From his office in the recording industry department of Middle Tennessee State University, Caribbean music expert Mike Alleyne literally wrote the book on reggae music — or one of the books, anyway. “The Encyclopedia of Reggae: The Golden Age of Roots Reggae” (Sterling, $24.95) has pages dedicated to artists like Bob Marley and UB40, but Professor Alleyne also includes subjects such as “reggae on film” and “Chinese Jamaicans” as separate entries. One might not think of Murfreesboro, Tenn., first as the place where a reggae music encyclopedia would be created.
Well, it was compiled here but not created here. It’s really the result of being in many different places in many decades. And this was really the product of where many of those pieces were combined.
Tell me a little of your story and how you came to write this.
The roots of the book actually come from growing up in England, where I was born in the ’60s, which of course was the time that reggae made its debut. So a lot was stimulated by being part of the historical moment when reggae began to not only be created in Jamaica but filter into the UK and find itself on the charts.
Academically, I’ve been writing on popular Caribbean music with an emphasis on reggae for several decades now. So in some ways, the encyclopedia is the natural outcome of the work I’d already been doing, although I hadn’t been dealing exclusively with reggae or Caribbean music either.
How did you end up at MTSU?
I had been working in Florida and decided to leave that job. And just coincident with that decision, I was shown an ad in The Chronicle of Higher Education about a vacancy in the department of the recording industry at MTSU.
I subsequently applied, with some hesitation, and eventually was offered the job. As I recall, the job description seemed very specific but I didn’t necessarily think that what the description was asking for was what I thought I could offer.
But as I thought about it later on, I had another idea about being able to adapt what I could offer.
How has your relationship with Middle Tennessee been so far?
Well, I’m not sure you can print this. It has been different. This is a culturally conservative part of America, and one which is not necessarily as open as some metropolitan zones to music of non-American origin.
So it has not been a seamless integration.
I should point out, while I have been based here, I have traveled a lot to other countries and in fact have been teaching in other countries including Sweden and Germany.
You talk in the beginning of the long difficult journey of putting together the encyclopedia, long solitary hours and without an assistant.
At first, it seemed an overwhelming task, but one which I was willing to take on. I felt that in some cases, in some of the previous reggae compendiums, the material was adversely affected by having several different writers. So I thought I would assume the quite awesome responsibility of doing all the research myself and be able to vouch for things myself, having gone through an adequate process.
The process involved not only looking at preexisting print sources but listening to an incredible amount of music and also going through interview material I had compiled over the years of various musicians and producers, some of which had never been published or things which had been published in other languages, but not English.
If you had to guess, how many hours went into putting this together?
It’s impossible to calculate. Many people ask me, “How long did it take to write the book?” And I always say there are two answers to that.
You’ve got the two years following the agreement with the publisher and then the 40-plus years before that that actually created the foundation on which it is built.
And have you found the project financially or academically worthwhile?
Well, uh, as you know, academia is not a realm in which one gets rich. But academically, it has been a great learning exercise because no matter how much you think you may know about a particular area, further research always yields more information.
I hope in the future there will be a little bit of financial benefit, partly because this book doesn’t target solely the academic audience. It’s targeting the mainstream audience. ...
This collection is somewhat different from many others that I’ve seen because of the way it combines graphics and photos from archives into just one source.
Let’s talk about some entries: Big Youth, the first reggae performer to wear dreadlocks.
Big Youth is also important in that he led the way in deejaying, deejaying in the sense of he’s one of the pioneers of the vocalization, who wasn’t actually the singer, but who vocalized the musical ideas and helped to create a lot of space in popular music.
And he started “bling bling”!
So he says. You can’t believe everything musicians say. However, if you look at the history, he does have a case.
Bob Marley may be the beginning and end of reggae for a lot of music fans. You devoted 11 pages to the Marleys.
I’ve always done a lot of work on the commercialization of Bob Marley’s material in my academic work because I was always fascinated with the process of this music actually being mainstreamed. It’s an enormous challenge.
At the time when the Wailers, as they were known, entered the major market world, reggae was not thought of as mainstream music. Marley represents the commercial emergence of the music more than anyone else.