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One Love, To Last A Lifetime

oneloveBob Marley once famously said Rastafarianism wasn't a religion; it was a way of life. And so it seems similar things can be said of reggae music - it's not something you learn, it's in the blood.

Just ask Maxi Priest. Born in 1961 in Lewisham, South London, to Jamaican immigrants, he grew up immersed in the British capital's "golden age of reggae".

By the mid 70s, Marley and other Jamaican musicians such as Gregory Isaacs and Dennis Brown had achieved the seemingly impossible and were being blasted on mainstream radio. And Priest's first cousin Jacob Miller (tragically killed in a car accident in 1980) was an emerging reggae star with the band Inner Circle.

"It was a really special time. I mean, it was the birth of something new," Priest says.

His reggae life has endured. Alongside reggae legend Jimmy Cliff and the queen of hip-hop soul Mary J. Blige, he is headlining Raggamuffin at Rotorua International Stadium on February 5, fittingly, the day before the birthday of Bob Marley.

The one-day event has been running in New Zealand and Australia since 2008 and is considered the premier festival for reggae, soul, and R'n'B.

In its brief history it has attracted heavyweights such as Eddy Grant, Ziggy Marley, Shaggy and Lauryn Hill playing to a crowd of 30,000.

It is, says Priest, the new Sunsplash - a touring festival that was first staged in Jamaica in 1978: "It's a similar thing and I hope it continues to grow that way."

Jackie Sanders, the general manager of Andrew McManus Presents in New Zealand - the company that brings the festival here each year, describes Priest's comments as a "huge compliment".

"Sunsplash put reggae on the world stage and left a legacy that continues to this day," Sanders says. "Raggamuffin is still in its infancy - we're only 4 years old - but we've committed to staging the event in Rotorua for at least another five years. It'd be great to see us still alive and kicking in 30 years though - like Sunsplash."

It's not surprising New Zealand should be the host of such a significant musical event. We are, after all, a nation of reggae lovers. Kiwis have apparently bought more Marley albums, per capita, than anywhere else in the world - a piece of trivia that delights Priest: "I can well believe that," he laughs.

Chris King, strategic marketing manager at Universal Music, the label which looks after the Bob Marley back catalogue in New Zealand, can't confirm the numbers but says there's no denying just how popular the King of Reggae is here.

"We don't have all the necessary figures to confirm that, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were true. Historically, Bob Marley is one of the best-selling international artists in New Zealand and reggae in general is very popular here," he says.

And it's not just overseas reggae artists who do well here. Local bands Katchafire and Fat Freddy's Drop, with their laid-back blend of dub, reggae, soul and jazz, are examples of groups that are bucking the trend of declining album sales.

Katchafire's latest album On The Road Again went gold just five weeks after its release and is on the verge of going platinum. The Hamilton-based seven-piece formed as a Marley tribute in the late 1990s and lead singer Logan Bell says there has always been a high level of interest in the roots-reggae music they make.

"We've always been big on it here in New Zealand. I think it's there from our parents, and their parents, who have passed it down. I can remember hearing reggae when I was a young fella in our street - in shed parties," he says.

What's more, Bell says, in recent years there has been a resurgence in the genre's popularity. "You can see it coming through with a lot of the new reggae bands that are coming up. And the youths - they think it's cool. That's great, because it is the youth that drives all the new trends."

The band has also carved out a niche for itself in North America, particularly on the West Coast and in Hawaii where Bell says they're treated like royalty. "We are practically kings in Hawaii. We can't even go into McDonald's in Waikiki and pay for a Big Mac combo, they just give it to us."

Similarly, Fat Freddy's Drop now has a huge following in the US, this year scoring a spot at one of North America's largest festivals, Coachella. The Wellington collective is only the second Kiwi band, after Crowded House, to make the prestigious bill, which this year sees Kings of Leon lining up against the likes of Kanye West, Arcade Fire and the Strokes.

Fat Freddy's saxophonist Scott Towers (AKA Chopper Reedz) says the Coachella slot comes after years of hard graft on the road and honing the band's live performances. And needless to say, the lads are thrilled.

"Knowing that the programmer for a festival like Coachella thinks you can add something alongside the incredible artists also on the bill is really gratifying," he says.

As to what keeps drawing in the crowds, Towers, like Priest, puts it down to not being afraid to bend the rules. "We draw influences and inspirations from a really broad range of sounds. So while there is a threat of dub and reggae in our music, it's mixed with soul, jazz, techno, 80s funk - whatever sounds good. I think it's that freedom that keeps our sound approachable."

Neither Katchafire nor Fat Freddy's are playing at this year's Raggamuffin. But there is no shortage of good local talent, including Nesian Mystik, 1816 and Sons of Zion.

Priest knew he could sing from a very young age and paid great attention to the musical masters of his youth - Elvis Presley, The Beatles and Marvin Gaye, but particularly to Brown, the man he describes as his greatest idol.

"Dennis Brown has been my biggest influence. He was an inspiration not only musically but culturally. He has my heartstrings." Priest earned his first pay cheque as a carpenter, building speaker boxes for a local reggae band in Lewisham. That eventually led to him picking up the microphone and singing at dancehall sessions around London.

It's a time the singer, who turns 50 this year, remembers fondly. "You felt like you were creating something. Whereas I find today it seems a little bit more difficult to create something new. There's a whole lot more out there and it's pretty crowded.

"But then, it was open and the select few that were doing it had space and time to create something from a blank piece of paper or be inspired by other styles of music."

By 1988, Priest had a hit on his hands with a cover of Cat Steven's Wild World. Flavoured with R&B and pop, the track was not strictly reggae and he came under fire. "In the early days I did get a hard time. You come in youthfully and you come in with a different idea and a different approach and when you're trying to do something different it takes a while for that movement to establish itself," he says.

"But yeah, when I did stuff like House Call with Shabba [Ranks], it was classified as a sell out."

Not deterred by the criticism, Priest honed his own style of lovers' rock and hit after hit followed - including Close to You and Set The Night To Music, his duet with Roberta Flack - as did the imitators.

"After that everybody and their grandmother started to jump on a similar format. And you know, then Shaggy, Sean Paul and various others, even Beanie Man, came along. They looked at it as a winning formula."

These days Priest - who still sports a long mane of dreads - divides his time between London, New York and Jamaica. He's working on a new album, which he can't say too much about right now because he's still ironing out the deal.

He remains a prolific performer and after nearly 30 years in the business, he's well and truly earned his reputation as a veteran and an ambassador of reggae.

It makes sense then that he should be returning to play at Raggamuffin.

It is the perfect place, reckons Priest, to pay back some of the love he's felt from this part of the world.

"I first came to New Zealand probably in the late 1980s and I got the same greeting that Bob got from the Maori people, where they came to the airport. I got all of that.

"I think there is a cultural and a spiritual connection - a similar suffering. And the message that reggae music was preaching at the time [of Marley] was universal to people who had difficulties around the world."

Sanders agrees. "There are recurring themes of love and connection but also of racial oppression and poverty. All of these resonate with many New Zealanders. We are a melting pot of cultures.

"The Ragga crowd are lovers, not fighters, on the day. They are there for the music, the culture, the atmosphere. That 'one love' vibe works its magic and you can't help but go with it," she says.

Raggamuffin will be held at the Rotorua International Stadium on February 5.


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