Ode to real reggae

After watching a two-hour performance by Shaggy, the Jamaican-born ragga performer, at the Standard Bank Arena in Johannesburg, I went home to listen to my old Bob Marley CDs. This was an attempt to find out when the defiantly clenched fist of Third World anthems like Get Up! Stand Up! had transformed into seemingly painful pelvic thrusts, guns and lyrics about getting out on the town, finding a woman and having your way with her.

Ragga is an off-shoot of reggae, where the music is stripped of most of its features, leaving only the starkly harsh drumbeat and a hard-driving bass guitar.

While reggae of old was characterised by reasonably danceable tunes about a wide range of subjects, from smoochy love to hardcore musical guerrilla sorties, ragga seems to consist of a staple diet of hardcore sex — at least that’s the impression I got from the antics on stage.

Perhaps I am an old conservative listener but I must say I wish that reggae had not changed into this sometimes truly disruptive, rebellious, sex-crazed teenager.

Shaggy is a true disciple of the musical genre, belting out songs like Boombastic — sampled from Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On but totally unrecognisable in its hard-driving beat. His antics on stage were truly amazing as he moved the lower part of his body in a manner suggesting that he might be possessed by the devil herself.

Performing to a reasonably sizeable crowd — the Standard Bank Arena was not packed to the rafters, but, as one music company PR-type intoned, maybe self-deludingly: ”Not a bad crowd for a Monday evening, né?” — Shaggy ran a marathon from the instantly recognisable songs, like Carolina, to ones so obscure they probably don’t even get a response from the most alternative dance halls. In this endeavour he was accompanied by a truly competent band and backing singers who could move from the harsh ragga thing to very smooth renditions of old songs like Billy Paul’s Me and Mrs Jones.

If I seem disrespectful of the man’s creativity, it might be because of my own ill-developed sense of music, for Shaggy was given one of the highest accolades for his musical abilities: he was awarded a Grammy this year.

While the main sermon might have been led by the foreigner, the opening prayer was conducted by Boomshaka, who did a reasonably good job of warming up the audience.

Their township music, infused with rap and reggae traces, and their physiology-defying dance routines, showed a little snippet of the talent available here. The only problem for a conservative viewer is the absence of a band behind the performers. But performing to backing tracks seems to have become a legitimate part of the creative process, not only limited to drunken slurring at a karaoke bar.

Shaggy’s Boombastic tour hits Cape Town on Friday night at the Three Arts.

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