RELICK: Electronic in the Dance: Alric and Boyd on Jamaica’s eclectic tastes

Since LargeUp posted a big ol’ feature on Alric and Boyd, I thought it might be a good idea to revisit a piece I wrote for the venerable UK zine No Ice Cream Sound  around this time last year. Alric and Boyd are a pile of fun to interview–and their music tastes are pretty fun too. Withut further ado, here’s “Electronic in the Dance”:

Alric and Boyd have a passion for music. They’ve produced dancehall and R&B, working recently with Jill Scott. They’re linked with Max Glazer’s Federation sound, crafting amazing mixtapes. But they really get animated when talking about doing remixes for Acid House creator DJ Pierre and the fact that Carl Cox is slated to perform in Barbados for the second Music Factory Pop, Dance and House Festival in May 2012. Alric and Boyd played the first edition in November 2011.

All in all, it’s been twenty years that Alric Anglin and Boyd James have been in the club scene and on radio, helping to bring electronic dance music to Jamaica. Describing themselves as a team, they’ve worked side by side since 1992. Djing since 88 and 84 respectively, however, they can chart just how house music and other electronic forms have been bubbling in the Jamaican scene. Yes, Boyd admits, “The scene is small, but it is there. There is an awareness.”

The prolific nature of reggae and dancehall production tends to obscure the fact that music lovers in Jamaica have significant variety in their musical diet. “We listen wide, not deep,” laughs Alric, in one sentence exploding any idealized view reggae lovers might have about the island and its music. “That’s where you find that we started to push the envelope with house music, with electronic dance music and found that there is a market.”

“Jamaican music is not just dancehall and reggae,” says Boyd, lowering his voice, “And I will tell you something that might be quite shocking. The UK reggae scene is way deeper than the Jamaican reggae scene.” The thing is, from the 1960s through to the 80s, a lot of reggae music was exported to the UK, because that’s where the money was. “We would get what you might call the ‘what left’,” laughs Boyd. The phenomenon can perhaps be linked to the fact that the Jamaican British population have been interested in music from home. For this reason, and also the fact that reggae music and dancehall was long looked down upon (not even used in tourist advertising until 1984), Jamaicans on the island tend to cultivate a varied taste in music. This has exposed non-Jamaican UK listeners to heaps of Jamaican music, but it has also allowed other types of music to flourish in Jamaica. One only has to look at the rapturous reception to Celine Dion at this year’s Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival to know that there’s a wide audience on the island for other types of music.

“We were always exposed to American and UK music, based on the influences on our culture,” says Boyd. After all, in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, it was mostly international music played on the radio in Jamaica. “It is in our DNA that we have an appreciation for country and western to classical to R&B to rock to hip hop.” Specifically, however, in 1981 there was a radio show on what is now FAME fm, then Capitol Stereo, called “Disco Mania”. “It was almost a five-hour radio show. It was the biggest thing for us,” recalls Boyd. The hits from that show trickled down into the party scene. Rae Town’s still-running party was founded in 1982, and showcased a lot of disco tunes—as it still does today.

Alric remembers sitting, listening with ear to the radio, to “Disco Mania” playing some of the underground sounds from New York. The radio show lasted ten years, and during that time Boyd ended up in New York, at NYU studying audio technology during the day and going out to now-legendary clubs from Studio 54 to Tunnel. He did an internship with Sly and Robbie, and then upon return to Jamaica, he began working with then-DJ Alric in 1992, and was able bring music to the table that was at the time unavailable in the Caribbean. “We started to develop a synergy and started to take off,” says Alric.

They’d drop the bass of pop tracks and introduce underground house and techno music gradually, making sure that the crowd wouldn’t lose interest. Almost like an inverted dubplate, Alric and Boyd would play with the riddim instead of the lyrics. And like all Jamaican selectors, they actively thought of the massive at all times, they were well aware of the fact that they needed to please: “If you can rock a Jamaican crowd, you’re a good DJ,” laughs Boyd, “In a night club where people are paying money, we had to keep the vibes. A DJs job is to convert and make memories. If you can’t remember what a DJ plays, you’re not a good DJ.”

