Words by Erin Hansen
Photos by Peter Simon
Reggae Scrapbook is a comprehensive visual encyclopedia of reggae music history from one the genre’s chief archivists, Roger Steffens, and one of its best-known photographers, Peter Simon. Along with articles and interviews from Steffens’ The Beat magazine (started with CC Smith in 1982), Scrapbook compiles stories and memorabilia from his extensive personal collection– the largest collection of reggae recordings, literature and memorabilia in the world– and Simon’s decades worth of imagery. Originally published in 2007, the book has been reissued in an expanded version released last week through San Rafael, California-based Insight Editions.
Glimpses of intimate stories with Jamaican artists are retold by Steffens, extolling the colorful rise of reggae music to international popularity. Simon shares a collection of his photographs from time spent in Jamaica—everything from the urban struggles of city life in Kingston to the soothing and picturesque landscapes of Jamaica’s countryside.
There are also recollections of personal experiences, offering nostalgic snapshots from the authors’ trips to Kingston, as they ventured deeper into the culture of reggae music, likely further than any other foreign fans at the time. Peter Simon reminisces, “I’ll never forget the time in 1976, when I was coaxed into buying the ‘next big thing’ by a stoned-out guy behind the counter, an obscure single by a ‘new’ group called the Mighty Diamonds, called ‘Right Time.’ Little did I know.”
The most intriguing storylines in the book have a more bizarre flavor. A chronology offers a mystic glimpse of a very young Marley who is reported by locals to have a special ability to retell a person’s life story by looking at their hands. Equally unusual, Bunny Wailer is said to have predicted the young death of producer Leslie Kong based on the latter’s insistence on naming the Wailers’ first reggae album, The Best of the Wailers. By prematurely calling the album a “Best of,” Kong was in effect shortening his own career and life as a producer, Wailer claimed. Kong died soon after of a heart attack at 38.
Scrapbook also chronicles the occasional mental illness that plagued some iconic creatives like the Skatalites’ Don Drummond and singer Slim Smith from the Techniques. Music producer Winston Riley, then explaining how one day Smith became mentally ill and his illness progressed rapidly: “Slim get mad in his sleep, get up and get mad and just start thump out the glass [in his doors] and just lay there and bleed to death.”
The recollections from artists are a reminder that, despite all the romanticism around reggae music, life was extremely difficult for many artists even as the genre became internationally celebrated. There are countless storylines in which an artist is never paid for a record that topped the charts and the continual discontent between artists and record labels. In a daunting fable from Gregory Isaacs the feeling of distrust is metaphorically conveyed. Isaacs coveys a childish fable, “The Little Lad and the Crocodile,” with a dark message that “badness always repay kindness.” The artist himself shared this tale with his children during his time in prison.
For all the distress and distrust there are great moments in the book that are at times humorous and joyous. Roy Shirley was one of the groundbreaking artists when he released “Hold Them” in 1966. The artist was also known for theatrics: “His one-of-kind wavery vocal technique, coupled with his wacky stage shenanigans (during live shows, he often wore a Ming the Merciless cape and writhed across the boards on his back), mark him as a truly unique voice – and performer– in Jamaican music.” It’s heartwarming to realize that the sort of theatrics seen at today’s dancehall stage shows, such as Sting, can be traced as far back as 1966 when a young Roy Shirley was parading around a stage in a villainous costume with a cape.
The bulk of the visually intriguing Scrapbook centers around the coming of age of reggae music from its roots in Ska to its rising popularity through the international presence of Bob Marley, likely the strongest portions of Steffens and Simon’s archives. It does attempt to bring the reader to the present with brief sections on the rise of dancehall and the heritage movements of the children of reggae’s forefathers but it doesn’t attempt to analyze too deeply the current trends in Jamaican music, an area the authors aren’t particularly in tune with. For that I am grateful. It prevents any grand assumptions about the future of reggae music and makes for a more detailed archive about an era in Jamaican history that the world is undoubtedly fascinated with.