LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Reggae music and the island of Jamaica - they seem inseparable. But lately, a crop of artists from places like Hawaii, California, parts of Europe are proving that hit reggae music can come from anywhere. In the process, they're raising some complex questions about culture and ownership. Baz Dreisinger reports.
BAZ DREISINGER, BYLINE: Quick - which of these songs is by a Jamaican act? This one?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S DO IT AGAIN")
J BOOG: (Singing) Nice to, nice to know ya, let's do it again. How we did it on a one-night stand...
DREISINGER: Or this one?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DUNG A BABYLON")
ALBOROSIE: (Singing) We're moving down a Babylon. We're moving down a Babylon, and we no fear no one...
DREISINGER: The answer is neither. The first is by Hawaiian artist J Boog; the second by Alborosie, who hails from Sicily. Both belong to a generation of reggae artists with two things in common: they're not from the birthplace of reggae music and they are enormously successful. Neil Robertson is head of touring and live events for reggae label VP Records:
NEIL ROBERTSON: In Europe, they're all playing, you know, festivals 30-40,000 thousand people. On club gigs, they're all playing between a thousand and 4,000 people a night, you know what I mean? There's hardly anybody out of Jamaica that's drawing that kind of a crowd.
DREISINGER: One European who can is Alberto D'Ascola, known as Alborosie. He became the first white artist to be distributed by Bob Marley's label, Tuff Gong. Alborosie discovered reggae at age 14 and eventually moved to Jamaica, where he picked up local Patois.
ALBOROSIE: It was love at first sight. A bredren gave me a Bob Marley cassette and I said to myself, wow, this is my music; this is what I want to do.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLLING LIKE A ROCK")
ALBOROSIE: (Singing) I'm rolling like a rock. Please step away. Rolling like a rock. Don't get in my way. Rolling like a rock. Boom-shock-a-lock. Rolling like rock. Me not take no talk...
DREISINGER: This summer, he released his third album. But he says being embraced by the Jamaican music scene did not come easily.
ALBOROSIE: Culturally, I still have many things to do to get accepted. I'm always a white man in Jamaica, so I try to move around and respect everybody.
DREISINGER: But why should we respect these non-Jamaican acts? What makes them more than just lame imitations that some call Jafaicans? Neil Robertson has an answer.
ROBERTSON: The musicianship, especially in Europe, France and the U.K. as well - I mean, these are top flight musicians in their own right. The skill level has gone to a next level. It's going to take a lot for, let's say, acts from Jamaica now to compete with these other acts.
DREISINGER: Robertson, who ran Alborosie's first U.S. tour, is prepping the American debut of German artist Gentleman, who's so popular internationally we might call him the Eminem of reggae.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTOXICATION")
GENTLEMAN: (Singing) There is no faking, no heartbreaking, and like a piano, this is a true love is taking on. In terms of caring, we are partaking, (unintelligible) in a making, yeah.
DREISINGER: On our shores, Hawaii and California are the biggest breeding grounds for reggae. iTunes even bestowed its 2010 Best Reggae Album title not on a Jamaican, but on the debut from Hawaiian band The Green.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROOTSIE ROOTS")
THE GREEN: (Singing) He always kick it up at the corner store. She don't wait for anyone anymore. Always cool when she step out the store, the one you want when the rain come call.
DREISINGER: Non-Jamaican artists like The Green often create musical hybrids, blending reggae with rock and pop. Ziggi Recado was born in Holland to a Dutch father and mother from the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius. He says non-Jamaican reggae sounds distinct.
ZIGGI RECADO: Jamaican artists are very much influenced by each other, so everything coming out of there has that real Jamaican vibe. Being in Europe, you get so much of different influences. I live in Amsterdam so I deal with all kind of different people. My band members are from Suriname and Curacao and the Ivory Coast. So, you get, I think, a broader range of vibes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET OUT")
RECADO: (Singing) I like the apartment, she loves the villa, I like rum, she don't drink liquor. I like to boil, she loves to simmer. I like licks, she loves (unintelligible), I'm a werewolf (unintelligible). I'm on Facebook, she's on Twitter...
DREISINGER: The globalization of reggae incites a familiar debate around cultural politics. From jazz to rock to hip-hop, white artists have negotiated the thorny boundaries of performing in a genre they didn't invent. Sicily-born Alborosie says he needed to go to Jamaica and talk the talk.
ALBOROSIE: When I reach there I said, hi, my name is Alberto. So I learned Patois. I don't speak English. Right now, to me, it's very difficult talking to you and try to make it sound proper. When I am amongst people, they don't come to me, say oh, what's up, man, you know what I'm saying? They say yo, wha a g'wan, mi brother. Yeah, I'm a dey-a, you know? Everything all right. Yeah, I'm a dey-a, good. Later, seen. So, that is my language besides Italian.
DREISINGER: But JP Kennedy, lead singer of The Green, has never been to Jamaica, doesn't speak Patois or see why artists like him ought to.
JP KENNEDY: Non-Jamaicans doing it? I don't really know, you know. Like, if they can pull it off, I guess it's kind of cool. But if I was a Jamaican, I'd probably be kind of against hearing fake stuff like that 'cause I know that when I hear people trying to speak, you know, Pidgin or Hawaiian slang, like it's a turnoff to hear people that don't naturally speak it speak it.
DREISINGER: As for the Jamaican artists, here's reggae singer Freddie McGregor on the vexed issue of cultural theft.
FREDDIE MCGREGOR: They are not stealing. Reggae can't be stolen. Reggae is ours. They are not denying that they are in love with what we do and is trying to do it too. No, no problem with that. There are lots of bands that I work with outside of Jamaicans who are great reggae musicians - Japan in particular. So, you know, it's just music and the love of it. And whoever plays it, mon, or whoever sings it, it's a blessing.
DREISINGER: But others worry that when it comes to the bottom line, Jamaican artists are losing. Japan, for instance, has long been a big market for Jamaican music, but these days local Japanese reggae acts outsell most visiting Jamaican artists. That frustrates Jamaican dancehall deejay Demarco.
DEMARCO: What I want to see is the reggae artists in Jamaica make the same amount of money like American would do our music and they will sell millions. But we can't sell millions? I don't understand that. I think we are probably doing something wrong.
DREISINGER: Maybe it's simply easier for fans to embrace homegrown versions of a foreign music. Christoffer Mannix Schlarb, A&R rep for VP Records and CEO of Dub Shot Records, is taking it one step further. He's working on an album called "Dub Rockers," which pairs Jamaican artists like I Wayne and Eek a Mouse with non-Jamaican ones like SOJA and Rebelution.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GANJA SMUGGLIN")
EEK A MOUSE AND THE EXPENDABLES: (Singing) (unintelligible) it was a big ganja (unintelligible) me nah know them dung up and down. One by one, gonna (unintelligible) African and the (unintelligible)...
CHRISTOFFER MANNIX SCHLARB: Basically, the idea is showcasing what from our viewpoint is authentic imitation reggae, I guess. You know, I guess that's kind of an oxymoron but it's like that's really what it is.
DREISINGER: So, in the end, maybe it's this simple: if you can't beat them, join them.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DREISINGER: For NPR News, I'm Baz Dreisinger.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.