Rasta Philosophy

Apr 28, 1999 at 4:00 am
Landlocked St. Louis is hardly the place you'd expect to find an internationally acclaimed reggae label: There aren't exactly throngs of dreadlocked Rastafarians walking the streets; you'd be hard-pressed to find much reggae on mainstream radio; and, unfortunately, you could probably count the number of reggae concerts in the past year on one hand. In this unlikely locale, tiny Nighthawk Records has quietly toiled away to shed light on some of the most authentic and underappreciated Jamaican roots reggae ever committed to tape.

Although Nighthawk is now synonymous with reggae, the label actually started as a blues-reissue label and was named after the legendary bluesman Robert Nighthawk, who lived in St. Louis for a time. In the beginning, Nighthawk was co-owned by St. Louis reggae/blues stalwart Leroy Pierson, who sold his share in 1979 to pursue a performing career. One early notable release by the label was 1981's Mule, by famed St. Louis blues innovator Henry Townsend.

The jump from blues to reggae may seem incongruous to some, but for Robert Schoenfeld, the jack-of-all-trades owner of Nighthawk and a self-proclaimed reggae fanatic, the connection between reggae and blues is tight, and draws a line directly from St. Louis, a blues city, to Jamaica.

"We felt reggae wasa modern blues, and Jamaican music draws heavily on the blues," he says. "If you look at early Jamaican music history, American blues and R&B artists like Roscoe Gordon, Professor Longhair and Fats Domino were very important."

The decision to concentrate on reggae was also influenced by market potential. "Back when we started, reggae seemed to have more of a future," says Schoenfeld. "Blues was really in a declining situation because the market was mature."

In a 1992 interview with the Post-Dispatch, Pierson echoed these sentiments: "The thing about collecting the blues -- and I collected post-war blues -- is that there's a very finite amount of material out there. But with reggae, you could collect it your entire life, and you'd still never see a tenth of it."

During its 23-year existence, Nighthawk has reaped incredible success, albeit not necessarily of the financial sort. It was and continues to be a trailblazer in bringing reggae and rock-steady to the American and international audience. Nighthawk's first foray into reggae was in 1980, with the release of Wiser Dread, a collection of various artists, many of whom would later record full-length albums with the label. In 1986, the label saw one of its biggest acts, the Itals, get nominated for a Best Reggae Grammy for their album Rasta Philosophy. In the end, the award was given to big-label Steel Pulse, but that such a small label could even get nominated speaks volumes about the high quality and uncompromising attitude of Nighthawk Records and Schoenfeld's love and respect for reggae.

Schoenfeld's knowledge of this vast world of reggae is damn near encyclopedic. He has been a frequent visitor to Jamaica since the early '70s and boasts a collection of 10,000-11,000 45s and 3,000 LPs. Hiscontinued on page 66SCHOENFELDcontinued from page 63knowledge of the island's culture and history is, in a word, staggering. More than that, though, Schoenfeld seems to have a genuine concern for his artists, the music they make and the culture from which they come. He can talk effortlessly and at great length about Jamaica, its culture and, of course, reggae.

Nighthawk tends to concentrate on great roots and rock-steady vocals rather than dipping into the currently popular and more instrumental dancehall and dub. To Schoenfeld, vocalists represent Jamaican music at its sweetest, and he says one reason there are so many superb singers from Jamaica is that instruments were both scarce and too expensive for the average Jamaican. If someone wanted to make music, singing was the easiest way.

"There are voices that can make your heart soar, especially in combinations of three or four," he says. "There's no doubt that if some of these guys had been born in the U.S., they would have surely rivaled U.S. singers."

Nighthawk's latest releases bear this out. Last year's Rock Steady Classics by the Tennors presents some of their best work from 1967-1973 and features some of the most mellifluous vocals ever to land on U.S. shores. Former Tennor and former Ital Ronnie Davis also released his solo Come Straight on Nighthawk, and its pulsing bass, tight riddims and soaring vocals represent a prime example of a reggae artist with superior ability who never made it big outside Jamaica. That the Tennors and Davis are not household names speaks more to the stunning amount of talent to come from Jamaica than to any lack of natural gifts on their part. Their music more than stands up to other, more noted Jamaican acts such as the Ethiopians, early Wailers, and Toots and the Maytals. Nighthawk boasts an excellent and underappreciated catalog that currently offers 16 CDs.

Still, Nighthawk's format change from blues to reggae did not ensure long-term success and stability. "It's been tough," says Schoenfeld. "Our profile has declined over the past years."

According to Schoenfeld, an over-arching reason for the decline is the great shakeup in the record industry that took place in 1996, which saw retailing cutbacks, distributor bankruptcies and reduced sales across the industry. The aftershocks of this earthquake are still being felt. "Lots of distributors went under, including many of ours," he says. "Many labels had lots of product returned."

Despite the lower profile, Schoenfeld continues to work at bringing some of Jamaica's underrated talents to the wider audience he believes they merit. "It's been tough for artists to get the recognition they deserve," he says. "Those are the artists I tend to favor."

Schoenfeld acknowledges the many challenges in bringing largely unknown reggae to a broader audience. For one thing, he says, the reggae market is fractured among roots, dub and dancehall fans, but more important and more lamentable, he thinks Jamaican music is losing some of its unique characteristics.

"Jamaican music largely developed because of its isolation from the rest of the world, and they had to entertain themselves with their own means," he says. "Jamaica was culturally isolated from the U.S., but as they become more exposed to America, the distinctive traits of their music are becoming less obvious. People start to want what they don't have -- there was a certain fascination with America."

Furthermore, Schoenfeld sees other roadblocks preventing reggae from gaining widespread popularity. These include reggae's characteristic and hard-to-decipher patois lyrics, Rastafarian symbolism and the failure of black radio in the U.S. to embrace the competition from Jamaica. Added to these obstacles is the financial outlay required to put out an album. For a tiny boutique label that sells an average of 10,000 records a year, money is often hard to come by. For example, Nighthawk was offered the first rights to the latest Itals album, Modern Age, but, Schoenfeld says, the label was not in a position to spend the $20,000-$30,000 necessary to put it out. RAS, a label with deeper pockets, ended up with the album.

Finally there's the long shadow cast by reggae's towering icon, Bob Marley. It's a testament to Marley's enduring impact that any discussion of reggae inevitably turns to the No. 1 natty dread. To some, Marley is seen as a genre-killer simply because no one could ever hope to fill his shoes, and it is true that virtually all reggae suffers from the unavoidable comparisons to Bob. Schoenfeld agrees, to a certain point, but says that the most destructive legacy of Marley's fame is the loss of innocence in Jamaican music.

"When reggae got big internationally, it began to take on a more cynical aspect and lost some of its charm," he says. The loss of innocence, according to Schoenfeld, was not Marley's fault but rather something that came about when big money became the ultimate goal of many artists.

Despite the numerous disadvantages in popularizing lesser-known reggae, Schoenfeld's love for the genre is unshaken. Among the new releases he is planning are an album by St. Louis' Murder City Players and a record by the Ethiopians. Schoenfeld is also considering a Gladiators reissue anthology and a Gladiators dub album. Nighthawk also recently launched a Web site (www.nghthwk.com), which showcases the label's entire catalog and supplies information about its artists. Unbelievably, Nighthawk continues to work with all the artists the label started with -- a testament to Schoenfeld's enduring passion for bringing sublimely sweet-sounding performers like Justin Hinds, the Meditations, the Gladiators and the Itals to reggae aficionados around the world.

"It's much harder to do it for love," he says. "But if you remove the love from it, you might as well be selling hamburgers.