Safer than ten padlock: Vybz Kartel

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So Vybz Kartel was acquitted on one murder charge a couple of days ago. On the afternoon of the verdict, I went and spoke to defence lawyer Christian Tavares-Finson about the case. I wrote a piece for Pitchfork about it, but my original had a few extra details from the case and bits and pieces from Tavares-Finson that folks might be interested in…

Just two weeks ago, a bass-heavy, cracking tune called “Compass” by Vybz Kartel was unleashed. A sure summer highlight, given a recent lull in head nod-inducing dancehall tunes. “Keep yuh safer than ten padlock,” the man also known alternately as “Di Teacha” and “Worl’ Boss”, rhythmically repeats. This is more than a little tongue in cheek, given that Kartel has been locked up himself, waiting to face murder charges since September 29, 2011.

“Compass” was far from the first track released in the past almost two years. Though he is certainly not permitted by law to be recording while in jail, Kartel has oddly managed to be almost as prolific as when he was a free man. With explanations and hypotheses ranging from the use of old acapellas to voicing over the phone to straight up illegal activity, UK soundcrew Heatwave has provided a nice rundown of best (and worst) of the many tracks released since Adidja Palmer’s arrest. One of the best is the hit single from February 2013, “Peanut Shell.” It’s now a recent arty short film/video starring World Reggae Dance Champs Shady Squad.

Vybz Kartel was on the rise in 2011—a critically-praised new album, Kingston Story, produced by American producer Dre Skull and a profile in the New York Times. No stranger to controversy, from specializing in explicit lyrics to flaunting his bleached skin to his public conflicts with fellow performers, Kartel has always butt heads with someone or other. His business ventures, such as Daggering Condoms and Street Vybz Rum alongside his rather racy reality tv show “Teacha’s Pet” also did little to endear him to so-called respectable society. His detractors seemed vindicated when the deejay born Adidja Palmer was arrested for two counts of murder.

On July 24, Palmer was acquitted of one of these two murder charges, exiting the courthouse and waving to a large crowd of screaming fans. In the shooting death of music promoter Barrington “Bossie” Burton, Palmer stood accused alongside two others. Though rumors of cellphone-video footage, DNA evidence, and text messages swirled in the media and online amongst fans, the case hung on witness statements that were disallowed by the judge since the police could not secure the presence of the witnesses themselves. According to defense attorney Christian Taveres-Finson, “We didn’t believe that they had any witnesses. We didn’t believe that the police were investigating the matter properly.” Sure that Palmer will be exonerated, his legal team feel that a defamation case might be in the cards: “When he comes out, we will look at [that] very carefully.” 

In a post-verdict statement to his fans, the “Worl’ boss” remained defiant: “I had the utmost confidence from the outset as I knew I was being used as a scapegoat as usual because of my image and content and some of my music.”

What remains is the case of Clive “Lizard” Williams, who was allegedly beaten and shot to death in Palmer’s Kingston home. This case, with six defendants in total, is due to come to trial in November. According to Taveres-Finson, the evidence is again “circumstantial. We have the view that he shall be out on bail.” And how soon? “It will take a couple weeks to put the documents together, so anywhere between three or four weeks.”

Whether or not the bail hearings lean Palmer’s way, the artist that is Vybz Kartel is not going away soon. Nothing seems to stop his popularity on the streets of Kingston and in the minds of dancehall fans worldwide. After all, there was yet another new tune released just this week . . . there’s surely more where that came from. 

Took a Break

So I’ve been a little less attentive to the blog than perhaps I should be. In my defense, I’ve been trying to get a pile of things done and I’ve also started a new job. I have, however, made time to write a little bit. Some of my favourites: I wrote a piece for Cult Montreal with my pal Doudou Kalala, a little something for the Montreal Gazette on Dominica, and had the opportunity to report on Astro Saulter’s show for LargeUp.

I travelled to Ethiopia to give a paper alongside Jahlani Niaah at the International Conference of Ethiopian Studies on returned Rastafari repatriates and was able to fit in an interview with Haile Roots. More on that soon.

The biggest news, however, is that I have a contract with NYU Press. A book on the Ethiopian perception of the Rastafari movement is in the works…

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”.

Reggae vibes ina Itiopia

Next week, I’m going to be talking about my research at a workshop far far away. My dissertation was called (with apologies to Mr. Kalanji) “Moving Out of Babylon, into whose Father’s Land?: The Ethiopian Perception of the Repatriated Rastafari”, and I’ll be speaking specifically about the space of Shashemene, Ethiopia and the way the very space of the town impacts the relationship between Rastafari and Ethiopia/ans.

I recently wrote a little something about Ethiopian reggae for Arte.tv’s Tonspur website (accompanied by a few of my photos and some fun videos). I presented a longer piece on the topic at the Rastafari conference in August at UWI and I’m working up a longer paper. Anyhow, the little German I know tells me that the piece was shortened and edited a little. For those interested,  the original English is here. I’d be happy for comments–this is a wee little piece of a bigger project.

Shashemene, Reggae and Rastafari

Shashemene, Ethiopia is a bustling, busy crossroads town 250 kilometres south of Addis Ababa. It’s most well known not for its huge, busy market, or proximity to the wonderful hot springs of Wondo Genet, or the fact that it’s a great place to stop before traveling onwards to the south, but for a group of settlers living on the outskirts of the city—the Rastafari.