Their radio show, aptly titled “The Edge” began in October of 1995 and took up where “Disco Mania” left off, Alric and Boyd playing the same format as they did in the club. “We went deeper into the house, deeper into the progressive,” says Boyd. “You would hear jungle, UK garage, 2 step, the new techno, hard house coming out of Germany, we were banging it,” continues Alric. But back in the 90s, there was no quick download of these tracks. Alric and Boyd needed to struggle and BUY these records. Sure, they got some promos, but they’d also get records from visiting DJs and vacationers who would come and play their house parties and club gigs. The show ran strong until April of 2009, when the pair moved on to other projects.

As for the place of Alric and Boyd’s favourite music in Jamaica today? “It still needs a kick. People who put on big parties here are afraid of electronic dance music because in the 80s and 90s it would come with a stigma—it was gay music of white people music or drug music. Now that it has blown sky high, I think they are trying to see how they can reintroduce it into the market.”

And how do they feel about folks like Bob Sinclair and Diplo who have come to Jamaica to draw on local music and enhance their electronic dance music productions? “Jamaicans can be close minded,” says Boyd, “But these people are introducing us to a new market, so don’t fight it. But there are pros and cons. There are producers who do come in and take. But the good side is exposure.”

And with festivals like the Barbados Music Factory receiving the blessing of London dance music stalwart Ministry of Sound, Alric and Boyd don’t think it’s unrealistic to think that there might be some potential for a bit of Ibiza in the Caribbean. After all, the region has the beautiful beaches and amazing weather. But, most importantly, a commitment to music that makes a crowd move. “It must have a vibes,” says Alric. Boyd nods in approval.

Party Circuit

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It isn’t an April Fool’s joke. Dancehall made the front page of the New York Times today. This was, as Annie Paul mentioned on Facebook, rather interesting considering Emma Lewis’s posting yesterday of complaints against the seemingly constant parties and night noise in Jamaica. It reminded me of Mutabaruka’s call for a study on the impact of this partying on a sleepy population. I should make it clear that I lean far more on the positive side of this argument–there is purpose in the partying. And there have already been studies–check this one on the economic impact of spring breakers or this one on partying as social and political participation. Larisa Mann has also written on how partying and politicking can come together–and how music can be a “powerful force for sharing pleasure, trust, release, and purpose across marginalized communities, and forging a radical, broadly participatory movement.” So after a day of discussing the pros and cons of letting loose, it was edifying to see Sarah Maslin Nir‘s piece “Jamaicans Get Party to Come to Them, via DVD“. Nir’s piece dealt with the way party DVDs–the long-form, unedited works filmed by the ubiquitous dancehall video men every night of the week–circulate, providing connection to yard for those abroad.

I then proceeded to get into a big twitter argument with a reader of the piece who tried to catch Nir on her lack of differentiation between selector and MC. Selector being the one who spins the tunes and MC being the one who talks and bigs up the dance. Of course, in 2013, based on the range of soundsystem practice, there’s no really cut and dry differentiation. But it was one of those ridiculous discussions that I only seem to have on the internet. It was a shame, really, because I shouldn’t have been splitting hairs about soundsystem terminology. I should have been talking about the meat of the piece.

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Apparently Nir has been the New York Time‘s nightlife columnist for a while, so she is familiar with a party–and perhaps some of the wilder sort (a quick google reveals a portrait of the writer with a couple horses at the Waldorf Astoria in NYC). I was a little disappointed in the descriptions of dancing as “feverish”, “outlandish” and “border[ing] on pornographic” in her column and then on her twitter–where the she exclaimed that readers of her piece had to check out the “bonkers” videos. Having been to numerous dances, as well as numerous late-night affairs in my home continent of North America, I can honestly state that there is nothing more offensive happening on the streets of Kingston than that going on at certain nightclubs and during aforementioned spring breaks in Canada and the US. She writes that “by night’s end…bodies jiggle free of miniscule clothes”. Not so much. Dancehall, for all its slackness, often draws a line between nastiness and nudity. The language of the piece is a bit grating and tiresome, as it’s yet another example of a portrait of the island as a wild place–unfettered by the boundaries of civilized society. A mite problematic.

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This being said, though I think that the piece could have been more fully fleshed out, it provided an interesting narrative of diaspora circulation. I liked the inclusion of Kim-Marie Spence’s comments about seeing one’s own reflection on video, but I wished that Donna Hope had been consulted. Hope’s Inna di Dancehall, was published way back in what seems like the ancient times–2006. She discusses video men like Jack Sowah (still active today) as a key creator of dancehall culture, alongside artists, dancers, soundsystems and so on. The book also discusses the circulation of Sowah productions through out the diaspora–in places Nir discussed in her piece, such as Brooklyn and Queens, New York. But Hope’s discussion stems from the dancehall in Jamaica. According to Inna di Dancehall, dancers and “models” try to steal a piece of the video light in hopes of catching a break.

