A big blow-out of some of modern reggae's big names at the West Indian Social Club
By BILL CARBONE, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer
January 24, 2008
Ras Ghandi Birthnite Bash
Jan.26, West Indian Social Club, 3340 Main St., Hartford, www.hartfordreggae.com
In the United States, those who care to pay attention have grown accustomed to reggae in a particular type of package. A large band, eight pieces or so, donning knit skull caps and micro-sized Steinberger guitars and basses, a short, air-tight set with seamless transitions, uplifting yet a bit narcissistic lyrics, and plenty of bobbing dreadlocks are all standard fare for big-room reggae concerts in these parts. In truth, however, these roaming packs of singers and players-of-instrument are reggae's dinosaurs. Assuming a young Jamaican cares a whole bunch about an internationally acclaimed reggae act like Burning Spear — whose style they call "vintage" in Jamaica — is akin to expecting an American teenager to be getting down to Ted Nugent. Still though, in most places in the U.S., those big name reggae acts (which are usually quite good) are the only shows that come around.
However, Hartford's is a different story. Long a place where Jamaican immigrants have settled, the hip late-night throng at Hartford's West Indian Social Club has made the city a necessary stop on even the shortest of jaunts into the U.S. by Jamaican stars and up-and-comers alike.
Moreover, within the walls of the WISC, things tend to happen more like they might in Kingston. The doors may open at 9 p.m., but don't show up at 10, or even 11, because you'll be holding up the wall sans company until about midnight. The sound system is absolutely banging and the selector (the DJ) rides the mute button to create space for the audience to sing along. Everyone knows the words. Also, most often not a band but the sound system backs the singers and DJs (in reggae a rapper or toaster is called a DJ) who sing over instrumental versions of their own tracks, classic dubs and sometimes just chat in between the lines of a tune with the vocals still present. Such will certainly be the case at the Ras Ghandi Birthnite Bash, an eight-artist mega-show that features internationally popular Jamaican artists and local Jamaican-American reggae singers as well.
In many respects Ras Ghandi's presence embodies the uniqueness of the Hartford reggae scene. For instance, although he is not very well known within the U.S., Ghandi receives top billing at the WISC, and, as the singer remarked to me in a recent interview, the venue is sure to be packed with his friends and family, many who reside in the area. Furthermore, while celebrated in Hartford, it's hard to imagine many of Ghandi's songs, such as "Ital Stew," a sprightly Jamaican chart topper in which he chides a female friend for cooking him meat, and "Sufferation," his call for an end to poverty and violence in Jamaica set above a digital reworking of Bob Marley's "Kaya," resonating with a wide U.S. audience. Nonetheless, Ghandi's sundry catalog of singles, his conscious music, humorous tunes, Rastafarian chants and sappy love songs are modern reggae's real deal.
Also performing are Gyptian and I-Wayne, both hugely popular singers who are friends and neighbors of Ras Ghandi in Portmore, a small town to the west of Kingston. Gyptian's "Serious Times," a heart-wrenchingly sincere protest song recorded on the acoustic "Spiritual War" riddim (perhaps the most out of tune recording ever to become an international hit) catapulted him to public consciousness in 2005 and he has released several more gems since. In contrast to Gyptian's exuberance, I-Wayne channels his Rastafarian-themed and often provocatively conservative messages through a soft falsetto. Both artists will appear individually and, as Ras Ghandi suggested, possibly together in a combination style.