#57 The Lick

Made some long drives over the weekend with my buddy Mike, and as the driver, he also had full control of what we listened to. He showed me a live reggae show that he enjoys: Rockpalast Live 2019 by Richie Spice and the Element Band. While I loved how tight the band and the arrangement was, my biggest question was: did Richie Spice know about “the lick” too?

In my undergraduate years, the famous (or infamous) video of the lick came out. That’s where I learn about the very cool song Baby Come Back by the Players. In music, “a lick” is a short melodic idea. There is much discussion on the differences between a lick and a riff on the interweb. I don’t have a conclusive answer but it seems to be a consensus that a lick is usually used in passing in a solo (such as Chick Cirea’s solo in Spain (right at 6:11-12), whereas a riff tends to be a recognizable part of a song (like the melodic hook you think of when I say Smoke on the Water)

“The lick” is a particular melodic idea that is so commonly used by (mainly jazz) musicians, to the point that someone could make a (fun) video out of it. And ever since I have watched the video, I can’t help but notice it whenever “the lick” is being used. I have even joined The Lick Facebook page and contributed a few times of my own discovery from listening.

Santana’s Oye Como Va is a famous song that used “the lick” prominently as the main part of the composition. So is that the lick being used as a riff?

Back to the first question: I doubt Richie Spice knows about the lick. It’s probably his good musical sense that helped him hear and develop this little melody that “expands the same tone” with a nice contour: ascends by steps, descends by two skips, but over shoot, so that it ascends back up by step, which happens to bring the melody back to the open note. You can here Richie Spice used “the lick” as an ad-lib vocal filler in between lyrics to full effect.

My favorite “discovery” of the lick usage is of course from the classical guitar literature: measure 54-55 of Cancion, the third movement of Suite Venezolana by Venezuelan composer Antonio Lauro:

I know it’s a stretch, and Lauro probably didn’t know “the lick”, but I can’t help it!

#56 Why reggae – episode #3a

It must just be a self-romanticized thought, but I have always felt an indirect connection between Jamaican and Hong Kong – both were British colonies, and both are islands with extremely hot and humid weather. Yes the connections are superficial, but for a Chinese teenager to make a reggae connection, that was more than enough.

Of course, before I knew it, Chinese immigrants in Jamaica actually had much to do with propelling Jamaican music and culture.

Let’s start with Byron Lee, who was from Kowloon, Hong Kong. Kowloon is a peninsula attached to the Mainland China, but it’s part of Hong Kong’s territory. Although saying one is from “Kowloon, Hong Kong” strikes me as a bit odd (it’s like telling someone you are from Pittsford, Rochester), but if he did move to Jamaica when he was 8 to 9 years old (as Wikipedia says), that means he must speak Cantonese? Anyhow, I wonder how “playing Chinese” actually helped his career – his band was called Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, with a debut single in 1959 is called “Dumplins“. His music does not sound Chinese at all, but we can learn and sound like them. Give us a job, and we will deliver. Just listen to the music with your eyes closed? And I have only learned this years later: Byron Lee and the Dragonaire appeared in the first James Bond movie, Dr. No. Pretty cool?

As usual, let me digress to an anecdote. When I was attending IU, I was really into scratching and DJing. Not having the money and space, I befriended a few fellow buusiness majors who DJ on the weekends and carried gears for them. I remember one early morning, after packing and cleaning up for a party, we sat down on a couch and watched VH1. A music vdeo of 2 Live Crew’s Me So Horny came up, and suddenly, one of my DJ friends yelled: “what the F is this fat Chinese dude doing?” Little did we know, one of the MCs of 2 Live Crew, Fresh Kid Ice, was of Asian descent. And guess what? Although he was born in Trindad and Tobago, his family was from Hong Kong. I didn’t confront my friend at the time, as I assumed he menat no disrespect, but why can’t Chinese people be an MC? I must thank him though, as that might have pushed me to learn music that is not of “my culture.”

Byron Lee and the Dragonaires.

During the pandemic, I found out about Stephen Cheng when I tried to learn more about Chinese-Jamaican musical connection. Born in Shanghai in 1923 (or 1921?), Cheng moved to Hawaii in 1948, then moved to New York and attended Columbia, and then studied singing at Juilliard. Being able to sing in multiple languages got him a gig in Trindad and Tobago, and when he visited Jamaica, he recorded Always Together – an odd rendition of a “Taiwanese folk song” Girl from Ali Shan, sung in Chinese operatic style, but backed with a rocksteady beat provided none other than Byron Lee. The song is now a cult reggae classic, but apparently Cheng had a rough musical career, being suspected as a spy.

(Where do I find the tape where he sang Yesterday????)

