Meet the Israeli Band That Has Recreated Reggae’s Original Sound

The BBC’s reggae guru has praised the collaboration of Asaf and Ilan Smilan with Jamaican legends from the 1970s.

The members of "Zvuloon Dub System."
David Bachar

When your song has been played on “Rodigan’s Reggae, on BBC Radio 1Xtra, you know you’ve arrived, you’ve earned the imprimatur of David Rodigan. It happened a few weeks ago for “My Roots Girl,” a new single that is the result of cooperation between Jamaican singer Cornel Campbell and brothers Asaf and Ilan Smilan, two of the best-known musicians in Israel’s reggae scene and the founders of the independent label Med Tone Records.

Rodigan, one of the most influential radio hosts in global reggae, played “My Roots Girl” on his show and told listeners the song was recorded using an “analogue tape machine and vintage gear, that can reproduce the original Jamaican sound.”

When Radigan says Med Tone’s song reproduces the original sounds of early reggae, he wasn’t talking merely about technical precision. Above all, he meant that “My Roots Girl” captures the spirit and feeling of old-time reggae, and more precisely that of rocksteady, the precursor to reggae and the dominant genre in Jamaican music in the second half of the 1960s.

“Every time I see you I just have to smile,” sings Campbell early on, after a lot of “oh baby” and “wa cha cha.” Like him, anyone listening to the song can’t stop smiling at the sweetness, ease, groove, Campbell’s wonderful falsetto and the blasts of the brass section of the Med Tone Allstars, the Smilan brothers’ band.

Campbell, 71 with an amazingly well-preserved voice, is not the only Jamaican singer who contributed to the single. “My Roots Girl” began as a collaboration between the Smilans and U-Roy (aka Ewart Beckford), one of the greatest Jamaican reggae artists since the 1970s. U-Roy is a DJ — but in the Jamaican sense of the term, which is very different from its general usage. In Jamaican musical culture, the classic disc jockey, who chooses and plays music, is called a “selector.”A Jamaican DJ, in contrast, sings and “toasts” or “chats” over a rhythm or beat, and U-Roy, who is now 74, was one of the pioneers of the style.

My Roots Girl Riddim Medtone Records

When the Smilans appeared with their band Zvuloon Dub System at the 2014 Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, in Boonville, California, U-Roy was also performing there. The Smilans, excited by U-Roy’s musical and stage presence, invited him to work with them during their planned trip to Jamaica the next month.

At a studio in Kingston, the Smilans recorded U-Roy toasting over an instrumental track, or “riddim” (“rhythm,” in Jamaican patois) they had recorded in their Tel Aviv studio.

When Asaf and Ilan Smilan listened to the tape later with U-Roy, the brothers thought the song needed a singer as well. They couldn’t think of a better candidate than Campbell, whose voice and style recall the great U.S. soul singers of the 1960s. Campbell is associated mainly with romantic reggae rather than the socially conscious side of the genre, and the Smilans asked him to write sweet, romantic lyrics. In well-performed reggae, as opposed to other genres, there is no chance that the sweet will become saccharine, the romantic turn into gushing.

“This is original music. The goals wasn’t to copy,” says Asaf Smilan. “But we certainly aspired to recreate the feel and vibes of what had once been. We want for our music to sound like the music we love to hear, and this music is from the 1960s and ‘70s. It’s not a simple thing. We did research into playing the music itself and also about everything related to the recording equipment: certain microphones, analogue tape recorders, mixing in mono. If I hear productions of rocksteady with a new sound, half my pleasure is gone. The original sound, that’s where all the charm lies,” he added.

Rocksteady has had a rebirth recently, after it disappeared with the rise of reggae in the ‘70s. Asaf Smilan tells how in Jamaica the first rocksteady and ska festival was held since the golden age of the two styles back in the 1960s.

In the United States, rocksteady has drawn attention because of the success of “The Frightnrs,” which is signed to Daptone Records. Med Tone’s newest release — two separate singles, in fact, Campbell’s version and U-Roy’s version, called “My Ethiopian Queen” — are further testimony to rocksteady’s rebirth.

The singles are available at http://medtonerecords.com.

Asaf Smilan
Courtesy