Putumayo’s latest offering, Jamaica, focuses on the music of the now infamous island: reggae. This is its second similarly themed album after 1998’s Reggae Around the World. And, just as its predecessor, the one glaring omission here is the lack of a Bob Marley track among its 11 songs. Longtime reggae artist Jimmy Cliff sings it best, featured here singing “give the people what they want” over and over again on the song of the same name. In this case, they want at least one Marley song, as even those with the scantest knowledge of the genre widely consider him to be the Father of Reggae. No doubt Putumayo — the label that guarantees each one of its collections will “make you feel good!” — knew this before even tackling this project. While citing Marley and the Wailers repeatedly throughout its very extensive liner notes, the closest listeners get to the famous group is via Peter Tosh’s “Mystery Babylon” (Tosh was one of the original Wailers, along with Marley and Bunny Wailer). Citing licensing difficulties, no Marley track is included.
But, making do with what they have, Jamaica comes across as a worthy introduction to the music most closely associated with all things marijuana. While far from being definitive, it comes off more as a really decent reggae sampler than anything, including just the right amount of roots reggae and ska to be considered authentic. And, where it lacks in subtlety — Toots and the Maytals’ “Reggae Got Soul” and Culture’s “Why Am I a Rastaman” seem rather obvious picks, based on their titles alone — it succeeds in including a few of the greater historical artists reggae has known (as well as some it’s still blessed with), delving into selections from the last decade less than a handful of times. It’s a lesson that Polygram might have learned from, the label responsible for 1998’s Pure Reggae, a compilation originally sold through television infomercials. While owning up to its “pure” proclamation in a few instances (The Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon”, Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites”), it feels mostly weighed down with songs that can only be considered influenced by reggae at best: Eric Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff” and Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” are serious missteps. However, the unsteady compilation did get one thing right — it both begins and ends with Mr. Marley.
Included in one of the newer songs is the Israel Vibration with its very excellent “Rudeboy Shufflin'”. Originally from Kingston, this trio plays it straight: gravely vocals over a steady beat, peppered with an organ, a tight horn section, and the help of female backup singers. There are no obtrusive dance beats or bubble gum pop lyrics, either — adversely, the issues the “I-Vibes” touch upon are weighty, like youth violence. So, to hear Albert “Apple” Craig sing the line, “Want peace in society? You better put me ‘pon your MTV!” it’s an almost amusing notion. Three dreadlocked islanders singing onstage, hobbling on crutches and all (each were crippled by polio in infancy) against the latest Backstreet Boys video on Total Request Live — how would Carson Daly sell that one to his 13-year-old audience? The closest the channel-once-known-for-music has come to promoting reggae is Shaggy, only his biggest hit had to do with adultery rather than politics (“It Wasn’t Me”) and, as many are quick to criticize, he’s not what one might call “pure reggae” anyway.
A quick glance through the rest of Jamaica begs the following actions: 1) Rico’s instrumental reggae jam “Midnight in Ethiopia” must be played as loudly as your stereo offers, 2) dance your way through “Sponji Reggae” by Black Uhuru and try not to smile when he switches gears in waning seconds of the final minute, revealing some high notes you would have never thought possible, and 3) if Jimmy Cliff’s mere presence doesn’t make you want to buy The Harder They Come soundtrack, then by all means have your head checked.
The Putumayo people did get one thing right here: its release date. With lazy head bobbing beats laced around songs singing of love nearly as much as they do of freedom, reggae is, hands down, the music of summer. This album belongs best being played in the sun, in the presence of sand, revealing bikinis, and an icebox of cold drinks.