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.

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.

Madonna meets Lionel Richie uptown…

I’ve been involved in a couple online discussions in recent weeks about the fact that there’s a sense that Jamaican music is on the wane. The country that first gave the world reggae in the so-called “golden-era” of the 1970s and then dub, which, to many, gave birth to a broad range of bass music (see Simon Reynold’s analysis of what he calls the “hardcore continuum” for details), has popped down. In an article about Croatia’s Outlook Festival, ClashMusic suggested that “the former empire of reggae and dub forms ha[s] stagnated to become caught in a pool of pop and R&B orientated inertia”. This sounds a little odd to me. I know that Gabriel Heatwave argued on Twitter for the relevance of today’s dancehall–and I think he has a major point. John Eden, of the always excellent Uncarved blog, also brought up the fact that those interviewed about the “inertia” of present-day popular Jamaican music were all men in, well, let’s say the late prime of their careers. I know that Rodigan has his complaints about today’s Jamaican music–his comments on contemporary tunes were pretty derisive today while he played at the Boilerroom.

I’m not going to get into an argument about whether or not Jamaican music is less than inspirational these days. I think you could argue either way. I do, however, think that the very basis of ClashMusic’s statement is faulty. It was pop and R&B from which “reggae and dub forms” originated in Jamaica. Just watch this excellent short (if you haven’t already seen it) that showcases Count C: The Wizard of the West, an early soundman who played R&B and pop (as well as calypso and probably a few of mento-influenced tunes) back before ska and reggae.

Whether folks in Croatia or Europe in general like the poppy and R&B sounds of some Jamaican music, it’s always been a part of the scene. Sure, if you love sailing on a sea of dubstep wobble, it might be hard to link with the melodic strands of what seems to me (over the past month of attending dances) to be one of the biggest and best songs in Jamaica right now–Laza Morgan (ft. Mavado) “One by One”.

But after a trip to Rae Town, where the classic sounds of Klassique play everything from 50s rock and roll to 70s disco to Rick Astley (yes, Rick Astley), it’s hard not to spend time focusing on the other part of Jamaican music. Yes, Jamaica is a Bass Culture, but it’s also home to some of the most amazing melodies (and amazing singing voices for those melodies) this here music lover has ever heard. In fact, I think that “One by One” takes a little piece of smooth Lionel Richie R&B a touch of the pop personality of Madonna, and a dash of dancehall, courtesy of Mavado, to create what is a spectacularly catchy song with a melody that deserves every lick back it gets.

Aside: All this might give some insight into why Bredda Hype playing Madonna (specifically, “Like a Virgin”) and Beyonce (specifically “Single Ladies”) got such an insane reaction at last week’s Guinness Sounds of Greatness. I’m still trying to sort that out in my head.

Big Up Beth Lesser Every Time.

So glad to hear about Beth Lesser‘s new book The Legend Of Sugar Minott & Youth Promotion was released this past week. Before I go any further, order it from Muzik Tree now (they’re the folks that brought you all the terrific Small Axe books) and read Susannah’s interview with Beth at Shimmy Shimmy.

Finding out about the new book got me reminiscing. As those who read this blog may be aware, I was involved in getting Beth’s King Jammy’s reissued back when I was toiling at a rather low-paying publishing gig. As Scott C explained in his 2003 article about the book, I was super interested in getting a copy of King Jammy’s for my boyfriend at the time. When we got the original 1989 version in the mail, the two of us pored over it, amazed at how the writing so vividly depicted soundsystem culture. I’ve often said that I fell in love with reggae not through the music of Bob Marley, but the sound of Stone Love–however, Beth’s book most certainly clinched the deal. I don’t think I’d be going too far to say that it got me over to the UK to chat with Steve Barrow (and have him write the afterword), getting up the nerve to get a cover blurb from Dennis Alcapone, and applying for a job and then moving to Jamaica in 2003.

After making a plea to ECW Press that this would be a valuable and important book, we had to figure out how to get it done well and inexpensively. Intro design (specifically Martina Keller) painstakingly conceptualized the look of the book, which was, of course, made to be the exact same size as a 45″. Intro had been responsible for a whole run of spectacular covers for Blood and Fire, and they were willing to cut their fee to something that would manageable, given that I represented a rather small Canadian publishing house (and if you know anything about Canadian publishing, there’s not really much money in it).

Beth kindly provided us with every back issue of Reggae Quarterly the 1980s dancehall fanzine her and her husband Dave Kingston had put out–this lead to the inclusion of eight selections in the book, additional interviews with Half Pint, George Phang, Jazzbo, Jammy, Tiger, Admiral Bailey and King Kong, as well as a piece on Youth Promotion and Sugar Minott.

Though I left publishing to take up research and my move to Jamaica transformed (and transmigrated) into years of research into Ethiopia, I do believe that working on King Jammy’s was a bit of a gamechanger in my life, and it remains something I’m still quite proud of.

Even in a climate that makes publishing quite difficult, I am so glad that Beth’s books have been released–her photography and her words jump off the page, providing amazing descriptions and asking all the pertinent questions. Here’s to the next book…

Reading the Clash

There’s a reason Kamau Brathwaite calls it a “nation language”. What is commonly known as Patois may sound like English, but it’s often expressed using quite different grammar and most certainly a pile of different vocab. This is evident to those who study Jamaican lit, but also to anyone who has even a passing interest in reggae. It’s tough for foreigners to understand Bob, but it’s even more tough to understand the rapid-fire speech of dancehall. And this is a problem, because so much of what happens in the dance–and in the clash–is based on the “argument”. Though Ricky Trooper’s time ‘pon Youchube might have diminished his reputation, last year at around this time he was able to get the massive on his side in magnificent fashion against an initially strong Blacc Widdo (check the tune fi tune especially) as part of the Guinness Sounds of Greatness–and it was all because of what he said. Blacc Widdo look totally shocked at the turn of events.
Now, thanks to PJ “Prince” Rickards, we have a series of famous (or infamous) deejay clashes “translated to English, for all of you dancehall fans that never knew exactly what they were really saying.” Rickards does take some liberties with his translations, but it does make the clips much more accessible–and the competitions clearer. Sure, there are bits and pieces lost in the translation, just like in literary translation, but Rickards’s webisode project does provide a clearer window into the clash…





Thanks for the heads up on this stuff from Taliesin GilkesBower.

Watching Death Before Dishonour is just like watching Canada’s game…

After Seen posted this great interview with Rodigan (elements totally relevant to my soundclash musings), I thought I’d drag out the video produced of Death Before Dishonour from 2006. It looks like a recording of professional sport.

If you don’t believe me, watch the first 40 seconds of the above video (keep watching for Rodigan), and then watch the first 40 seconds of the one below and tell me if there’s any difference in terms of visual approach.
Part 2 of my “Ring the Alarm” will address the development of soundclash as professional sport, among other things. Now if I could only convince the folks who make hockey highlight reels to use Mavado…
EDIT: How could I have forgotten! Mr. Poirier connects the dots alongside Face T in the video for “Blazin’”. If only Ghislain and I rooted for the same team…