LAST month, inside a sprawling new tourist resort on the Montego Bay coast, Tarrus Riley did the near impossible: He and his seven-piece band, anchored by the Jamaican saxophone virtuoso Dean Fraser, transformed an antiseptic, fluorescent-lighted, air-conditioned hotel ballroom into a sweaty reggae dance party. Mr. Riley, a 30-year-old Rastafarian singer-songwriter, was celebrating the imminent release of his third album, “Contagious” (VP Records), a diverse collection of songs that reveal the complexity and richness of a genre often dismissed as monotonous.
Tarrus Riley is the son of Jimmy Riley, top. The younger Mr. Riley, above right, with the saxophonist and producer Dean Fraser this month at J&R Music World in New York promoting his new album, “Contagious.”
“ ‘Contagious’ — much better than the swine flu,” said the bearded, spectacle-wearing Mr. Riley with a grin, his green T-shirt darkened with perspiration. “Let us infect you with some of this virus.”
Peter Tosh sang of “Reggae Mylitis” in 1981, diagnosing a pandemic of indigenous Jamaican music spreading around the world. But in the 28 years since the death of Tosh’s band mate Bob Marley, reggae has sought a new standard-bearer. Mr. Riley is hardly the first to throw his hat in the ring, but his name is already being mentioned in the same breath as esteemed vocalists like Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs and Beres Hammond.
Like those singers he possesses an expressive, instantly recognizable voice, as well as a knack for lyrics and melodies that capture the ups and downs of love and life — a new baby whose parents can’t sleep, a husband whose wife’s kisses have gone cold — in a way that is both familiar to his island audience and accessible to the world. He’s also an irrepressibly cheerful personality, constantly cracking jokes in patois, though he could hardly take his work more seriously. His mission, he said in a recent telephone interview from a tour stop in Orlando, Fla., is to “preserve our culture,” by which he means reggae music and the attendant black-empowerment philosophies of Marcus Garvey.
After a long season dominated by a musical war between Vybz Kartel and Mavado that has divided those artists’ young fans, and a radio ban brought on by a slew of songs about daggering, the latest dirty-dancing trend, the dancehall sound that has dominated Jamaican music for the past two decades has become increasingly unintelligible to the rest of the world. Without bashing dancehall Mr. Riley is leading a resurgence of traditional roots reggae, fortified by a rare blend of wisdom, maturity and street cred. His music has become a fixture on the Jamaican reggae charts alongside coarser fare and now seems poised to break into the big time.
”It’s very important that the legacy of the kind of music that Bob Marley started continues,” said Bobby Clarke, the chief executive of Irie Jam Media, a New York reggae radio and concert production company. “Tarrus’s job is to bring original reggae back to the mainstream. And I think he can do it and he will do it because he has great people behind him — and his music is perfect.”
The night after his release party Mr. Riley commanded a much bigger stage at Reggae Sumfest, the annual three-day festival that has made Montego Bay a mandatory stop for the biggest stars in R&B and hip-hop as well as the cream of local talent. This year’s lineup included Ne-Yo, whose recent hit single “Miss Independent” provided the backing track for Vybz Kartel and Spice’s X-rated dancehall smash “Rampin’ Shop,” and a twin bill of Marley’s youngest son, Damian (Jr. Gong) Marley, and the American rap star Nas, who are currently collaborating on an album called “Distant Relatives.”
This largely unheralded cross-cultural conversation between American and Jamaican musicians has been going on for half a century, resulting in, among other things, the creation of ska (by modifying American bebop) and the birth of hip-hop (by transplanting Jamaican sound-system dances to the Bronx). But as these free-flowing stylistic innovations calcified into marketable categories, reggae lost out on the American airwaves. Hip-hop stations might spice up their mix shows with a few dancehall cuts and occasionally add a Sean Paul or Serani hit into rotation, but R&B program directors have been largely content with the reggae dabblings of major-label acts like Estelle and John Legend.
“We don’t like categories,” Mr. Riley said. “ ’Cause then you get the separation and then you get the prejudice. Can’t take all of these boundaries, you know? I just like to make free music. Let me express a song because of what I feel, and make it for everyone.”
Born in the Bronx and raised between Florida and Jamaica, Mr. Riley is the son of the reggae singer Jimmy Riley, a member of seminal 1960s harmony groups like the Techniques and the Uniques. The elder Mr. Riley achieved solo success with the reggae ballad “Love and Devotion,” produced by Sly and Robbie, which hit the British pop charts in 1982.
“Tarrus always gravitated toward music,” Jimmy Riley said backstage at the 2008 edition of Sumfest after sharing the stage with his son. “He learned to play the piano and grew up right there in the midst of things. Most of the veteran singers were friends of mine, so he knew them all.”
But the younger Mr. Riley was a fan of the pop music he heard on the radio as well as reggae. “Everything influence me,” he said. “Rock, R&B — music influences music. I’m a lover of all melody, whatever the melody is.” He grew up admiring dancehall stars like Shabba Ranks and Buju Banton and started his career D.J.-ing (dancehall parlance for rapping), recording his debut single,