If Ambrose Bierce had lived most of his life in the 20th and not the 19th century, his Devil's Dictionary would've probably included an entry for "reggae" that read as follows: "A style of Jamaican pop music predicated upon the rhythms into which one's body naturally sinks after smoking enough ganja to think Haile Selassie is God."
And, as with Bierce's definition of "accordion" ("An instrument in harmony with the sentiments of an assassin"), it would've been only partially accurate.
True, many reggae songs have extolled Rastafarian religious ideas and arisen from within a haze of marijuana smoke. But many reggae songs celebrate nothing more than the boy-meets-girl pop-music universals. And it's doubtful that many of the musicians involved in the production of the last half-century of Western pop would've passed drug tests either.
Jamaica celebrates the semi-centennial of its independence this year. And, in keeping with that anniversary's spirit, VP Records has released Out of Many: 50 Years of Reggae Music. A three-disc set, the collection contains one "iconic [Jamaican] hit" from every year since 1962. As none of the songs were hits in America (Nicky Thomas' "Love of the Common People" made the U.K. top 10 in 1970), Out of Many will comprise an ear-opening, and mostly pleasant, experience for all but the most ardent U.S. reggae fan.
Bridging the familiarity gap are songs that were either covers of U.S. hits (Ken Boothe's version of Bread's "Everything I Own") or thinly veiled rewrites of the same (Dennis Brown's transformation of Al Green's "Love and Happiness" into "Westbound Train," Marcia Allen's transformation of Barbara Lewis' "Hello Stranger" into "I'm Still in Love with You," Krystal & Shabba Ranks' transformation of Terry Jacks' "Seasons in the Sun" into the gold-digger anthem "Twice My Age").
Out of Many is mind-opening as well. Hearing Jamaican music's transition from imitation R&B to ska and then full-blown reggae has never been easier. Neither has being grateful for the existence of woofers. Without reggae, the bass guitar might have remained under-appreciated by those who prefer to enjoy music in the privacy of their own man caves.
But the collection does have a problem, and it's big-namely, the absence of anything by the musician responsible for why anyone cares about reggae in the first place: Bob Marley.
Licensing fees being what they are, the omission is, on a pecuniary level, understandable. Still, as Marley is to reggae what Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones are to rock 'n' roll, his absence on what purports to be a representative overview comprises a black hole of monumental proportions.
And, Marley's dope-smoking and womanizing ways notwithstanding, he took what he considered to be his calling seriously. On the otherwise commendable Out of Many, his soulful gravitas, however misguided, is sorely missed.
It's also missing on Worshipping the Dollar (Sunday Best), the latest album by the bi-racial, London-based, progressive-reggae group Dub Pistols.
In "West End Story" the featured rapper Akala says global poverty goes unnoticed because "we're too busy blingin'," so one gets the impression that Dub Pistols oppose monetary idolatry. Then again, the hedonistic, cocaine-fueled fantasy narrated in "Mucky Weekend" by the rapper Rodney P could only come true with lots of surplus cash.
So call Dub Pistols ambivalent about the filthiness of lucre (and bad language) in general but sure about its cleanliness when used to finance crisp, Jamaica-rooted beats.
Then remember that, had he defined "reggae," Ambrose Bierce would've been at least partially correct.