Right now you have girls wheh deh a England an America true my videocassette. Raquel from Modelling Crew is in Engald an…Little Bit…she is also in England, Mackie Boo, she’s in England, Lisa is in…no…Mackie is in New York, Lisa is in England..An…couple a dem well yuh nuh leave here an go abroad true di video - Jack Sowah, quoted in Inna di Dancehall (73)

Nir describes the videos as providing a connection with home, whereas Hope describes these same products as offering a connection with foreign. Nir describes a young woman who travels from New York to Jamaica to get herself on camera, whereas Sowah presents the videos as a ticket to get out of JA. The dancehall circuit, whether Uptown Mondaze, Boasy Tuesdays, Weddy Wednesdays or any other day, is recast as a diaspora narrative, demonstrating links between home and foreign. The parties hold promise and potential for those in attendance, and they offer up Jamaican experience to those in the diaspora. And beyond the diaspora community, these films circulate further, crossing boundaries. As Sonjah Stanley-Niaah has written, dancehall is constructed according to certain borders–boundaries in space, time and, as the consistent crackdowns and complaints about night noise demonstrate, sound. But dancehall culture becomes boundaryless through its ability to reach beyond the spaces it inhabits. As sound travels from downtown Kingston upwards, disturbing those who wish to sleep, it also travels around the world.

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Footage recorded at events in Jamaica is mostly amateur, though it may often be sold to fans, while footage generated by prominent professional videographers such as Knight Rider or Scrappy is packaged for commercial distribution both in Kingston and other places in Jamaica, and in metropolitan centres such as London, New York or Tokyo. Generally, dancehall videotapes and, increasingly, dvds circulate, at prices ranging between five and twenty US dollars, in those countries where reggae and dancehall are already established as popular forms, such as Germany, Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, Canada and Japan. More and more footage is also becoming available globally through general-interest websites, such as YouTube or MySpace, as well as specialist ones, such as Dancehalltv.com - Sonjah Stanley-Niaah, Dancehall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto (168)

Dancehall and dancehall DVDs are about more than just partying. More than just noise. Yes, they do provide a series of economic opportunities, but it also presents a narrative of transnationalism, skipping across the world, bringing Jamaica abroad and abroad back to Jamaica.

Note: All photos from a heavily filmed Weddy Weddy back in 2009.

Satisfaction don’t come until…

Major Lazer‘s new album has yet to drop, but there have been bits and pieces that have been released while folks wait around for Free the Universe to show up on April 15. The latest track to whet the appetite is “Jessica” ft. Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, which premiered on Annie Mac’s BBC Radio 1 show last night. 

I immediately was sure I’d heard it before. Journalist Marvin Sparks was thinking the same thing. One person thought it was “Wear You To The Ball” by the Paragons and another suggestion was the Heptones “Sea of Love”. Spin magazine said “[t]he track borrows from Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s earlier productions, combining crunchy roots reggae groove with spoken word bits and crooned falsetto highlights.” True, it’s got a little bit of falsetto Congos-style crooning, but none of this is right. First off, they’re wrong about Lee Perry. When Spin says the track “allow[s] Major Lazer’s latest to drift in and out like a radio transmission from a bygone era,” they’re certainly right–just the wrong era. This song aint from the 1970s. And the riddim is, arguably, not by Major Lazer.

How do I know? Thanks to Jah Mikes, he of encyclopedic knowledge regarding riddims, the mystery has been solved. The tune’s riddim is from “Satisfaction” by Carl Dawkins, a 1968 Carl JJ Johnson-produced gem later re-released by Winston Riley. “It’s exactly ["Satisfaction"]…nothing to do with Lee Perry at all,” says Jah Mikes. “It’s a shame people seem to have forgotten the oldies…At least now they can be re-released as ‘new’ songs.” The re-release is mysterious as well. How did Riley’s Techniques label get a hold of the tune?

