A biologist might place Cleveland reggae in an ecological niche as narrow and noncompetitive as that of the wolf spider. Not very promising for Akron musician B.E. Mann, who considers his music reggae, while he's been compared to Boy George. "People in Cleveland would look at First Light [the longtime Northeast Ohio reggae act that disbanded last year] and say, 'Oh, here's our reggae band!' But our revues are completely different. They're as different as Ozzy Osbourne and the Beatles," Mann says. His voice doesn't hide his frustration; but at age 29, with six CDs and twelve years in the music business behind him, who could blame him?
"I've been completely overlooked in this town," he says. "I've played and done just about everything in Cleveland, at every type of venue. I've played country bars, R&B, jazz, even a dry club. We play 200 to 250 shows a year, but 80 percent of them are somewhere else.
"We did a showcase at North by Northeast [an annual music conference in Toronto] last year. We were only one of 23 American bands out of 400 altogether to be accepted. No one even realizes this."
The variety of styles on Mann's new CD, B.E. Mann, the Energy Man, brings to mind another talented Northeast Ohio musician, Charleston Okafor. Most of the songs are upbeat in tempo and mood, which is reflected in the CD's cover art; with its orange and pink Spirographic swirls, it could be a label for a General Nutrition Center super protein bar.
Mann admits his style is unusual for this area, and people don't know how to take him. "Above all I'm a performer. People see me and say, 'Man, that guy has so much energy.' It's not an ego thing, it's just a fact. Cleveland has a lot of good musicians, but we lack good performers. People don't look at music as a whole package."
B.E. Mann (the B.E. stands for Bringing Entertainment and the last name is pronounced mahn) is the whole package. He sings and plays guitar, bass, keyboards, trumpet, and saxophone. "I wasn't raised on the hardcore Jamaican music. My influences are Motown, Smokey Robinson. My biggest influence is Aswad from the U.K., which was kind of a reggae pop band. A lot of people don't realize that they wrote 'Don't Turn Around,' which was covered by Ace of Bass."
Before you think he's just putting a pop vanilla twist on Rastafarian music, Mann suggests you brush up on your history. "Reggae basically started back in the 1950s by guys in Jamaica who wanted to play like American Motown guys. The political thing happened way after that. So UB40 actually is authentic reggae. Americans are misinformed about reggae. They think Bob Marley, and they don't realize reggae has this entire spectrum. It has as many forms as rock and roll."
Mann and his only permanent backup musician, percussionist and producer Drummie Kev, have toured throughout the country and overseas, where Mann says crowds are more appreciative. Mann hasn't been totally ignored in Cleveland. He was chosen to perform the opening night ceremonies at Cleveland's Bicentennial Celebration in 1997, and he showcased at Undercurrents four years in a row from 1995 through 1998.
Mann has something of a second career on television. Last week he made another appearance on Fox 8's News in the Morning, performing some of his songs and leading the hosts through dance steps. PBS stations around the country aired his children's education program, Study Jam, in 1994 and 1995.
In March, Mann will perform in Austin, Texas, during South by Southwest at a club not affiliated with the Yber music conference. From there it's off to L.A., where Mann hopes to put his name on a record deal. He says he's in the middle of a bidding war between three major labels, the names of which he does not wish to reveal. His attitude toward Cleveland in respect to his promising future is along the lines of "It's your loss."
"It's such a shame. When we explode, I know what's gonna happen: 'Oh, hometown boys,'" he says with a laugh.
B.E. Mann and Drummie Kev CD release show. 9 p.m., Thursday, February 25, Jillian's, 363 S. Main St., Akron, 330-252-0085.