had the opportunity to be in his presence again. He was different, however. Again, I felt it to be a bit of a transition period for Buju...or perhaps just for myself. There was a slight disconnect, but because he was Buju, and because he remained my favourite reggae artist, I enjoyed the show to the fullest, and to this day am happy that I was able to attend.

By the time his 2009 album Rasta Got Soul was released, again, I didn't consume the album as a whole, but instead as individual tracks, where they made an impact. Overall, however, I was distracted from the genre of reggae music because I didn't appreciate the direction dancehall music was headed in, and I missed the light and danceable riddims from the 90s...drawing my spirit, and my social circumstances to the world of soca music. In time, the dancehalls were replaced with fetes, and my appreciation for Buju remained in the 90s and early 2000s where I believe he had the greatest musical impact on me.

Of course, there wasn't a time you would head out to a club event or festival without hearing a few Buju Banton songs. To this day. A party isn't a party without at least one or two Buju songs. It's an expectation to say the least. He is a legend, and always a part of my musical experience one way or another. To hear about his legal troubles was something we as fans weren't prepared for, because as much as he was a star and public figure...he was also the voice and face of righteousness. We had seen and heard him transition over the years and embrace his maturity through music. With the realization that we could no longer receive new music from him, I think many of us as fans were in a state of shock.

I'm unsure what all of the songs from his 2010 album Before the Dawn were like, but right now I have committed myself to listening to the words he published just before his voice would be taken away. Now, with his release in just a few short days, I feel the timing couldn't be better. Reggae music has remained a constant part of my life, however, it has definitely transitioned and impacted me in different ways over the years. While roots reggae and lover's rock, culture songs/artists and singers will always be impactful, it was the genre of dancehall that had me questioning the future of reggae music at times.

Like many, I wonder what type of musical sound the newly released and Buju will share. I am curious to hear how his voice sounds, and the thoughts he has been compiling over the past years as his life has been filled with conflict and character judgements. As many of the artists of his time have faded away, and many new artists have emerged larger than life and extremely influential in reggae music and culture, I would like to see how the balance of power is distributed with the legendary Buju Banton back in the studio and ready to perform again and share messages with his listenership, eagerly awaiting his perspectives.

It's a great moment in reggae music history right now, again, as the UN recognizes the international impact the music has has on society, and also as the genre of reggae music prepares to welcome back one of the most important musicians of our time...if not, of all time. His message to fans on November 15 of this year gave us an indication of where his medz are, and we can only look forward to his wisdom, his insights, and what his return will mean for the future direction of music and how this treasure is sustained for the next generation. The anticipation is amazing, and I am excited to see him perform again live soon...on Canadian soil, or abroad. I am ready to lean in his direction, trusting his musical judgement over the years to steer me in the right direction of listening to and appreciating for my native music.




Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

Hearing this song always brings me back to my introduction of Buju, and the joy his music brought to my young soul:

1 comment:

  1. Omg such a great article you truly brought me back down memory lane. Til Shiloh was the first cd I ever purchased and I played it non stop like it was going out of style. And I Wholeheartedly agree with you it's an amazing time in reggae music.

    ReplyDelete