What’s interesting is that in every blog post that showcased the track today, there’s no mention of “Satisfaction” at all. One says of the track that “[t]he production is crackly, raw and so vintage that it sounds as if the whole thing has been played through a battered transmitter radio”–but it sounds identical to the original version when played on good ‘ol trusty 45″ vinyl–at least until there’s a wee bit of echo and such added in. Everything old is new again…maybe it’s time for a 60s one drop revival. Go back to foundation and check “Satisfaction” here. What do you think?

EDIT: Edited to show that it was Carl Johnson, not Winston Riley who originally produced the track. Thanks to Red Selecter (another encyclopedic mind who confirmed that my first guess of Johnson was in fact correct), here’s a piece by the venerable Mel Cooke about the story behind Carl Dawkin’s “Satisfaction”. Makes me wonder…what’s the story behind “Jessica”?

2012 in Reggae and Dancehall

In 2012 this annual roundup turned five-years old, but, more importantly, Jamaica turned 50. It perhaps wasn’t the year for brand new moves in Jamaican music, but rather time to freely rethink and review. Maybe that was the reason for so much throwback. Appreciation for Jamaican music has always required an interest in its foundations; relicking riddims and revisiting melodies is part and parcel of reggae and dancehall.

This year, however, the past was closer to the present. The 2010 images of Jamaica presented in Vanity Fair‘s November 2012 issue as present day reportage are easy to point to as misrepresentative of what’s actually going on right now in Kingston, but they also represent a time, but a couple short years ago, when dancehall seemed just a little more vibrant. There are still enough dances to keep Mutabaruka as annoyed in 2013 as he was in 2008, but the scene seems to have popped down a little. Heck, LargeUp even stated that 2012 was a year “where some might say soca surpassed dancehall as the Caribbean’s most vital music genre.”

I know many folks will point to Tommy Lee as an example of something new in the dance, but even though the man has earned celebrity status in JA, the Marilyn Manson makeup and demon image thing seem very 1999 (i.e. the year Manson’s The Dope Show entered the charts). Sure, “Shook” and “Psycho” are catchy tunes. But they hardly represent a new movement–I talked about the spooky strains of what I then called “cinematic dancehall” back in 2008, and Mr. Sparta doesn’t strick me as deviating too much from this model.

With Kartel still languishing in prison and Popcaan, though still cranking out tunes, not quite as hot as in 2011, it seems that there is some space for a non-dancehall type of newness (and niceness). Perhaps another example of everything old is new again, live roots reggae concerts have been occurring on the regular in Kingston. And bubbling throughout 2012 has been Chronixx, Kabaka Pyramid and a whole heap of young folk out there who seem interested in this live, organic sound of reggae–which is key in tapping into international markets for Jamaican music. After all, the Marley movie was released last year to darned-near universal rave reviews worldwide (including my own). It provided yet another reminder of the resonance of roots reggae.

Early in 2012, one of the sons of Bob, Damian Marley, spoke to students at the University of the West Indies. When asked what advice he’d give to upcoming artists, Marley didn’t mince words: “Make one drop reggae and sell it to Europeans.” Check the star students: Kabaka’s been to Europe and back already and Chronixx, hot off his successful Sting performance and mixtape produced by Major Lazer’s Walshy Fire, is set to take on Germany at the annual Reggae Jam festival this summer.

Perhaps it’s just that 2012 was so much about thinking through a whole 50 years of Jamaican music that it made concentrating on the contemporary difficult. After all, Beenie Man’s “Dweet Again” video (see above)–one of the best videos of the year–reaches back to the 90s. In mid-December, a casting call went out to any and all dancers familiar with the 90s for an upcoming Busy Signal video, so Beenie aint the only one interested in the past.

Speaking of Busy Signal, the deejay had quite the year. Arrested in July, imprisoned in the states, Busy was thankfully back in Jamaica in time to perform at Sting. Hopefully he’ll nah go a jail again in 2013. Buju is still jailed in Florida, but each week brings new news that might indicate good tidings for Mr. Myrie. In other prison news, Ninjaman was granted bail in March after three years. This does not bode well for Kartel. Ninja immediately began recording dubplates as well as a solid track with Kiprich, “The Don Gorgon is Back”. Alongside Ninjaman, Kippo won clashes with Merciless and Matterhorn at Sting. He wasn’t quite able to take down his partner in crime, but Ninjaman allowed him to take the title.

