If the dancehall beat and throb of dub soundsystems is what gets your feet moving, then you’ll love POSITIVE VIBRATION. Liverpool’s only dedicated festival of reggae returns for its third year on 11th and 12th June, packing a helluva lot in to two days at Constellations: live performances from Don Letts, Les Spaine and DJ Vadim will be interspersed with deeply funky sets from guest selectas, with the International Reggae Poster Contest hosting an exhibition on one of the days. Ahead of this year’s family friendly event, Josh Ray picks up the roots of Liverpool’s reggae heritage with dub poet LEVI TAFARI, who is also appearing at the festival.
In a similar way to what happened in Liverpool, the early stages of Jamaica’s musical development were largely shaped by the sounds imported by American military bases. However, while Liverpool picked up the baton and ran with Merseybeat, there was a whole different thing brewing in Jamaica. To keep up with people’s demand for the latest jazz and rhythm ‘n’ blues cuts, music heads like Coxsone Dodd, Duke Reid and Tom The Great Sebastian began setting up sound systems and taking trips to the Southern states of the US to procure the most cutting-edge sounds from people like Fats Domino, Willis Jackson and Louis Jordan.
When the RnB craze ended in the US and the supply of previously unearthed gems began to dry, people like Dodd and Reid began producing local artists, originally on soft wax acetates that came to be known as ‘dubplates’. The first few records weren’t much more than imitations of the New Orleans RnB sound; but, as influences from Jamaica’s mento folk music entered the melting pot, a few innovative Jamaicans soon found their own groove, which came to be known as ska, which developed into rocksteady, before morphing into the reggae sound that caught the world’s imagination.
“Reggae is a positive vibration that speaks to people,” explains Levi Tafari. “Through music it brings people together.” I’m speaking to the legendary Liverpudlian reggae poet over the phone, and he is relishing describing how the genre was formed. “Ska was rapid: it had a very fast rhythm, like ‘ska ska ska’,” he explains. “It became so hot when people were dancing that someone decided to slow the rhythm and cool it down and that’s when it became rocksteady, because people started rocking steady in the dance.” As the rhythms became more prominent and the basslines more gutsy and raw, a reggae sound began to develop and rocksteady’s romance began giving way to a more socially and spiritually conscious lyrical style.
“It became revolutionary in terms of what was happening in Jamaica politically at the time, with the various gangs and the government,” Tafari explains. “You had the JLP [Jamaican Labour Party] and the PNP [People’s National Party] and there was always conflict between the two but then you had Rastas, who stayed neutral. There’s was always more of a spiritual vibe than a political vibe – that’s where the spirituality started to come out in reggae music.”
When Coxsone Dodd’s right-hand man, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry started approaching reggae from his own angle, the genre really started to grow and spread globally, largely thanks to a young artist Scratch had discovered and produced, called Bob Marley. As reggae spread across the world, so did the Rastafarian ideas that came with it. “People think that Rastafari is a religion, but it’s not a religion,” Tafari clarifies. “It’s a way of life that’s based on spirituality and culture. Those two things are really important to Rastas.”
As things progressed musically in the early 1970s, Perry and a studio engineer named Osborne Ruddock, amongst others, starting experimenting with stripped-back versions of records. This studio engineer was of course the man better known as King Tubby, and this was the beginning of dub. “Dub was mainly about taking a popular rhythm and putting a lot of emphasis on the drum and the bass,” Tafari adds.
Over in the UK, where the Jamaican population was larger – more people had emigrated here due to the fact it was perceived as the ‘motherland’ – the story was different and young Caribbean kids starting making their own reggae and dub. “I think people started looking at themselves and searching for an identity, looking towards culture,” Tafari elucidates. “In Britain, people were being racist and prejudiced in a lot of ways. People started to rediscover who they were, using the cultural elements they identified with to express themselves.”
It wasn’t just the black youth who identified with these Jamaican sounds: the white working class of Britain had a love affair with Jamaican music stretching back to the mods in the early 60s. In the less enlightened, overtly racist 70s and 80s, music was a great bridge-builder and beneath the surface of a broken society facing race riots, young people of all colours and races were coming together at underground parties. “Because a lot of black people weren’t allowed into white clubs in many cities, we used to have things called shebeens,” Tafari explains. “It was an Irish word that meant a secret drinking place, which then changed into blues and you’d have a blues dance – that’s kind of where the sound system gained prominence.”
“When I was a youth, we used to go into Old Swan to go to this place, Saint Anne’s, which was a church, and they used to play Motown, funk and reggae – it was all black music, basically,” Tafari recalls. “This was in the 70s now and skinheads used to attack us because we were black. We’d leave Toxteth and go to Old Swan to get to this place – when we’d go in it was just harmonious, everybody would be rocking and dancing and the DJ would spin the tunes and everybody would just be getting on; there’d be harmony in the dance, no problem. As soon as you came out, the skinheads wanted to attack us; people used to have to run for their lives.”
With the discriminatory ‘sus law’ [the stop and search ‘suspected person’ law] and the ever-present National Front, life was tough for young black kids at the time, and this came out through the dub poetry or ‘duboetry’ of people like Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah and, of course, Tafari. “Everybody liked the poem Liverpool Experience because it was kind of post-riots and we were just saying, ‘Living in Liverpool is like living in hell, especially if you’re black’,” he explains. “Unemployment was high, there was no work.”
Although things like Positive Vibration, Africa Oyé and the various parades and carnivals that Liverpool now boasts show that the city is in a much better place in regard to its multiculturalism, this wasn’t always the case and Levi Tafari’s early work reflected this. Much like in the way people such as Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets used their words to try and affect positive change in the civil rights movement, Tafari and his peers were doing almost exactly the same on the other side of the Atlantic. “I talked about jazzoetry,” he explains, “because I thought, if The Last Poets were doing jazzoetry, I wanted to do duboetry – it’s a unity thing. Like I said in that poem:
is de same where
ever wi may be
WORD SOUND have POWER
come fe set wi FREE
Levi Tafari will be performing at Constellations on 11th June as part of the Positive Vibration Festival of Reggae. He will also be involved in the discussion on 23rd July at the LIMF event, Yes Indeed: A Celebration of Some of Liverpool’s Forgotten Merseybeat Pioneers.