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In 1978, England's unemployment soared to new heights as railroad and coal-mining strikes paralyzed the economy. Birmingham's disenfranchised youth gathered at church dances where DJs played the latest Jamaican reggae and at blues dances throughout the city and at uptown clubs such as the Rainbow and the Mecca Ballroom. That same year, a band formed in Birmingham, calling itself UB40 a reference to a British unemployment form. In Jamaica, meanwhile, a producer named Tony Johnson revolutionized the reggae world with the inaugural Reggae Sunsplash. This Thursday, both are arriving in the United States, kicking off a nationwide tour in West Palm Beach.
In the late '70s, few Jamaican venues hired homegrown reggae musicians to play in their own country. Johnson, now deceased, had a vision to bring the music back home and to fuel tourism in Jamaica. Festival co-producer Toby Ludwig worked closely with Johnson in 1985 when Reggae Sunsplash first came to the States. A year after Johnson's death on Memorial Day 1997 the festival paid tribute to its founder at L.A.'s Greek Theatre. However, the festival has remained on hiatus for the past eight years. Until now.
"It's important for me to continue my father's legacy," says Johnson's son, T.J., on the phone from California, where he and his mother run the U.S. Reggae Sunsplash. The owner of Reggae Sunsplash International, Kenny Benjamin, has run the festival in Jamaica since 1996.
"I have a new vision for Reggae Sunsplash in the U.S.," Johnson says. It's an all-inclusive vision. Johnson wants Sunsplash to be for people of all ages a true family affair.
"My father truly believed in uniting the world through music," Johnson says. "I want to preserve everything about it. I want to champion his spirit and the fact that we don't have any artists on it that are degrading women. It's just about great reggae music and culture."
But the festival's not just straight-up reggae. With a lineup that includes Maxi Priest, Toots & the Maytals, and Third World as well as newcomer Rik Rok there's a heavy pop and R&B element as well. And that's what makes UB40 a fitting headliner.
Best-known for its cover of Neil Diamond's "Red Red Wine," UB40 has been carrying the reggae riddims for nearly 30 years. But there's one thing that's fueled the group's fire, and it's not wine it's the fact that political realities haven't gotten any prettier over the decades. Starting with its huge U.K. hit, "One in Ten," UB40 blasted Margaret Thatcher's policies that put so many people on the dole in late '70s. Thatcher may be long gone from the halls of power, but UB40's hands are fuller than ever, topically speaking. The band is now busy blasting the Blair and Bush administrations for their roles in the breakdown of infrastructure and political stability in Iraq. It's an issue UB40 felt strongly about, enough so that the band named its latest CD Who You Fighting For?
"It's just our question about the reasons for going to war," UB40 bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Earl Falconer says of the album's title track.
You'd never know it from their sound, but UB40 is composed mainly of white, working-class Brits, with ancestors hailing from Yemen, Jamaica, Scotland, and Ireland. Falconer's Jamaican parents arrived in Birmingham to answer a shortage of British male workers during World War II. Poverty in Jamaica sparked the influx of cheap labor into Great Britain at the time. But labor wasn't all these immigrants brought to the British Isles Jamaican music was that country's chief cultural export. By the 1960s, Jamaican R&B and ska was as welcome as its work force. And so was the style known as "blue beat," named after Blue Beat Records, one of the main labels releasing Caribbean roots music in the United Kingdom at the time. A young Falconer eagerly took in all of it.
"I was brought up on blue beat and ska, and then obviously I got into reggae," he says. "When I went to secondary school, I met [bandmates] Ali [Campbell], Brian [Travers] and Jimmy [Brown]. I was always into Peter Tosh and Bob Marley. It was a common denominator for us."
Of course, American music factored into the equation too. UB40 found success with more than just a Neil Diamond cover; Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love" and Al Green's "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)" as well as the band's own "One in Ten" have made the octet one of the most successful white reggae bands of its era. Despite the band's obvious star power, Falconer is honored to be welcomed on the Sunsplash tour.
"It's the mecca of reggae music," Falconer says. "It's the biggest reggae festival in the world. It's like paying homage to the home of reggae music."