A “maga dog” is a skinny animal, Dean Browns explains, and sometimes it snaps at the hand that tries to pet and console it. Nods all around the banquettes at the Tropical Flava restaurant—everybody knows the type. Then, with a click-click of his tongue, Brown launches into a slow, ruminative take on Peter Tosh’s whimsical, old ditty about ingratitude—“sorry for maga dog/maga turn around and bite you”—improvising some haunting, jazzy riffs here and there on a melodica, or mouth organ.
If Dean Brown gets tagged as one of reggae’s up-and-coming “rudeboys,” then we all should be so unrefined.
Strumming and thumping his guitar with rocksteady assurance, he sings about unity, humanity and even ice cream with such balmy, hypnotic rapture that he can’t help bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet, his shoulder-length dreadlocks swinging from side to side and wafting the scent of the coconut oil he uses to preen them. This ecstasy of percussion and chanting is known in Rastafarianism as “nayabinghi,” which literally translates as “black victory”—a people rediscovering their roots. During these moments, with the women in the crowd melting like shea butter, it is blessedly easy to believe that “every little ting gonna be all right.”
Brown is a tropical beatitude.
The 43-year-old multi-instrumentalist and Macon resident has become one of the state’s most charismatic exponents of “roots reggae” or “deep classic reggae,” that old-school sound that exalted and succored the slums of Trenchtown and Kingston in the 1960s and ’70s. An outgrowth of ska and rocksteady, it was sweetened by American R&B and defined by its reverberating accent on the off-beat, or “skank,” and punctuated by tongue-clicking and vocal ascents into the dizzying falsetto range.
Unusual roots, real reggae
The origins of the word “reggae,” like those of jazz, are vigorously debated; it could derive from Jamaican patois for raggedy clothing, quarrelsome behavior, “loose” women, or, as Bob Marley contended, some expression of “regency”—the music of kings. In any case, Georgia audiences don’t hear enough of it, Brown says, and he aims to help the cause, guided by the principles of “One Love” rather than the early, swaggering “rudeboy” tactics of dancehall disruption.
“While I am capable of hopping genres, I consciously market myself as a reggae artist because there is such a void for it and they are my core audience,” he says. “The more I grow, I feel the need to do something new and innovative with real ‘deep classic’ reggae… I love dancehall, and it deserves to be hyped, but you don’t replace Classic Coke with Cherry Coke,” he says, adding with a mango-sweet smile: “Rudeboys historically have their place, but I am definitely not one of them—for many reasons.”
His vocals may seem to spiral out of a conch shell, but Brown grew up deep in the mainland. He was born in Rochester, New York, but moved to Cochran, Georgia, at 14, discovering along the way artists such as Steel Pulse, Third World, Burning Spear and others. In an echo of Little Richard, who developed his war-whoops in the kitchen of a bus station, Brown recalls transforming a chore into art: “When my parents would make me wash dishes, I would do these loud, angry, reggae drum rolls on the side of the sink, and it would sound perfect, like a loud timbale or wood snare. So when I started writing songs on guitar, I incorporated that finger drumming into it and called it ‘riddim guitar,’ as a spin-off of the traditionally named ‘rhythm guitar’ style. The word ‘riddim’ in reggae refers to the collective feel of the drum and bass together with all the instruments.”
This technique is part of his effort to “honor the masters while finding his own voice,” he says.
“Dean is clearly not copying anyone,” says Erica Newell, a Jamaican entertainer who has worked with the Marley family for more than 20 years. “I’ve seen a lot of bands do Marley’s songs over and over, and Dean brings a unique, original, and organic approach to the guitar and the chords, as well as a good spirit to his groove.”
So Brown dabbles in “dub,” the reggae art of stripped down remixing and revisionism. His most recent 13-song release is called The 50-pound Dub Plate, and it features “Make It Better,” which the United Way used in a fund-raising campaign for children’s hospitals in 38 counties. Another standout is “Robins Ice Cream Shop,” which should anchor any sun-dappled soundtrack of summer.
Brown has a standing gig at Tropical Flava in Macon, and he’s become a regular at festivals across the Southeast. He has appeared with Cosmic Lovebeat Soundsystem in Atlanta, run by vinyl artist, Aba Shaka, and he helped Erica Newell of the Melody Makers craft songs for her debut album. After strolling into a soundcheck and noodling around on the keyboards, Brown also ended up working with Jamaica’s Cedrick Myton & the Congos.
“I’m an artist drawing from organic, roots material to bring something new to the game, and I need to be very careful of looking like an American artist ‘trying’ to be Jamaican,” he says. “It’s a wonderful world. The Beatles played American music, and it became British. The Jamaicans played R&B, and ska was born. I would rather be more like Michael Jackson or Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry—a rogue artist who ultimately cannot be assigned to any one category.”
As long as dat music come from “One Love.”