“Right now it’s easy to lose sight that there is so much good going on.”
A popular Jamaican expression calls the nation “likkle but we tallawah”—small but strong. That same term could be applied to Boston roots reggae, which often flies under the radar yet has never had a shortage of first-rate singers and musicians.
Like all musical scenes, Boston reggae was turned upside down by the COVID shutdown. One of the biggest blows came last month when the owner of Bull McCabe’s in Somerville—where acts like Ghetto People and Dub Apocalypse held weekly residencies—announced the venue was closing for good.
Still, many local reggae acts have found alternative ways of getting the music out. They’ve been playing drive-ins, distanced backyard concerts, and at restaurants and beer gardens which already have tables and are set up to comply with regulations.
JahRiffe, who has released three albums of powerful and reflective original material, said the new venues actually “put reggae in the right place so it can hold its potency. In a bar they’re not really listening, but outside with the moon glowing or the sun shining people are attentive. They’re not really listening in a bar, but outside the moon is glowing or the sun [is shining and] they are attentive to the message, and you can bring your children or your grandma.”
Several of JahRiffe’s performances this fall with the Roots Alley Collective have been collaborations with the Reggae Takeova. The series, which offers the best of the best local and international reggae acts, has relocated during COVID from La Fabrica in Cambridge to a backyard in Dorchester. The shows are streamed with a small number of in-person attendees sitting on a second-floor porch that serves as a balcony.
Takeova impresario Dan Zimmerman came from Panama to Boston to join the military. Instead, he became a professional skateboarder and discovered the reggae he grew up loving could be heard in person at Bull McCabe’s. Now a construction company owner, his promoter life began by accident when he hired the Naya Rockers to play at a party. Besides local mainstays like Jah Spirit, Toussaint the Liberator, and Lady Lee, the series has since included touring acts like Yellowman and Kabaka Pyramid. Earlier this month, the Takeova put together a multi-state tour that paired Addis Pablo, the melodica-playing son of dub legend Augustus Pablo, with the Naya Rockers. One of the stops included a collaboration with the Regent Theater in Arlington.
As outdoor music season winds down, the Reggae Takeova and JahRiffe are starting to explore indoor options. A Nov. 1 dinner and music event is in the works at the Oasis Restaurant in Dorchester, which JahRiffe co-owns. (He’s also a partner in a sister eatery, the Oasis Vegan Veggie Parlor, when he’s not running his landscaping company.)
Greg Roy, a Jamaican-born 2020 Boston Music Award nominee who delivers philosophical reality reggae, has appeared in the Takeova yard, the Payomet Drive-In on Cape Cod, and at his own backyard events (the next one is Oct. 24).
“One of the things that first brought me to Boston was playing in someone’s living room with just my guitar,” Roy told the Dig. “I’ve always been someone you could call up and I’d come play a party or house. I’ve always kept myself in a way that I’m not so dependent on anything outside of my own existence.”
“Entertainment is not just a distraction, it calms people, helps their nerves,” Roy added. “At a Greg Roy show the audience is a community, and we’ll make sure that everyone is safe.”
Both JahRiffe and Roy said that living through 2020 has yielded a lot of new original songs which they’ll be releasing via singles, albums, and videos in the coming months. Talking about his forthcoming album’s title track, “Everything I Need,” Roy said, “I’m talking to everyone. Sometimes we have the one thing that makes us, and we don’t even realize it, and we’re going out and searching for the very thing we already have. Right now it’s easy to lose sight that there is so much good going on.”
“I wrote a song this year called “Champion” and it was built around us as human beings,” JahRiffie said. “We’ve been through black plague, smallpox, and now COVID, and we are champions. The bullshit out there can overshadow the good stuff, so you have to have a long, deep, wide perspective on life to see the good in everything.”
Noah is an award-winning Boston-based writer and editor who covers music for the Arts Fuse. He has produced radio documentaries for @afropopww and researched and co-wrote the liner notes of "Take Us Home: Boston Roots Reggae 1979 - 1987."