“Reggae is only what you hear and think is reggae,” Peter Tosh pronounces at the beginning of Heartland Reggae (1980)—and a lot of what sounds like just that is playing at BAMcinématek during the long-weekend program “Do the Reggae,” which ends on the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence.
Concert documentary Heartland Reggae, to give one essential example, is an effort to record the music’s Woodstock or Wattstax, cherry-picking performances from 1978’s One Love Peace Concert, arranged to squash beef between Jamaica’s then-warring political parties. Homecoming headliner Bob Marley is supported by Tosh, performing an interminable “Legalize It,” along with 11-year-old dynamo Little Junior Tucker, doing his best James Brown, and exuberantly shirtless Jacob Miller, antagonizing the police presence with a wielded spliff. (Miller died in 1980, while his bandmates, Inner Circle, later found running-dog fame with “Bad Boys,” the theme song from COPS.)
Deep Roots Music, a six-episode history broadcast on the BBC’s Channel 4 in 1983, offers a somewhat more comprehensive definition of reggae than Tosh’s. The episode titled “Ranking Sounds,” for example, sits down with the music’s progenitors—such as Skatalites saxophonist Tommy McCook, who explains the bridge from ska to rocksteady to reggae—or with their widows, as in the case of Duke Reid, operator of the 1950s’ most influential “sound system,” the mobile DJ setups with fiercely loyal followings, which constituted floating outdoor parties. (The opening night at BAM will be graced by Kingston-born DJ Ranking Joe, commanding the Deadly Dragon Sound System.) The “Black Ark” episode provides a stage for legendary producer/eccentric Lee “Scratch” Perry to hold court, as series narrator Mikey Dread explains the Rastafari faith, so central to reggae music during the politicized and prophetic period highlighted here, and details some of its tenets, including the deification of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I and a sort-of black Zionism, which anticipates return to the lost paradise of Africa.
Per one Rastafari’s improvised ditty in 1982’s Land of Look Behind, Jamaica is but “an African outpost in the West”—a lush, gloomy, and gorgeous one in Alan Greenberg’s film, a hypnotic documentary shot in May and June of 1981, in the aftermath of Bob Marley’s death. Along with one-of-a-kind footage of Marley’s service and funeral cortege, Greenberg, a sometime-associate of Werner Herzog, portrays Jamaica as half-wild and mythical, encompassing inhuman prison stockades and a spiritual proving ground in the tropical forests; a place where heaven and earth literally meet in the recurring image of the Blue Mountains wreathed in clouds.
The Rastafari dream of promised-land paradise explains the otherwise sore-thumb presence in the series of Buck and the Preacher (1972), Sidney Poitier’s debut feature as a director, beginning his underappreciated project of self-producing a savvy black pop cinema. Set in a postwar West where “ex-slaves journeyed out of the land of bondage, in search of a new frontier where they could be free at last,” the film stars Poitier as the wagon master of a group of freedmen heading to Colorado Territory, pursued by plantation-hired night riders. Franco Rosso’s 1981 Babylon marks another far-flung point in the diaspora: South London’s Jamaican enclaves of Brixton and Lewisham. Brinsley Forde (of the group Aswad) stars as Blue, the frontman of sound system Ital Lion; the film takes place as Forde’s outfit prepares for the Grand Battle of the Sound, around which anecdotal scenes are strung, such as haggling for exclusive rights to a new record in a walk-up office, an engagement party in a church basement, and the thuggish holdup of a gay man, which offers a queasy illustration of the logic through which one vulnerable, marginalized group victimizes another. Offering street-level reportage of the black Briton’s plight as the neo-fascist National Front was at the peak of its popularity, Babylon‘s well-acted to boot—the two-tone friendship between Blue and his white mate (Karl Howman) is felt on a human rather than politically expedient level, and its dissolution is painful to watch.
“Do the Reggae” would not be complete without what is certainly the most famous reggae movie, 1972’s Jimmy Cliff vehicle The Harder They Come, which did for Jamaican music what Enter the Dragon did for martial arts. Somewhat lesser-known, but undeservedly so, is Theodoros Bafaloukos’s 1978 Rockers. The film congregates a summit of the biggest names in reggae to enact an admittedly paltry fictional plot, which has drummer Horsemouth (Leroy Wallace, playing himself), a feckless father who only stops home for a clean shirt, cadging enough money to buy himself a motorcycle and start up a record delivery service. Whenever the cast are called upon to move the story forward, the strain of the effort is evident, but when Rockers follows the rhythm of Horsemouth’s arm-swaying saunter and the ubiquitous soundtrack, it’s just about perfect. Horsemouth’s perambulations take him through through a number of hanging-out vignettes—a dice game, adolescent kickboxers sparring in matching shell suits, the rural record shops along his delivery route—composed like genre paintings. Taken as a whole, these images gives a vivid picture of the social reality of Trench Town, Kingston, 1978. (And I do mean vivid—the high-def restoration is a beauty.)
With glimpses into studio recording sessions, sound-system parties, and pressing plants, Rockers follows the production and distribution of music through Kingston as the circulation of blood through a body—and taking in the “Do the Reggae” program as a whole, one develops a feeling for a real community. Horsemouth performs with a tourist club-band fronted by none other than Inner Circle’s Jacob Miller. Jack Ruby, the producer with whom Horsemouth haggles, can also be seen twiddling the knobs at a sound-system party in Deep Roots Music‘s “Ranking Sounds.” Marley’s “Nappy Dreads” can be seen live in Heartland Reggae, then heard in Land of Look Behind on the speakers of the Swing-A-Ling Mobile Record Shop, whose proprietor eulogizes Marley. Jamaica is, one senses, just a small island after all—which makes its fecundity all the more remarkable.