During summer in Los Angeles, lovers of reggae culture -- smitten by the sun and the sky -- have occasional flights of fancy: Turning to the ocean, humming a Jimmy Cliff tune, they imagine themselves in the West Indies.
Smog soon clouds such Caribbean reveries. Unlike New York or Miami -- America’s answer to Kingston, Jamaica -- L.A. lacks an overwhelming West Indian population (.3%, says the 2000 census). This means reggae doesn’t blare from bodegas here, nor are Jamaican CDs peddled on every other block. And sadly, one of L.A.'s most televised “Jamaicans” proves scandalously un-Jamaican after all: “psychic” Miss Cleo, the Valley girl whose pseudo-patois rants light up TV’s campiest infomercial.
But Angelenos lap up trends, and right now not much is trendier than reggae. Wayne Wonder’s “No Letting Go” and Sean Paul’s No. 1 smash “Get Busy” are likely to be summer anthems. According to Leslie Cooney, reggae industry veteran and founder of the new L.A.-based reggae label Lickshott Records, “reggae is where hip-hop was 20 years ago: on the verge of truly blowing up.”
Add summer heat to this equation -- who doesn’t enjoy reggae by the beach? -- and you’ve explained the array of reggae festivals slated for the months ahead, not to mention the growing presence of reggae culture here. If ever there was a time to map out Little West Indies in L.A., it’s right now.
Finding the right tunes
Unlike hip-hop albums, good reggae rarely has a place at the local Tower Records. Bob Marley and other classic roots acts are readily available (being a Bob Marley fan, after all, is akin to being a Beatles fan), but new releases and the latest dancehall riddims (hot beats over which dancehall artists recite Jamaican patois lyrics) call for a supplier like Dub Asher.
“I make sure we get what’s spinning in Jamaica right now,” says Asher, reggae buyer at Amoeba Records, a stone’s throw from Bob Marley’s star at 2080 Hollywood Blvd. “Sometimes people won’t buy it until they hear it on KCRW, but I’ll keep putting it out there anyway,” he says. Amoeba has a top-notch collection of used and new reggae, and Asher lords over it like high priest, dispensing sage advice about the best Sizzla album for a home stereo or the right riddim for a dance floor.
Aron’s Records also has a strong reggae collection, but the real alternatives to Amoeba are mom-and-pop spots: Jah Lambs and Lions on Fairfax, where Little Ethiopia goes Caribbean; or Reggae Taz Records on Pico, featuring records by Bounty Killer (headlining the California Reggae Fest) and Barrington Levy (headlining the first Jamaican Gold “One Love” Festival).
L.A.'s best-known reggae event is the 22-year-old Bob Marley Day celebration, a two-day February concert attracting a diverse array of fans and run by Barbara Barabino, onetime co-host of KKBT-FM (100.3) “the Beat’s” “Get Up, Stand Up Reggae Show” -- which was abruptly canceled in February.
“Considering the Caribbean and African populations of L.A. and the popularity of reggae, especially of late, I’m still in a daze as to why they canceled our show,” says Barabino. (The station had not returned calls as of press time.)
Though there’s still some old-school reggae on L.A. radio -- Chuck Foster on KPFK-FM (90.7), Junor Francis on “Hot 92 Jamz” KHHT-FM (92.3) and DJ JFX on KPWR-FM (105.9) “Power 106’s” Friday Night Flavas -- it’s hardly enough to keep dancehall fans sated.
Food sets the mood
Speaking of sated, reggae sounds best on a full stomach. Across from Taz Records, Wi Jammin’ serves up West Indian favorites like oxtail and, of course, jerk chicken. But their specialty comes in a glass: juices, made with fresh ginger, that put Jamba Juice to shame.
For a full-on feast, many opt for Juicy’s. At the city’s best-known Jamaican restaurant, Angelenos order up Jamaica’s national dish -- ackee and saltfish -- or ital stew, a vegetarian meal in line with Rastafarian dietary laws. The restaurant turns ital into an art form, because Juicy himself eats only ital foods.
