The Monty Alexander Birthday Bash, which took place at Kaufman Center on June 6th, gave Jamaicans, Caribbean Americans and a few lucky invites the chance to celebrate three great occasions: Jamaica’s 50th year of independence; Monty Alexander’s 50 years in music; and his birthday. Reggae artist, Tarrus Riley was among some of the guests that joined Mr. Alexander and his band on stage for an unforgettable evening.
Along with including some of his hits like “She’s Royal,” which practically the entire audience sang along to, he also joined Jamaica’s foremost saxophone player, Dean Frazer, in a short duet accompanied by Monty Alexander’s band. In between his songs, Riley briefly acknowledged the legends and icons in Jamaica and music that have paved the way for musicians of both his generation and younger.
During a brief telephone chat, the following afternoon with Carib News, Mr. Riley stated, “There were so many things to celebrate [on June 6]. Jamaica is a small place with a lot of power. We’ve done a lot of great things, and we continue to do great things.
“We have accomplished so much in 50 years. People of my age and in the music business continue to represent Jamaica, and the elders – the music legends that paved the way for us as young musicians.”
Certainly, Monty Alexander is one of the greats that have come before Riley’s time. Inside the Kaufman Center’s Merkin Concert Hall, Alexander painted a picture for audience members of some of his most treasured life experiences. Like this one:
One fine day, when Alexander was just a boy, he got to shake the hand of the American swing jazz legend, Louis Armstrong inside a theater in Kingston, Jamaica. He followed this story with an improvised melody on the piano which soon transformed into a composition – one that flowed like a conversation between the piano, acoustic bass and drum set. Further the music itself sounded canonical.
In the composition that followed, “Strawberry Hill,” Mr. Alexander’s chamber jazz band, reunited with his original ensemble, the one that accompanied Riley earlier in the program. In this composition, jazz met reggae. Here, two genres that dominated the American and Caribbean music scene at different times in the 20th century fused with one another.
Later in the program, Mr. Alexander was joined by Riley in collaboration. Both musicians have a love and passion for Jamaican music. Riley genuinely expressed his own love for a genre that first developed in Jamaica, reggae. He explains:
“[Reggae] is very cultural; it is the music of my people. It brings together communities and it is very thought provoking – Reggae teaches us about life.
“Just like Jamaica is made up of people from different backgrounds, reggae is also made up of different influences.”
Riley has become recognized as a Reggae artist, and for some people, it seems like no surprise. His father is the noted reggae singer, Jimmy Riley. Those who are familiar with his music can only assume that he was destined for a career in music. Riley claims:
“I was into music since I was very young. Music was my environment. Whenever I would travel with my Dad into the city we would always sing on the ride there. I was also making up songs with my friends in school, and music was our sport; we were around it a lot.
“But when I was young, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was always doing music before I made the decision to do it professionally.”
During his first phase as a musician, Riley started his career on the Dance Hall scene. Later, he realized he needed to find his own sound if he wanted to be a musician full-time. This led him to explore his own potential as an artist and discover his own style. Riley enumerates:
“I started to get into songwriting when I decided to become a full-time, professional musician. So, I took up more singing and learned several instruments to develop a style. My first album I titled “Challenges” because creating my own sound was a challenge, and so was getting it noticed.”
In the albums that followed his debut, “Challenges” Riley claims he continued to grow spiritually with each record. He also promises to stay true to his values and all he represents. Riley states:
“All my songs have a message, like lessons about human nature and everyday life. These include basic human nature and relationships of all kinds.”
“She’s Royal” is one single that falls into this category, and it is a single that has gained mass popularity in the Caribbean. Everybody in the audience at Merkin Concert Hall sang out “she’s royal” during Riley’s performance. Additional songs that people sang along with included Riley’s remake of a song by yet another Jamaican legend and reggae icon, Bob Marley, called “Redemption Song.”
Riley’s performances and collaborations with both Alexander, Frazer and other renowned musicians at the Monty Alexander Birthday Bash, raised the audience’s spirits in celebrating Jamaica as a nation and Monty Alexander’s love for music throughout the years. One can perhaps hope that Riley will host a performance in a few decades from now, perhaps celebrating his 50th year in music. However, the young musician still has a long way to go. At the moment, Riley is working on a new album, one that he surely hopes will surprise. When Carib News inquired about his new work, Riley politely and jokingly responded:
“I want to surprise people with my new music. When it is ready, then I will start talking about it. I have to surprise you; if I don’t then I’m not doing my job.”