vrijdag 3 februari 2012

Between discography and biography : books on Dennis Brown and Jimmy Cliff

As part of my blog I regularly discuss or quote biographies of reggae artists. On one particular post (Reggae biography time, May 2011) I point at the absence of significant biographies of reggae artists other than Bob Marley or the original Wailers. As I understood a biography of Peter Tosh is presently in the making, and there actually has appeared a biography on Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry (‘People Funny Boy’) by “reggae writer” David Katz.


I deplored (among other names) the absence of a biography of Dennis Brown: in the 1970s and part of the 1980s one of the most popular reggae artists in Jamaica itself (and partly outside it). In Jamaica his popularity approached and later even exceeded Bob Marley’s. He influenced many current reggae artists (noticeable vocally). Well, while my statement still stands as true, there is a nuance. There has appeared a work in 2000, a year after Dennis Brown’s decease in 1999 (at sadly only the age of 42), on Brown, called ‘Deep down with Dennis Brown : cool runnings and the crown prince of reggae : a short story by Penny Reel’. This work has some biographical characteristics, but is not really a full-fledged biography, in the sense of a full, multifaceted life story of the artist as artist and person, so to speak.

The work in question is a ”short story” by UK reggae journalist Penny Reel, detailing Dennis Brown’s reception and success in the London and UK’s - underground - reggae scene. He discusses his personal experiences, meeting Dennis Brown himself among others, the acceptance of Dennis Brown releases by reggae fans in Britain and by sound systems, and the subject of reggae‘s relation to the mainstream: a theme I also find interesting as people who read this blog may know. Alongside this he gives (biographical) background information on Dennis Brown and his rise to success, though predominantly on the artist and less personal details. The story itself is written in 1979, making the time frame more limited (Dennis Brown unfortunately died relatively young, but still lived about two decades after this work).


You guessed it, I am going to discuss and analyze this work now in this post (in fact I have already started a bit..). But I am doing this alongside another biography, released recently (2011) of another reggae artist: Jimmy Cliff, namely the work: ‘Jimmy Cliff: an unauthorized biography’, by the already mentioned David Katz. I think comparing both works can be interesting, and I hope to show why.

Katz’s work on Cliff is more a full biography, only that Cliff at the time of writing is still alive. Furthermore, in reading it, it soon becomes clear that the reader should not expect too much personal information on Cliff. Don’t get me wrong, there is some personal information given, on his background, certain life experiences, choices, but limitedly, which is attributed to Cliff’s own reservations in this regard. The emphasis is on his released songs and albums, his musical career and rise to (international) success. This emphasis on released songs and albums - and reception thereof - is a similarity with the work on Brown.


Before analysing and juxtaposing these works, my personal position should be explained, I think. I am more or less a Dennis Brown fan, especially of some of his albums. I know not all, but I do know most of his released songs, and I value his unique vocal style and accompanying music. I also liked his charisma, in that he often had a smiling, merry and jovial expression, yet still was naturally charismatic. He showed you can be both approachable and “cool” at the same time.

By contrast, I am not really a Jimmy Cliff fan. Some songs of Cliff I encountered I liked, but never too much so as to elicit my extraordinary enthusiasm. While of Brown there are quite a few songs that excite and thrill me still: Love Jah, Should I, Black Liberation (Time), Sitting & Watching, No More Will I Roam, The Prophet Rides Again, Malcolm X, Hooligan, House On The Rocks and more. Some albums I liked more than others, but that is not so strange.

The comparison between these works thus also compares a work on a artist I like more (and know more songs of) and one I like less. It is interesting to analyse how this influences how you read something: do personal preferences necessarily hinder an open mind? One would think so.

Well, to continue on this last point.. I enjoyed both works, more or less to an equal degree. Katz’s work on Cliff is well-written and structured, accessible, and with enough explanations to keep it interesting even if you do not recall or know a song. I was even tempted to search the large YouTube database to listen to some songs discussed (such as Struggling Man, a hit of sorts for Cliff in Africa); the same I did with the other work on Brown, by the way.


A main difference is the broader focus of the book on Cliff, compared to Penny Reel’s work. Broader not deeper. I opine that the work on Dennis Brown goes deeper, offering more profound insight, even if of a more limited time frame or locale. Katz’s work has a larger time frame, and has an international focus: mentioning Cliff’s career across the globe. Penny Reel’s work appears as short-sighted in comparison: the London underground reggae scene, broadened now and then to the whole of Britain, and especially in the 1970s, although discussing here and there reggae in Britain in the 1960s. Yet, the British reggae scene was then relatively big internationally (probably one of the biggest outside of Jamaica), and in a sense pioneering - after Jamaica that is -, making deep insight in it potentially interesting beyond merely Londoners’ nostalgia.

Penny Reel has a personal style, which is never too annoying. No vague, parochial references only to be understood by an “in group”, no, even certain clubs or scenes in London are made all in all insightful. In a sense, this makes the work more interesting . The perspective is then from the reggae (underground) scene in London, the fan base of “real” reggae (not commercialized mainstream spin-offs). The work makes evident Dennis Brown’s relative popularity within this scene, such as formalized though Black Echoes charts, where Brown’s song and album releases appear with mostly success, although to differing degrees.

