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Natty And NiceTo a white boy and unreconstructed pop fan such as myself, reggae music can present a challenge. Jamaicans singing about the Jamaican experience in an unintelligible patois over endless dub beats, can sound, well, foreign. Perhaps that's why reggae cover versions of well-known pop songs have always been popular in England and America, and it may also explain why Natty And Nice: A Reggae Christmas (Rhino, 1998) sounds so familiar and friendly to my ears. Beginning with Granville Williams' rudimentary-but-infectious "Santa Claus Is Ska-ing To Town" (1964), we are treated to a variety of original songs and inspired covers surveying over 25 years of Jamaican music. Natty And Nice takes us from the innocent days of ska (an upbeat precursor of reggae) all the way to the latter days of hip-hop-influenced dancehall. Unlike much "rebel music," however, the groove stays positive and musically light throughout - Santa doesn't visit rude boys, you know.

Not that this isn't a "conscious" Christmas party - spiritual concerns are addressed, as well. Alton Ellis, for instance, faces eviction on Christmas morning, but he insists we have a "Merry Merry Christmas" anyway! Reggae music has always been about dancing in the face of adversity, and since Christmas is a big deal in Jamaica, the celebratory feeling naturally spills over to the music.

Star turns by the likes of Toots Hibbert and Lee Perry are unsurprisingly wonderful, and lesser-known songs like Washington & Clarke's "Happy Christmas" also shine. As with reggae in general, I enjoy the older cuts on Natty And Nice more than the recent ones; by the 80's, better production values and outside influences had forever altered reggae's rustic charm.

Special kudos, however, to John Holt's 1986 rendition of John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)." This song is seldom covered - perhaps artists are intimidated by Lennon's reputation - but Holt does a wonderful version simply by laying down a solid groove and allowing the song to speak for itself. The same could be said for nearly all good reggae music, and it's a theme that runs consistently through Natty And Nice. [top of page]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • Ding Dong Bell (Ethiopians, 1968)
  • Happy Christmas (Toots & The Maytals, 1972)
  • Happy Christmas (Washington & Clarke, 1974)
  • Happy Xmas (War Is Over) (John Holt, 1986)
  • I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (Johnny Clarke, 1975)
  • Merry Christmas (Kingstonians, 1967)
  • Merry Christmas Happy New Year (Lee "Scratch" Perry, 1985)
  • Merry Merry Christmas (Alton & The I Listicks, 1972)
  • Santa Claus Is Ska-ing To Town (Granville Williams Orchestra, 1964)
  • We Wish You A Merry Christmas (Jacob Miller, 1975)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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