Coming in Hot, Hot, Hot
Baltimore's Reggae Community Makes Summer Come Alive
Baltimore's springtime doesn't really qualify as the spring season we recall in romantic memory. March through May is a damnably indecisive period when the weather shifts between cool (or downright cold), humid, overcast days and warm sunny ones that hint at the summer to come.
But during this pseudospring something within me almost literally cries out for sun-splashed days with brilliant blue skies and temperatures so hot that a drenching sweat is a welcome relief. My parched body, encased for months in sweaters and my oft-worn leather jacket, pleads for sweet liberation. My soul and spirit demand downtime from the rat race, and an unusual feeling descends upon me, a sensation that runs from my toes up to my brain.
It's an incurable condition, I hear, one that impels people to immerse themselves--whatever the temperature outside--in all things reggae: the culture, the food, and, mainly, the music. Being an impoverished journalist, I can't address this ache by jetting off to Negril to satisfy my soul with sandy beaches, scorching sun, and rolling riddims. So I do the next best thing--I hop into my car and take off for Northwest Baltimore.
Baltimore is blessed to count among its citizens a host of Jamaican émigrés who came to the United States in search of better lives than the ones they had in the slums of Kingston. A large number of them settled in an area along Park Heights Avenue, from Garrison Avenue up to Northern Parkway, that's unofficially come to be called Little Kingston. Unless the subject is crime (unfortunately many of those who left Jamaica to escape poverty, classism, and racism found it on these shores too), most of us, sadly, don't pay this section of town much mind. But an uplifting movement with reggae music and spirituality at its heart is alive in our fair city, and much of its vitality, most visible during the months of summer, emanates from this stretch of Northwest Baltimore.
On one blessedly warm day recently, I headed for Little Kingston to give myself a needed dose of summer. After parking my car on Rogers Avenue in front of the Red Parrot (home of epiphanic jerk chicken), I grabbed a spicy, Jamaican-brewed ginger beer and began my search for information. Getting news of reggae-music events beyond the 8 x 10 in Federal Hill or a couple of other mainstream clubs in town is not always easy. Happily, two radio shows present news of reggae shows during the summer (and all year long too): Clint Thomas' Reggae Rhythms, which airs Sundays from 7 to 9 p.m. on Towson University's WTMD (89.7 FM), and Caribbean Affair, Neil Mattei's Caribbean news and music show, on Saturdays from noon to 6 p.m. on Morgan State's WEAA (88.9 FM).
No question, reggae shows at the 8 x 10 or Washington's 9:30 Club are fun--the music is great, and there's even Jamaican Red Stripe beer on tap. There's nothing more seductive than the one-drop beat that defines the reggae sound, no matter where you hear it. But having a reggae summer is about much more than the music, and if you want to do it right, a real Caribbean-minded setting is key to establishing the appropriate mood.
The Blue Caribbean Bar and Lounge is one such setting. At 5402 Park Heights Ave., the unpretentious wood-paneled club is viewed by some as the center of reggae happenings in Baltimore. Each Wednesday night the cream of local roots/reggae performers and their fans gather as a community to jam together, share news of upcoming events, and praise the Rastafarian god Jah. It's a righteous way to spend an evening, and you don't have to be Rasta to feel the warming spirit that envelops the place.
Polly Riddims, publisher of the local zine Reggae Runnins, hipped me to the news that noted reggae band Zebulon and the Fullness would make a recent Wednesday appearance at the Blue Caribbean. The group, one of the tightest ensembles working in Baltimore, is a long-time favorite of mine; its leaders, Zebulon and Judah, are two of the most spirit-filled artists on the scene. This show was not to be missed.
Arriving at the Blue Caribbean, I see that the place is fairly empty. Throbbing lover's rock (courtesy of the sound selector in the DJ booth) fills the air, and a handful of men--only men, most of them from the islands--are sitting and drinking at the bar. The only conversation I can make out among the various discussions is one between two men, both speaking in a Jamaican patois, about an upcoming Burning Spear/Ras Pidow show at Lithuanian Hall.
After a short while singer Zebulon arrives. He greets me warmly and we move outside, behind the club, where bassist Judah and David Saunier, a saxophonist with the up-and-coming Unity Reggae Band, are unloading equipment from a van. "This is going to be the night," Zebulon says--the old-school Fullness Band will be joined by the youthful Unity. "Young and experienced, working together to make Jah music--it's going to be something."
Asked what makes all of this--the music, the community, the venue--so special, the veteran Rasta singer grows thoughtful. "It's because of the spirituality," he says quietly.
"Most of the society has turned away. But spirituality is the base, the foundation of reggae. We uphold the tradition of reggae--it's the roots, the grass roots. This is the music that talks to what's important. We have nice things, we wear nice clothes, and live in nice houses. But what is important is not this--it is this," the dreadlocked figure says as he raises his hands to the sky and takes a deep, languorous breath. "The earth . . . nature . . . the air. . . . To breathe the air, this is what's real, that which comes from Ras Tafari, the almighty god on high."
New-schooler Saunier concurs. "Unity plays frat parties sometimes, where the people see the reggae things as being cool," he says. "They get that whole picture of islands, warm weather, beaches, and they get confused. Some of the people actually come in wearing leis and Hawaiian gear. It's kinda like, ‘Aloha, mon.'" The young musician admits to finding that scene amusing, but at the same time it troubles him: "It's an excuse not to take the music seriously."
No such worries this evening. The growing crowd is seriously ready, and the music promises to be seriously hot, seriously fun, and seriously reverent. The musicians take the makeshift stage, and Zebulon asks me to introduce the group. "Just call us Full Unity," he says.
The band gets right to work, coming in hot with a righteous rock-steady groove, and the guitarist scratches out a lovely melody. Saxophones--there are two--wail passionately, floating atop the riddims of the one-drop, its keyboard counterpoint, and the rolling bass. There are only two female singers, but the angelic voices of Unity's Heather Courtney and Meredith Leary remind more than a few of us in the audience of Bob Marley's stalwart I-Threes. Scooby Doo--one-time vocalist of the Determination Band, which brought reggae to Baltimore nearly two decades ago--lends history and "a likkle rudebwai" swagger to the proceedings.
When Zebulon comes on stage, praising Jah and singing of a world filled with "I-nity" and strength, I realize that even though it's early May, my wait for the seasons to change is over. Closing my eyes, I can feel the hot sun on my face. In my heart beats the rhythm of life, and in my soul I know that whatever the day, whatever the weather, this is summer.
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