"What do you think this is?" Casee, master of ceremonies for the evening, barked incredulously into the mic as he paced the stage. "Why are you all sitting down? This is not a classical concert! We are not playing Tchaikovsky! This is reggae music!"
Chanting down Babylon is always more effective en masse. On the final night of a six-week cross-country tour, the King of Kings Family package from Jamaica didn't expect a sedate crowd of well-dressed but passive island immigrants and a boisterous but miniscule contingent of bouncy, twirling Caucasifarians. But Sunday nights at Fort Lauderdale's Baja Beach Club, though slowly improving in terms of attendance, tend to suffer from low energy levels. It is a school night, after all, and working stiffs may have early Monday-morning deadlines, but do they have to act so stiff?
The problem is compounded by the sheer size of Baja, an airplane hangar-cum-frat-boy beer hall that still bears the scars of the week's most recent putsch; even when the area in front of the stage is full of bodies, spectators in the rest of the room still may as well be stepping around stalagmites.
But the four-and-a-half-hour stream of consciousness that ran through Baja November 25 should have appealed to more than 100 people in a town stuffed with Jamaican-bred residents. Likewise, it may have been the lackluster turnout the previous Sunday that caused the members of Black Uhuru to look as if they'd rather not be in the room at all. Though new vocalist Andrew Bees busted some exuberant moves and his buoyant voice pierced the gloom, he joined Duckie Simpson and crew in projecting dour, sour looks and offering the crowd not one word throughout a strong set that still seemed lopped off at the end. After "Sinsemilla," the band was done -- no "good night," no encore, nut'n.
The reggae royalty in the house, Sly and Robbie, didn't appear to be having a bad time. But the legendary "riddim section" may have confused the crowd: Sly Dunbar has retired from the drum kit, preferring to play less-strenuous keyboards and rhythm generators. Robbie Shakespeare flashed a mischievous grin as he swirled his hips like a butter churn, coaxing a sub-cellar rumble from his five-string bass.
On the following Sunday, Simpson's stepson ran the boards for the King of Kings Family show as the performers dug in early (well, 11 p.m.) and prepared for battle. The Grassroots Band remained in position the entire night as a succession of five vocalists paraded past them. Young, gifted, slit-skirted sister Nikki Burt kicked off the groove with a short, sweet set of covers (the dancehall version of Sade's "Lover's Rock" worked perfectly); after she was finished priming the crowd, she took her place next to another female singer and blended into the background.
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Smooth singer Colin Levy (who uses the name Iley Dread) championed loverman soul, riding some stock riddims to create his own original blend of romantic ode and praises to Emperor Selassie, finishing with a version of the Temptations' "Don't Look Back" (via Peter Tosh and Mick Jagger's duet). Chrisinti, bringing rootsiness to the fore, flirted with dancehall and old-school using his high, unusually strong voice. Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come" elicited a murmur of recognition from the crowd, but applause ebbed, flowed, and faded so quickly that the big space seemed to get even bigger during the silences. His incendiary "Bumba Klaat" finally managed to rouse yawning patrons out of slumber.
Norris Man (born Christopher Campbell) was next, pumping a half-hour of rub-a-dub R&B. With patois that verged on indecipherable (well, to Bandwidth, anyway), Norris Man projected a noncounterfeit spiritual awareness to transcend any vestige of bravado. In fact, his Persistence album is a winner, if a bit of a depressing one: A childhood in a Trenchtown ghetto is fairly tough to romanticize.
Pitch-shifting vocals made headliner Bushman probably the weakest offering of the night in terms of technical singing, but his paeans to Jah Rastafari and the horticultural gifts of the earth were the most dramatic. In fact, when he did rail against Babylon, he took care to offer a healthy alternative: "There's only one solution," he shouted in "Robbery Aggravation," a sharp stick in the eye of oppressors everywhere. "Become a Rastafari!"
Short of that lifestyle change, it's at least the time of year to align oneself with some popular Rastafarian traditions. With commitment, clarity, consciousness, and conviction in such ample quantities, no wonder Jamaican performers seem embarrassed or angry to perform to such impassive audiences. Instead of looking out to see the crowd moving like a millipede on its back, we probably most resemble an inverted palmetto bug. This had better change as more acts from the island stream north: Johnny Dread visits December 9, ScrewDriver December 16, Mikey Spice, Fiona, and the 506 Crew on December 23, and Third World on December 30. An unbeatable assortment, but if response doesn't amp up soon...