Jamaican tunes back in TA

Max Romeo is the latest in a string of reggae all-stars to hit the Barby.

romeo max 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
romeo max 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
No, it's not a belated Valentine's Day party, but lovers will nonetheless be pleased to hear that old-time reggae vocalist Max Romeo is coming to Israel for a pair of performances next week. Born Max Smith in the rural Jamaican town of St. D'Acre in 1944, the Rastafarian singer earned his nickname as a teenager after recording a string of romantic songs in the popular "lovers' rock" reggae style of the 1960s. In fact, his first encounter with legendary reggae producer Lee 'Scratch' Perry was to record the cheeky 1968 ska anthem "Wet Dream" which went to the top of the charts in both Jamaica and the UK after attracting infamy due to its blue lyrics. Claims by the singer that the song was inspired by a leaky roof that disturbed his sleep fell on deaf ears in Britain, where radio stations censored it. But like liquor in prohibition-era Chicago, the ban simply multiplied the song's popularity, and it soon became an underground hit, climbing to number 10 in the charts in August 1969 and staying there for six weeks. Romeo's back-to-back shows this Wednesday and Thursday (March 5 and 6) make him the latest in a string of reggae all-stars brought to Tel Aviv's Barby Club by Corona Legends of Roots. Romeo will be treading the boards at Tel Aviv's Barby Club with a seven-piece band, including Diana White, one of the few female bass players in the reggae scene. If the sold-out performances during November's double-headline tour by Black Uhuru and The Abyssinians are anything to go by, then reggae-lovers are advised to book in advance. In common with other reggae greats like Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs and Bob Marley, Max Romeo began his career performing ska and lovers' rock before graduating to Rastafarian-inspired roots reggae. His War Inna Babylon album, recorded at Perry's Black Ark studio in 1976, has become a milestone in the genre and a staple in any record collector's library. The long-player, which features the classic "Chase the Devil" and "One Step Forward," also represents the signs of the times in turbulent 1970s Jamaica. Motivated by the acute poverty and social unrest on the island, Romeo combined his music with political activism and recorded singles supporting the left-wing People's National Party (PNP). However, when blood-soaked elections failed to propel the PNP to victory, Romeo, like many Jamaicans involved in their campaign, left the island for what was to become an 11-year self-imposed exile in New York, until 1989, when the PNP returned to power. Romeo's musical career, spanning four decades, has reached a much wider audience than the traditional reggae crowd, largely thanks to East London electronic dance act The Prodigy, who sampled "Chase the Devil" in their 1992 rave anthem "Out of Space," which still packs dancefloors across the world. The song, in which Romeo chants, "I'm gonna put on an iron shirt, and chase the devil out of Earth. I'm gonna send him to outer space, to find another race," was originally conceived as a religious message warning against the temptations of Satan, but was put to an entirely different use during the UK rave scene of the 1990s, when intoxicated youth skanked to its beat at underground parties. Romeo's accidental cross-over into techno, and later hip-hop, courtesy of US rapper Jay-Z's "Lucifer" single, are prime examples of the extent to which reggae artists have influenced popular music - something evident from the diverse crowds that flock to their concerts. Other highlights from Romeo's lengthy biography include Revelation Time (1975) and Far I Captain of My Ship, (1992) a digitally-produced album recorded at the studio of Jah Shaka, the UK's longest-running reggae sound system. Warming up the crowd in Tel Aviv will be Israeli DJs Skunkride on Wednesday and Ganja Vibes the following night. Wednesday (doors open at 9:30 p.m.) and Thursday (10 p.m.) at the Barby Club, Rehov Kibbutz Galuyot 52, (03) 518-8123. Entry is NIS 140 in advance or NIS 160 at the door. Information and advance tickets at www.reggae.co.il