As for other musical moments that stood out in Jamaica this year, Quebec’s own Celine Dion kicked off 2012 with an appearance at the Jazz and Blues festival. She aint Jamaican, but she’s certainly dancehall. As I’ve written here in the past, the Rae Town Old Hits dance demonstrates that JA is in love with music that many foreign reggae aficionados might not expect. The complete, all-island freak out that met Celine is evidence of this. And, by the way, she was spectacular. Dropping knowledge of Jamaican food and chatting about the weather, she of the chest beating and multiple sparkly costumes dazzled the audience. Even Shaggy was impressed.

Seeing classic sounds like Bass Odyssey, Swatch, Stone Love and Rennaissance set up at the national stadium in February was a highlight of Reggae Month. Then, in April, after a year’s hiatus, Irish and Chin put on their World Clash event (they keep threatening to end it all, but it keeps coming back). Bass Odyssey took the title in a final showdown against Killamanjaro that ended far too quickly. Joshua Chamberlain and I wrote a piece for Cluster Mag about the seeming renewed interest in soundclash culture in Jamaica as well as foreign. Perhaps it’s part of the Jamaica 50 need to revisit the past, but as a clash fan, it can’t be anything but good news.

At Sumfest, Shabba Ranks returned, showing the yung’uns how it’s done. When introduced, legendary radio man Barry G suggested that there’s a problem that the most recent generation of artists and fans hadn’t yet experienced the showmanship of Rexton Gordon. Proving this statement true, Shabba ran through his deep selection of hits, showing up pretty much every other performer at the fest. I, for one, was pleased to see R Kelly, but his sloppy style and drunken swagger (“I’ve been chilling on the beach drinking”, he announced to the crowd) didn’t exactly win over the crowd at Catherine Hall.

Jamaicans celebrated their nation’s 50th birthday in August as well as the triumph of the Jamaica Olympic team at the London Olympics. The Shaggy-produced, more poppy-less-reggae “On A Mission” Jamaica 50 theme song was heard everywhere. The sheer ubiquity of the song made the controversy over its commissioning fade away. Usain Bolt reiterated his love for dancehall, bigging up Tommy Lee and making sure to indicate his admiration of World Boss Kartel before starting his gold-medal winning 200m.

In September, Sizzla, who hasn’t really been known for terrific live shows in recent years, stunned me (and many others) at a show celebrating Guinness Day. Performing hit after hit, he demonstrated that he can still mesmerize an audience. Everyone in the National Arena sang along to every word and it was hard not to feel sorry for Mavado. As the closing act, it was hard to top Sizzla–even with Mavado’s own catalogue of top tunes.

Rounding out the year and underlining the retrospective vibes of Jamaica 50, VP released Reggae Golden Jubilee – 50th Anniversary – Origins of Jamaican Music. A 100 song box set of key tunes as selected by one-time music producer and many-time parlimentarian the Honourable Edward Seaga. The former prime minister threw a big party to celebrate the launch of the package as well as celebrate the last 50 years of ska, reggae, dancehall and everything in between. In the middle of all this bigging up of all things Jamaican, David Rodigan quit the UK’s KISS fm at the end of November, citing “the marginalisation” of reggae at the station. To no one’s surprise, within the first weeks of 2013, it was announced that Rodigan would back on radio, hosting a show on BBC’s 1xtra.

By the end of the year, the industry had mourned a number of its own, losing deejays Ranking Trevor and Captain Barkey as well as producer Winston Riley and keyboardist/producer Lloyd Charmers.

And yes, 2012 was the year that Snoop Dogg converted to Rastafari, became a lion and recorded an album of roots reggae. Perhaps this is yet another example of throwback, and it’ll hopefully provide the payday that Vice Records most certainly expects.

So, after reading numerous rundowns and recollections (along with the last four versions of this here piece), I’ve been led to some conclusions:

1. Every year various commentators complain about the decline of reggae and dancehall.

2. Every year Jamaican commentators bemoan the spread of Jamaican-influenced music and not Jamaican performers/artists themselves. Sure, Matisyahu and Rebelution top the charts in the US, but that doesn’t mean there aint room for music straight from yard.

3. Every year there’s still damned good music (check anything Konshens released this year for details–and don’t forget that Beres is still cranking ‘em out) and Jamaica remains eternally interesting (Lady Saw turning away from slackness and towards the Lord?!?).

This year was no different. To another 50 years, Jamaica.

