Reggae Rugrats

For fans of roots reggae with a socially conscious bent, recent years have seen a drought of worthy new music. While Jamaican and Jamaican-American artists such as Sean Paul, Shabba Ranks and Shaggy have made dancehall -- hip-hop's Caribbean cousin -- an international phenomenon, the spiritually and socially conscious reggae tradition of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Black Uhuru has languished by comparison.

But one act, Morgan Heritage, stands poised to change that. Approximately one-sixth of the prodigious offspring of reggae legend Denroy Morgan, the five siblings make music that, though open to other styles, is firmly planted in the reggae tradition.

Yet for all its reverence of, as Marley put it, "roots, rock, reggae," Morgan Heritage has also taken its act and sound into new territory. For the last two summers, the band was a featured attraction on the Warped Tour -- not the place one might immediately think to find the rock-steady reggae sound.

According to singer Una Morgan, their music played just fine with the young tattooed-and-pierced crowd, even if it was at times poorly understood. "It was one of the greatest experiences we have had," she says. "You had some kids who classified what we were playing as acid punk. They didn't know what it was, and they loved it."

And the band also befriended many of its fellow Warped Tour acts, such as Good Charlotte, whose guitarist Benji Madden appears on "Jump Around," the first single from Morgan Heritage's brand-new sixth album, Three in One.

Morgan Heritage's flair for creating reggae that's true to the tradition yet appeals to a wider audience may stem from the siblings' unique cross-cultural background. Una explains that she and her brothers were born in Brooklyn after their father migrated there in 1965, yet they were reared in the much more Middle American locale of Springfield, Massachusetts.

"My grandmother moved up there and fell in love with it," Una recounts. "She told my father, 'Bring the kids up here.' " There, the Morgan siblings grew up with the same pop music as their neighbors. "We would listen to anything from Sting to Journey and Genesis and Peter Gabriel."

Thanks to their father, they also "woke up to reggae" and were tutored in music from an early age. "My dad saw the talent in us when we were fairly young, and he always made sure that we had musical instructors for keyboard or guitar or drums or bass. He made sure that the tools that we needed to become the best musicians or songwriters were accessible to us," Una says. "Every weekend after school we went down to New York City for rehearsal or to work in the studio on demos."

Denroy's encouragement took hold. "At that time we didn't even know ourselves yet. It was like, 'All right, Dad, whatever you say.' He was our dad. But after you grow older, you see, wow, this is really what I want to do," she says. And other options were hardly neglected, as evidenced by Una's degree from New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

"We had a great childhood," says Una. "Our parents tried to make sure we had everything that we needed to become well-rounded individuals with morals. They taught us how to understand right and wrong for ourselves."

The group debuted at Jamaica's Reggae Sunsplash in 1992 and three years later followed their father back to the island to live, a transition that Una says was seamless. After all, even though they were reared in New England, "our house was like little Jamaica."

Although reggae has a wealth of second-generation artists like Ziggy Marley and his siblings and Andrew Tosh, Una doesn't think the phenomenon is any more significant than "Lisa Marie Presley doing her thing and Frank Zappa's kids doing their thing." However, the Morgan Heritage touring band does also include the son of old family friend Toots Hibbert on bass, and three younger Morgan siblings (out of 29 children) have a group called LMS that Una describes as "more urban, dancehall and hip-hop."

The diverse influences she and her brothers absorbed as youngsters in America will emerge in the band's music "with time, like how wine is aged," Una says. "We really wanted to establish what our roots are. But at the same time, as we mature, a lot of what was put into us in our youth is also maturing. From album to album you are going to start hearing more of our influences coming out, so look forward to that."

When asked what's the best thing about playing in a band with siblings, Una explains that it is just that. "The best thing is that we are brothers and sisters. We can have arguments and might not talk for the whole day. But we can't lay down our heads that night with the anger inside, because our father and the Bible always taught us never go to bed with anger in your heart for anyone."

And it also means, for her, there's no downside to the family band situation. "There isn't anything, to tell you the truth. Some people might think, 'You can't tell each other the truth' because we are brothers and sisters. But we tell each other the truth. We're like, 'Hey, man, you're acting fucked up right now.' Just because he's my brother doesn't mean I'm not going to tell him."

Even as they're working to establish themselves, the members of Morgan Heritage are unafraid to court controversy. Three in One includes "Anti-War Song," which is addressed to world leaders regarding the current international situation. Una says that she and her brothers do not fear the sort of condemnation that has recently dogged the Dixie Chicks for speaking out. " 'Who God bless, no man curse.' That's what we believe," she notes, quoting a Jamaican proverb.

With their cross-cultural heritage and tours that have taken the band to Europe, Australia and Africa, Una feels she and her brothers have become citizens of the world. "You get to see everything from everywhere," she says. "You get to really understand and become convinced that nowhere is really better than anywhere. Because for all of us, if you cut me, I bleed red; if you cut you, you bleed red. We are all the same in God's sight."

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Rob Patterson