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Test your "J-dar" by briefly considering two modern reggae artists. Nasio Fontaine, the son of a Carib Indian mother and a father of African descent, has long locks and a stirring, world-weary voice. Elan spent three years as lead singer of the Wailers, Bob Marley's former band. Both released stellar reggae albums last month: the former, a soulful roots set, Universal Cry (Greensleeves); the latter, Together as One(Interscope/Kingsbury Studios), a thrilling debut mélange of dancehall and roots tinged with new wave. Both admit to being occasionally mistaken for one of Bob Marley's sons.
Quickwhich one is Jamaican?
Neither. Elan is an Orthodox Jew from Los Angeles; Fontaine is a Rastafarian from the island of Dominica. All that unites them, geographically speaking, is that they don't hail from the birthplace of reggae music. And in an era of musical globalization and cook-up culture, it's worth reflecting on whether that, in fact, matters.
For an artist like FontaineWest Indian but not Jamaicanit might. The track record for hit-making Caribbean-but-not-Jamaican reggae artists is nearly nonexistent. A handful have lately tried: Trinidadian singer Marlon Asher's "Ganja Planter" became an anthem in New York dancehalls last year (though Jamaica largely ignored it), and Montserrat-born DJ Kulcha Don's duet with Beenie Man, "Drive Me Crazy," is bubbling on current reggae charts. But few have beat the odds and sustained the longevity of FontaineUniversal Cryis his fourth record. "Jamaica has welcomed me to a point where I would say 'thank you' to the Jamaican massive," he told me during an interview in Dominica earlier this year, acknowledging that in the competitive, Jamaica-centric world of reggae, such a welcome is remarkable. After all, plenty of locals there are trying to make a name for themselves, and Jamaicans sometimes treat the rest of the Caribbean as New Yorkers treat the rest of America: like a tragically un-hip distant cousin.
For a debut artist like Elan, thoughnot Jamaican, not West Indianthe precedents are, oddly enough, more promising. So-called "white reggae" has a winning history. Some acts have tried it on for a track or two (the Beatles, Blondie, the Clash), while others launched a career with itthe Police's 1979 album Reggatta de Blanc is essentially a punk-pop-reggae hybridor, in the case of the multi-racial UB40, sustained a surprisingly long one: the band's 2005 album Who You Fighting For marks their 25th anniversary in the business. Of course, once in a while an artist takes it to awesomely bad heights: Snow sat atop Billboard's Hot 100 for seven straight weeks with "The Informer," for a time the bestselling reggae single ever.
These days, though, it's all about Matisyahu. The suburban phenom's Youth has gone gold, and his Phish-fan-pleasing fusion of reggae and rock could benefit non-Jamaican reggae acts who've been at it far longer, like Elan (whose Together as Oneis executive produced by Tony Kanal of No Doubt) or German reggae singer Gentleman, who's released three fine albums as the most buzzed-about "Germaican." Sony recently signed reggae act Collie Buddz, an Eminem look-alike born in New Orleans and raised in Bermuda and Toronto. Snow, meanwhile, has been plotting his comeback, recording with Rich Nice of the Track Masters.
Before reggae lovers and Jamaican nationalists everywhere start grumbling about great white hypes, it's worth noting, first, that no one, white or otherwise, has yet to touch the success of the very Jamaican Sean Paul. With two multi-platinum albums and four No. 1 singles, he's the most successful Jamaican artist ever (he's touring with Mariah Carey'nuff said). And second, the reggae world tends to respect, not resent, international outsiders. Unlike Eminem, Matisyahu didn't need local support in order to get it: Even without the reggae equivalent of Dr. Dre vouching for him, the Jamaican music community generally treated Matisyahu less as a cultural pirate than a reggae ambassador.
"Reggae is a music with millions of branches, and those branches are scattered all over the earth," Fontaine asserted during our chat. He has a point; cultural ownership is a vexed issue. Does inventing something necessarily give one rights to itespecially when reggae is a product of other, more international inventions (Trinidadian calypso, African Kumina, Spanish instrumentals)? Even if it does, don't copyrights eventually expire?
Even so, when it comes to being non-Caribbean and making a reggae album that, well, doesn't suck, there might be an unwritten, three-pronged recipe for success, a recipe culled from hits and misses.
1. Avoid gimmicks.
Matisyahu's runaway success seems to disprove this, but his hokiness may harm his longevity yet. Gimmicks are distracting and have an unintended comic effect. As a Hasidic Jew, Matisyahu's look is a religious rite, not a calculated costume. Unfortunately, that's irrelevant; it's hard to ogle an Adidas-wearing Hasid on MTV and not think "Barnum & Bailey": Behold the reggae-fied Rabbi! The Jewmaican! Excruciatingly unsubtle lyrics like "We want Moshiach [Messiah] now" only further clobber us over the head. But admittedly, if the gimmick factor might not help sustain Matisyahu's career, it surely launched it: His appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live , which first earned him national attention, seemed less about introducing the Next Big Thing than showcasing a novelty act.