As summer approaches, nothing gets one in the mood for the sun and heat like reggae. Bob Marley remains the quintessential reggae artist, along with legends such as Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, Toots and the Maytals, Jerry Frantz, and Lee “Scratch” Perry. One album, however, will always stay with me, as it provided this ‘80s teen with an accessible introduction to the genre: Conscious Party by Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers.
Ziggy seamlessly fuses reggae with rock, pop, and a bit of dance to create a joyful vibe on this 1988 classic. Another key to Conscious Party's success — and modern sound — is its producers: Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, better known as founding members of Talking Heads. In addition, the two formed the Tom Tom Club, an ambitious side project that combined dance and reggae into an irresistible concoction.
Their oft-sampled hit, “Genius of Love,” possesses a timeless quality, sounding just as fresh today as it did in 1982. Frantz and Weymouth also were no strangers to world music, having played on the innovative Talking Heads albums Remain in Light and More Songs about Buildings and Food, both of which explored African and reggae rhythms. Therefore the couple seemed a logical choice to produce Ziggy's breakthrough album, giving it a polished sheen.
By 1988, Ziggy had recorded two studio albums with his band the Melody Makers, comprised of siblings Cedella, Stephen, Damian, and Sharon. The group made their debut on their father's 1979 single, “Children Playing in the Streets.” After their father's death in 1981, Ziggy and the Melody Makers struggled to find their musical identity, initially sticking to a pop-oriented sound. According to Wikipedia, the group left their first label, EMI, after being pressured to market Ziggy as a solo act. After moving to Virgin Records, Ziggy and the Melody Makers teamed up with Frantz and Weymouth to create music that remained true to their roots, but would attract a larger audience.
The group came roaring out of the gate with “Tomorrow People,” a single very much in the vein of Bob's optimistic lyrics. “You don't know your past/You don't know your future,” Ziggy warns, telling future generations that “if there is no love in your heart/There will never be hope for you.” Backed by a shuffling beat, Cedella and Sharon punctuate the words with their lovely, harmonic vocals.
Perhaps no other song illustrates the close relationship between rock and reggae better than the album’s title track. The rock guitar and Ziggy’s slightly raspy voice recall the Talking Heads and even early Police records. His defiant vocals shine on “Lee and Molly,” a tale of interracial romance. “Why should they hide/To share strong moments?” he demands, even though Molly’s African-American father ultimately beats Lee after discovering their romance. “Let love be free,” Ziggy concludes.
Other songs closely reflect traditional reggae, such as “New Love” and “Tumblin’ Down,” both of which could have been recorded by Bob Marley. Still, Ziggy avoids simply imitating his father; he sings with great confidence, and the Melody Makers play with great respect for their roots, but with a modern rock edge. Despite the latter song’s lyrical simplicity — much of the song involves repeating the line “But the load gonna come tumblin’ down” — the faster tempo defies anyone to listen to the song and not dance.
One outstanding element of Frantz and Weymouth’s production lies with the percussion — on many tracks, such as “Tomorrow People,” the drums reverb with bass and slight handclaps. The stronger drum lines kick-start the songs, demanding the listener’s attention. In addition, the duo wisely highlights the complicated bass lines typical of reggae. Nowhere is this more evident than on “What’s True,” which features dizzying bass playing while Ziggy ponders “many stories/Both old and new/But what’s true?"
Reggae is well-known for producing resounding protest songs, most notably Bob Marley’s “Get Up Stand Up” and “Redemption Song.” Ziggy adds to this tradition with “We Propose,” a defiant anthem for freeing Africa from apartheid and oppression. “This mess, yes we detest/Controlled by another hand/They're puppets, they're just some puppets/Their thing's just a puppet show,” he sings, his anger audible.
His siblings echo his wishes as they punctuate every lyric with their harmonies. “We propose politicians learn, learn, learn/We propose warmongers learn, learn, learn/We propose fascists learn, learn, learn/Open your ears…listen to the people,” he demands. The band’s passion can be heard in this song, and the lyrics engage their audience to fight for what they believe, not simply becoming passive observers.
Their musical roots come full circle with “Dreams of Home,” an artful blend of reggae and African rhythms. Gospel even enters the lyrics, as Ziggy and his siblings sing of returning to the “holy land” and of the “prophecy.” At the end, he acknowledges those who hold different beliefs: “And if you don't believe/I wish you well, I wish you well,” he repeats, the song fading out. The lyrics are intentionally ambiguous, allowing the audience to imagine their own “homes."
Amazingly, Conscious Party marks its 21st anniversary in 2009. However, Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers’ remains a breath of fresh air, just as it did in the ‘80s. In “We Propose,” Ziggy sings, “Now let me hear the music sound/For sure we're gonna stick around.” Indeed, their infectious brand of reggae has stuck around in order to attract newer fans to the art form. For an introduction to reggae, pick up Bob Marley’s Legend collection, but then hear his son’s impressive breakthrough record. Like me, you’ll be inspired to further explore reggae’s rich history.
"The Cutout Bin” is going on vacation, but will return in late May. Thank you for reading and for your astute comments and suggestions. I look forward to exploring more hidden treasures with you in the near future.