A Beat Spreads
By AVI SALZMAN
Published: December 7, 2003
New York Times
Philip E. Mitchell, a disc jockey in Hartford, was standing near the stage before the
beginning of a reggae concert earlier this month at the West Indian Social Club in Hartford
drinking occasionally from a small bottle filled with a roots tonic. A multi-generational
crowd lined the walls of the concert hall, some holding flags and chatting as they waited
for Sizzla, an international reggae star, to perform. There was only one word to describe
Mr. Mitchell's mood: irie, the Jamaican word for feeling all right. In Hartford, reggae has
found a home and that makes him smile.
"Through the 70's it was a rough sell," Mr. Mitchell said. "You would go down the street
and people would say 'Turn that reggae music off.' But now, you go down the street and
every car is playing reggae."
It's not Kingston, Jamaica, nor is it New York or Miami, but Hartford is most definitely a
reggae town. In the last three decades, Hartford has become one of the hubs of the
country's reggae market as the West Indian population has increased, more clubs have
concerts and more of the top performers make Hartford a must stop on their tours. In
September, a reggae show for the first time got its own time slot on a local FM station.
The music is even reaching beyond the city into suburban bars and restaurants where
musicians said the white audience is stronger than ever.
"Whenever an artist goes on tour, there are certain spots where an artist goes to, and
Hartford is one of them," said Kingsley Stewart, an anthropology professor at the
University of the West Indies in Jamaica, who specializes in dance hall culture. "It is
quite common for hundreds and even thousands of dance hall and reggae enthusiasts to make
long trips from various East Coast cities to Hartford to attend a variety of reggae and
dance hall events. It is unquestionable that for thousands of fans, Hartford figures
prominently in the bloodstream of reggae and dance hall music and culture."
Reggae's roots in Connecticut are in Hartford's West Indian population. As of 2000, 10,114
people in Hartford identified themselves as West Indian, up from 9,168 in 1990, according
to the Census Bureau. In 2000, the vast majority of West Indians, 8,293, were Jamaican, and
the balance was made up of people from virtually every other island in the Caribbean.
Much of the West Indian population lives in the northern part of the city. The community
spreads north from Hartford to towns including Windsor and Bloomfield. Throughout
Connecticut, 52,977 people identified themselves as West Indian, up from 32,083 in 1990.
There was a big influx of West Indians to the Hartford area during the 1940's, when
companies encouraged West Indian workers, mainly from Jamaica, to come to the area to work
in the tobacco fields north of the city.
That is how Sidney Barrett got to Hartford in 1944. Mr. Barrett, now 88, found out about
the jobs after he finished a stint working at the Panama Canal from 1940 to 1944.
"People told me the best place to come was Connecticut," he said.
Working in the tobacco fields was grueling, and Mr. Barrett remembered sleeping on a
plastic bag filled with straw on his first night at the work site. But, he slowly
accumulated money and friends, married an American and found a home in Hartford. In 1950,
Mr. Barrett helped found the West Indian Social Club with 20 other men in the basement of a
church. That club has grown in size and influence. The deputy mayor of Hartford, Veronica
Airey Wilson, used to be president of the club. The current president, Andrew Lawrence, is
a detective with the Hartford Police Department.
Mr. Barrett didn't just lay the groundwork for the social club. He was also a musician,
playing old-time calypso in the band "Sid Barrett's and His Caribbean Syncopateds." Then,
as now, the music helped bring the community together.
"I saw there was a need for it," he said. "We've got a lot of West Indians here. When we
came here it was only jazz. I dance to jazz, but we needed something from our background."
Donald Minott, a Hartford reggae musician, used to listen to calypso when he was growing up
in Jamaica. But it didn't inspire him in the same way as reggae.
Mr. Minott, 50, was born in Kingston and moved to Hartford in 1986. He sings songs that
often have political messages. Mr. Minott's musical inspirations include both Bob Marley
and Phil Collins, attesting to the strong crossover appeal and diverse roots of reggae.
Blues and bluegrass influenced Mr. Minott at least as much as calypso. In Connecticut, he
said, his style often appeals more to white people than to West Indians.
"They're scared to come into the inner cities, but if you take the reggae into their town,
they support you," he said. "I think you get better support among the white folks than
among the West Indians. The West Indians only support you when you're a superstar."
To gain credibility with the West Indian community in Hartford, artists generally have to
make it in Jamaica first. That's the only way the one reggae star bred in the city, Chuck
Fender, was able to succeed on a national scale.
But Connecticut's white community has no such litmus test. Since the days when Bob Marley
hit the pop charts, reggae has appealed to all sorts of audiences, inspiring white college
students to grow their hair into dreadlocks or hang Marley posters on their dorm room
walls. That interest has only grown.
Smaller music clubs and restaurants in Connecticut have capitalized on reggae's growing
popularity. Mr. Minott has played at numerous suburban clubs where the audience is
primarily white, including at 41 Degrees North in Mystic.
