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Reggae music and the island of Jamaica are inseparable, right? Lately, a crop of artists from places like Hawaii, California and Italy are proving that hit reggae can come from anywhere. In the process, they're raising some complex questions about culture and ownership.
There's a new generation of reggae artists with two things in common: They're not from the birthplace of reggae music, and they are enormously successful.
"In Europe, at festivals they're playing to 30-40,000 people, club gigs 1-4,000 people a night," says Neil Robertson, head of touring and live events for reggae label VP Records. "There's hardly anybody out of Jamaica who can draw that kind of a crowd."
One European who can is Alberto D'Ascola, known as Alborosie. Alborosie discovered reggae at age 14 and eventually moved to Jamaica, where he picked up local patois. "It was love at first sight," he says. "A bredren gave me a Bob Marley cassette and I said, 'This is my music. This is what I want to do.'"
Alborosie was the first white artist to be distributed by Bob Marley's label, Tuff Gong. This summer he released his third album, but he says being embraced by the Jamaican music community did not come easily. "Culturally you have to do a lot of things to get accepted," he says. "I'm always a white man in Jamaica, so I try to move around and respect everybody."
But should we respect these non-Jamaican acts? What makes them more than just lame imitations that some call Jafaicans? Robertson has an answer. "The musicianship, especially in Europe — France and the U.K.," he says. "These are top musicians in their own right. The skill level has gone to a next level and it's gonna take a lot for anyone from Jamaica to compete with these acts." Robertson, who ran Alborosie's first U.S. tour, is prepping the American debut of German artist Gentleman, who's so popular internationally I might call him the Eminem of reggae.
On our shores, Hawaii and California are the biggest breeding grounds for reggae bands. iTunes even bestowed its 2010 "Best Reggae Album" title not on a Jamaican, but on the debut from Hawaiian band The Green.
A lot of non-Jamaican artists create musical hybrids, blending reggae with rock and pop. Ziggi Recado was born in Holland to a Dutch father and a mother from the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius. He says non-Jamaican reggae sounds distinct.
"Jamaican artists are very much influenced by each other, so everything coming out of there has that real Jamaican vibe," he says. "Being in Europe, you get so much different influences. I live in Amsterdam so I deal with all different kinds of people. My band members are from Suriname, Curacao, the Ivory Coast. So you get, I think, a broader range of vibes."
The globalization of reggae stirs up a familiar debate around cultural politics. From jazz to rock to hip-hop, white artists have negotiated the thorny boundaries of performing in a genre they didn't invent. Sicily-born Alborosie says he needed to go to Jamaica and talk the talk. "When I reach there I said [he adopts a cheesy Italian accent], 'Hi, my name is Alberto.' So I learned patois. I don't speak English. Right now it's very difficult talking to you and make it sound proper," he says. "So that is my language besides Italian."
But J.P. Kennedy, lead singer of The Green, has never been to Jamaica. He doesn't speak Patois or see why artists like him ought to.
"Non-Jamaicans doing it? I don't know, " Kennedy says. "I guess if they can pull it off it's cool. But if I was a Jamaican I'd probably be against hearing fake stuff like that. Because if I hear people speaking fake Hawaiian Pidgin — it's a turnoff to hear people who don't naturally speak it, speak it."
As for the Jamaican artists' perspective, reggae singer Freddie McGregor says this about the vexed issue of cultural theft: "They are not stealing. Reggae can't be stolen, reggae is ours! They are not denying that they are in love with what we do and want to do it too. There are lots of bands that I work with outside Jamaica who are great musicians — Japan in particular. It's just music, and the love of it. So whoever plays it and sings it, it's a blessing."
But others worry that when it comes to the bottom line, Jamaican artists are losing. Japan, for instance, has long been a big market for Jamaican music. But these days local Japanese reggae acts outsell most visiting Jamaican artists. That frustrates Jamaican dancehall deejay Demarco.
"What I want to see are the reggae artists in Jamaica make the same amount of money like an American who would take up our music and sell millions," Demarco says. "We can't sell millions? I don't understand that. We are probably doing something wrong."
Maybe it's just easier for fans to embrace home-grown versions of a foreign music. Christoffer Mannix Schlarb, A&R rep for VP Records and CEO of Dub Shot Records, is taking it one step further. He's working on an album called Dub Rockers, which pairs Jamaican artists like I-Wayne and Eek-A-Mouse with non-Jamaican ones like SOJA and Rebelution.
"Basically the idea is showcasing what from our viewpoint is authentic imitation reggae," he says. "I guess that's kind of an oxymoron but that's really what it is."
So in the end, maybe it's this simple: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.