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Gowanus Reggae and Ska Society: Grass on Fire

img  Tobias Fischer

One of science-fiction's most popular themes is time travel being a pain in the butt and those embarking on it not being able to rewrite the past. It hasn't stopped legions of musicians and record companies from trying. Today, the market is saturated with tribute-albums, cover-compilations and remix-samplers, with definitive, historical and ultimate editions. While one would expect a certain hesitation with regards to the established canon, quite the opposite has been true: The bigger the legend, the bigger the temptation for re-interpretation. Ironically, this flood of re-recordings has only served to fortify the supremacy of the original in the public's mind and made the task of entering into a dialogue with the „masters“ seem all the more daunting. If the Gowanus Reggae and Ska Society should therefore follow up their debut with a fresh arrangement of The Wailer's Catch a Fire, the move is not only bound to draw attention, but to provoke as well. Catch a Fire wasn't just The Wailer's international debut, after all, it was also the album which ultimately established reggae as a marketable genre, officially put Jamaica on the musical map and laid the first stone in the foundation of the Bob Marley legend. One can virtually see the keepers of the tradition fume with indignation at the prospect of seeing it infused with jazz: Who do these people think they are?

The answer is strikingly simple: Some of the most exciting and refreshingly wilful minds of the Brooklyn improvisation scene. An eleven-headed hydra pitting a classic line-up of horns and keys against the rhythm section of a  reggae group, Gowanus are not so much a supergroup but a tightly-knit ensemble of formidable instrumentalists putting their creative talents entirely at the service of the collective. It is telling that the formation are not, as was the case on equally ambitious Pink-Floyd-project Dub Side of the Moon, a one-off, but a band which have organically grown, already recorded a widely applauded debut and whose members all regard this as anything but a mere side-or pet-project. With a shared interest in the culture of Jamaica and the roots of American music, be it folk, rock n roll, jazz, classical or contemporary composition, they were bound to stumble upon parallels and points of contact and improvisation simply proved to be their preferred language for defining their questions and exchanging their thoughts. If the band now speak about the need to take these lines of development and cross-continental influences into account in order to „understand“ any of these genres, then this is not a question of academic study. Rather, it is the result of hundreds of hours spent exploring  - with as much intuition as insight – what works and what doesn't: Performance practise and the pure fun of playing together are at the heart of Grass on Fire.

Of course, no one would seriously doubt the existence of these historical ties. Whether or not, as has been claimed, the entire Jamaican music industry owes its existence to the mass-scale importing of swing records in the 30s and 40s is debatable. Nor should the existence of external role models devalue or deny the unique contribution the tiny island and its tirelessly inventive three million inhabitants have made to global music culture in the 20th century. But it can be stated with absolute certainty that the development of ska has equally drawn from developments in the USA in a variety of ways. Even to the uninitiated, the prominent position of the horn section in both genres as well as the incisive role of the walking bass, which would ultimately be fetishised to near-ridiculous proportions in dub, clearly demonstrate the proximity of these approaches. Singer Joe Higgs, meanwhile, whose political stance eventually made him move into self-imposed exile, once referred to himself as „the jazz connection for Jamaican music“ and sought inspiration for his vocal lines in the phrasings of jazz instrumentalists. It is a result of market tactics, medial segmentation and changing social implications, as a part of which jazz increasingly came to be regarded as the new world's classical music and reggae as a dreamy backdrop to splif culture, that the link was severed.

This, of course, is were Catch a Fire comes into play. Gowanus have certainly not chosen the album accidentally or out of a mere love for the music – although the latter will doubtlessly have played a part. After all, by the time it was released, The Wailers already had already been playing together for a decade, with four full-lengths to their credit. And yet, their fame remained firmly restricted to Jamaica, where their angry, rebellious lyrics and the unprecedented blend of raw intensity and melodic sweetness had elevated them to superstar-status. Their contract with Island Records led to their international breakthrough, which in turn unleashed a cascade of at first seemingly minuscule events eventually growing into an avalanche. The subversive potential of reggae would infiltrate punk and dance and later allow for the more subtle integration of dub into a variety of electronic music niches, while Bob Marley's charisma and political outspokenness would turn him into an icon. But at the same time, its success effectively ended reggae's ability for change – having arrived in the mainstream, its message was now entertainment, it street-fighting-anthems played on breakfast radio. Perhaps that is why performing these songs without lyrics is actually making them seem more political, not less.

In a sense, one could say that Gowanus' approach goes back to a time before the original album was released, to the spirit when these pieces were still about concrete grievances rather than vague universal sentiments. The immediacy and emotional poignancy of the original Jamaican version of Catch a Fire (re-released as, you guessed it, a Deluxe edition in 2009) may have been more of a blueprint here than the more richly produced European „classic“. Most of all, however, this really is their own version. Rather than blindly following the track listing of the original, they have tweaked and adjusted it to their own aims. And instead of copying The Wailers' arrangements, each and every song contained on their interpretation has been awarded its unique form. At times, it may constitute a template and springboard for extensive soloing, as with arguably the biggest hit of the collection, „Stir it Up“, on which the ensemble just briefly introduce the Leitmotif at the beginning, only to embark on a series of of ferocious exchanges immediately afterwards. At another, it is completely broken apart and decontextualised: Three minutes into „400 years“, the soulful chorus suddenly disintegrates, Russ Meissner starts working the cymbals while J.A. Granelli's bass is wandering off into a territory of its own. Only a swarm of feverish sax lines are holding the band together, as they embark on a dream-like free-jazz seance.

„400 years“ makes its point with striking bluntness, but it's the only time the album spells out its intentions this obviously. Rather, it is always leaving enough space for the listener to find the underlying links and ideas for her- or himself. And once you've decided to participate, this game of associations takes on an intriguing depth: Suddenly, you can hear parallels with the modal jazz of Miles Davis. Harbingers of dub. The proximity with rock. You can hear how these styles meet and conflict just as much as they complement each other – and how they finally segue into a fascinating new style of soloing, which draws from jazz, but infuses it with the laid-back moods of reggae. There is as much emphasis on the individual as the group here, which is why, rather than embarking on ego trips, each solo is merely the point of departure for the next in a process of continuous collaboration.

It is a congenial metaphor for the ensemble's take on a dialogue with the masters in general: Respectful of those which came before them, but always with enough self-confidence to leave their mark on the music. Grass on Fire may not be rewriting history – but it certainly makes time travel feel remarkably enjoyable.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Gowanus Reggae and Ska Society

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