If you can’t be in the Caribbean this holiday season, the new Christmas album by reggae star Shaggy will fill your stocking with island cheer.
The multi-Grammy Award winner and native of Kingston, Jamaica says the record was inspired by seeing so many tourists coming down to Jamaica for the holidays without necessarily getting introduced to the different Christmas traditions of the Caribbean, like drinking sorrel and kids shopping for toys at the Grand Market on Christmas morning.
“The Caribbean has a different vibe at Christmas than New York,” the artist said from his stateside home on Long Island. “It’s almost like a Carnival season — the family gathers, but there’s also back-to-back parties.”
Christmas in the Islands, released on Nov. 20, throws in a couple of sentimental favorites, with Shaggy taking a solo turn on I’ll Be Home for Christmas and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. But the bulk of the 15-track record are uptempo original holiday songs recorded in collaboration with more than a dozen other artists, from relative unknowns to A-listers like Beenie Man and Joss Stone.
“It’s a party CD,” says Shaggy, who said he enjoys collaborating with new artists who are unafraid to take risks — like doing a dancehall Christmas song, for example. “My collaborators are people I have a relationship with,” he adds, lending the sense of trust needed to make a record like Christmas in the Islands authentic and not just a walk-through.
If the title sounds vaguely familiar, it’s perhaps because Jimmy Buffett recorded the similarly titled Christmas Island in 1995 and, before that, a song called Christmas in the Caribbean.
Shaggy laughs at the Buffett comparison.
“Jimmy Buffett — that guy made an empire on one goddamn song,” he said. “He’s my hero.”
It’s no surprise that an artist whose biggest hits have included “It Wasn’t Me” and “Mr. Boombastic” readily shakes off critics and doesn’t hesitate to take chances that other, more image-conscious singers might not, whether that’s sampling the syrupy pop song “Angel of the Morning,” recording something as potentially uncool as a Christmas album, or unexpectedly teaming up with Sting for the surprise hit album 44/876 in 2018.
Shaggy describes his partnership with the former Police frontman-turned-ballad crooner as the result of a random encounter in the studio — the two share a manager — but said the artists bonded instantly over a shared love of reggae, ska, and calypso music.
“Sting is the brother I didn’t know I needed,” he laughs.
“My music is really a hybrid,” continues Shaggy. “I’m not going to say I’m going to [be] Bob Marley only better, so I have to do me.”
“I don’t take nothing about music too seriously,” he adds. “Some people say music is like birthing a child. That’s fucking bullshit. I can write a song every hour — it’s not a child, it’s a song.
“Every major artist you know, including Bob Marley and the Beatles, had more flops than hits. Nobody remembers the flops.”
Shaggy served in the United States Marine Corps during the Gulf War and shuttles frequently between New York and Jamaica, but leaves no doubt about where he considers home.
“I’m a Kingstonian,” he proudly declares, fondly recalling his grandmother — otherwise partial to Mahalia Jackson and Patty Page records — introducing him to the sounds of reggae pioneers Toots and the Maytals as a young child in the early 1970s.
Looking back at his grandmother, who Shaggy describes as a proper “church woman”, “I was like, how the fuck did Toots get into the middle of this?” He says. “When I did a record with Toots, it felt like I had made it — I wish she could have seen that.”
Whether it’s the music, or the food, or the people, “You should not come down here to a little resort and that’s it,” Shaggy advises Jamaica visitors. “If you come to Jamaica and you don’t experience the culture, you’re missing out.”
“This island of three million people, think about the impact it has had on the world,” he said, name dropping people of Jamaican heritage like Colin Powell and Kamala Harris. “It’s really amazing.”
“We’re the best of everything, whether we’re doing good or bad,” he says with a laugh while encouraging travelers to put Kingston, and especially Nine Mile and the Bob Marley Museum, on their vacation itinerary.
For the singer, some of the best of the Jamaica includes stopping at the fish fry at Screechies on Hellshire Beach in St. Catherine Parish or the Portland Jerk Center in Port Antonio.
And just like a lot of touristsH, Shaggy can sometimes be found rafting on the Rio Grande River.
“I go with a bunch of my friends,” he says. “One raft is the sound system, and the other is a bar. It’s crazy — we jump off into the river, stop halfway for lunch — it’s one of my favorite things to do.”
While you may or may not get surprised by Shaggy and his crew around the next bend on the Rio Grande, the Jamaican musical icon is sure to keep listeners guessing with every song he records.
“When you hear a Shaggy record you know what you’re getting,” he says. “Some funky, funky shit.”