I want to talk to you for a few minutes about reggae.
Most genres of music are pretty wide open. Bands as divergent from each other as E.L.O. and ACDC are both make what is considered rock music, pop music was still getting made even when it wasn’t popular, even if that’s what its identity basically is, and country music is so arcane that there are separate subcategories known as Country & Western AND Western Country. But reggae is reggae. It may have been born from ska and spawned subsets such as reggaeton and dancehall, but none of them would ever be mistaken for the original.
Some people will say that there is a downside to this singularity of style, and that is most of the music is interchangeable and unremarkable. There are certainly plenty of unmemorable songs, just like there are in any genre, and some songs are just so awful and stupid, they boggle the mind. I recently heard a reggae version of Dave Brubeck’s seminal “Take Five,” its hallmark sound achieved by the 5/4 time signature it was written in. Whatever reggae band did the cover couldn’t be bothered by such intricacies, resulting in three and half minutes of my life I will be arguing for having back on my deathbed. But bad songs are everywhere, as are truly great songs. “No Woman, No Cry,” Many Rivers to Cross,” and “Sitting in Limbo,” just to name a few, will remain long after you and I are gone.
More than just musicianship, however, what gives reggae its life is the mood that it creates, even without natural additives if you will. That interchangeability allows for an experience to happen, one that almost immediately induces a peaceful and relaxed state, one that fosters feelings of happiness and contentment, of inclusion and acceptance. Like the song says, every little thing’s gonna be all right. This mood is so enticing, even when the subject matter is dark, the mood is still one of hope.
Yesterday, UNESCO, the U.N. organization tasked with protecting all that is good in this world, added reggae to its collection, citing its intangible cultural heritage. The organization went on to say the music’s “contribution to international discourse on issues of injustice, resistance, love and humanity underscores the dynamics of the element as being at once cerebral, socio-political, sensual and spiritual.”
What I like most about this news is learning that UNESCO has a Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Think about that for a moment. In the middle of all the shit this world is swimming in right now, there are people from around the world that work together, across their own political borders and religious differences, to find what is good about this world, what it is that humans have created that makes this world a better place, things that not only help define us, but also strive to give meaning to a sometimes meaningless world. They work to find those things, and they strive to save them. As Leonard Cohen says, “There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” These people are that crack, the splinter in the monolithic façade of modernity, and the light they let in helps dispel the darkness that we can all feel far too often.
I’m not saying that listening to reggae is going to change your life, but it might. It might remind you that not everything is bad, that there is always some good; that sometimes when things are at their worst, people are still out there trying to find the best. At the very least, it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.
And who doesn’t feel even a little bit better after dancing?