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.
Quick—which 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 Fontaine—West Indian but not Jamaican—it 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 Fontaine—Universal Cry is 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, though—not Jamaican, not West Indian—the 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 it—the Police’s 1979 album Reggatta de Blanc is essentially a punk-pop-reggae hybrid—or, 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 One is 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 it—especially 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.
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.
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.