Solid Foundation: An Oral History Of Reggae
by David Katz (Bloomsbury, £16.99, ISBN 0-7475-5910-4)

Simon Bolivar's comment that 'He who makes the revolution, ploughs the sea' might well be adapted to the heroic endeavours of those who chronicle the sprawling, unruly and obscure history of reggae music.

Reggae, perhaps the most intense and stunning music to be heard anywhere, has until recently been a largely undocumented phenomenon, generally ignored or despised by the outside world while left to speak for itself by its Jamaican practitioners. Wilful obscurity was in any case always part of the reggae game, with records often released in tiny quantities with blank labels and, if labelled, torn off by sound system operators to prevent their identity falling into rival hands. Labels were in any case often mispelt or misleading and formal copyright or royalties were largely non existent. Many early Jamaican records are identifiable only by the matrix numbers stamped into the vinyl at the pressing plant.

Over the last five years however, reggae music has enjoyed a publishing boom. Reference books like The Rough Guide To Reggae and The Guinness Book Of Reggae offer a detailed guide for the general reader to the major players, records and events in Jamaican music. Lloyd Bradley's Bass Culture is a lively readable overview of reggae's development with key chapters on its unjustly neglected development in the United Kingdom. With reckless optimism, Robert Schoenfeld and Michael Turner have attempted to document in their discography Roots Knotty Roots all the singles produced in Jamaica over the last forty years, so far reaching 37,000 titles, a phenomenal number for a small Caribbean island. People Funny Boy, Katz' own exhaustive biography of producer Lee Perry, attempted to trace the story of the music through the life of its foremost innovator.

To some extent any book on reggae must rely on oral testimony, due to the absence of formal written documentation, but Solid Foundation is exactly what it says, built upon the author's 'formal interviews conducted with more than 250 of reggae's prime movers over 15 years'. This epic labour, pursued across the ghetto yards of West Kingston and the green hills of Jamaica's rural parishes, enables Katz to let the pioneers and innovators of the music speak for themselves with only the lightest authorial touch.

And what a story his interviewees have to tell, from the fifties when no indigenous recording industry existed and the Kingston dances moved to the sound of American rhythm and blues, to the digital revolution of the mid eighties, taking in ska, rocksteady, early reggae and dub along the way. Everyone is here, veteran singer Derrick Morgan, founder of Studio One Coxsone Dodd, pioneer DJ U Roy, even Eddie Seaga, leader of the Jamaican Labour Party, ex Prime Minister of Jamaica and, for many, an instigator of the political violence that plagues Jamaica to the present day. Their oral testimonies work with each other to form a composite picture of a fast moving and chaotic era obscure even to its own participants who, as in all revolutions, could never know their place in the bigger picture.

Why, for instance, did the raw energy of ska give way to the urbane cool of rocksteady? Rather than engage in fruitless debate on who coined the term 'rocksteady' or what was the first rocksteady record, Katz wisely leaves the participants to give their own various points of view, thus leaving things properly open ended and uncertain, restricting himself to an incisive consideration of certain key records. Keyboard player Gladdy Anderson's dry comment that 'The ska rhythm change, become slow. I was so glad, because the ska was beating me shoulder' illustrates a further advantage of Katz' approach, to give full expression to the joys of Jamaican speech, so much part of the richness of the music itself.

At 400 pages, Solid Foundation shares the meticulous detail and respect for accuracy of its predecessor People Funny Boy. Yet it seems to me a more successful book, perhaps because People Funny Boy showed an excessive deference to his subject. Perhaps too because reggae music itself is too sprawling and diverse a phenomenon to be seen through the lens of a single personality, no matter how important to the music. Katz' extensive contacts and unrivalled interview archive at times seemed dragged into the narrative in undigested chunks, their links to the life and career of Lee Perry tenuous. Indeed in the introduction to Solid Foundation Katz states that 'the writing of his (Perry's) life story felt like both a blessing and a curse'. For me, despite its unrivalled wealth of detail, People Funny Boy was a reference book to dip into from the index rather than a story to be read from start to finish. Solid Foundation however is that story, a book to read from start to finish like a novel. The relaxed and expansive way it unfolds suggests that writing about a broad range of musicians has enabled Katz to offer a wider, more discursive narrative appropriate to the grassroots nature of reggae music.

A problem with Katz' biography of Lee Perry was that the second half of the book, following the destruction of Perry's Black Ark studio, was a grim affair of second rate product, aborted tours and recording rip offs. Perry's life has nothing to reveal about the way reggae music continued to develop through dancehall and into the digital era. In Solid Foundation Katz is able to redress this with a detailed account of the unjustly reviled digital era in his final chapter.

Here too, we see how Katz' readiness to let the key players speak for themselves enables him to sidestep other tiresome controversies. Many who know reggae through Bob Marley alone believe unjustly that in the eighties all that was conscious and uplifting in reggae was replaced by a music brash, materialistic and shallow. But in the words of roots singer Sugar Minott 'People just want to hear songs that make them feel good in the long run...When me likkle, me used to sing 'I wanna go to Africa', because we used to believe in it, but now you want to go to Africa, you take a plane, simple as that!' Jamaican music is not left untouched by such new global realities.

Indeed,the information revolution, which the current upsurge of books on reggae music itself reflects, is one more face of this changing global reality. Some, for whom the arcane nature of Jamaican music has always been a part of its appeal, will find this an unwelcome intrusion. But the music of this small Caribbean island has always taken on changes in the world outside and used them for its own unpredictable purposes.

So, for most, books like Solid Foundation will represent a long overdue mark of respect. Many more books on the glories of Jamaican music will follow, but David Katz' will remain one of the very best. His book will be a revelation to those new to the music and a source of constant pleasure for the most committed fan.

Copyright Geoff Parker, February 2003