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Banton and Capleton Bring Passion to 15th Marley Fest


Finding their religion.

That was the thread for two of the key performers on Saturday, the first day of the weekend's 15th annual Bob Marley Day Festival at the Long Beach Arena, celebrating the late reggae king's legacy.

Capleton, a star in Jamaica who released his first U.S. album last year, electrified the large crowd with a forceful performance fueled by his Rastafarian faith. Frantically hopping about the stage to stuttered dancehall reggae rhythms, his sparkling gold tunic gleaming in the spotlight, he preached his devotion to Jah with a conviction and artistry that seemed hard to top.

But headliner Buju Banton did just that with a haunting, passionate presentation. A shamanistic storyteller, the lanky singer was less a showman than Capleton, but he captivated the audience with his natural mystic air (even if his patois was often too thick for non-Jamaicans to penetrate), accented by the otherworldly sounds created by his imaginative band to back his gruff, groaning delivery.

The one-two punch was impressive, not just for its fire, but for showing that there are young figures returning to reggae's spiritual roots while pushing its music forward.

In recent years, few young reggae artists besides Marley's children, Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers--at least few who rose to international prominence--have paid much more than lip service to the Rastafarian consciousness that was a large part of reggae's foundation. That role was left to such vaunted veterans as Burning Spear and Culture, who were both featured in the festival's Sunday lineup.

But what was most remarkable about these two new prophets is that not long ago both were known not for Rasta fervor, but for their explicit, salacious "slack" dancehall hits. The musical innovations were important, bringing in hip-hop and contemporary R&B styles to breathe new life into the form. But the lyrics kept the style novelty-oriented, and often attracted negative press. Banton's name particularly was often tied to sexual boasts and a perceived homophobic attitude.

Now, though, while keeping the dancehall music ties, both have abandoned the slackness and are demanding attention for their deep beliefs. Banton, especially, offers a package that is hard to ignore, straying from the strict dancehall sounds with a variety of enticing atmospheres, including the rare acoustic reggae number "Untold Stories," which recalls Bob Marley's "Redemption Song."

But the music is only a vehicle. During his encore of "Murderer," a song inspired by the 1994 slayings of two musician friends, Banton sat on the edge of the stage and hushed the crowd.

"It's important . . . the message," he said with an imploring look.

It wasn't all so serious on Saturday. Brooklyn-based Shaggy, looking like a UCLA spirit squad leader in his blue and yellow, letterman-style sweater, was all about mindless fun, his set built around gravel-voiced, dancehall versions of Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime" and the inescapable "Banana Boat Song." However, his entertaining skills are undeniable, and his sweet-voiced singing partner, Rayvon, added some solid soul grounding.

Super Cat, who preceded Capleton, showed a strong stage presence in his dandy white suit and Panama hat, but was otherwise inconsequential. Diana King offered a strong if predictable collection of reggae/R&B.

The most notable thing about her music, as with the hip-hop connections of some of the others on the bill, is that it's helping reggae connect with a larger African American audience after years with a predominantly white following. (Another soul-rooted singer, Frankie Paul, arrived too late from London to perform, but was added to the Sunday lineup.)

Saturday's crowd was as diverse as it gets: hip-hoppers, punks, R&B fans and Deadheads all mixed together--the kind of crowd Bob Marley dreamed of.

* The Bob Marley Day Festival plays today with Buju Banton, Burning Spear, Shaggy, Big Mountain and others at the San Diego Sports Arena, 3500 Sports Arena Blvd., 1 p.m. $20.50 and $25.50. (619) 224-4176.

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