20 August 2016
The final day of the tenth annual Reggae University focused on family. The sessions opened with a convening of reggae and dancehall’s multitalented McGregor clan. Patriarch Freddie was flanked by his sons, dancehall producer Stephen, and artist Chino. Dr Dennis Howard, from University of the West Indies, provided additional cultural context.
Panel chair, Pete Lilly from Riddim mag, asked the guests why so much Jamaican musical talent crossed generations. “My father was a dance promoter and sound operator” answered Dr Howard “A lot of musicians don’t encourage kids to be in the music but they still do it.” “This is one of the toughest businesses,” added Freddie “People see glitter and glamour. I couldn’t have lasted 54 years if it wasn’t a spiritual thing”. Coming from the highly musical parish of Clarendon, Freddie began singing at school. He joined the Clarendonians, alongside Ernest Wilson and Peter Austin, who took him to the great Studio 1 label aged just 7. Studio 1 felt “like walking onto a university campus” of established 60s legends. Freddie had a knack for love songs but by 1973 there was “a big shift towards Rastafari. My most important change in life and music”.
Chino revealed that he and his brother were initially accused of riding their father’s name – which inspired Chino’s hit Protected. They also faced criticism for mixing dancehall with hip hop. “I was born in the 90s and grew with dad’s music, hip hop, R&B, rock,” said Stephen “Criticism doesn’t play a big part in my creativity. I live in the studio so I don’t watch anything”. Dr Howard noted Freddie had been critical of modern dancehall yet his kids were dancehall stars. “The dancehall is a place where everything was played” Freddie elaborated, but “Today I see a new movement – Gangster dancehall” since the rise of Vybz Kartel. He feared that “The younger generation is trying to go more hip hop. If you’re a Jamaican making music the signature should be Jamaican.” That was the formula for latest album True To My Roots and he “loved” his sons’ new one drop tune Zero Tolerance, from forthcoming project Great Minds Think Alike.
The second, closing session of the festival continued the familial theme. Legendary roots singer Max Romeo arrived to huge applause with 21-year-old daughter Xana and 17-year-old son Azizzi. Max told panel chair, David Katz how he started singing in 1965 with Robbie Shakespeare’s brother Lloyd and Kenneth Knight as the Emotions. When Lloyd died and Kenneth migrated he achieved a British chart smash via the infamous Wet Dream for producer Bunny Lee. He recalled Studio 1’s Coxsone Dodd, whose facility Lee was renting, refused to engineer the session, citing the suggestive lyrics.
Max wasn’t thrilled by his direction either. “I asked myself ‘How can I explain these lyrics to my children?’ This was the start of Max’s career as a Rastafarian protest singer. His 1972 side Let The Power Fall For I sound-tracked future Prime Minister Michael Manley’s election campaign. Max again broke internationally in 1976 with the Lee Scratch Perry produced Island LP, War In A Babylon. He remembered that Bob Marley liked the title track so much he wanted to voice it himself. Max appraised eccentric ex colleague Perry as “One of the greatest human beings. He has made millions from madness!”
Like Freddie McGregor, Max has been blessed with talented children. Azizzi and Xana tried recording at their dad’s Red Ark studio near Linstead and now accompany him on tour. The audience gave enthusiastic forwards to clips of Azizzi and Xana’s deep roots singles Grow My Dread and Righteous Path. “Thank you,” smiled the soft spoken Azizzi, currently working on his debut album “My father gave me opportunity to follow my destiny”. Xana was surprised by the response when she passed Righteous Path to Gabre Selassie of Kingston’s Dub Club. “Up until this day I didn’t believe people would be interested in my music.” She plans to release her album Wake Up on her father’s birthday, November 22nd, via family label Charmax music.
The Reggae University closed to a deserved ovation. “Thank you very much for joining us for our tenth anniversary,” said host David Katz “We hope to see you next year”.