Marla and Jahti Allen, the principals of East Tennessee reggae band the Natti Love Joys, met in New York in 1983. Marla's group, the Love Joys, had come from London to record at Lloyd Barnes' Bullwackie Studio. Jahti had just returned from a European tour with the Congos. (A native of Kingston, Jamaica, he had joined the group as a bassist after the release of 1977's Lee "Scratch" Perry-produced Heart of the Congos, widely regarded as the best roots reggae album ever made.) He was also a member of the popular New York band Itiopia.
"The Love Joys was my girl group, with my two cousins," Marla Allen says. "We had a few hits in London. But we were just kids then. We were working in New York, and Jahti wanted to work with me. First we were Abel and Allen—Abel was my maiden name. Then we were A & A Reggae, and then the Natti Love Joys."
The name combines the couple's backgrounds, with "Natti" representing the roots/rasta style of the Congos and Itiopia and the "Love Joys" referring to Marla's experience in London's lovers rock scene—think the lush, soulful styles of Aswad, Gregory Isaacs, and Dennis Brown. The Natti Love Joys' music since then has reflected the same kind of diversity: The group's 2006 album Thingz, recorded with drummer Yattie Westfield and long-time Natti Love Joys' guitarist Robert Richards, is a primer in Jamaican music since 1970, with the exception of dub—the disc bounces from classic roots ("The Valley") to dancehall ("Friends"), rocksteady ("Money"), and R&B-inspired ballads ("Nothing I Can Do").
The Allens moved from New York to Atlanta and then to Isabella, a small town in the southeast corner of Tennessee, in 1997. "We were living in Stone Mountain, Ga., and a land developer hired us to play, and we loved it here," Marla says. "They offered us five acres of land and we've been here ever since."
That spot has also been home, for the last 10 years, to Camp Reggae, an annual music festival, retreat, and general back-to-the-land camp-out that draws up to 800 people each Memorial Day weekend. A second Camp Reggae has been held the last few years on Labor Day weekend.
"Jahti and I love to camp out and hike," Marla says. "I had the idea for a gathering. Our motto is, ‘Get away to Camp Reggae.' The whole thing has always been to keep the vibe beautiful and really peaceful and nice."
This year's Camp Reggae will be held Friday, May 23, through Sunday, May 25. For more information visit campreggae.net.