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Please, Mr. Postman

Meet Roger Gillies, letter carrier and walking reggae encyclopedia.

It's not easy to track down Roger Gillies. His home is officially located in the tiny mountain community of Jamestown, Colorado, but in actuality, it's far removed from the burg's unpaved but passable streets. Simply finding his abode is a challenge--and even those visitors able to locate it must travel down a muddy, winding, axle-busting driveway from hell in order to reach the front door. The journey, however, is worth the trouble, because Gillies's place is the repository of one of the largest and rarest assortments of reggae in the United States. Moreover, Gillies--aka Postman Roger, the senior host of Reggae Bloodlines, heard Saturday afternoons on KGNU-FM/88.5--is among the nation's most avid reggae historians and preservationists.

"My collection has grown in geometric proportions," says Gillies, with a proud wave of his hand. "I have about 1,000 vinyl records, many of which are out of print or Jamaican-pressed. I have about 2,000 CDs and thousands of cassettes." Nodding toward an immense container that easily might be mistaken for a refrigerator, he reports, "I've lost count of how many there are, but at the heart of that material lies entire drawers of nothing but Wailers material, extremely rare, unreleased Marley songs, rehearsal sessions, concerts and such. I visited Roger Steffens (founding editor of reggae's Beat magazine) in California, who has probably the largest Wailers collection in the world, and he let me go into the heart of his collection and shamelessly loot it to record, in one 24-hour period on a high-speed tape deck, ninety full cassettes of material."

Fortunately, Gillies doesn't simply hoard this swag; instead, he uses Reggae Bloodlines, founded in 1978, to entertain and educate listeners about his favorite genre. According to Catherine Gollery, KGNU's music director, Gillies's acumen is an important reason the program is so popular. "He brings something special to the show," she attests. "Roger has that 'collector's disease,' and people definitely tune in to hear him."

In short, Gillies, who's been a Bloodlines regular for eight years, is the Cliff Clavin of reggae--if Clavin were fascinating rather than dull, that is. A former antiwar activist whose father was an FBI agent, he's been a letter carrier with the Postal Service in Boulder for the past nineteen years. But his musical obsession predates his time in uniform. He says he was first bitten by the reggae bug in 1973, when he caught Bob Marley's version of "I Shot the Sheriff" (a tune popularized in this country by Eric Clapton) on a Denver radio station. "I heard this wild, electric, unchained voice, and the energy from that song was real and genuine," he explains, his face marked by the sort of glazed, dreamy look that's usually associated with cult members. "I thought, 'Who is this guy? I have to find out about this.'"

From that moment on, Gillies bought all the reggae he could. After purchasing virtually every recording available domestically, he graduated to mail-order. Now he receives unsolicited music and requests for tapes from as far away as Japan. As a result, his house shelters a great many oddities. Among his prize possessions is a videotape of a Marley concert in Zimbabwe that includes footage of Prince Charles lowering the British flag, thereby symbolically freeing the colony, as well as recordings by reggae combos from Germany, Canada, the Grand Canyon's Supai Indian tribe and New Zealand's Maori warriors. "They sing in the Maori language," he points out. "It's a beautiful, militant album of which I don't understand a word. In fact, I haven't found anyone who knows the Maori language--but I'd like to get it translated."

More treasures have come Gillies's way in Jamaica, where he's been a regular visitor since 1987. "I didn't go to Jamaica for a long time, because I didn't want to be a tourist," he admits. But when a friend invited him to stay with a Jamaican family in the countryside, Gillies jumped at the chance. He had a wonderful time--but during a return trip the following year, he wound up dealing with more than he bargained for. "I went through Hurricane Gilbert down there with the family," he recalls. "We started with three houses and ended up with two-thirds of one house. The next day brought torrential rains that we spent saving the family's chicken business. We saved 98 out of 100 chickens the family owned. All the other chickens in the area, which were really the basis of the local economy, were killed--if not by the hurricane's wind, then by exposure to the rains the next few days. Most Jamaicans in the country live out of their yards, relying on fruit from the trees, vegetables from the yard, and so forth, because you can't get good, nutritional food any other way. And it wiped most families out."