"There's a universal ear for it," said Jude Tostanoski, 26, a waiter, cook and bartender at
41 Degrees North, which presents reggae bands from Connecticut and elsewhere every Friday.
He said the crowd at the bar/restaurant's reggae concerts is racially diverse and crosses
"It makes for a great ambience down here," he said.
The Realto Cafe in Middletown, which has a similarly diverse clientele, recently decided to
hire its first reggae band.
"We see that there's a lot of people out there who want to hear it," said Carlton McCalla,
co-owner of the cafe.
D.J.'s are the messengers of the expanding reggae scene. College radio stations had
virtually been the only outlet in the state for reggae D.J.'s. But now, two D.J.'s in
Hartford have a new 50,000-watt forum. In September, Hot 93.7, a hip hop station in
Hartford, decided to try a reggae show on Sunday nights from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., becoming
the first FM radio station in Hartford to hire reggae D.J.'s. The station hired two young
Hartford men, "Lex and Trevor," who had learned their trade at their high school radio
Alex (Lex) Campbell, 24, born in Jamaica, comes across as self-assured and engaging in his
glasses and leather jacket. When asked about his career, he said jokingly, "What career?"
but quickly acknowledged the significance of his new job.
"We all knew it could happen, but I didn't think it would happen to this magnitude and this
swiftness," Mr. Campbell said.
The music the duo plays is almost strictly "dance hall," a bass-heavy double-time form of
reggae that melds well with hip hop. At various times over the last two decades, reggae
artists have made it to Top 40 radio, but the current wave of stars, including Sean Paul
and Shaggy, has catapulted the genre to new heights.
Tim Collins, program director for Hot 93.7, said the station, which is owned by the
Infinity Broadcasting Corporation, decided to capitalize on the growing reggae scene in the
city and surrounding areas. The station reaches north as far as Massachusetts and south
into Long Island. Since the show debuted, it has gotten rave reviews. Mr. Collins said
advertisers have noticed the show and want spots during the reggae time slot.
"It was a success; the phones were crazy," he said. "People reacted really well. It
should've happened a long time ago. The majority of the phone calls are West Indians
saying: 'We really needed this. It's about time.' "
Mr. Collins said the station recognized the strength of the local music community and the
increasing crossover appeal of reggae music.
"Reggae is more mainstream than ever right now," he said.
It's a landmark that other D.J.'s see as especially significant. One popular local D.J.,
Rohan Long, even remembers the date Lex and Trevor went on the air, as if it were his
daughter's birthday. But he is also worried about the implications of the music's newfound
"Once you try to change the 'naturality' of the music, then you lose something," Mr. Long
said. "You're trying to change to please someone else. To your culture, it's kind of
Mr. Long is an accountant at the Hebrew Home and Hospital in West Hartford by day, but on
Saturday nights on 91.3 WWUH, the University of Hartford's radio station, he's DJ Magnum.
To the untrained ear, his patter between songs is virtually unintelligible. He speaks
quickly and in a Jamaican patois, peppering his English phrases with homegrown dialect. One
of his favorite terms is "It gusso now," which essentially means, "It goes like this."
In some ways, he has fought for this dialect. "I got jumped because I spoke the way I did,"
Despite his reservations, Mr. Long is excited about reggae's growth.
"The exposure alone has just been phenomenal," he said. "Just basically the listenership
and the responses that it's gotten from the white audience. A lot of different ethnic
groups are playing it. It's getting to where we've been hoping it will go."
The promoter Ardie Wallace's cell phone bill was a good indicator of the burgeoning reggae
scene. Until he signed onto a plan that allowed him unlimited minutes, he regularly paid at
least $3,000 a month for his phone calls. It literally rings every 10 minutes, and the
distraction has become a normal part of his conversations.
Mr. Wallace began his reggae career as a singer, and even opened for such reggae superstars
as Peter Tosh. It was Mr. Tosh who first told him in the early 1980's that he should be a
Like many West Indians, Mr. Wallace's father, Ken, was a migrant worker, spending part of
the year in Jamaica and part of the year in the United States. He first came here in 1953,
and eventually brought his son back with him in the early 1980's. Ardie Wallace has since
raised four children, all of whom are featured on his latest reggae album.
Mr. Wallace sees the shift in reggae's popularity in the kinds of places reggae promoters
are now able to book. National acts generally play at Toad's Place in New Haven and the
West Indian Social Club in Hartford, but have recently filled even bigger places.
"When reggae reaches into the Hartford Civic Center that's a blasting point right there,''
he said. "Five years ago you couldn't see reggae there."
He is convinced that Hartford is a vital center of the reggae world.
"Every day I meet a new artist, they want to play Hartford," he said. "The Hartford scene
is definitely the roots. It's the next New York City when it comes to reggae music."
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