Midway through her explosive set of modern soca music during the second day of the JazzReggae Festival at UCLA on Monday, singer Alison Hinds, her hair twisted in short purple dreadlocks and wearing spangled black short-shorts and matching top, took an informal census of the thousands dancing and picnicking before her.
How many Jamaicans are here today?” she wondered, and a big burst of applause rang out. “Who’s from Barbados?” -- another pocket of applause, similar in volume to when she then asked about the Trinidadians and Dominicans. When she polled for West Indians, a huge swath of the audience cheered. Caribbean currents are evidently strong in Los Angeles.
Hinds, the self-proclaimed “Queen of Soca” -- a blend of American soul ("so") and Caribbean calypso ("ca") -- was one of the highlights of Day 2 of the UCLA-student-organized fest, and typified the day’s tone by merging the many rhythm-heavy sounds of the West Indies into one electrifying whole. She and the rest of the roster of the annual reggae day, part of a festival now in its 26th year, delivered an afternoon of Caribbean party sounds, of romance and worship music ranging from soca to reggaeton to roots reggae, lovers rock and beyond; much of it mixed into a blend that island-hopped to a new kind of fusion. (Sunday’s American-heavy bill featured, among others, the Roots, Booker T and the MGs and Gary Clark Jr.)
PHOTOS: JazzReggae Festival at UCLA
Headliner Shaggy, born in Kingston, Jamaica, but relocated to Brooklyn, mutter-rapped in his thick patois over jumbo reggaeton beats -- at least when he wasn’t wooing the ladies with some mutter-crooning; singer Tarrus Riley delivered an updated, inspired variation of smooth roots reggae, one of the building blocks of all of the day’s performances. Laid back Bermudian American (born in New Orleans) Collie Buddz brought a rich, smooth blend of reggaeton and R and B to the stage, and former Black Uhuru singer Don Carlos offered classics from throughout his repertoire.
But, then, fusion is endemic to the Caribbean. Within both the oft-frantic soca dance beats and the smoother reggae music you could hear the fundamental Calypso rhythms birthed in Trinidad and Tobago nearly two centuries ago when French and British colonists immigrated with their slaves to the region. But you can also hear the influence of American R and B and soul music, and hip-hop, and Miami bass, and Colombian cumbia.
But mostly, you can feel the island culture and the openness that creates new styles. With the sun bearing down on the unprotected intramural field in the middle of UCLA's campus, each artist delivered tight, hit-laden 50 minute sets.
After early performances by Cris Cab and Kes the Band, Black Uhuru's Carlos, a devout Rastafarian whose songs of praise honored Jah and love, offered music from throughout his career both as a member of Black Uhuru and as a solo artist. On "Little Girl," about a young girl in love with Rastas (and their dreadlocks) despite her parents' protestations, he tackled lust and worship simultaneously, and on "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," he sang of the discrimination suffered among Rastafarians.
Hinds, of Barbados, rose as a soca artist with the group Square One, whose work in the 1980s and '90s hit throughout the Caribbean and gave rise to the singer's moniker as the Queen of Soca. She and her band expanded that title by adding many different accents. On her version of Square One's hit "Roll It Gal," she fused reggae, soca and R and B to create a message of female empowerment.
After a decent if unmemorable set by Bermudian American dance hall singer Collie Buddz, reggae vocalist Tarrus Riley, the son of early Jamaican rock steady vocalist Jimmy Riley, showcased the depth and enduring vibrancy of roots reggae. The classic Kingston sound of the 1970s, whose best known practitioner, Bob Marley, brought the peaceful, easy vibe of reggae to the world, rose to become one of the most influential genres of the era.
Riley's updated version of roots reggae featured bigger beats and washes of electronics, but the tradition was apparent throughout. Bassist Glen Browne, who has performed with Buju Banton, Sinead O'Connor and Jimmy Cliff, among others, offered steady, guiding bass lines; and a three-man brass section led by Dean Fraser, whose work in the '80s with Joe Gibbs, Sly & Robbie and Dennis Brown helped sustain the roots sound when the more explosive, scatter-shot rhythms of reggaeton were rising.
Reggaeton's massive success in the U.S., in fact, arrived when Shaggy hit here in 1993. The singer, whose keen understanding of the ways in which reggaeton could be the foundation for not only sexual boasts but gentle romance, helped soften what was at first an incendiary, and utterly alien, Jamaican sound.
Before Shaggy, the music was an abrasive underground Jamaican phenomenon. But as he illustrated on Monday, the stutter-step rhythm at its heart proved malleable for any number of tempos -- and, during its big second wave in the 1990s and early '00s, this beat nearly took over the world. The 43-year-old singer performed hits from throughout his Grammy-winning, multiplatinum career, and with each new rhythm the crowd continued dancing.
The highlight of his set came after a frustrating series of teases in which the singer disrupted the momentum to offer snippets of hit songs that he began singing (such as LMFAO's "Party Rockin' "), only to abruptly stop and move on to another.
He regained the energy, though, with one crooked smile and the smooth party rhythm of one his best tracks, a cover of the classic reggae jam "Oh Carolina." An ode not to the American region but to a girl "who rock her body and move just like a squirrel" (which is supposed to be sexy, apparently), he growled his way through the swagger-step beat while wondering on Carolina's ability to "swing like me grandfather clock" (again, he somehow turns this image sexy) and love him all night long. It's a one-of-a-kind groove, a rhythm that sounds so familiar but still so fresh nearly 20 years later.
But, then, as all the music on Monday emphasized, the song is built on such a sturdy foundation that it not only supports these kinds of variations and reinventions, but encourages every last accent, interpretation and wild, vivid rhythm.
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-- Randall Roberts Twitter: @liledit
Photo: Shaggy performs during the the 26th annual JazzReggae Festival on Monday at UCLA. Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times