Saturday, February 16, 2019

REGGAE MONTH // Honouring the Melodies of Bitty McLean

Every time I take a flight, there is one artist that I listen to for take off and landing, and the relaxing duration of travelling in the sky. In the peak of my vacation anticipation, one artist alone can match the musical high I aspire to achieve, and provide the perfect soundtrack to my journey. Bitty McLean is my artist. Bitty McLean has the one voice that can always put my mind at ease. Every time.

He personifies everything that is great about reggae music, and music in general, and has proven to consistently produce and perform a style of reggae music that can speak to the deepest reggae lovers both in Jamaica or abroad. Through various eras of changes and trends, industry hype and confusion, the music of Bitty McLean has remained wholeheartedly great, technically sound, vocally strong, reggae music.

A British Jamaica, born in Birmingham, England 46 years ago, Bitty has one of the purest and most identifiable singing voices in reggae music today. A uniquely clear tone, with a distinctly sweet essence, it resonates tremendously in any dancehall, stage performance, or even in studio sessions.

Videos of his sessions solidified my obsession with this artist, as he rehearsed for performances with the legendary Riddim Twins, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, and an array of instrumentalists. I have yet to see Bitty perform live; while he tours Europe and has appearances in the U.S. (he in now embarking on U.S. tour), his visits to Canada have been rare. Even without the pleasure of being able to hear his voice live, I still drown myself in his recordings and still get excited to hear him sing. A reggae lover from birth, it is Bitty who has resonated most with me because of the genuine soul that is put into his music.

Admittedly, I wasn't tuned into when he was climbing the UK charts in the 90s, at the time of  his first release "Just to Let You Know." While fans from Germany to New Zealand were falling in love with the young British singer, and a series of top ten hits rang out through the airwaves, I hadn't yet connected with the sounds or the story of Delroy "Bitty" McLean. At least not by name.

His covers of "Dedicated to the One I Love" or "It Keeps Raining" were familiar to me, but I was also a teenager caught up in the dancehall stylings of my other favourite artist Buju Banton, or his counterparts like Spragga Benz or Bounty Killer. While dancehall was trending with unique bright fashions, music videos of dancers in Jamaica, and the appeal of sound system culture...over in the UK, Bitty was still bubbling the ska and rocksteady songs that continue to drive the rhythms of his productions.

The beauty of reggae music is that from one island, so many variations of reggae rhythm and soul have emerged. The same island that gave us Bob and Dennis, also gave us Buju and Bounty. The same island that produced Alkaline and Stylo G, also inspired the growth of Exco Levi (5-time Canadian Juno Award winning reggae artist) and Birmingham's Bitty McLean. No matter where in the world the artists reside, the spirit of reggae music is so strong, and manifests in a multitude of ways.

Bitty's father was a soundman, and heavily influenced by the music of his day before moving to England in the late 1960s. With him, he brought a collection of music that ranged from John Holt to Nat King Cole, and he also brought the passion that permeated the spirit of his son Delroy (nicknamed "Bitty" by his grandmother, having been born prematurely and small), the youngest of six children. Under the guidance of his parents Eaton and Leonie, Bitty took this inherited dedication to reggae music and sound system culture, and naturally entered a career in this direction.

He would often sing on his father's sound, as a youngster, and the sound system culture of England provided opportunity for him to get on microphones and share his gift within the growing West Indian community there, but Bitty was also committed to the craft of music production, and enrolled in college to study sound engineering and composition. Through this training, he landed a job with the notorious British reggae band UB40, where he worked as an assistant engineer.

In an interview with Band on the Wall in 2016, Bitty confirmed that doo-wop and rocksteady music were his first loves, and he recommended that all contemporary artists invest in the work of the veteran artists like Freddie McGregor, Dennis Brown, Marcia Griffiths, and Beres Hammond to name a few, to invoke the true spirit of the genre. In his household, Bitty came of age listening to Johnny Clarke and U-Roy, Burning Spear, and other easy-listening vibes. It was this rhythm and blues, jazz, and ska influence that would go on to shape the style of his recordings going forward.

To date, he has released 8 studio albums beginning with 1994's "Just to Let You Know," up to his most recent release "Love Restart" that was just introduced in August of 2018. Consistent throughout his albums over the decades: a purity and musicality that is rare, in an age of digitally influenced crossover hits and blurred genre lines with composition.

I fell in love with the 2005 album "On Bond Street," that Bitty mixed on his own. This remains my favourite album because of the deep instrumentation present in each and every song. I can listen to that album on indefinite repeat. Every track and every vocal is beautiful, and it soothes my soul. This album, like the majority of Bitty's work, simply reminds me of what pure reggae music should sound like. Haunting harmonies. A heavy and hypnotic bassline. Sharp drums. Crystal clear horns. Crisp piano keys. Spiritual organs. All of those symphonic elements, coupled with Bitty's vocals (that have remained consistently smooth over the years) make for excellent music.

I listen to Bitty's music on flights and at times of relaxation in particular, because of the way it grounds me. It reminds me of my Jamaican heritage, and the spirit of my ancestors who conceptualized such beautiful sounds. Despite being Canadian born, just as Bitty was also born outside of the island, his music is so deeply rooted in the origins of the genre that the tribute of his work deserves commendation. I admire his ongoing commitment to keeping the music strictly reggae, with no attempts to gain hype of crossover impact, but rather rejoices in his dedication to the music itself.

His preference in contemporary reggae music is to gravitate towards the singers, and he felt as though there was an imbalance in the music in respect to singers versus dancehall deejays. Listing Etana, Tarrus Riley, and Queen Ifrica as a few of his current favourites, Bitty also pays his respects to Sly and Robbie for their contributions to the music of reggae, as well as their leadership and friendship through a range of collaborations. A lover of music, Bitty has declared that success is not his vision. His mission is to contribute what he can to the reggae music platform, and to stand firm in his unique abilities.

Some artists purposefully make you want to dance, and others encourage you to rebel. There are artists committed to clever lyrics or aggressive recommendations, and there are those who are conveyors of history. I view Bitty's role as a reminder of the essence of reggae, the vibe of Jamaica, and the creator of a music that has the ability to physically make you feel at peace. Lyrically, there is a focus on love, and also a reminder of one's spirituality.

As a writer, I tend to gravitate towards music that puts me in a creative frame of mind without disrupting my flow or my thought processes. Whether I'm travelling to warmer climates, or sitting at my desk trying to finish a novel or edit a piece of writing, this is the music that has the ability to instantly transport me into a positive frame of mind. One that inspires me to also communicate my vision efficiently, and with a positive energy that always reminds me of the grace of our Jamaican people. It reinforces my commitment to supporting the culture and those who ensure that the original beauty and vibes of our beloved island are transferred between generations.

Bitty McLean has conveyed the best elements of Jamaican music and culture with utmost integrity and talent over the years, and I am thankful for the ways in which his music has transcended time and allowed me to live in an age where he is still creating, still recording, and still contributing to this powerful tradition.




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

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