Various Artists
Is It Rolling Bob? A Reggae Tribute to Bob Dylan

By Masta G

 
The associations between the grand old man of American music and Jamaica's greatest cultural export are not immediately apparent, even if Dylan does share a name with Robert Nesta Marley, the island's favourite son. The patient explanations of the man behind this project – Roger Steffens – in his liner notes go some way towards asserting the existence of shared ground occupied by Dylan and Marley (standing in here as a representative of reggae in general) in spite of the stark contrast in their approaches. Reggae has always cried eloquently of oppression and sufferation and Dylan is perhaps the ultimate rebel musician in the American tradition, refusing to this day to be safely contained or commodified as he continues his neverending tour.

It is little coincidence, then, that the most powerful versions on this collection of Dylan's greatest hits, covered by some of Jamaican music's greatest talents, are those in which Dylan's songs of protest or social commentary are reworked by singers who seem to make them speak of the Caribbean and its history. Another living legend, Toots Hibbert, takes on Maggie's Farm and infuses it with the spirit of his anthemic 54-46, his interpretation seeing its context shift smoothly from a world of itinerant farm workers in rural America to that of slavery and indentured labour on the plantations. The theme of servitude is taken up again on up-and-coming roots artist Nasio Fontaine's version of Gotta Serve Somebody on which he rides one of the more propulsive riddims layed down by the stellar studio band assembled for the project. Dylan suggests that everyone must serve 'the Devil or... the Lord', but the Dominican singer offers 'Selassie I or... the Lord', one of several instances of the original lyrics being reinvented to fit their new context. Sizzla, perhaps the true inheritor of the Jamaican Bob's crown, also twists Dylan's lyrics with his masterful interpretation of Subterranean Homesick Blues, substituting for Dylan's amphetamine reference ('Johnny's in the basement / mixing up the medicine') an allusion to his favoured sacramental herb: 'For those in the basement / marijuana's the medicine'.

Sizzla's gruff vocal is perhaps the one which approaches most closely to Dylan's harsh, guttural tones – the reggae artists tend to offer an easy smoothness where Dylan sounds difficult and abrasive. At times, this lends the songs new meaning and value: Gregory Isaacs' take on Mr Tambourine Man makes the 'jingle jangle morning' sound like a positively relaxing prospect. His nasal, keening vocal if anything accentuates the song's intoxicating sense of hallucinogenic escapism. Standout moments from the likes of Sizzla and Isaacs ensure that the album never sinks into the blandness which is sometimes hinted at by the too melodious arrangements and persistently lilting effect of the band. But more than anything, it is the project as a whole which is impressive – like any meaningful act of reinterpretation, it offers fresh and sometimes startling perspectives, both on Jamaican music and on Dylan himself.
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