German Reggae?

Oh yes. A few tips for non-islanders on honoring and wooing the Jamaican massive

2. Use Jamaican patios very carefully.

Those who can, do; those who can't sound like Matisyahu. Since dialect is a defining feature of the music—it's hard to perform reggae, especially dancehall, without at least dabbling. But bad patois is a deadly comic distraction, and even an insult when sullying a dialect whose use suggests membership in a historically oppressed community. Matisyahu's faux-maican accent, for instance, seems born not of time spent in Yard (in April he admitted he'd never been to Jamaica), but of time watching Malibu Rum commercials. Gentleman, on the other hand, was born Tilmann Otto in Germany, but has lived on and off in Jamaica for a decade; listening to his singles—especially the breathtaking 2004 ballad "Intoxication," on Don Corleon's blockbuster "Drop Leaf" riddim—it's tough to tell he's not Jamaican. Similarly, neither track showcased on Collie Buddz's MySpace page—the ganja paean "Come Around" and the sweet soca jingle "Mamacita"—is likely to make listeners stop and ponder his cultural origin. As for Elan, three years spent touring the world with the Wailers probably did the trick; he pulls off patois winningly. And selectively: "Feel My Pressure" is a patois-driven dancehall romp, but most tracks on Together as One—like the ska-inflected "Nothing Is Worth Losing You"—instead showcase Elan's raspy, sweet singing voice, which has just the right trace of Marley.

3. Make the right friends.

Nasio Fontaine, somberly contemplating the prospect of a new Snow album
Helen Fontaine
Nasio Fontaine, somberly contemplating the prospect of a new Snow album

To put it mildly, Jamaican producers and artists have some experience with the whole reggae thing; it makes sense to solicit their help. For his 2004 set Confidence, Gentleman worked primarily with Jamaican hitmaker Bobby "Digital" Dixon and paired up with such reggae mainstays as Barrington Levy and Anthony B. He sounds impeccable, with lyrics and style grounded in roots reggae and a voice that's pure lover's rock. In his best moments, Snow, even, wisely heeded this advice: After the success of "Informer," he worked with Jamaicans Tony and Dave Kelly on his 1995 album Murder Love, which featured "Anything for You," a winning collaboration with Nadine Sutherland, Beenie Man, Buju Banton, and Terror Fabulous that, unlike "Informer," still earns spins in the dancehall. Finally, Elan's standout tracks are Jamaican-produced collaborations: "Girl," his first single, pairs him with dynamic Jamaican DJ Assassin and was produced by Stephen "Lenky" Marsden, responsible for Sean Paul's "Get Busy" and Wayne Wonder's "No Letting Go"; "You Don't Come Around No More," produced by legendary Jamaican duo Sly and Robbie, is a playful retro tune featuring old-school Jamaican toaster Cutty Ranks.

It's hard to understand, actually, why a non-Jamaican reggae act wouldn't want to work with the "real" thing. That collaboration is a rare scenario in which morality and aesthetics converge: Not only does it have a track record of producing good music, but it's a way of paying homage to origins and history and context. UB40, for instance, have perfected the art of footnoting, covering such classic tunes as "Wear You to the Ball" and "Many Rivers to Cross." Conversely, in 2002 they released The Fathers of Reggae, on which reggae legends like Ken Boothe, John Holt, and Alton Ellis sing UB40 tunes as reproduced by such Jamaican producers as Sly and Robbie or Steelie and Cleevie). Cover and be covered—give and take—is their winning formula, and one worth keeping in mind as the reggae nation grows bigger, better, wider, and every now and then, whiter.


Nasio Fontaine opens for Israel Vibration Monday at 8 at B.B. King's, $22 at the door, bbkingblues.com.

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