While reggae historically has been political music, few specialists in the style have been as actively or as visibly involved in debating the issues of the day in song as Jamaica's Third World. "The music is borne from the message," explains keyboardist Michael "Ibo" Cooper. "It comes from poor people in Jamaica, especially, but internationally, it stands up for human rights and justice and whatever is positive."
Politics has played an important part in the lives of Cooper and his bandmates (singer William "Bunny Rugs" Clarke, bassist Richie Daley, drummer Willie Stewart and guitarist/ cellist Stephen "Cat" Coore) for as long as they can remember. They came of age during a period of great unrest in their home country--a period during which Coore's father served stints as Assistant Prime Minister and Minister of Finance in the administration of Jamaica's Michael Manley, who has been credited with heightening pan-African awareness across the globe. In a sense, then, Third World's course was virtually predetermined.
As Cooper tells it, the act's principals met as schoolchildren. But it took several years for these musically inclined youngsters to join forces. "At that age, everybody had a group--each school started a band," he says. "We didn't have a whole lot of equipment, so we used to go around and borrow each other's equipment. That's how we first got to know each other. But what happened eventually is that everyone started to know who were the better players, and we gravitated toward each other based on that."
Cooper and Coore were briefly members of Inner Circle, an aggregation best known today for providing the theme to the television program Cops. But they soon became frustrated with Inner Circle's repertoire, which back then consisted mainly of Top 40 covers, and decided to strike out on their own. They envisioned Third World, which they founded in 1973, as an outgrowth of the youth movement that was coming to the fore in Jamaica at that time. "Jamaica was going through a lot of political changes," Cooper notes, "and the whole third-world consciousness was being talked about by people in politics and government."
So, too, was Rastafarianism--but in the beginning, Third World seldom drew on the ideals of this religion for inspiration. Instead, the musicians' self-titled debut, from 1975, championed the links between third-world citizens in a militant manner that seemed to have more in common with London-based punk rockers than with the roots culture of Jamaica. But a tour of England during which they opened for Bob Marley helped shift Third World's focus. Marley's devotion to Rastafari heavily influenced the quintet's next recording, the brilliant 96 Degrees in the Shade. The players hardly left politics out of the mix, however. The album's title cut--one of the combo's most popular tunes--shed light on Jamaica's history of oppression by recounting the tale of Paul Bogle, a nineteenth-century revolutionary who died battling the country's colonial leadership.
Such subject matter might have seemed merely didactic in other hands, but Third World made it attractive thanks to the band's sturdy musicianship and expert R&B harmonies. The combination soon attracted some high-profile admirers. For example, the five-piece appeared with Stevie Wonder at an event dubbed "The Dream Concert," a gig that convinced Carlos Santana to invite Third World to tour with him. Before long, the group was a sought-after headliner--although not every invitation to play was a welcome one.
"The South African regime offered us $1.5 million to play there" in 1985, Cooper says. "They had just put up Sun City and were trying to promote this racial-harmony thing. They wanted us to play because we were the next big thing." Citing South Africa's system of apartheid, the performers turned down the offer. "We wanted to see apartheid first struck off the books, and we wanted to see people be respected as human beings," he points out. "Ever since, we've tried to enlighten people about the evils of racism."
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Third World found time for other causes, too. Cooper and company organized a project, Land of Africa, that featured appearances by such reggae superstars as Gregory Isaacs, Steel Pulse and the I-Threes; the proceeds from the disc were donated to the starving people of Ethiopia, a nation then suffering through a horrific famine. The effort was subsequently imitated on a larger scale by the producers of a more famous benefit, Live Aid.
Fortunately, Third World's undertaking did not go unrecognized. "In 1986 the United Nations did a tribute week to Africa that was hosted by Harry Belafonte," Cooper recalls. "During that week, they had artists from Africa perform every night in an effort to let people know about the more positive side of Africa. And because of the work we had done towards enlightening our people, they had us perform the final show before the U.N. Assembly and awarded us the U.N. Peace Medal."
Since then, the band has collected five Grammy nominations--the most recent for 1995's Live It Up. But even though Third World's focus and commitment haven't wavered, Cooper points out that providing a good time for fans is just as important to him as delivering lyrical messages. "That reflects Jamaican people as a whole," he says. "I had a taxi driver in New York one time who said, 'How come you guys are so serious about issues but you're always laughing all the time?' And I said, 'Because we know what we're fighting for. We'd like to see a world where people can have fun and peace. We're not fighting because we like fighting. We're doing it for a day when people can enjoy themselves and have freedom.'"
Third World, with Roots Revolt. 8 p.m. Saturday, February 15, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, $21, 830-