- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 27, 2004

KINGSTON, Jamaica — With his shaved head, pale skin and velvet-soft voice, Tilmann Otto looks like anything but a reggae artist.

Hunched over a mixing board in a cramped recording studio, the German, better known as “Gentleman,” is putting a new spin on the music made famous by Bob Marley.

Germany’s best-selling reggae artist, Mr. Otto, 29, is among a growing number of European musicians embracing Jamaica’s best-known cultural export and exposing it to new fans on the other side of the Atlantic.

“When we first started playing this music like 10 years ago, people [in Germany] would come up and request Bon Jovi,” Gentleman said during a recent trip to Kingston to record his third album. “The people just didn’t know about the music. Now they’ve really got the vibes going.”

Throbbing “dance hall” beats — the modern, hip-hop version of reggae — pulse from packed discotheques in Paris and London. Some of the world’s biggest reggae concerts are not held in Jamaica or the United States anymore, but in Cologne, Germany, and Lyon, France.

“Reggae is international now,” said Benoit Collin, manager of the Internet site Reggaefrance.com, which has seen its traffic triple to more than 90,000 visitors a month since its debut in 1999.

In Belgium, reggae has become an alternative for young listeners tired of the repetitive, mechanized beats of the 1990s techno music craze. At least 20 reggae bands can be heard on any given night, up from just a couple a few years ago.

“It’s definitely growing,” said Tommy B., frontman for the Brussels-based group Jaman, which draws crowds of up to 15,000. “People are getting conscience that there’s something else besides techno music.”

A mixture of Afro-Caribbean folk music and American R&B;, reggae was first introduced to Europe in the 1960s by Jamaican migrants settling in Britain. Its popularity exploded a decade later with the rise of Mr. Marley, who used the beat to promote messages urging social justice and universal unity and love. His music influenced future artists such as the British reggae group UB40, Sting and Eric Clapton.

More recently, reggae has spread with the help of newer artists such as Jamaican singer Sean Paul, judged best new act at the 2003 MTV Europe Awards.

Many European reggae artists perform songs in English, though a few such as French singer Pierpoljak sing in their native tongues. Paul Zasky, bass player for the Austrian dub-reggae band Dubblestandart, said his group mixes English with German to reach a wider audience.

“This brings the music much closer to the people,” Mr. Zasky said. “We are not from Jamaica. We can only play the music the way we see it and feel it.”

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