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Playing reggae with a New England accent

Courtesy of Cultures of Soul

For the past 11 years, reggae singer Errol Strength and his Conscious Band have played a standing Friday night gig at Shenannigans in South Boston. For nearly that long, they’ve played a brunch set every Sunday at West End Johnnie’s near Haymarket.

“Both of those places, we went in and they locked the door. They wouldn’t let us out,” he says with a smile.

Reggae music captured Greater Boston as far back as 1973, when Jamaican filmmaker Perry Henzell persuaded the proprietors of the old Orson Welles Cinema near Harvard Square to book his low-budget gangster film “The Harder They Come,” starring a young countryman named Jimmy Cliff. The movie house ran it at midnight shows for six years, one of the longer theatrical runs in American movie history.

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That phenomenon, says Jeff Swallom, went a long way toward making Boston an unlikely hub for reggae music as it migrated to America in the 1970s and ’80s. Swallom, owner of the local record label Cultures of Soul — as a DJ, he goes by the name Deano Sounds — has just released “Take Us Home: Boston Roots Reggae from 1979 to 1988,” a compilation of some of the best of the reggae acts that sparked in and around Boston during that period, including the I-Tones, Danny Tucker, and Zion Initation.

“I’ve been saying for years, when is somebody going to chronicle the reggae music in Boston?” says Strength, who croons two songs on the set, “Errol’s Love” and “Oh What a Saturday Night.” “Then one day my phone rang.”

On Sunday, Strength and Ras Ipa of Zion Initation will join the band Dub Apocalypse at Bull McCabe’s in Somerville for a record release party. It’s the culmination of several years of research and crate-digging by Swallom and journalist Noah Schaffer.

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“We wanted to show there was more to the city than just rock music,” says Swallom, who is 40.

At least one of the groups who headlined the Western Front in Cambridge and other reggae-friendly venues in the ’80s began as a rock band. Lambsbread, led by two brothers living in upstate Vermont, grew out of the Detroit band called Death. They were pioneers in black rock music, sometimes credited as one of the earliest punk bands. (The band’s belated debut came out in 2009, earning Death a resurrection; their song “Politicians in My Eyes” can be heard as the theme music of the new season of the popular podcast “Crimetown.”)

Reggae band Lambsbread in 1985.
Reggae band Lambsbread in 1985.Cultures of Soul

When a local DJ named Jay Strausser introduced Burlington, Vt., to reggae, helping to promote concerts there by Cliff, Bob Marley, and Peter Tosh, Bobby and Dannis Hackney were inspired to create a reggae band of their own.

“It was the same outlet that we found in rock ’n’ roll — peace, freedom, and crying out for justice in a world of injustice,” says Bobby Hackney, who still lives in the small town of Jericho, Vt. For the next several years, the band made regular drives to Boston to play the clubs, holding down lengthy sets modeled after the dub-heavy rhythm-section duo Sly and Robbie. Their songs “Country Girl,” “Two Minute Love” and “International Love” appear on the reissue.

In 1986 Hackney launched the Vermont Reggae Festival, which he would run for five years. Drawing bands from Boston and beyond, the event swelled from an initial gathering of 500 to more than 40,000 by the end of the decade, he says.

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In the United States, “Boston was the leading source for bringing in reggae other than New York City,” he says. “And I was lucky enough to experience that myself.”

Errol Strength was still a teenager when he moved to Boston with his mother, in 1969. He earned his nickname, he says, as a skinny kid back in Jamaica: when he and some friends tried to make some ice cream, he was the only one strong enough to churn it by hand.

“My family would come to America and bring back records,” he recalls, sitting in a Salem sub shop following a day’s work driving a bus on the Salem State University campus. “Music was always in the house.”

Before moving to Massachusetts, he took part in youth talent shows and auditioned at Clement “Coxsone” Dodd’s legendary Studio One. Years later, having established his singing career around Boston, he attended a show in Cambridge by the “lover’s rock” reggae star Gregory Isaacs. He instantly recognized the well-known singer as a kid he grew up with, whom he knew only as “Winston.” That led to a few trips to Jamaica, where Strength worked with Isaacs’s band, the Roots Radics.

Today, while he’s still comfortably ensconced as a seasoned pro with weekly gigs, he’s pleased that someone has finally chronicled the Boston reggae scene.

“I’ve got grandchildren, man,” he says. “If you just tell somebody, they might think you’re lying. The proof is in the pudding.”

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“Take Us Home” record release party hosted by Dub Apocalypse, with guest vocalists Errol Strength and Ras Ipa. 9 p.m. Sunday at Bull McCabe’s Pub, 366 Somerville Ave., Somerville. Tickets $5. cultures-of-soul.myshopify.com .


James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.