To help a number of those most affected, Gillies goes on, "I set up a dancehall bar in the countryside, seven miles inland from Negril in a place called Ketto. I basically never made back my investment money and didn't expect to. It was my way of feeding two families' worth of people. We served fried chicken and beer in the front, and in the back there was an enormous sound system where people danced all night long to the latest 45s." The Ketto Hot Spot folded two years later, after Gillies's landlord doubled his rent and opened up a competing business; all that's left of it is a hand-painted sign that hangs in his Jamestown living room. "But," he asserts, "by that point the crops had grown back, the chickens were healthy and the economy picked up again. And my partner in the bar was able to get a job as a driver, so everything turned out okay."

There was another happy side effect of the trip as well. The day before the hurricane, Gillies sat in with a band called Children of Jah. "A familiar-looking older woman got up from the table to watch me play and sat there transfixed watching me," he remembers. "At that time I was playing a kind of heavy, chunka-chunka Marleyesque backbeat which I felt the band lacked." The next day the Postman discovered that the woman in question was Bob Marley's mother, Cedella Booker, with whom he's since become friends.

Another reggae notable, producer Steven McNamara, who's collaborated with Lucky Dube, eagerly agreed to allow Gillies to digitally restore some of his music. Gillies has become something of an expert at this process; he's been digitally remastering many of his most hard-to-find keepsakes. "I feel this material has to be preserved for future generations," he notes. "Much of the rarest material is on cassettes that are fading with age. I decided that they needed to be on a better medium, so I put it into digital form and ran it through large equalization, sonic enhancement, and so forth."

The result of these efforts, completed in association with Boulder's Deep End Productions, has been not only preservation, but added aural brilliance and depth. Completing this work in Colorado has proven to be surprisingly cost-effective. "I recently restored a tape that had two albums' worth of material," he recalls. "Had I done this in L.A. or New York, where de-hissing computer programs can cost up to $100 a minute, I've already figured out that it would have cost me somewhere between $60,000 and $160,000 to do what I've done for a couple thousand. Deep End Productions has really taken an interest in my work and provided me with substantial discounts so that future generations, long after you and I are gone, will be able to hear this very special music."

The music industry has caught wind of Gillies's experiments. He's been contracted by Outernational Records, a major reggae label, to restore some extremely obscure Jamaican tracks for an upcoming release. He's planning to restore acoustic recordings by Jimi Hendrix and an unreleased album by the Beach Boys, too. In addition, he is collaborating on a number of projects with Albert Chong, a Jamaican native and art professor at the University of Colorado; hosts regular KGNU fundraisers, including an annual presentation dubbed "The Life of Bob Marley"; and promotes a series of Bob Marley trading cards. His most pressing venture, though, is a film of a 1994 performance in Aspen by Bunny Wailer. Gillies was "deputized" by Wailer the night before the date to collect amateur video shot by nine different cameramen. With the help of Boulder's Spectral Edge Video, he used these images in the production of a computer-animated demo that Wailer claims is "better than MTV." Gillies is in the midst of negotiations with the vocalist to incorporate the results into "a complete Bunny Wailer documentary."

These aren't the only items on Gillies's plate: He's also weighing an invitation to write a biography of the musical Kinsey family and has been approached by numerous bootleggers. Still, he insists that his first love is Reggae Bloodlines--so much so that he uses two weeks of vacation time each year in order to host the program on days when he would ordinarily be scheduled to work. "I like to think," he says, "that I've been responsible for spreading awareness of the many different types of reggae around the world."

He has. Even when there's no mailbag over his shoulder, Postman Roger delivers.

Reggae Bloodlines, with Postman Roger. 1-4 p.m. Saturday, July 6,

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