music (2006-20)

Good Vibrations

Catching up with the Natti Love Joys

THE OTHER ROOTS MUSIC: Marla and Jati feel the power.

by John Sewell

Sure, there is a wealth of roots music emanating from the mountains of East Tennessee. While Nashville is known as the capital of country music, many aver that the genre actually found its inception with the seminal recordings of the Carter Family in Bristol.  Now there’s a new strain of Appalachian music resounding near Bristol, and this one sports natty dreads.

In an interesting twist, that mountainous region has become home for one of the nation’s top reggae acts. Located near Bristol, Sassafrass Ridge is the homebase of the Natti Love Joys. Spearheaded by the married couple, Marla and Jati Allen, the group has become a fixture of America’s reggae and world music scene—and with good reason.

Before relocating to Tennessee, Marla and Jati were both members of other legendary reggae acts. Originally from Kingston, Jamaica, Jati Allen found early fame as the bass player of the band Itopia, and as a session player for New York’s pivotal Bullwackies label. The cornerstone Bullwackies recordings are not only famous for their original sounds, but have also been reshaped and sampled countless times as dubs. For example, the Bullwackies recordings provided inspiration (and sometimes a skeletal foundation) for the chilly electronic dubs of Germany’s Basic Channel label, most prominently in the recordings of Rhythm and Sound.

Marla Allen first found acclaim as a vocalist in the UK for The Love Joys. Noted for their tight harmonies and lovers’ rock sound, The Love Joys’ recordings now fetch a high price on E-bay and are slated for re-release in the near future. The original group will make a reunion appearance at the upcoming Camp Reggae festival.

“I was playing for Bullwackies [and for Itopia] from 1983 to 1986,” says Jati, his voice still redolent of Jamaican patois. “I was one of the bassists right up there when Marla came up to record with The Love Joys.”

After the demise of their respective groups, Marla and Jati became romantically involved and formed their own band, the Natti Love Joys.

The group’s incessant touring took them all over the country, including a foray into the hills of East Tennessee, where they eventually relocated. As Tennessee residents, the couple conceived Camp Reggae, an annual festival in their hometown of Sassafrass. This year’s Memorial Day weekend event will occur on May 26-29.

“Camp Reggae is very involved and it’s grown into an all-year project,” enthuses Marla. “Every year, we take a few weeks off [after the event] and then get right back to it. At Camp Reggae we have volunteers that come in every year; runners, builders—it’s a lot of work.”

The group also is poised to release a new CD, Thingz, and a live DVD in June, on their own label. NLJ plans a tentative release party at the World Grotto for June 23. Musically, the band is similar to the lilting sounds of the Itals, Black Uhuru and Rita Marley, with a dash of King Tubbyesque dub influence on the bottom end, courtesy of Jati.

Revolving around the core of Marla and Jati, the band employs regionally-based backing musicians. For their southern appearances, NLJ utilizes the services of Knoxvillians Yatti Westfield (also of Dishwater Blonde), Chad Melton, and Robert Richards.

In their long and varied career, Marla and Jati have shared stages with a variety of musical luminaries such as Jimmy Buffett, Joan Jett, the B-52s, The Clash, and even The Ramones. And the band is experiencing a resurgence at present.

“Right now we know we’re going to get signed,” says Marla. “We’re giving out a positive stream of energy and it’s coming back to us.”

For Marla and Jati, the Natti Love Joys is more than just a musical entity. The couple are reaping the karmic benefits of a lifetime of creating good vibes, both musically and personally. True to form, both Marla and Jati took advantage of the interview forum to praise their collaborators and pals.

“We want to give a shout-out to all our friends, in Knoxville,” says Marla. “They’re why we keep coming back. Supportive people like [The World Grotto’s] Scott and Bernadette West, we’ve been blessed to have been able to work with them for all these years. I love the people in Knoxville.”

The Natti Love Joys’ good vibes also extend to the annual Camp Reggae festival. “The theme is that we should all try to get together peacefully and get away from the everyday,” says Jati. “With Camp Reggae, you’ve got the music, you’ve got meditation and games—it’s three days of just taking time out.”

Who: Natti Love Joys

Camp Reggae Festival is May 26-29 (Memorial Day Weekend), in Sassafrass Ridge, TN, featuring the Natti Love Joys, Dubconscious, Hope Massive, Starrunner, Kiwi The Child, School Bus Yellow, and many others. For directions and info, visit www.CampReggae.com or call the Camp Reggae hotline at (423) 496-9370.