In 1973, music aficionado Roger Steffens stumbled upon this line in a Rolling Stone piece written by Australian gonzo journalist Michael Thomas: “Reggae music crawls into your bloodstream like some vampire amoeba from the psychic rapids of upper Niger consciousness.”
Those words set something off inside of Steffens, who would become one of the world’s best-known reggae archivists. “I said, ‘I don’t know what the heck that means, but I got to find out right now.’ I went out right away and bought a used copy of [Bob Marley and the Wailers’] Catch a Fire, and the next night I saw the film The Harder They Come, bought the soundtrack on the way home, and I’ve been on a reggae trot ever since.”
It’s the trot that led to him becoming one of music’s great historians, a keeper of some of reggae music’s most important and treasured memories. The passion Steffens has for reggae music oozes through our conversation as we discuss how this music, indigenous to the tiny island of Jamaica, seeped out and made its way across the world. “It came at the right time, internationally, in ’73,” says Steffens. “A lot of us at that time were looking for a music that had the rebellious spirit of the 1960s combined with the great doo-wop melodies of the ’50s, and that was reggae.”
The secret of reggae music may be lurking just underneath the surface, subconsciously elevating the minds of people everywhere. “Its secret is that it is the beat of the healthy human heart at rest. So it has a visceral effect on people even if they don’t understand the language. It grabs ahold of you. When young people realize that it’s the music of rebellion, they’re doubly attracted to it,” says Steffens.
“And the fact that the music is so much different than pop music because it’s a music of a movement, what Bob [Marley] called ‘the movement of Jah people.’ It is music for the ages. It’s music that elevates the spirit that calls you to a higher level. It’s ‘the New Psalms’ as Bob’s art director, Neville Garrick, said.”
Indeed, no other figure towers over his genre the way Bob Marley does over reggae. Marley is synonymous not just with reggae music, but also with freedom, peace and love. Steffens speaks with reverence of the legend whose memory he has spent years documenting and preserving. “He’s all things to all people,” says Steffens. “He was just someone who was so attractive physically, so compelling spiritually, such a beautiful melody writer and such a compelling performer. Half the time he was in a trance — he was channelling Jah. You saw the spirit of God when you saw Bob Marley at his best.”
Steffens is continuing his mission to educate the masses on the power of Marley’s work by travelling with the current incarnation of the Wailers as they tour an oft-overlooked but still very important album in Marley’s catalogue, Survival. Steffens begins each show by placing Survival in a historical context for the audience. “My part of the show is spoken word. They wanted me to explain to people how important the Survival album is in Bob’s work and to explain the lyrics so when people are hearing it, they know what Bob’s intention was. It’s very much about African liberation and human transformation — identifying the oppressor, the means by which [the oppressor] oppressed people and how to solve that. Every song is filled with a lesson.”
While some people may be understandably skeptical about going to see the Bob Marley-less Wailers, Steffens is quick to assuage those fears. “First of all, they’re going to hear an album live that the Wailers never played live. Bob did very few of the tracks in his last two years from that album, very few. So you’ll never hear the album played live again after this tour. Secondly, the second half of the show is [Marley’s] greatest hits.”
As if that isn’t assurance enough, Steffens says the musicians keeping the Wailers tradition alive are top notch. “They’ve got Keith Sterling, the keyboardist from Peter Tosh’s band, and when you’ve got Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett (co-composer of many of the Wailers’ most famous anthems) and Sterling in the band, you’ve got a band that’s going to get you up on your feet, dancing and singing along. You’re going to leave feeling like you’ve seen something really memorable.”
The Wailers plus Roger Steffens
Feb. 22 @ 6 p.m.
Club 9One9 (919 Douglas St.)