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Reggae Beat Joins Anti-famine Chorus

April 02, 1985|DENNIS McDOUGAL | Times Staff Writer

Superstars of every musical stripe may be relieving African famine these days, but there's no relief in sight for radio listeners trying to tune out the pop-country-bop-blues-jazz-rock onslaught of anti-famine broadcasts.

With "We Are the World" by the USA for Africa coalition of pop musicians rising to No. 2 this week on the Billboard magazine record sales charts, news that Canadian, Latino and country music stars are all releasing their own charity records to aid starving Africans must come as no surprise to radio audiences.

But, now, a reggae superstar record for Ethiopia too?

As it turns out, a Rastafarian version of "We Are the World" has been available for several weeks in Caribbean record stores, according to Roger Steffens, host of KCRW-FM's (89.9) "Reggae Beat." And, this week, the 12-inch 45 rpm extended-play recording of "Land of Africa"--featuring more than a dozen reggae recording stars--will be on the shelves of U.S. record stores.

"It's on RAS Records, out of Washington, D.C.," said Steffens. "That's an acronym for Real Authentic Sound."

Steffens and co-host Hank Holmes have spent their Sunday afternoons at the KCRW studios for 5 1/2 years, playing more reggae than most people want to hear. But Steffens, who syndicates the weekly four-hour show to 36 different U.S. radio stations, says there is a devoted if narrow audience for the show. He has even begun publishing a semimonthly magazine on reggae releases and artists.

Take reggae singing star Freddie McGregor. He's not exactly the household name that a Prince or a Madonna has become, thanks to the electronic magic of TV, radio and saturation publicity campaigns.

But McGregor--a "Land of Africa" contributor who guested on Steffens' show last weekend--is every bit as big a Jamaican star as the late Bob Marley. During "Reggae Beat," McGregor did an a cappella rendition of "Land of Africa" and the response from Steffens' regular listeners was warm and immediate.

Steffens' WASP stockbroker appearance is a far cry from that of an authentic dreadlocks-wearing Rastafarian. But he says his three-piece polyester wardrobe is strictly "protective coloring."

"If I walked in for an acting job looking like how I felt in my head, nobody'd ever hire me," the 42-year-old actor/writer said. "In my heart, I'm still a hippie."

Steffens, who hosts his four-hour Sunday radio show for free, first discovered reggae 12 years ago. That's when he first heard the Jamaican music of African repatriation gently rocking from a Berkeley specialty record store.

"I heard Marley's first album, 'Catch a Fire,' in the summer of 1973 when I was still living up in Berkeley," Steffens said. "That's when I was hooked."

"Land of Africa," produced at Tuff Gong Studios in Kingston, features Marley's widow, Rita, among the performers. The lyrics dwell on three recurring Rastafarian themes, Steffens said.

"It's a triple threat. It's about famine, it's about repatriation and it's about peace in Soweto, the biggest slum in Johannesburg," Steffens said.

As Ed McMahon might say be tween manicures, the Jamaican reggae record that Steffens debuted for American audiences has to be the penultimate Ethiopian relief effort.


Tune in to KKHR-FM (93.1) at noon on April 21 and get the full three-hour audio version of "USA for Africa." Produced by the Westwood One Network, the special includes performances and interviews with virtually every pop star who guests on the top-selling "We Are the World" single. Co-hosts Scott Shannon of WHTZ-FM in New York and Mary Turner of the syndicated weekly "Off the Record" rock interview program will also be playing music from the just-released "USA for Africa" LP album.

Westwood One and all the U.S. stations carrying the broadcast, including KKHR, have agreed to contribute all their ad revenue from spot commercials that run during the program to the African relief campaign.

And, for those who can't wait that long, there is the Good Friday international broadcast-in-unison of "We Are the World."

At exactly 7:50 a.m. PST, every station in the United States--and now the world--is being asked to play the 6-minute, 22-second version of the "USA for Africa" single. What began three weeks ago as a solo effort by a Salt Lake City country station to get all the stations in Utah to play the song at one time is now being picked up internationally, according to one of the organizers.

According to Bob Wolfe, program director of a station in Rome, Ga., that began backing the effort late last month, British, Canadian, French, German and Austrian radio networks have all now committed to play the song at the same time this Friday.

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