Dennis Bovell was born in 1953 in Barbados, but grew up in England where reggae and Rastafarianism had taken root in the 1970s. Bovell has had a long and successful career as a member of the Black British reggae band Matumbi, as a solo artist working under various monikers, and as a producer. These three artistic activities are held together by Bovell’s constant desire to break down musical barriers and to expand the parameters of reggae music.
Bovell joined the reggae band Matumbi in 1971, originally playing the guitar for that band. Matumbi was one of the earliest Black British reggae bands and, together with the Cimarrons, Black Slate, Black Roots, Steel Pulse, Misty in Roots and UB40, they set out to prove that British reggae could sound as good and be as “rootsy” as Jamaican reggae. After recording a few unsuccessful singles for Trojan, they recorded a reggae version Bob Dylan’s “Man in Me” which stayed at the top of the British reggae charts for weeks in 1976, and their bluesy “After Tonight” helped to give birth to a new type of reggae that Bovell was to nurture : lovers’ rock (a mixture of soul music and reggae).
Matumbi released two fine albums in the 1970s, Seven Seals and Point of View, which are considered today as landmarks in the development of British reggae. With these two albums, Matumbi showed that they could deliver the goods and play roots reggae (“Rock”, “Black Civilisation”), as well as pop reggae (“Point of View”). Their 1979 hit “Point of View” was a mixture of jazz, pop and reggae and made the British charts. Their 1978 album LP Seven Seals featured two tracks (“Blue Beat and Ska” and “Empire Road”) which contrasted sharply with roots reggae tunes like “Rock” or “Black Civilisation”. “Blue Beat and Ska” looked back fondly on the early days of Jamaican popular music and had a pop feel to it while “Empire Road” was the theme song of the BBC series of the same name which followed the fortunes of a Jamaican family in Birmingham and was a commentary on life in mutlicultural Britian in the mid-1970s. In that song, Matumbi celebrated the ethnic and racial diversity in some inner cities at the time and countering the claims made by the British far-right parties at the time. In 1982 the band released a third LP entitled Testify, which was recorded in England and in Jamaica, but it did not sell very well.
As a solo artist and musician, Bovell used several pseudonyms and was involved in different projects which aimed at showing that British reggae could hold its own against its Jamaican counterpart, and at breaking down musical barriers. In 1976 and 1977 he released several LPs on the Rama label (Ah Who Seh ? Go Deh !; Leggo – Ah Fi-Wi Dis ; Scientific, Higher Ranking Dubb ; Yuh Learn!) under the name “4TH Street Orchestra” which were designed to look like Jamaican pre-releases, that is Jamaican LPs available only in limited quantities in the UK before their “official” releases. These LPs were supposed to sound as Jamaican and rootsy as the real things and did fool the reggae-buying public at the time. In fact, these tracks were sound-system specials recorded for English sound systems or for Bovell’s own sound system, Sufferer’s Hi-Fi ,which was highly successful in the 1970s.
In 1978 using the name “Blackbeard” Bovell also released Strictly Dub Wize , a record that featured several types of reggae, from heavy dub to lover’s rock. This album even featured a version of “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” (“Ska-Be-Doo-Za”) a song from the musical Oklahoma and “Rebel Chase”, a dub cut to “Run Rasta Run” by African Stone, yet another pseudonym used by Dennis Bovell !
But one of the most haunting tracks on Strictly Dub Wize was “River to Bank”, a dub interpretation of the traditional Jamaican song “River to the Bank” which is drenched in echo and reverberation. Bovell thus showed how modern technology can nicely complement and even enhance traditional material.
The 1981 double LP Brain Damage was characterised by a tremendous variety of musical styles like jazz (“Smouche”), Trinidadian Soca (“Bertie”), heavy reggae (“Bah Be Lon”, “Bettah”, “Dutty”), Afro-Beat (“Heaven”), soul (“El Passoah”) and lovers’ rock (“Our Tune”). The title track and its dub (“Cabbage”) are good examples of the Lee Perry-inspired sonic experiments Bovell was conducting in his studio in the early 1980s. “Cabbage” features a nice melodica melody which brings to mind another dub master, Augustus Pablo. With Brain Damage, Bovell set out to disrupt expectations about what a reggae song should sound like and tried to expand the parameters of reggae. He recorded a rock’n’roll version of his old lovers’ rock hit “After Tonight” just to show reggae purists that roots reggae was not the only show in town. To Bovell, reggae in the early 1980s was too set in its way, too predictable, and he wanted to shake things up a bit. Peter Simon and Stephen Davis wrote that Bovell’s reggae was “mutant-reggae”, that is reggae tinged with jazz, rock, blues and punk (Reggae International, 1983). Bovell thought that reggae fans’ brains had “ossified” (Reggae International) and that there was a kind of “reggae fundamentalism” which kept Jamaican music from moving on. Hence the title “Brain Damage”: Bovell meant to reconfigure a few brains along the way.
The same approach characterised his next alnum, 1986’s Audio Active, which included tracks like “Dub Master”, “Pow-Wow”, “My Little Girl” and “Lovers’ Rock” all illustrating various facets of his art. Bovell also showed on these tracks that he is a competent deejay. This album was heavily influenced by jazz. “Zombie Zomez”, the final track, showed his love for Augusto Pablo’s music.