Also, the proceedings of Dennis Brown’s own label he set up, DEB records (from his initials: Dennis Emmanuel Brown), with artists as roots singer Junior Delgado, lady group 15, 16, 17, and also releasing songs by Gregory Isaacs (e.g. Mr. Know It All), and the DEB releases’ relative success in Britain provide interesting reading.


Katz’s work on Cliff focuses more on the mainstream world outside the reggae scene: Cliff reached this mainstream more than Brown, even in countries like Brazil. This has partly to do with musical or even cultural approaches. Dennis Brown was a Rastafarian, initiated specifically by members of the Twelve Tribes of Israel mansion within Rastafari. Jimmy Cliff is not a Rasta, but a Muslim. This is a difference, although Cliff’s Islam was initially of the Nation of Islam kind (picked up in the US), and probably influenced by Jamaican Rastafari (members of which he worked and socialized with): namely an Islam more catered to the black African, than to the Arab world. Still, Cliff seemed all in all more open to non-Jamaican influences in his music, especially later in his career. On most of Cliff’s later albums, reggae, soul, funk, pop and other genres interchanged, while Dennis Brown rarely left the “reggae riddim” (though covering some soul and other songs, but reworked to reggae). Lyrically, Brown tended to variate between “message” and “love” tunes, but it remained authentic Jamaican reggae.

Penny Reel’s work on Brown has some stylistic differences with the work on Cliff, maybe partly because it is presented as a short story and partly a personalized journalistic account, while Katz’s book is more a formal, “academic” biography. Yet, I found both works entertaining and insightful in their own way. I had to get used, though, to Penny Reel’s writing style. Maybe this was because I have gotten used more to "academic" biographies than to the free-floating, creative writing style like Penny Reel’s. Penny Reel makes (very) long sentences, with several - often more than two or even three - subordinate clauses. This makes it a bit less accessible, but admittedly I used to write a time ago like this - “comma writing” - as well (still trying to improve my “terse” writing), and maybe because of this I had some sympathy for it. I got used to it, however, and got equally captivated by the story/text. Katz’s writing style is in comparison nonetheless maybe more apparently structured and terse, and accessible.

Thus, there are clear differences in content and style between these two works on Jamaican popular musical artists. But there are also similarities. One of these is the centrality of songs and albums in the accounts. In fact, a large part of both books consist of deep song analysis (or album analysis), which I can appreciate. It shows the authors take the music seriously, have knowledge on its context and place within reggae (both authors can be called Jamaican music experts without reserve). It reminded me of the sincere interest and outright passion painting enthusiasts show when deeply and academically analyzing a painting by, say, Picasso. For me this represents what is called a ”good read”. Also concerts (or tours) are analysed in both works. The story around the tours of Jimmy Cliff in Nigeria and Africa, where Cliff was quite popular, is for example engaging.


Further, Penny Reel peaks (especially) at the end of his account, with a manifesto of sorts. He discusses why – and how - real reggae is not accepted by the mainstream media in Britain; only watered-down commercial reggae, or novelty acts, get(s) easily played on the radio. That’s why he (Penny Reel) predicts that Dennis Brown cannot break through to the mainstream in Britain, even though Brown’s hit song Money In My Pocket eventually reached the British pop chart. He discusses this for the 1960s and 1970s (the text was written in 1979), but it is in fact still relevant today. An engaging and convincing "essayistic" part of Penny Reel’s account!

Since it is written in 1979 and delves into the (London) music scene, including - unlike Katz’s work - practical aspects (e.g. availability of a record in stores), I got to realize another thing from Penny Reel’s story. This is from the pre-digital age! Actually, it felt kind of refreshing. A disc of a song (12 inch or otherwise) was pressed in certain quantities in Jamaica, sometimes too few to meet demand, brought (sometimes informally) to Britain, a sound system got hold of these vinyl discs exclusively and presented its audience thus the new track. Tested in practice for an exclusive audience, so to speak. It seems a world apart from nowadays when so much is available easily, even the most obscure, independent releases in Jamaican music through Internet: mp3’s or even on YouTube. You don’t have to go out to a club with a sound system to hear a new tune, you can get it at home. This I find convenient and pleasant of course, but it also makes it a bit less special.

Actually, going to a club to hear and/or dance to new reggae songs seems like a nice night out to me, but maybe privately enjoying music is preferred by many (and is easier), especially if going out to music clubs is not really a part of one’s lifestyle (anymore?).

I can recommend both works. They give intriguing insights in the developing careers of two Jamaican musical artists in relation to the mainstream, the music industry, but also the fans and audience: in Jamaica and other countries. Flaws are only that you do not get to know too much about the person and life behind the musical artist from these books. Both books can be described as mostly (interestingly) annotated discographies, general overviews of the artists' careers, combined with accounts on reception and the music scene, and some biographical information.

Deep down with Dennis Brown: Penny Reel . – 102 p. – United Kingdom : Drake Bros Publications, 2000. ISBN: 978-0954195908

Jimmy Cliff : an unauthorized biography: David Katz . – 224 p. – Northampton, MA : Interlink Books, 2011. ISBN: 978-1566568692