Yes, there’s a Juicy: He’s Charles Forrester and he’s been feeding L.A. for 20 years, ever since he started selling juice to teammates from his Jamaican soccer league.
“I don’t play boss here, I’m one of the workers,” Forrester insists. Like many West Indians in L.A., Forrester came to the city by way of New York, where one snowfall too many was the final straw. Over dessert, Juicy reminisces about his lifelong love of reggae with another member of L.A.'s reggae community: Marlon Regis, columnist at the Beat magazine.
The Beat is one of several California-based resources -- Reggae Nucleus and RudeGal.com are others -- for reggae fans, and Regis one of its reviewers. When pressed, Regis offers a food review: “I love Juicy’s,” he declares, also mentioning Stone’s Market and Caribbean Treehouse, a Trinidadian restaurant specializing in roti (burrito-like pockets filled with rice, curried vegetables and meat).
There’s more to the Caribbean than music and food, of course. Six years ago, the Jamaica Cultural Alliance emerged to educate L.A. about a culture that’s often bathed in stereotypical visions about some carefree land of “one love.”
“We promote the fact that there are various cultures in Jamaica, and that Jamaicans have contributed greatly to Los Angeles,” says Dorothy McLeod, who heads the alliance.
Her organization has honored Jamaican Angelenos such as artist Bernard Stanley Hoyes and also hosts an annual tea party (this year’s event explores Jamaica’s Chinese heritage).
Reggae culture’s spiritual side reaches back to ska pioneer Prince Buster and “Oh, Carolina,” which was the first Jamaican record to tap indigenous Rastafarian sounds -- and the beginning of a lasting bond between reggae and Rastafarianism, a religious movement promoted by Marcus Garvey in the early 20th century.
At Zion Train International, a small store in Jefferson Park, Trinidadian owners Jamal Tafari and King Bongo maintain this bond, peddling music, books and “spiritual upliftment.”
“We try to be a bright spot in an ugly neighborhood,” Tafari says, adding that the First Church of Rasta, a gathering spot for Rastas and those in need, is next door.
Several miles away, Slauson Avenue is lit up by a red, gold and green storefront that’s home to Rasta International’s Marcus Garvey Cultural Center. Painted -- literally and figuratively -- in the words of Rasta prophet Haile Selassie, the center offers Bible-study classes, video screenings and, because even the enlightened must eat, a weekly “yard cooking fish fry” (translation: Jamaican-style BBQ).
Dancing after dark
Reggae is nourished by night: in bashments (patois for parties), where one might dance the “log on” or the “drive-by.” Those who take their dancehall straight-up -- this means hot new riddims, not heavy hip-hop sets -- care not for venues but for “sound systems”: roving teams of DJs rated by their record collections, their mixing skills and the quality of their dub plates (personalized tracks by reggae celebrities).
When it comes to L.A. sound systems, Jamaican Gold -- a multicultural team with parties every Thursday (at Dragonfly) and Sunday (at the Key Club) -- wears the crown. But there are contenders. GT International takes over Atlas Supper Club every Saturday, and Belizean-based Ruff Cut Sounds hosts three nights of dancehall, including a recently added night at the Knitting Factory.
Says Ruff Cut’s DJ Special, “We try to keep a hard-core dancehall edge but at the same time come off smooth for the ladies and please the American crowd.”
An American crowd -- a jaded L.A. crowd, in particular -- dabbles in dancehall but is easily bored with it. DJ Hier knows this well. After 15 years, Hier (a.k.a. Ian Dailey) has mastered the art of pleasing finicky clubgoers. For all-too-trendy Hollywooders at White Lotus, it’s hip-hop with a smattering of reggae, while his diverse crowd at Gabah’s -- a down-to-earth scene where partygoers actually dance and some even work outside the music industry -- appreciates long dancehall sets.
The true measure of a local reggae scene is the dancehall mix CDs that emerge from it. Both DJ Hier and DJ White Lightning (of Jamaican Gold) have produced their own. “Jamaican Gold is about turning all people on to reggae, even people who may not always listen to it,” says White Lightning. Reggae beats often breathe new life into many a hip-hop track, and White Lightning’s mixes feature Missy Elliott or Toni Braxton as you’ve never heard them.
