There are theories out there that attempt to locate where the term reggae came from and what it means. The 1967 edition of the Dictionary of Jamaican English lists it as a word that can mean either “ragged clothing” or “a row.” Bob Marley said it was a Spanish term for “the king’s music.” Some reggae historians credit Jamaican producer Clancy Eccles for altering the Jamaican patois word “streggae” (loose woman) into reggae.
But when all is said and done, it doesn’t really matter where the term came from as long as it continues to provoke people to wonder why and how it makes then feel so happy. This weekend’s annual Monterey Bay Reggaefest at the Fairgrounds – featuring more than 20 acts including Maxi Priest, Lloyd Brown and Gyptian – is another excuse to kick back, get a little irie and explore that understanding. Some of the best avenues appear here:
Judy Mowatt (Sunday at 8:40pm) has been a part of the reggae scene since its infancy. But there’s a good chance – even if you’re the most diligent of reggae scholars – that you don’t recognize her name as one of the genre’s early songwriting forces. Mowatt used the pseudonym Jean Watt when she was credited with writing “Hallelujah Time” and “Pass It On” on the Wailers’ 1973 release Burnin’. She also penned “Reincarnated Soul,” under the same name, which appears on Bunny Wailer’s acclaimed solo debut, Blackheart Man.
Bob Marley knew Mowatt’s name and, more importantly, was aware of her talent. In 1974, he brought her on board as one of his backing vocal trio, the I Threes. It was around this time that Mowatt became known as an outspoken voice for black women in Jamaica.
“The black woman has awakened, and it is time for her to take her rightful position to be whoever she want to be,” she told the Toronto Star at the time.
Mowatt’s beliefs helped inspire her 1980 release Her Black Woman, which has become regarded as one of the greatest female-recorded reggae albums of all time. It was also the first reggae LP recorded by a woman who also acted as her own producer. Mowatt figured that it had been happening in American music for several years – so why not in reggae?
She explained for the Houston Chronicle. “In [American music], you had man and woman sharing the stage equally, like the Four Tops and the Supremes,” she said. “That’s what I was always clamoring for.”
Songs like “Slave Queen” and her heartfelt cover of Marley’s “Concrete Jungle” showcase Mowatt’s glass-cutting voice, which has the strength and power to start (or maybe even end) a revolution.
Spawnbreezie (Sunday at 5:30pm) meanwhile – one of the newer faces in the reggae scene – found his love for island beats in his mother’s basement in Independence, Mo., where he still makes his home and cut his solo debut Independence Soldiers back in 2007.
“At first, my mom would always be telling me, ‘Turn it down,’ but now she loves it,” Spawn says.
It hasn’t been easy for Spawn: In the couple years following his debut, he released a follow-up in 2009 and did some extensive touring, but ended up with very little to show for it. Spawn recalls one three-month period of touring when he walked away with just $500.
“I took a break after that to try to figure out how I can capitalize on all this material I had that I wasn’t doing anything with,” he says.
Giving up wasn’t an option.
“Music is more than a profession for me,” Spawn says. “It’s my destiny. I live it and breathe it.”
The hard times led Spawn to make the most important album of his career in 2011, Dear Billy, which he describes as “me doing me… it’s me writing a letter to myself.”
Dear Billy is the opus of Spawn’s career thus far: On it, the plus-sized Samoan reaches deep inside himself, unleashing oceans of sincerity that pour out with every track. On “Don’t Let Go,” Spawn’s vocals rival Babyface, sweet and tender, yet forceful and yearning. In a way, the album’s title track – which begins with somber R&B contemplation before giving way to an explosion of positive island-soaked rhythms – feels like therapy for Spawn, as if he’s reassuring himself that he’s traveling down the right path.
Lately, Spawn has been spending most of his time back on the road and, this time, he’s getting paid what he should while filling venues from Wellington, New Zealand to Hawaii to Queensland, Australia. And with 32,000-plus likes on his Facebook page, where he describes his genre as “Island hip hop,” it’s clear that grooving in his mom’s basement is a cherished thing of the past.
“It’s overwhelming being on stage and hearing the crowd sing everything back word for word,” he says. “I mean, that music started in my mom’s basement and now it’s all over the radio.”
THE MONTEREY BAY REGGAEFEST takes place 3-10pm Friday, July 27, 11am-10pm Saturday, July 28, and 11am-10pm Sunday, July 29, at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, 2004 Fairgrounds Rd., Monterey. $30 Friday (kids $10); $40 Saturday (kids $15); $40 Sunday (kids $15); $110 weekend (kids $35); $249 all access pass; kids 8 and under free. 394-8432. www.mbayreggaefest.net