American reggae. Sort of an oxymoron. I mean reggae came from the hills of Jamaica and was refined in the streets of Kingston ghettos by by poor blacks and asians. Yes, it was heavily influenced by African-American doo-wop and Motown, but what does America really know about reggae?
You’d be surprised.
Among the current heavy hitters who are continent-jumping the planet as we speak – bands like Rebelution, SOJA, and The Green – are a band of savage reggae soldiers who have been repping the east coast for almost 18 years. A Baltimore-based “bomb squad” who have sold hundreds of thousands of records and appeared on-stage with every legendary reggae figure that passes through the mid-Atlantic. I’m speaking of course of the legendary Jah Works.
Jah Works first caught my attention when I saw them open for a young and struggling SOJA 10 years ago in Washington, DC. I had never seen either band, but I heard that SOJA was making leaps with both their music and performances. All of Washington D.C.’s reggae elite were there. I’m talking Dermot Hussey, Junior Marvin, Doctor Dread, and many more I didn’t even recognize at the time. Jah Works takes the stage as the opener and literally annihilates the house. Any reggae act worth it’s salt can bring a house down with a Bob Marley “War” cover or even a rousing version of Steel Pulse’s“Rally Round” will do the trick. Jah works killed the house with original tunes, tight grooves, and striking vocals. I left that night halfway through SOJA’s set with Jah Works’ album Send The Rain tucked away in my wife’s bag. I saw the best reggae band around that night.
I spoke recently with lead guitarist Kevin Gorman about how they put it all together in the beginning.
“Myself, bass player Mike Hamilton, and lead singer Scott Paynter went to college together at Loyola in Bmore. We met freshman year (myself and Mike were random roommates) and by sophomore year bought guitars to learn how to play. Scott had already been in bands in HS, and was the most naturally gifted musician in the band, so we began learning stuff from him. Scott also was the one who brought the reggae influence, having been the youngest of 5 brothers, who brought him up on it. Our junior year, the 3 of us went to Belgium for the year and brought our axes with us. After a year of constant playing (among other things), we returned our senior year and started the band with another Loyola alum Eric Vincent. Once college was over, we continued to play/live in Baltimore and met Natty Roc from the local scene.”
Named after a song by the legendary Gladiators, Jah Works has toured mercilessly for almost two decades. Jah Works has played throughout the US as well as internationally in Jamaica, Canada, Holland, the South Pacific, and the Middle East. The band is honored to have taken part in Armed Forces Entertainment which provides shows for troops stationed abroad. They also recently performed in Washington DC for the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
The ensemble I saw 10 years ago is no longer intact. Members have turned over as they tend to do in any reggae marriage.
“Being in a band is a marriage of sorts,” says Gorman. “It’s not without it’s trials and tribulations. That being said, Jah Works currently boasts 5 original members (Kevin Gorman-guitars, Brian Gorman-Keys, Mike Hamilton-bass, Roc-vocals/sax, Scott Paynter-vocals) which is saying something for a band that has been around 18 years. Our most fluctuating position over the years has been drums(6 different drummers), but that being said, Jon Pang is our longest standing drummer at 9 years , and when he needs relief, he gets some from Amby Connor who has been a long time friend and drummer for JW for many years. Scotty took a 5 year hiatus from the band, but just recently rejoined. Long time member Eric Vincent departed this spring.”
Over the past 2-3 years, we have witnessed a virtual tidal wave of American reggae acts taking on the world. This comes at a time when Jamaica seems to be exporting less and less in the roots genre as it continues to saturate the market with modern roots and dancehall acts. I asked Gorman about this new surge in American reggae and how he thinks Jah Works fits into this new paradigm.
“It’s remarkable. Reggae is arguably as big as it’s ever been stateside, and that’s in large part due to the US-based reggae based bands. Reggae, intrinsically Jamaican music, has always had a huge influence on musicians in the US, and all over the world.”
“Take SOJA for instance, SOJA have MADE all their opportunities and when those opportunities presented themselves, they made the most of them. The great sound they have is a given and a prerequisite for success. They also have outstanding management that works solely and tirelessly to open doors for them.”
“How important is this in breaking into the international market?” I ask.
“This is a prerequisite for success in this day and age. Clive Davis isn’t strolling into local dives looking for the next gem. You have to make yourself impossible to ignore, and SOJA has done that on all levels. I’ll also note that as happy as I am for them and there success, I’m equally impressed with how humble and real they’ve stayed as people. Good bunch of guys.
As for Jah Works, I’m certainly biased on this, but I don’t think it’s the quality of the music that’s held us from reaching higher levels. It’s been a combination of not having consistent, dedicated management, playing it too safe, as well as periods of internal dischord that have held us back. Looking at the timeline of reggae’s rise in the US, maybe we peaked too early. All that said, I’m still very proud of all we’ve accomplished in our long history, and will say that Jah Works has had positive influence on other bands. The beauty for Jah Works is that the story isn’t over. The end is still yet to be written.”
One thing that places Jah Works dreads and shoulders above other touring acts is the quality of their original music. Pick up any one of their 7 albums and you will be pleasantly surprised. Horns, guitars, riddims, vocals…it’s all there in perfect order. Jah Works actually does a disservice to fans by playing cover tunes. However, this writer acknowledges the shallow musical palate of many “reggae fans” that attend festivals and shows. There’s always the “play some Skynard” asshole at every show. It’s very difficult to market reggae to such a fickle audience. You better play a Marley cover or you might find yourself with empty shows.
Gorman talks about writing original music and what it means for Jah Works.
“Coming up with new music has never been difficult for the band. What at times has been difficult is finding the time to get everyone together to work on music and record it. Lately, with families growing and responsibilities increasing, it’s been tough to make this necessary time consistently. Once the time is made, making music comes effortlessly most of the time, which is a gift we all share together.”
Jah Works is a band in limbo. They’ve mastered the art of touring and performing live. they are journeymen at writing and arranging original music. They have a solid fan base and the respect of every major artist they’ve played with. Like most struggling bands out there who have been trodding this path for so long, they need a break…an opportunity to shine.
Kevin Gorman is right. The end of their story is yet to be written.
And if you’re a fan of this new wave of American reggae, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.
To read my entire interview with the band please visit http://midnightraverblog.com/2012/07/13/jah-works-baltimores-bomb-squad/