/ 7 July 2006

Emerging from the smoke

As we walked up the stairs to the House of Tandoor, Nanko’s Lucky You blared. Nanko is the latest singjay craze from Jamaica whose endlessly plaintive tune, described by some as one of the saddest songs, rose as if at the crest of a wave into the night.

At once sad and beautiful, it was a song from whose skin a certain “authentic” ambience flowed, a feeling not at all out of place in a venue where many Rastas savoured a smoke and the music. Earlier in the day, as I stood on Rockey Street in Yeoville at a Rastafarian restaurant, men and women in Bobo Ashanti turbans and Rastafarian garb had stood in scraggly files waiting to go for a meeting, probably at “Rasta house”, a young man told me.

In the club, scores of patrons — part of a growing army of reggae lovers — were shuffling their feet, dancing and singing along to Nanko. To add to the bonhomie and, perhaps, appropriate on a cold night, there was a huge bonfire around which people sat huddled, holding their beers and feeling the warmth of the music and the fire. When the “fire-blazing” Capleton sang about fire and judgement, everything seemed quite ironic as the burning planks shot sparks into the night. When creole snatches of “Addis Ababa and Africans” drifted to me, lo, there was an Ethiopian next to me. When another song celebrated Marcus Garvey, a pendant of the icon staring straight into the distance dangled from the neck of a Rasta sitting opposite me.

Fleeting remnants of a Cocoa T song stuck in my mind as we left yet another packed ragga party at the Tudor Hotel club on Harrison Street in Braamfontein. This suburb and Newtown are struggling to take the mantle of ragga capital away from Yeoville. Every day at the Tudor Hotel, ragga and reggae tunes are played well into the wee hours of the morn. Quite a remarkable feat for a club that up to a year ago played only house and R&B.

In Newtown at the Horror Café, Jah Seed and Admiral play every Thursday to scores of adoring young fans. The ragga crowd now lives in uneasy peace with the polished jazz aficionados who throng around several jazz clubs in the area.

Jah Seed, an exponent of the genre, was not blowing any trumpet: “It is still underground, it is about to surface. But certainly it is bigger than what it was 10 or 11 years ago.” The Horror Café shows attract a young audience who are mostly into ragga, the second cousin of hip-hop.

This is precisely the reason why Luke Sinwell, an American student at Wits University, finds the Horror Café’s sessions not to his liking. They are “too commercial”, he said, as they play more ragga than reggae.

At Cool Runnings in Melville, another of the growing joints that play reggae, we sat listening to soft mellow reggae, the likes of UB40 and Bob Marley. Only in the early hours did they decide to play up-tempo Buju Banton. Which is why reggae adherents prefer the House of Tandoor — because of the roots rock and what they call “the vibe”. Eyes wistful and voice thick with emotion, Sinwell said: “You can tell the people in Tandoor are feeling the vibe. I feel free to express myself. You find Rastas in this place. Rastas who come to listen to the music, to take it in.”

Ras Elijah Phekani, a coordinator of the Rastafari Unity Movement, explained that the ragga and reggae scene is “growing by the day”. He said the fact that an International Rastafari Unity Conference is to be held in the country in October shows that South Africa has the fastest growing Rasta population in the world.

Last month, their movement hosted Ras Jabulani, formerly of the Jamaican group Misty in Roots, at a show at the Jabulani Amphi-theatre in Soweto. And South Africa is to host an even bigger act in the near future. Luciano, a lovers rock artist, is to set the scene ablaze in September. “It can’t stop now, because it is in the people. During apartheid reggae music was ‘downpressed’ because it is a music that liberates the people’s minds. Now, thanks to political liberation, we are free to express ourselves,” said Phekani.

“The rise of interest in reggae and ragga,” he explained, “is because it is spiritual music that uplifts the soul. South Africa’s political background means that it is a breeding ground for the genre. We as Flames of Fire host a show every fortnight, and we are not the only ones doing that. Interest in the music is rising faster than anywhere else in the world.”

This is not at all difficult to believe, I thought, as I struggled to drag a friend from the Horror Café at around 3am while Nanko’s Lucky You was being played. Until recently, the only ragga artist he knew of was Sean Paul.