Stephen Cheng with his band the Dragon Seeds

#37 Why Reggae – episode #2

(continued from Why Reggae – episode #1)

Although I went to Indiana University Bloominton to pursue a business degree, my mind was on music, and every semester I would look for music classes to take. As a non-music major, there weren’t a lot of classes about music making and analysis that I could join, so almost all music classes I took were history-related: history of blues, history of jazz, rock in 70s and 80s, Latin American Music. I got to know Professor Andy Hollinden well, and sat in his class on Jimi Hendrix too. There were not enough music classes to take, and I ended up taking classes from outside the music school (it was renamed to the Jacob School in my junior year) – the Motown class through the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies, the Hip Hop class through the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, and Black Music and Identity through the Anthropology Department. The Motown class brought everyone to the gym and we learned particular dance moves related to motown songs. Sadly, I have forgotten all the moves except for “the shotgun”. The Hip Hop class had everyone writing our own verses and rapping in front of the whole class. I couldn’t have been more embarassed.

The Black Music and Identity class was where I learned about reggae: how hip hop was originated by the Jamaican DJ Kool Herc, the dub poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson. I was most fascinated by the Japanese reggae and dance hall scene, and the level of authenticity in the music they produced. On a side note, I recall my professor from this class told me he did not receive one of my papers. As the best student one could ask for, I was sure I had turned it in, and I remember rushing over to office hours after class to talk to him. I tried so hard to persuade him that I had turned in my paper on time. He seemed convinced and trusted me (maybe he just wanted me to shut up). It must have sounded so funny to him how serious I was?

As all serious business students should do, I planned ahead for my summers and looked for internships. That’t where I saw an ad by Rockpaperscissors, a local world music publicity company (they do more than music now). They were looking for interns, and I remember reached out almost immediately after I saw the word “reggae” in the description. My internship continued even after regular semester resumed, and I worked there as much as I could. Although I was trying to learn more about reggae, I got so much more out of this job. I did put on Dub Side of the Moon a lot when I worked there (looking back, it must have been extremely annoying for everyone else), but I was exposed to many musical acts and cultures unknown to me: Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Samarabalouf, Ska Cubano, the Balkan Beat Box, Daara J, Seu Jorge, Samite, Habib Koite, the Slackers, Zuco 103, Bole 2 Harlem, Marcelo D2, Lura, Marisa…

Working at RPS was also the first time I encountered a small business (at the time about 5 people) that was making a national impact. I learned a lot of different basic tasks – packing promo CDs into envelops, keeping inventory, but the most important skills I picked up was how to use Photoshop. I can’t say I am a pro, but I have designed my fair amount of flyers for events over the years.

Ebay was also a source of my reggae education. I was trying to listen to reggae other than Bob Marley, but I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t have a lot of money either. So I would go on ebay, type “reggae”, and the prices from low to high, and buy the cheapest CDs there were. I ended up buy a few 3-CDs reggae compilations that way, which introduced me to a lot of classic songs very quickly.

One more thing that cultivated my love for reggae was when I worked as stage manager at the Lotus Festival (2006?), hearing Inner Visions play live. That’s also where I saw the Brazilian band Curumin (first time learning about the sound of the fender rhodes and the electric cavaquinho) and the Balkan Beatbox. (Is that where I saw and met Dudumaia too?)

Bloomington was also where I saw my first reggae shows, as I turned 21 there – Burning Spear, the Wailers, and Matisyahu. All were essential to shape my view of reggae before I came to Rochester.

#16 Why reggae – episode #1

Back then, HMV in Hong Kong would do a crazy sale every summer. A lot of CDs were around HKD 30 to 40 (USD 4 – 5) a piece (maybe cheaper?) – perfect for a student who didn’t have much spare money.

As unexciting as it could be, the Legend by Bob Marley was the first reggae CD I picked up, from a crazy sale, and the guitar solo in No Woman No Cry was one of the solos I learned by repeating the track endlessly. Forward a few years, I was a sophomore at Indiana University Bloomington, and I made a friend in the intermediate guitar class because he heard me playing that solo before class started. Turned out we were both business majors. I don’t even remember his name now, but I recall him being a handsome guy and had a beautiful girlfriend. We didn’t see each again till senior year, and he already had a great job lined up. He is probably very rich now, owns a nice house, kids and everything.

But anyhow, I learned much about Bob Marley. His songs always got nice hooks, and his lyrics are not as difficult to listen to compared to a lot of other English songs. It took me many years to really understand what does “no woman no cry” mean though.

A few summers later, in the TST HMV, I bought the Toots and the Maytals greatest hits CD. A completely different kind of reggae, and so much energy! And who knew I would would have two chances to see him many years later, and even opened for him? (More about seeing Toots in a later post.) The funny thing about the Toots CD is that, the text in the little booklet were printed backwards? Maybe there’s a secret message hidden in there, like the writings of Leonardo Da Vinci?

The Adelante / Forward / Transglobal Soul Movement was the last reggae CD I got in Hong Kong before attending school in the US. To be honest, I remember not enjoying it as much. Maybe my reggae soundscape at that point was Marley and Toots, and the Adelante CD was a bit too modern to my taste? But the title track is interesting – a reggae version of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne #1!

These CDs laid the foundation to my never-ending reggae quest.

(Continue on Why reggae – Episode 2)