P.S. And, though my top tens have been posted here and here, I can say that my favourite riddim was one that didn’t seem to catch other critics. I love it. And one of my favourite moments of 2012 was hearing “Street Pledge” (big up Truckback Record’s Adrian Locke) on the fantastic system at Boasy Tuesdays. When we do road, we have fun.

Previous versions: 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011.

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Escaping Roots or Extending Consciousness

Last night at Liberty Hall in downtown Kingston there was a panel discussion entitled “Escaping Roots of Extending Consciousness”. The panelists were Terry Lynn, a Jamaican artist who has found inspiration in European electronic music, as well as Alborosie and Gentleman, European artists who have found inspiration in Jamaican music. Carolyn Cooper moderated the discussion, which had been organized by the folks behind the upcoming documentary Journey to Jah (it’s a film about the aforementioned Europeans and their connection to Jamaica).

The conversation was pretty interesting, with all three artists describing how they got their respective starts in music and how they feel that they’ve found their right outlet/niche. Terry Lynn spoke eloquently about the struggle for women in reggae and dancehall–she acknowledged a desire to talk about sex and relationships, but questioned why that has to be the main focus of a woman’s lyrics. After all, she said, women head up the first institutions of the world–families–so women have a fair bit of insight on everything from finance to fairness.

Alborosie detailed his commitment to Rastafari and illustrated this by shaking his below-waist-long dreadlocks, critiquing those who have “pretty locks” rather than natural natty dreads. Michael Barnett, professor at UWI and editor of the recent Rastafari in the New Millennium anthology, asked Alborosie how he deals with the fact that Jamaica, which acts as a source of inspiration for so many international Rastafari, is viewed as Babylon by Jamaican Rastas.  Alborosie responded by saying that Zion is a moveable site–that Zion exists differently. Having spent some time chatting with Rastafari in Ethiopia, there might be some folks that would disagree with him, but the idea of a moveable Zion reminded me of Emily Raboteau’s story “Searching for Zion” (soon to become a book), where she provides an evocative description of a trip to Israel and search for Zion. For the characters in her story, Zion becomes as much of a place as a search for something or somewhere better, an inbetween, a desire for change.

For Alborosie, Jamaica is his Zion, soundtrack by roots rock reggae. Alborosie clearly presented a frustration with dancehall and wondered aloud why there had been a decline in reggae music production when internationally it is the most popular Jamaican music. Gentleman, however, professed a love for dancehall as well as reggae and argued that all genres are still played in the dance. One question that was not dealt with is why more dancehall artists and producers aren’t working with international electronic artists like Schlacthofbronx and, of course, Major Lazer. Terry Lynn has found success in this market… This might require a little more tweaking of dancehall to fit the electronic mold than reggae requires in the international market, but it might be worth it.

At the end of the night, there were a number of questions from the audience, many of which dealt with the desire for more positive reggae vibes. One commenter stood up and spoke to the decline of reggae music, referencing the degeneration of lyrics in the 1980s, suggesting that the music was negative, violent and problematic. Terry Lynn challenged both the commenter and the audience to think about the environment from which these lyrics stemmed. She asked people to recall the history, the rise of the garrisons, and the reality of gun violence. Were there guns and violence because people were singing about them? What is the source of the problem? It’s always tricky to suggest a causal relationship between lyrics (or music or art in general) and social problems.  Instead, she asked, think of the source of the problem and think of how the lyrics present that problem to an audience.

And with that, Carolyn Cooper asked some of the local artists in the crowd to perform. They showcased some positive vibes and impressed the panel. Anyone who was still worried about the state of the Jamaican music industry could take a deep breath and relax.

 

 

Every man gotta right to decide his own destiny

Yesterday evening I went to the Jamaican premiere of Marley, the landmark bio-pic directed by Kevin MacDonald. Emancipation park was packed, and I worried that space would be at a premium, but I ended up sitting on the grass, watching the film with some students from the University of the West Indies. Was it a good film? Yes. The cinematography was beautiful. Capturing the green of the hills of Jamaica is no small feat. There was also a bunch of gloriously crisp colour footage from the early 1960s–stuff I had never seen before.

