David Katz
Solid Foundation - An Oral History of Reggae

Recently published in paperback, this excellent collection of interviews by reggae historian David Katz is a significant step in the archiving of the formative years of Jamaica's most commercially successful and internationally recognised cultural export. Katz's work is vital, not least because the first exponents of the Jamaican boogie and ska sound of the early fifties which he focuses on initially are increasingly few in number. His project is a welcome contribution to the small number of well researched and persuasively written books on reggae.

Katz avoids the ever present trap which exists for the white academic or journalist of decontextualising the music by allowing its exponents to tell the story in their own words. As he puts it in his introduction: 'An Oral History... seems to capture the spontaneous circumstances of much reggae invention, and allows the wit and wisdom of its propagators to be better represented'. In a form of music in which the phenomenon of the version (the reinterpretation of an original tune) has become dominant, Katz's technique allows free play to the many versions offered by his subjects, weaving together the contradictory and complimentary threads which combine to form reggae's rich and varied narrative.

Many of reggae's leading figures have been incredibly prolific, but Katz brings order to his account of them and their creations by dividing the music up into different eras. While his categories, ranging from ska and rock steady to roots and dub, draw on a wider critical consensus, he successfully pieces them together to lend his account a sense of coherence and continuity. He combines this broad sweep with in depth focus on the individuals who inspired these different movements as well as on the backing musicians, studio technicians and sound system operators whose contributions were just as essential, if less well acknowledged. It is this deep perspective which makes this such a valuable book, as it gives the reader a sense of the social situation from which the music evolved as well as of the specific circumstances in which particular tunes or styles came into being.

Katz's own narrative and the interviews themselves are full of compelling details – we learn that Trench Town 'one of the least privileged places on the island, was a community built around Kingston's main sewage gully'. Numerous vocalists, from Bob Marley to Jimmy Cliff and Alton Ellis were born in these less than ideal surroundings, demonstrating that even from the gutter, some of us are looking at the stars. An incredibly varied cast of characters emerges from the book, from the electronics wizards (Kings Tubby and Jammy) whose innovation has shaped much contemporary music to the hustlers and rude boys whose violent deaths stand as a stark warning of the harshness of ghetto life in Jamaica.

Solid Foundation is necessarily incomplete and its account of the evolution of reggae is coloured by the affiliations and prejudices of Katz's interviewees (his own are clear from his neglect of dancehall, reggae's most vibrant contemporary form). But the patience and persistence required to assemble this kind of work clearly reflect the author's passion for reggae and all its untold stories as well as his respect for it as a thriving and authentic modern art form.
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