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Worldwide Vibe

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Think Globally: Berkeley's Global Echo brings a reggae sound rich with diverse influences to the RAW '99 Festival on Friday.

A reggae conference and showcase brings lots of jah music to San Jose

By Nicky Baxter

TIME WAS THAT trying to get the reggae community into one room at one time to discuss the issues affecting the music was about as futile as trying to get a reggae show started on time. Seeking to improve the image and profile of the music by bringing together artists, DJs, concert promoters and marketing and publicity officers, Reggae Ambassadors Worldwide (RAW) is sponsoring a four-day conference and showcase to spread its message of unity and to promote the reggae cause.

The international consortium, with members in 54 countries and 48 states in the United States, is nothing if not ambitious. The conference's media spokesperson, Mary Kirk, says RAW was founded seven years ago "after a chance conversation between [reggae enthusiast] Papa Pilgrim and [writer/reggae booster] Roger Steffens. They talked about a need for a networking forum to promote reggae." The primary mechanism for communicating issues and concerns, it was decided, would be the Internet.

Reggae Ambassadors Worldwide's objectives are disarmingly simple, Kirk says: "We want to forward reggae music and the reggae vibe." Kirk's interest in RAW was piqued by the intense dedication of the group's membership. "I was amazed at the generosity of the people involved," she enthuses.

The Hyatt Sainte Claire in downtown San Jose will host the conference, which is slated for August 19-22. This year's theme is "One World--One Rhythm." Panel discussions on reggae music and related subjects will be conducted by a vast assembly of speakers, including Dr. Dread, CEO of RAS records, perhaps the most influential label of its kind. Dread, the keynote speaker, will provide an overview of reggae's history and current state. Marketing expert Evan Reiffel will discuss reggae and the Internet. One of the more intriguing talks will be offered by ethnomusicologist Jah Breeze, who will address Rastafari ideology in reggae music and culture.

A primary aim of the conference, Kirk notes, "is to bring reggae into the mainstream, making it more commercially popular." RAW '99 also hopes to put the spotlight on original, lesser-known artists. "People are used to headliners," Kirk says, "but we wanted to showcase professional acts that deserve a wider audience."

Those acts, which include bands from around the country as well as locally based performers, will get plenty of exposure at host venues Club Ibex and Waves Smokehouse & Saloon in downtown San Jose. Sixteen bands will perform at showcase concerts planned for Saturday and Sunday. Of those, Kwama, Global Echo and Dr. Cosmo can be expected to ratchet up the skank level several notches with tight, turbulent riddims and uplifting messages.

The Ghanaian-born, Oakland-based Kwama Thompson grew up singing along with pop groups that ranged from the Beatles to the Jackson Five in the 1960s. When the '70s rolled around, recordings by Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin became permanent fixtures on her turntable. Shortly after her immigration to North America, Kwama was asked to join Sounds of Gumbe, a band that specialized in Ghanaian music. The 12-member ensemble toured and performed around New York and the surrounding area.

By the time the unit had switched its name to Gumbe Sounds, Kwama was ensconced as lead singer. On the side, she began studying the styles of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, incorporating their legendary sounds into her musical lexicon. A jaunt to Hawaii to study solar energy eventually led to a seven-year stint with the North American Bush Band (NABB). With the band now on hiatus, the singer has her sights on a solo recording project. Kwama performs on Saturday, Aug. 21, at Waves.

Berkeley's Global Echo lives up to its name. Bassist and vocalist Eric "Mano" Dawes, lead guitarist Katsumi Asazawa and rhythm guitarist/lead vocalist Ed Gordon were once known as I-World, a highly popular San Francisco area act. Last year saw a name change and the addition of two other members. Global Echo makes no bones about its allegiance to reggae, but it is also inspired by jazz, blues and even hip-hop. Such diverse tastes make Global Echo a singular outfit. Global Echo will perform Friday, Aug. 20, at Club Ibex.

Growing up in Jamaica as a youngster, singer Cosmo was a math whiz and soccer star who could also trill like a bird, winning singing competitions with amazing ease. Today he lectures, writes for science journals and leads his own roots reggae unit, which has released an album, Fire This Time. For that project, Cosmo assembled a virtual Who's Who in Reggae. Bassist and album co-producer George "Fully" Fulwood, drummer Santa Davis and guitarist Tony Chin are all legends in Jamaican music.

Cosmo's music is a heady mix of supple reggae and ska beats, urgent vocals and songs addressing romance, personal tribulations and social justice. Cosmo's singing style is gritty yet understated; the influence of mid-'60s stateside soul is evident in every taffy-like note he intones. Cosmo performs Saturday, Aug. 21, at Waves.

Mary Kirk has high hopes for RAW '99. "Speaking for myself, I would like to see the artists and those behind the scenes become inspired to promote the music. I would like to see the industry give a bigger push to the music. I would like the fans and everyone involved to keep pushing the music forward," she says. Whatever the conference's outcome, Reggae Ambassadors Worldwide can be counted on to help ensure the music's viability well into the next century and beyond. Ready or not, reggae has, via the Net, gone "I-ternational." Log on.

Reggae Ambassadors Worldwide Seventh Conference and Showcase will be held Aug. 19-22 at the Hyatt Sainte Claire, 302 Market St., San Jose. Concerts will be held Friday and Saturday, beginning each night at 7:30pm at Waves Smokehouse and Saloon (65 Post St., San Jose, 408/885-9283) and at 7pm at Club Ibex (55 S. Market St., San Jose, 408/971-4239). Conference admission is $280 for the general public and $225 for RAW members. Concert-only tickets (which include both venues) are $12 per night. For more information, check the website www.RAW99.com.

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From the August 19-25, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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