There were some interesting bits (the origins of the song “Cornerstone”, for instance), but, in general, the documentary told what I know of the story of Bob Marley. When I mentioned that there was nothing new or revelatory in the film, a friend said to me that the stuff most people might hide, Bob Marley didn’t seem to really mind sharing. In the final moments of the film we hear Marley’s voice: “If my life was just fi me,” he says, “mi nuh want it.” So there it was–his childhood, his past, his family, his relationships, his friendships, his children, his music, his music, his music.

It didn’t seem like he was a particularly great father, great husband or great boyfriend, and Cedella Marley, his eldest daughter, didn’t hide those facts. When talking about the days before her father’s death, she lamented that even in those moments, those where she might have wanted to have him to herself, he was for everyone. Perhaps that’s the bargain–he couldn’t give himself to specific people, because his desire to give himself to the whole world got in the way.

I kept thinking of Grant Farred’s great essay on Marley in his book What’s My Name? where he argues that the man’s politics were as important as his melodies and musical virtuosity. He may have not aligned with PNP or JLP, but he did make profound political statements. Marley’s concern in appealing to black audiences, in the face of swaths of white crowds was discussed. And the film’s depiction of the Zimbabwean independence celebrations touched on Marley’s prescient awareness of the need to be careful when designating “real” revolutionaries.

Given the carefully contextualized portrayal of Marley’s Rastafari beliefs and the development of the movement, I wished the film had spent a little time on Marley in Ethiopia. I know, given its already 144 minute running time, that not everything could be included, so it’s hardly a big complaint. The film is as Roger Ebert put it, “a careful and respectful record of an important life”, and I would have to agree.

Some recent writing on reggae…

Between a conference, a couple editing projects and a massive, ominous set of revisions, I’ve made some time to do a little writing. First, a review of a record chock full of one of my favourite genres of music–a genre I discovered while attempting to put together a “Women in Reggae” special for my old radio show, Venus. I first fell in love with “Caught You in a Lie” by Louisa Mark, but that, of course, is the tip of the iceberg. So happy to have written for Pitchfork again.

Joshua Chamberlain and I put together a little soundclash history for Clustermag to commemorate/celebrate this weekend’s World Clash events. Tonight we’ll be in Montego Bay for World Clash R.E.S.E.T. Jamaica–watch out for the tweets.

Uptown Pop Ranking

ImageIt’s taken me almost a week to semi-absorb the events of the EMP/IASPM Pop Conference held at NYU last weekend. I spoke early on Friday morning alongside Rustem Ertug Altinay, who talked about Güngör Bayrak and the fascinating world of Turkish Gazinos, and Mark Lomanno, who presented on jazz from the Carnary Islands. There were a number of interesting connections to be made between my paper on listening to Addis Ababa and their papers, which dealt with listening to other spaces/places. Note: I was lucky enough to have my paper live-tweeted by Ned Raggett (thanks so much Ned!!) You can check it out here.

After the panel, I was interviewed by Michael Rancic for Canada Arts Connect. It was interesting to talk about Canada in New York, and especially at the Pop Conference, where I’ve only heard a few papers about Canadian music over the years I’ve taken part. Del Cowie, incidentally, gave a great paper on Toronto hip hop before (and after) Drake. Rancic asked about whether or not an event like the Pop Con could (or should) happen in Canada. Of course, I’d welcome such a thing–and I do think that Canada has a huge amount to bring to the conversation about popular music.

Over the course of the weekend, Canada’s famous (or infamous–depending on how you look at it) CanCon rules were mentioned a shockingly large number of times. Yes, some of those times were by Canadians, but one very memorable mention was by Chuck D, on a panel about the music component of the Smithsonian’s African American History Museum, due to open in 2015. Arguing that the desire for national success–and the fact that media conglomeration has meant that national success seems the only viable option–has destroyed local scenes. Chuck D mentioned, with an air of what could only be called incredulity, that Canada insists on %35 Canadian Content on radio. I was sitting beside my Canadian colleague, who also gave an excellent paper on sound and space, Jeremy Morris, and we looked at each other, perhaps equally incredulous at this mention. The point was that CanCon regulations tip the deck towards the local, and therefore help out burgeoning acts/scenes. I think he has a point.

