Article and photos by Sista Irie, Austin, Texas
The ebb and flow of a musically rich city like Austin, Texas is an education few people are privileged to experience. In 1984, downtown Austin was a hubbub of antiquated warehouses sprinkled with one and two story buildings reminiscent of aging and uncared for small town businesses. Downtown Austin was also a funky arena of counterculture. Those who ventured into the area were those who revered this unique culture further embraced by Sixth Street venues and bars. Sixth Street represented the city’s creative arts, a microcosm of bars and nightlife in celebration of legendary Texas music. What many people don’t know is Texas music incorporates way more than just country style music. The massive state claims famous originators in my many musical genres as demonstrated by Roy Orbison, Big Mama Thornton, Selena and Buddy Holly to name just a few.
One of the most popular musical hot spots was the legendary Liberty Lunch, an abandoned lumber yard turned international reggae venue located in an open air space between two commercial buildings and within close walking distance to Town Lake. Liberty Lunch was the apex of Austin’s reggae era. The city was quaint, funky and designed to herald a thriving population of those who rebelled against the establishment. After all, Austin had it’s share, past and present of musical icons such as Janis Joplin, Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Rocky Erikson,The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Joe Ely, Marcia Ball and others, not to mention the the original home of the world renown Armadillo World Headquarters.
As time went on and post demise of ‘The Armadillo’ and ‘Liberty Lunch,’ Austin claimed to be the “Live Music Capital of the World” and respectfully earns that reputation from a consistent growth of large annual festivals such as Austin City Limits, South by Southwest and Urban Fest. Throughout the year, nearly every night, multitudes of musical venues intoxicate Austin’s airspace with a flirtatious invitation to relax in a stress free environment of music, friends and multitude of herbal and liquid refreshments. The delightful mix of creative sounds continue to enhance this musical elixir defining the culture of the city. Luckily, unlike other musical havens, city bureaucrats recognized early on the value of Austin City culture and supported a productive environment thriving economically on music and art eventually supporting the birth of one of the world’s most successful and prosperous music conferences, South by Southwest. Where else could four artistically minded intellectuals (Nick Barabaro, Lewis Black, Roland Swenson and Lewis Meyers) who loved the Austin vibe and lived a radical activist mentality, create a festival and conference to be embraced by singers and players across the globe. No one knew that the thriving Austin music scene in 1986 was not just niche entertainment but a bursting product with tremendous financial and marketing potential that now provides millions of tourism dollars to the city budget.
SXSW, the resulting mega conference now spans several weeks and promotes national and international music, film, technology and education. This is success that reggae music yearns to emulate in the roots backyard of Jamaica. Although, SXSW has rarely given full attention to reggae music, due to years of hit or miss reggae performances spread across various clubs, reggae has massively grown in appreciation globally and was reflected fully in the 2016 line-up. Represented this year were some incredibly interesting roots/dancehall artists from Jamaica (Agent Sasco, Tanya Stephens, Jovi Rockwell) and an awesome mix of performers from various countries accentuating that reggae is embraced and revered across the world. The reggae collective of shows included the countries of Peru, Colombia, Jamaica, Virgin Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, Korea, Canada, Anguilla and Indonesia.
One of my most favorite discoveries was a band from Colombia calling themselves, Tarmac.
I was quickly mesmerized by their strong Jamaican based roots presented with intensely authentic Rastafari livity.
Tarmac has recorded in Jamaican studios and performed on large global festivals along with many well known Jamaican artists. In alignment with reggae culture, in 2010, TARMAC founded an organization with socio-cultural purposes. The work was a collection of various cultural, musical, audiovisual industries that generate tools and means for transforming art and culture into a social activist movement. ( https://www.tarmacreggae.com/asociacion).
The love of diversity rang through Flamingo Cantina when Indonesian Band “Shaggy Dog” and Peruvian Band “Laguna Pai” each took the stage playing to a supercharged energetic house of dancing fans. These bands attracted international audiences from each country singing in their parent language to the same music known as Jamaican roots and culture. Bob Marley’s ONE LOVE spirit filled the house. The reality was the unique blend of native cultural sounds, ethereally evident while integrated into perfectly crafted reggae riddims, strong lyrical messages and instrumental production. I was not able to attend every reggae performance, however, here are some I was fortunate to catch.
Kim Bang Jang aka as Windy City (Korea) have been featured on the reggae circuit in the US ever since Warren Smith, producer of the well known Sierra Nevada World Music Festival introduced them a few years ago at the well established California festival. The band acknowledges reggae musically and visually, they never venture far from their tribal Korean roots creating a unique blend of mystical music that is soulful, soothing and rich in tradition.
Omari Banks, hails from Anguilla, an expert guitarist who at times was known as a world class cricket player. Not only proficient on the cricket field, Omari mastered guitar and song writing eventually turning his full attention to performing music. Omari blends a variety of beautiful guitar styles, reggae, blues, jazz and more with lyrical consciousness with special tribute to his musical father Bankie Banks.
Jovi Rockwell is solid as a rock star. Dressed in LA flavored gear, Jovi’s dancehall grooves are uniquely packaged, hot and sexy while demonstrating eloquent expertise on the guitar. Her work with Major Lazer has given her wide exposure and opened the doors for her unique freedom of expression both musically and visually. Jovi performed in several venues adding many new fans to her list of followers.
Ever since hearing the songs “These Streets” and “It’s A Pity” my desire to see Tanya Stephens ‘live and direct’ has grown in a big way. I was thrilled to see her listed on the SXSW line-up and made sure to arrive at the venue early enough to position myself for maximum viewing. The crowd went absolutely wild including two women in the front whose idolization became distracting enough for Tanya to speak up in her sassy self only adding to her musical aura. Tanya does not suffer fools easily. Looking even more forward to seeing her this year at the upcoming Sierra Nevada World Music Festival.
True Jamaican dancehall was at its finest by the Waterhouse artist Cham. Just last summer, I saw Cham in Spain at the infamous Rototom Festival in Benicassim. Cham not only played to large audience of international dancehall fans, he participated in the daytime panels educating fans from all over the world about the real side of dancehall and his mission to bring reggae music to the world. Cham’s performance at SXSW was short but excellent in execution. Dancehall has turned the corner on slackness with artists like CHAM and the evening’s featured artist, Agent Sasco (Assasin).
Agent Sasco, aka Assasin, not only gave an amazing performance to a packed house, he and I sat at his hotel for two hours the next day reasoning about reggae music, dancehall evolution, the importance of formal education, the commitment of establishing himself as a strong family figure as father and husband, the need for reggae business expertise when launching a career, the death of his mother from cancer, and his expansive reputation in the fast track due to work with Lamar Kendrick and Kanye West.
This recorded interview will be available sometime within the next year.
Other SXSW reggae artists on SXSW billing included Austin’s own Mau Mau Chaplains (amazing Texas style reggae), Desira Garcia (Trinidad and Tobago), I Grade Dub (Virgin Islands) along with Pressure Busspipe , Irie Love (Hawaii), Isasha (Trinidad and Tobago), Kranium (Jamaica), MAGIC! (Canada), Oques Grasses (Spain) and Mungo’s Hi Fi (Scotland). DJ’s included DJ Black Moses, DJ Delano Renaissance and DJ Stephen. Although, I was unable to catch all of these incredibly talented acts, I want to extend a big Austin welcome and hope they will each come again as the AUSTIN REGGAE REVIVAL continues to grow with the help of SXSW and Flamingo Cantina.