In Silver Lake, hipsters drink Red Stripe at the Echo, which becomes the Dub Club every Wednesday. DJs spin dub classics, old-school dancehall artists like Yellowman and the occasional new record; the unofficial dress code calls for anything that evokes 1983.
Once a month, DJ Phers 1 hosts the “Iration” party at Margarita Jones, a cavernous Mexican restaurant that may be short on Caribs but abundant in hemp-necklace-wearing hip-hop fans and their Puma backpacks.
“The party represents how reggae influences other music,” DJ Phers 1 says, unwittingly voicing the ethos of another regular event: Barrio Fiesta, a Thursday night party at El Cid that blends reggae with Latin, Afro beat, and salsa.
Barrio Fiesta, where the soundtrack features reggae but also Afro-Cuban and reggae espanol, spurs an epiphany: California has a flair for sponging up cultures or ethnicities and then regurgitating them -- not as carbon copies but as unique hybrids. This means reggae might have a Spanish accent here, and the dancehall scene sometimes drowns in Hollywood din. Such amalgams ultimately produce a Little Jamaica unlike any other.
It’s worth raising a Red Stripe to that.
Live Summer Reggae
UCLA Jazz/Reggae Festival: Elephant Man, LMS, Mikey Dread, Farenheit, the Cannons, Caribbean Xchange.
May 26. UCLA Drake Stadium, Westwood. (310) 281-1150.
May 31. The Wilshire Club, 3100 Wilshire Blvd. (310) 389-8183.
Beachfest 2003 Reggae Sunday: Inner Circle, Eek-a-Mouse, Shinehead, Mikey Dread, Tippa Irie, Boom Shaka, others.
June 8. Shoreline Marina Green Park, Long Beach. (949) 789-7444.
Old School Jam: John Holt, Marcia Griffiths, others.
June 14. Queen Mary Park, 1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach. (310) 515-3322.
June 21-22. House of Blues. 8430 Sunset Blvd. (323) 848-5100.
June 22. The Grove, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim. (714) 712-2700.
Capleton and Cocoa Tea
June 22. House of Blues.
Caribbean Sea Breeze Festival: Majek Fashek, Leon Caldero, Aziatic, others (Saturday); Culture, Glen Washington, Lady Saw, Tanto Metro and Devonte, Mr. Vegas (Sunday).
July 12-13, Queen Mary Park, (323) 731-2929.
Reggae Night at the Hollywood Bowl: Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytals.
Aug. 24, 2301 N. Highland Ave. (323) 850-2000.
Jamaican Gold “One Love” Festival: Barrington Levy and others.
Aug. 31. Queen Mary Park. (323) 980-3444.
Sept. 4. House of Blues.
Reggae Around Town
Dub Asher: Mondays at the Room, 1626 Cahuenga Blvd., 10 p.m., free.
Jamaican Gold: Thursdays at Dragonfly, 6510 Santa Monica; Sundays at Key Club, 9039 Sunset. Both nights 10 p.m., $10-20.
Ruff Cut: Tuesdays at Club 66, 6266 1/2 Sunset Blvd.; Wednesdays at the Knitting Factory, 7021 Hollywood Blvd.; Fridays at Atlas Supper Club, 3760 Wilshire Blvd. All nights at 9 p.m., $10.
GT International: Saturdays at Atlas Supper Club, 9 p.m., $10.
DJ Hier: Fridays at White Lotus, 1743 Cahuenga Blvd., guest list only. (323) 463-0060; Saturdays at Gabah’s, 4658 Melrose Ave., 10 p.m., $10.
Dub Club: Wednesdays at the Echo, 1822 Sunset Blvd., 9 p.m., $5.
DJ Phers 1: Iration, Last Wednesday of the month at Margarita Jones, 3760 S. Figueroa St., 10 p.m., $5-10.
Barrio Fiesta: Second Thursday of the month at El Cid, 4212 W. Sunset, 10 p.m.; $10, or free after 11 p.m.
Baz Dreisinger can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.