The track “Pow-Wow” had already been used as the backing track for I-Roy’s “Whap’n Bap’n” tune.
As a producer, Dennis Bovell has worked with many different artists, from the reggae deejay I-Roy (Whap’n Bap’n, 1980) to the punk band The Slits, the Pop Group, the Thompson Twins, Bananarama and Fela Kuti.
Bovell’s iconoclastic approach was visible in his collaboration with the Jamaican deejay I-Roy’s 1980 album Whap’n Bap’n, released under the deejay’s real name, Roy Reid. Indeed Bovell recorded the Jamaican deejay over funk-influenced and rap-tinged tracks like “Alphabet”, “Ladies Man” and “Jive Time”, presumably to revive I-Roy’s career, but also to show reggae purists that reggae deejaying could be expanded by mixing it with other influences.
He is also well known for his close working relationship with the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson who released at least six albums with Bovell’s Dub Band (Dread Beat and Blood, 1978 ; Forces of Victory, 1979 ; Bass Culture, 1980 ; Making History, 1983 ; Tings and Times, 1991; and More Time, 1998). Johnson turned to Bovell and his Dub Band when he chose to record his already musical dub poems , and the result has been more than satisfying. Bovell’s deep grooves and heavy dub approach complemented Johnson’s dark poems about the Black British community’s predicament in mid-1970s Britain. For many reggae fans who never experienced Johnson’s poems in their print version, Bovell’s soundscapes are as much part of the poems as Johnson’s words. Bovell’s approach worked very well on “Dread Beat an Blood” and “Five Nights of Bleeeding” (Dread Beat and Blood) which dealt with the themes of violence within the black community and black-on-black crime. The album Forces of Victory featured a poem entitled “It Noh Funny” about the hopes and aspirations of young British Blacks in the 1970s and once again Bovell’s mixing style complemented the poem nicely with a driving bass line and a lot of echo and sound reverberation bearing on the horn parts (which echoed the line “Dem wi’ tek chance”). The recording of the poem “Sonny’s Lettah” was also on the 1979 album and was characterised by a pulsating bass line and a bluesy harmonica which perfectly echoed the theme of police harassment.
The 1980 album Bass Culture featured two poems (the title-track and “Reggae Sounds”) about the relationship between reggae music and the history of black people and Dennis Bovell contributed memorable bass lines to the recorded versions of these poems. Johnson’s collaboration with Bovell continued on Making History (1983) and was particularly effective on tracks like “Di Great Insohreckshan” which celebrated the 1981 Brixton riots, “Reggae fi Radni” (about the late Guyanese activist Walter Rodney) and “Reggae Fi Dada”, Johnson’s tribute to his father.
Bovell also worked on the recording of the Jamaican dub poet Mikey Smith’s only album, Mi Cyaan Believe It and his influence is evident on tracks like “Trainer” and “Gimme Little Dub Music”. He also produced Jean Binta Breeze’s second album, Tracks, which was released on LKJ Records in 1991.
Bovell was also instrumental in nurturing the development of lovers’ rock, an English brand of reggae which mixes soul music with Jamaican rhythms and in 1978 his production of Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” reached the N°2 slot on the British charts. In fact in 175Bovell and his band Matumbi had backed Louisa Mark on her version of Robert Parker’s “Caught You a in Lie”, a record that is widely considered as the first lovers’ rock record, produced by Lloyd Coxsone.
In 1978 Bovell helped to revive the career of the Jamaican singer Errol Dunkley by releasing a new version of Dunkley’s “Little Way Different” on his Arawak label. That new version was hugely popular in England and the twelve-inch featured an atmospheric dub entitled “Differentah” which was characterised by the presence of a haunting harmonica.
In 1980 Bovell contributed a number of tracks like “Living in Babylon” and “Chief Inspector” to the soundtrack to the film Babylon, directed by Franco Rosso, which followed the fortunes of a young black person trying to survive in the competitive atmosphere of sound-system culture in 1970s England.
Dennis Bovell has also worked on albums by the guitarist John Kpiaye (Red, Gold and Blues, LKJ Records : 1994), the saxophonist Steve Gregory (Bush Fire, LKJ Records : 1994), the late poet and musician Ellsworth “Shake” Keane (Real Keane : Reggae Into Jazz, LKJ Records : 1991) and the Jamaican rock-steady singer Winston Francis (Come On Little Girl, LKJ Records : 1997).
Tactics came out in 1994, Dub of Ages in 1996 and in 2006 the album All Over the World (Frontline, 2006)was released, featuring tracks like “Oh Mama Oh Papa”, “Dancehall” as well as older tunes like “Bettah” and “Dub Master”.
In 2012 Mek It Run, a collection of dubs from the 1970s, appeared on the Pressure Sounds label. More recently, Bovell recorded “Fall Babylon” with the Roots United Band.
Davis, Stephen and Peter Simon. Reggae International (London: Thames and Hudson, 1983).
Larkin, Colin. The Guinnes Who’s Who of Reggae (London: Guinness Publishing, 1994).