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One Love and Killer Rhythms in Beer City

by Jeremy Berg

Daudi Shabaka, promoter of reggae night, tells me that reggae is not currently big in the Midwest. “You could bring a semi-big reggae artist and people won’t know who they are.” Anyone who arrived at Thai Joe’s on a Tuesday night prior to 11 o’clock would see what he meant, but by 11:30 or so it’s apparent that, as he says, interest in reggae is growing in Milwaukee. The beats thud, there’s a special on Red Stripe and rum punch, and even those not on the dance floor frequently sway to the music. It may be Tuesday, but by midnight there’s a packed crowd that’s not going home anytime soon. As Shabaka says, “People are looking for something new.” They seem to have found it. Though roots reggae (think Bob Marley or Anthony B), which generally opens the evening, has not attracted a large following as of yet, dancehall, a modern, hip-hop inflected spin on the music, packs the house. Shabaka is a bigger fan of roots, but it’s all good. “If it’s got something to do with reggae, we’ll try it,” he says. Shabaka is a true fan as well a skilled promoter. He speaks knowledgeably of many styles and performers, knows the history, and his personal video collection includes performances, documentaries, and interviews, many of which were filmed by him. A true believer in the music’s one love message, he stresses that reggae night is just the first step towards building an awareness of reggae in the region. Despite what some purists say, the packed house for dancehall is doing just that. Dancehall is not merely spun by a DJ, it is performed by a sound system. Sound systems consist of several people called selectors, who make energy and enthusiasm their bywords, working the crowd and moving to the music. “They’re basically entertainers, as opposed to just standing behind the turntables,” says Shabaka. “You gotta make people feel the music,” agrees a selector in a video interview, stressing the need for a selector to have “talent and confidence.” He then jokes about putting a lot of ordinary DJs out of business after coming back from Jamaica, but the joke probably has some truth to it. The audience at Thai Joe’s is not allowed to remain standing. This is dancehall music, and you’re going to dance. Hopefully, Shabaka says, reggae’s tradition of social action will carry on as well. “A lot of white people don’t feel comfortable with a lot of black people, and that I don’t like. . .that’s the dynamics of the city more than the music. . .I think reggae is the music that can bring, and has brought, different cultures together. You go anywhere in the world and they’re playing reggae.” Shabaka points out that Mighty Crown, who are Japanese, won the award for best sound system of the year recently. The crowd is decently mixed on my second night at Thai Joe’s, and the dance floor, helped by selector’s encouragement, is jumping. Social issues seem to have been rejected in favor of dancing, which is, after all, the point. Reggae night is not going to remain at Thai Joe’s — it moved to Pure in mid-July — but it’s not leaving Milwaukee any time soon. Leorics at 2035 W Fond Du Lac is hosting a “pre-independence day” celebration for Jamaican Independence Day the weekend of Aug. 1-3, ending an Aug. 3 show with Sanchez, Flower Gon, and Tingea Steuart. Festivities begin at 5 p.m.; show begins at 9. For more info contact 342-1669 or 349-4942. Reggae Night at PURE is every Tuesday. For more info on reggae in the city, contact or 264-5261. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 8 – August 2003