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Taken from MercuryNews (Feb 23, 2006)

Reggae's universal groove


by Andrew Gilbert
Special to the Mercury News

Michael FrantiAt a concert in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, last month, Gilberto Gil decided to tap into a universal groove.

The Tropicalia hero has written literally dozens of hits; now he serves as Brazil's minister of culture. But instead of focusing on homegrown songs, Gil played a set of Bob Marley classics. Within minutes, the audience packed into the Morro da Urca theater was moving to "Positive Vibration," and then we all joined in on the refrain of "No Woman, No Cry."

The concert was a powerful reminder that reggae is a global force, and more than a quarter-century after his death at the age of 36, Marley is the music's international icon. That's exactly the point of the annual Ragga Muffins Festival, which rolls into the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium tonight, and up to San Francisco's Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on Saturday afternoon.

While the headliner at tonight's show is Jamaica's "Cool Ruler" star Gregory Isaacs, the program includes an array of reggae talent, such as the United Kingdom's Misty in Roots, German-born roots-reggae vocalist Gentleman and Santa Cruz's Soul Majestic.

"Bob Marley may be the most internationally recognized person and musician in the world," says Moss Jacobs, producer of the four-city Ragga Muffins tour. "It's not a surprise that across Europe, Africa and Japan, reggae is homegrown music. Gentleman is huge in Europe. Misty in Roots are legendary in the U.K. For us, it's fun to be able to expose Americans to the music's international scope."

No Ragga Muffins artist better captures the infinitely malleable nature of reggae than 26-year-old Matisyahu, a Hasidic Jew from West Chester, Pa., whose hit "King Without a Crown" has crossed over from alternative radio stations to mainstream outlets such as Live 105. Blending phrases of Yiddish and Hebrew with his English lyrics, Matisyahu delivers his verses in a sing-song rasta roots style that often gives way to dexterous beat-boxing and an Ashkenazi cantorial wail.

As unlikely as Matisyahu might seem, he brings a spiritual consciousness to his music that's "completely harmonious with the essential nature of reggae," Jacobs says. "That's one reason why reggae appeals to all shapes and colors. It's a stimulating, spiritually charged form of music that reaches across age, color and economic strata."

Another element in reggae's widespread appeal can be found in Marley's enduring, defiant call for social justice. That's the message that first caught the attention of Michael Franti, who performs with his group Spearhead on Saturday at the Bill Graham Civic. The San Francisco program also features Matisyahu, Gregory Isaacs, Gentleman, Misty in Roots, Dezarie and Marley's former band the Wailers.

Franti vividly recalls the first time he heard Marley's music on the radio, as a 13-year-old in 1980. The song was "Coming in From the Cold" from the classic album "Uprising," and the anti-war message imprinted itself deeply on his consciousness.

" `Would you let the system/ Make you kill your brother man?' " Franti says, quoting from the lyric. "I was so moved by that."

While Franti (who also headlines the "Santa Cruz Dayz" show Friday at that city's Civic Auditorium, on a triple bill with guitarist Keller Williams and the female percussion ensemble Goddess Funk) has been a leader among politically engaged progressive musicians since he co-founded the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy in the early 1990s, he has also found inspiration in Marley's romantic side.

"He wasn't afraid to write songs about how much he loved his girlfriend and put them next to songs about standing up and fighting," Franti says. "I think that's the single most important thing I've taken from Marley. I want to write about the full rainbow of human emotions, not just anger and politics."

Like Jacobs, Franti sees Marley as the era's transcendent musical figure, an artist whose message has reached every corner of the globe. More than charisma, love and justice, he credits Marley's irresistibly loping groove as the ultimate source of his appeal.

"In America we're taught that Elvis is the king of rock, and the Beatles are the princes," Franti says. "But as you travel the world, it's Bob Marley who's the icon of popular music. You can dance to every song; that's the thing that made his music so universal."

Ragga Muffins Festival

Where: Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St.

When: 7 tonight

Tickets: $25-$30

Call: (831) 420-5260, or see www.raggamuffinsfestival.com/

Also: 3 p.m. Saturday, Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, 99 Grove St., San Francisco, $39.50-$45, (408) 998-9497, www.raggamuffinsfestival.com/


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