I also took part in a panel alongside such luminaries as Chief Boima, Wayne Marshall, Venus X, Eddie Stats and Dj Rekha. The topic was “Tropical Music, Appropriation and Music ‘Discovery’ in the Global Metropolis”, and the discussion ranged from Shakira to Santigold to Diplo to daggering. Venus revealed that she had written a series of newsletters for Shakira, apprising the singer’s people of the latest, most interesting developments in music. Apparently (and unfortunately), this information hasn’t really seemed to influence Shakira’s work. Venus, however, made the useful point that artists are indebted to their record labels and have to produce “new” and “exciting” music. They are so desperate to find something cool that they wouldn’t want to share their sources (a.k.a. give credit) to others or to the press. I was pretty flattered to be on the panel and felt that the conversation was wide-ranging (I learned about bubbling) and, I think, reasonably helpful in terms of thinking through issues of appropriation. As for me, the room was packed, and I can say quite honesty that I have never spoken in front of so many people in my life. I was nervous as all get out, but I think I managed to make at least one reasonable point, that being that listeners and journalists need to take some responsibility for telling the tales behind the tunes.

Other highlights of the weekend included the excellent ClusterMag-curated panel. Julianne Escobedo Shepherd’s paper on “The Ha” and vogue house was fantastic–thoroughly informative, insightful and entertaining. It was also great to finally meet her live and in person. Wayne Marshall’s paper dealt with the ever evolving ways in which youth share dance, music and more online, and the tag team of Max Pearl and Alexis Stephens took a look at the hype cycle and the speed of culture online.

I also enjoyed discussions about the music of revolution in Cairo, rebetika in Greece, Whitney Houston, record collecting, and so much more. However, the best bits were some of the conversations in between and around the panels. Great dinner conversation, great opportunity to meet new people, and, wonderfully, great weather.

Listening to Addis Ababa in Kingston

This coming weekend it’s the annual EMP Pop Conference. This will be the fourth time I’ve spoken at the conference, which is an annual music nerd-fest of epic proportions. There’s so many interesting papers, discussions and performances going on that it’s hard to choose which to attend.

I co-presented a paper on screwed and chopped hip hop in 2007, then talked about soundclash in 2008, and finally, in 2011 I talked about collaborations between Jamaican dancehall artists and folks from foreign. This year it’s all about Addis Ababa. I decided to submit an abstract after reading about Benjamin Lebrave’s disappointment with contemporary Ethiopian music. Of course, those who have done a little reading of this blog or who know me know that I’m a pretty big fan of Ethiopia and Ethiopian music (shout out to Debo Band!). I have, however, been specifically interested in the reactions people have to the music they hear in Addis Ababa as well as the work of someone like Melaku Belay–emblematic of what one might call a recent traditional music renaissance (or perhaps just another approach to the traditional).

This means I’ve been listening to a whole pile of Ethiopian music here in Kingston, and I’ve renewed my big love for Teddy Afro and reminisced about the Ethiopian millennium…

Anyhow, if you’re interested in what Addis Ababa sounds like, I’ll be talking on the Repositioning Urban Pop panel on Friday, March 23, 2012, 9:00 – 11:00. Here’s the abstract:

‘Layers and layers of not-so-dope synths’: Listening to the Music of Addis Ababa

In a recent Fader column, record-label head and African music affectionado Benjamin Lebrave spoke of a recent trip to Addis Ababa. He had become enamoured with a particular tune with a particular synthy sound. After a week in the city, he was disappointed, finding the music either equally as synthy but “not-as-dope”, traditional, or representative of a long-past jazz period. He left frustrated.

But frustration is Addis Ababa. The city is one that demands a renewed listening ear. For Western listeners, the pentatonic backbone of much Ethiopian popular music sounds awkward and grating, especially when played on a tinny synth. Traditional instruments like the masinquo and krar accompany jerky, difficult dance moves. And though Ethio-jazz, made famous outside of Ethiopia by Mulatu Astetke, is more comfortable listening, it is representative of the sound of Ethiopia during the end of Haile Selassie’s reign—the late 1960s and early 1970s.

There are “layers and layers” of music in Addis. Like the city, its music is a complex web of old and new, serious and playful, discordant and harmonious. Addis challenges the notion of metropolis as it also challenges the notion of contemporary popular music.

This paper will take a sonic trip to and through Addis Ababa, looking at the tensions between the traditional and the modern. From the music shops of the merkato that blast Amharic pop and Celine Dion in equal measures, to the Azmari bets where stories, songs and insults are served up alongside folk dancing by traditional performers and musicians called “azmaris”, to the new generation of musicians that are playing around with bits and bobs of Ethio-jazz, Addis Ababa redefines “dope”.