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Interview: Jacob Edgar on the Putumayo Presents Series

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As part of my efforts to educate myself about music and prepare to be a good father one day, I have been venturing out and trying new things. This has included listening, on repeat, to the Putumayo Presents CDs for families about reggae, called Reggae Playground, and one on Asian Music. 

I believe that when an interviewer is ignorant it’s better to admit it than fake it. So, I’ll say straight out that I’m ignorant when it comes to reggae music. I like Bob Marley and I have been to a few reggae shows, but I can’t say what the difference is between, say, a calypso beat and a reggae beat (I’d guess the former is faster but that’s just a guess.) 

I hoped to learn by talking to Jacob Edgar, the musicologist who selected the tracks for Reggae Playground.

What were you trying to accomplish with this project? 

Reggae is a universally appealing music that has traveled all over the globe and found fans and adherents from many different walks of life. The music of Bob Marley, in particular, can be heard all over Africa, Brazil, Asia, Europe, and beyond. There's something about the rhythm and the vibe that pretty much everyone likes, and this is especially true of kids.

Parents kept telling us how much their kids enjoyed our reggae-themed albums, and we witnessed ourselves the way kids just seemed to respond well to the reggae vibe. So we set about to create a collection of kid-friendly reggae songs from all over the world with themes that were appropriate for children.

Did you accomplish it?

I'm pretty happy with how the album turned out. I think we have a really great selection of artists and a lot of very interesting tracks from some unexpected places. Plus, kids seem to love the record, which is the important thing, and an added bonus is that parents like it too!

How would you define reggae for those unfamiliar with the musical genre?

Reggae originated in Jamaica and is rooted in Caribbean folklore forms like mento, calypso, and traditional African drumming styles, blended with jazz, rhythm and blues and early rock and roll, which were very popular genres among Jamaican youth in the late '50s and '60s. Musically, reggae typically has a particular rhythm that emphasizes the offbeats, the 2s and 4s. This gives a unique, shuffling style that has a propulsive and infectious groove. Reggae is bass-heavy, meaning the bass plays an important rhythmic and melodic role.  

Lyrically, reggae has become known for its socially conscious and spiritual lyrics, thanks in large part to Bob Marley and others who infused their lyrics with messages of freedom, struggle, human rights, and the search for spiritual enlightenment. The Rastafarian religion of Jamaica has also played an important role in the lives of many reggae musicians and consequently in their lyrical themes, but most reggae songs are about love, having fun and less heady subjects.

Does the word "reggae" actually mean anything?

No one really knows for sure how the word originated. Some claim it has roots in different slang terms, but there's no clear predecessor.

What is the biggest misconception about reggae? That its listeners like to smoke pot and worship at the alter of Bob Marley?

Yes, as I mentioned above, most reggae lyrics deal with the same themes as a lot of popular songs. While a lot of the most successful reggae artists were Rastafarians, most do not follow the religion. Also, most people think of Bob Marley when they think of reggae, but there are countless other successful reggae artists, not just in Jamaica but all over the world.

How did you decide which artists and songs you wanted on the album? Were these songs prepared specifically for this album?

We select songs with good melodies and that we feel will have a universal appeal. We also looked for a wide cultural range, so we tried to include reggae from a wide range of places, not just Jamaica. We source the songs from pre-existing recordings that we collect from all over the world. Some have never been released before, others are well known.

What did you get out of this project?

Every project I do for Putumayo is a learning experience for me, as I get to discover new artists and great songs. I also have to do a fair amount of research about the artists, and during the course of the project I get to know many of them and establish connections that last a lifetime. I also get the satisfaction of seeing my 8-year old and 3-year old daughters grooving to the album and learning a little bit about music from other parts of the world. 

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • http://www.sugarmountainpr.com Beth

    What an interesting interview, Scott!

  • Scott Butki

    Thanks, Beth