A camera sweeps across the verdant, shimmering beauty of Jamaica before descending on to a raffishly charming wooden house built into the hills. We’re at a music studio where four of the pioneers who gave birth to reggae are congregated to record a new album.
‘It’s tranquil, a real feeling of nature, just birds, trees and the wind,’ says 71-year-old Ken Boothe, whose seductive voice is smooth as rum, just as it was in 1974 when ‘Everything I Own’ stormed the British charts.
Boothe is one of the stars of a beguiling new documentary, Inna De Yard, about the rise and fall of roots reggae, which reached its peak in the late 1970s with Bob Marley’s ‘conscious’ lyric-writing and is now witnessing a revival.
What made the music so distinctive were two key elements: earnest harmonies, especially of the Rastafarian reggae singers, underpinned by the characteristic ‘one drop’ of the rhythm guitar and bass drum. It heralded a simple ‘dirt music’, grounded in the sun-baked earth of Jamaica’s ghettos, such as Trench Town, from where it emerged.
Fundamentally, roots reggae was a music of black liberation, a narrative of freedom from subjugation: either in escaping to mythical Mother Africa or in death, over which the slave master and his colonial successor held no dominion. When, in ‘Talkin’ Blues’, Marley sang ‘cold ground was my bed at night/ and rock was my pillow too’, his compatriots recognised it as real-life biography; his suffering was theirs. Rooted in hope and redemption, these searing, ethereal songs evoked an eternal life beyond this one, its lyrics peppered with reflections on the remembrance of slavery, most soulfully rendered in Peter Tosh’s ‘Stop That Train’. But embedded in these serious themes were wit and optimism. As the Heptones sang in ‘Sufferer’s Time’, the popularity of reggae meant ‘a time fe sufferer’s drive big car/ a time fe sufferer’s live it up’.