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01:00 Mon 18th Mar 2002 |

Q.� I fancy getting into reggae. Where should I begin < xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

A.� Not for nothing is Bob Marley the biggest star reggae music has ever produced. His mix of reggae history and culture, married to a commercial sensibility has seen his music single-handedly reach a world-wide audience, and his fame, both in his lifetime, and even more since his death, reach almost mythical proportions.

Q.� I know Marley has a considerable back catalogue, which album is a good introduction

A.� The first album recorded by Bob Marley And The Wailers for a commercial label�- Island Records�- is Catch A Fire, and it represents an ideal starting place for anyone looking to explore reggae and Jamaican culture in general, and the style and influence of Marley in particular.

Q.� OK, why this album

A.� At the time of recording this album in 1971, Marley was poised between being a successful Jamaican musician with an influential band, and the support and talent of the biggest producers and musicians in reggae music, and becoming a worldwide superstar, the man who brought reggae to a mass audience for the first time, and ensured its ongoing growth and influence, even after his own untimely death.

Q.� So this album is a mix of earthy early influence, and some mainstream pop polish.

A.� That just about sums it up. Marley was always ken to promote his own political views, formed from a mixture of personal experience as an illegitimate child of mixed race parents, and his absorption of Jamaican culture and history, which was based largely on the exploitation of black people.

Marley was shrewd enough to know that beating listeners over the head with hard-core political messages underpinned by equally hardcore bass-driven Jamaican reggae would not endear him or his band to their potential audience. Marley used the old adage about catching more wasps with honey than vinegar to great effect, and Catch A Fire is the album that shows how clever he was at mixing the message with the music to make an appetising collection which was welcomed with open arms by the white audiences who initially knew little and cared less about Jamaican culture, or music.

Q.� What are the standout tracks here

A.� The second side opener, song seven on the CD, is Stir It Up, a classic Marley love song. The lyrics are as little risqu�- references to Marley's intention to " ...push the wood" and " ...blaze your fire", entreating the lady to " ... keep it in baby", but it is delivered with such a hypnotic rhythm, and with such a honeyed vocal, that the combination of music and words seems to slip into the listener's ears with the lyrics seen as romance, and in no way sordid or objectionable. Peter Tosh's perfect guitar solo edges the groove even further out, and demonstrates firmly that as a band, The Wailers were far more than the men who played Bob Marley's songs�- they made the songs the powerful pieces of reggae that they were, without this band, these songs would never have sounded this good, this powerful.

Q.� What about the political message

A.� That was delivered in the first three tracks on the album�- starting with Concrete Jungle, followed by Slave Driver and 400 Years. The lyrical punch is tempered by the swirling rhythms and beautiful musicianship, but it is only ever lightly disguised, it is never obscured, and is ready and waiting for the later airings, when the words and the messages begin to make an impact.

Q.� It sounds like it could be a bit of a doomy record

A.� It could, but it isn't. How ever much the songs reflect a cultural identity that is striving to rise above its desperate beginnings, and the economic difficulties that continue to obstruct its progress in modern times, there is always an unfailing sense of optimism in Bob Marley's music, conveyed�almost entirely by the way he delivers his songs. Marley is seen as the man who can lead his people, who can tell the world what reggae and Jamaica is really about. The perfect mixture of political words and pop music make this album a firm, but gentle introduction to the real reggae sound�- a long long way from the watered down commercial sounds that the American and British record buyers had heard up until its release.

Q.� So assuming this is an essential first purchase, what should be next

A.� A second choice would be Natty Dread, one of The Wailers' most significant commercial successes, including the studio version of No Woman No Cry, which became a hit single when taken from the band's live shows at the Lyceum in London. Again, the album is a mix of love songs, and velvet and steel social comment with sinuous musical backing.

Q.� Is Bob Marley the best reggae artist ever

A.� If success is measured by the number of people worldwide who owe their knowledge and love of reggae music to an introduction by Bob Marley And The Wailers, then yes he is, but let's not forget the prodigiously talented Peter Tosh who left the band to form his own highly successful solo career. Certainly for the Catch A Fire album, this is very much a 'band project, with each member bringing individual musical skills to the melting pot. Marley may have become the figurehead and the 'front' man, but he was always keen to acknowledge the contribution made by his fellow musicians.

If you need proof, enjoy several listens to Stir It Up, and pick out each instrument in turn, and see how they work around the aural spaces that are the building blocks of reggae.�They weave around them in and out, up and down, but they never over-play and spoil the groove. Anyone who thought Jimmy Cliff's version was the definitive article is in for a pleasant surprise.

Q.� And other artists to explore

A.� Too many to mention�- Bob Marley And The Wailers are nicely poised on the middle ground,�not too hardcore and political, not too soft and poppy, just the perfect blend of both. Of course, other artists occupy the other extremes, and personal taste will indicate which you may prefer, but for a credible introduction to reggae in general, and Bob Marley in particular, this album is about as good as it gets.

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Andy Hughes

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