ARTS: Back to reggae's roots

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Indy Lifestyle Online
"WHEN you look at rock, and you look behind rock, you see that there are all those tributaries and streams feeding into it which are the roots of rock: blues, r'n'b, jazz, soul, reggae, country," says Steve Barrow, a man who has spent more than 30 years passionately championing the often ignored but innovative spirit of reggae while battling against musical mediocrity.

With a combination of both humour and disgust, he adds: "When you check Celine Dion, for example, who relates to that? You can't, really, on an emotional level. You think you can, but you're kidding yourself because it's a pastiche emotion, a synthetic emotion. Synthetic emotion is one of the biggest sellers in the world."

Although Steve Barrow compiled over 70 reggae albums for Trojan Records in the late 1980s, it is with Blood and Fire Records that he has really moulded a company that conscientiously reappraises reggae of the 1970s, giving the music its overdue credit as a creative force.

Each release by Blood and Fire, which was founded in 1993, is stunningly packaged and contains a l6-page booklet. The premise of the company is to approach reggae in a scholarly manner, clarify the opaque history of the music and destroy the image of reggae as cheap and disposable. Barrow admits: "We spend more money than a lot of people spend on current rock acts". The label's undeniable success can be gauged by the host of imitators who copied its idiosyncratic methods.

In the early 1960s, Steve Barrow was a mod, although he insists: "I would never call myself a mod, I was `modern' in those times, I was a `modernist'." It was at venues in London such as the Flamingo, the Scene, the Discotheque, the Limbo - "they all had Caribbean names"- that he first heard ska music played by Count Suckle and Duke Vin, two Jamaican DJs who had arrived in England in 1956. He recognised the affinity between the white working class and black American and Jamaican music. "Roots music appeals to the working class. It's music that speaks the truth, whether it's an emotional truth about how bad you're feeling because your woman's left, or a social truth like, you know, `woke up this morning, got the blues'."

Throughout the Sixties and early Seventies any spare income from his various jobs was spent on records or clothes. At the end of 1975, he began reviewing reggae music for Black Echoes and then Billboard, Dub Catcher and the NME, among others. He also assembled ska albums for Island Records and started compiling reggae collections for Trojan in 1988.

He left in 1990, disillusioned, because "they didn't want to do it the way I wanted to do it. I didn't really have the control there." In 1993, Simply Red's management company, So What Arts Ltd, helped him to set up Blood and Fire. Mick Hucknall is a shareholder and, according to Barrow, is involved "in as much as when we put one out he says, `That's another good one' or `I like that one' or `I don't like the Horace Andy cover'".

With the assistance of the innovative designers, Intro, the label tentatively released its first collection, If DJ Was Your Trade. The compilation was deliberately unfashionable. "It was to see if we could sell something as unpromising as DJ music, well past its sell-by date, and that there was no real interest in outside of collector's circles, to see if we could package it nicely and give it a little bit of promotion and see where it took us. And it took off." With contacts in Jamaica, like Bunny Lee, who Barrow describes as "the father of Blood and Fire", the label has continued to unearth rare music, releasing albums based around the consummate work of Glen Brown, King Tubby, Tappa Zukie and Keith Hudson, among others.

With the exception of albums by Horace Andy, The Congos and Burning Spear Blood and Fire releases are predominantly dub (mainly instrumental) compilations because, as Barrow explains: "Dub is really part of the modern musical vocabulary ... The great dub engineers like Tubby, Jammy, Scientist, even `Scratch', they've taught us to appreciate the drum and bass."

The label's forthcoming release is called Forward The Bass: Dub From Randy's, 1972-1976, an album that was originally released in very small quantities. Randy's recording studio was created in 1968 by the Chin family, who Steve Barrow describes as "the most innovative Chinese business family in Jamaica". Bob Marley and The Wailers recorded some of their early albums there, with producer Lee `Scratch' Perry.

Now one of reggae's most energetic authorities, Barrow is not just providing music for the already converted: "There's an old school that just bungs things out ... that philosophy isn't for us. We want to sell it to people who don't know it. We know the fans love it, but we want people who have never heard it before, as well, because it's great music. If they're into music they should like it."

Forward The Bass: Dub From Randy's, 1972-1976 is released on 25 May.

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