One passes the brightly coloured Rasta houses and businesses—some that look like they could have been lifted from Kingston, Jamaica and plopped down in this place, thousands of miles away—and enters the town where the streets are filled with people. Rastafari stick out.

There’s a definite divide between the Rastafari and the Ethiopian population. Physically the Rastafari are outside of Shashemene—a car, bus, horse cart or motorcycle taxi ride away—and they are a community of hundreds next to a town of over a hundred thousand. Rastafari culture (or cultures, given that Rastafari in Shashemene hail from over a dozen countries) is significantly different from Ethiopian cultures. I met with Rastafari who would tell me how hard it was to adapt to Ethiopia. Many spoke of how hard it was to learn languages like Amharic and Afaan Oromo, others spoke about how the climate was a lot colder than what they had expected. But regardless of any discomfort, their love for the land could not be shaken.

While doing my PhD research, I worked as an English teacher at a local college in Shashemene. When I told the students I was doing research that had to do with the Rastafari, the class giggled. One made a joke about how maybe I just wanted to get my hands on “hashish”. Another said that his parents wouldn’t want him going near their area, known in Amharic as the “Jamaica sefer” (Jamaican village/area).

I told the class I was interested in what Ethiopians thought about the Rastafarian population and they all looked at me with surprise. I got this reaction a lot. “No one has ever asked what we think about the Rastas,” said one Ethiopian friend. In general, people I spoke to told me that the Rastas were nice people, but these Shashemene locals worried about marijuana and didn’t understand the belief in Haile Selassie as divine. To my students, and to every other Ethiopia I interviewed, the former emperor may have been well liked, but he certainly wasn’t God.

Even though there’s an obvious disconnect, something that works to bring both communities together is music. Once a year, on July 23, the Rastafari make themselves known with a motorcade through the town. Very few Ethiopians take notice of this afternoon affair, but at night, the Rastafari throw a huge concert party to celebrate the birthday of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie. The doors of the headquarters of the Twelve Tribes of Israel are thrown open to the surrounding community. Reggae music is played nice and loud by tremendously talented repatriate musicians, and delicious Caribbean food is cooked by tremendously talented repatriate cooks. Listening to heavy bass while eating curry goat or escoveitched fish is to be expected in Jamaica, but in Ethiopia it’s a unique experience. Tourists, Ethiopians and Rastafari of all ages all share in what is a genuinely good time.

One year I invited my translator to the Rastafari bash. As a Protestant Christian, he’s not exactly thrilled about Rastafari beliefs. But after shoveling down piles of rice and peas and jerk fish, he turned to me and said “You know, they aren’t that bad. Their food is good, and the music is all right too. I just wish they didn’t play it so loud!”

Though repatriates Rastafari like Sidney Salmon (who’s been singing “Ethiopia Is Calling” for years-see below) and Teddy Dan perform often in Ethiopia, it’s not just the Rastafari that make reggae in Ethiopia.

Artists like Jonny Ragga, Eyob Makonnen, the Mehari Brothers and the near-legendary Teddy Afro, among others, have all taken a crack at Jamaica’s most well known export.   

However, while Teddy has used the reggae rhythms to get across political sentiments, as in the banned critique of the current regime, “Yasteseryal”, folks like Jonny, Eyob and Henock Mehari, simply see it as another genre of music. Jonny Ragga’s “Give Me the Key” is an upbeat track that wouldn’t be out of place at a Jamaican dance, but the lyrics are about love for a hot girl, not for Ethiopia and Haile Selassie. The same can be said for Henock and Eyob. Henock told me that dreadlocks are connected more with “style”: “Most Ethiopians are not into this faith. It is a bit confusing here. Everybody loves reggae music here. Bob Marley is famous and well known. This is one of the influences. And reggae music and culture is getting bigger worldwide. It is not just Rasta. I see the music as originally theirs, but many artists have been adapted it to their beliefs…I see it like normal music.” 

When people ask me what Ethiopians think of Rastafari, I often have them listen to some Ethiopian reggae. Certainly, some people I spoke in Ethiopia really didn’t like Rastafarian beliefs and therefore had no interest in the Rastafari. What’s interesting about music, however, is that it allows people to connect. Sure, Ethiopians and Rastafari might not have the same attitudes and opinions, but through the various versions of reggae that have been created in Ethiopia as a result of the Rastafari presence, there is an element of understanding—through music, culture can be shared.

Professor Alston “Barry” Chevannes 1940-2010

When I defended my PhD last August, I was incredibly nervous. I had my powerpoint and quotes from James Joyce ready (if I ever need to feel smart, I fall back on the Joyce–cheesy yes, but helpful to me). I went through my speech and began to answer questions from the five-person panel in front of me. Some were challenging, some were actually quite fun. And then, I was told by my adviser that there were a few questions from the external reader. That’s when the defense got downright difficult. I think I stumbled my way through them well enough, because I got to drink the bubbly and have folks call me doctor.

Professor Barry Chevannes was the external reader for my PhD. Not only were his questions tough, but when I received his notes after the defense, it got even tougher. He had problems with just about everything–the beginning, middle and end. There were a couple moments that he found positive, but it was an incredibly scathing critique of a document I’d put quite a piece of my life into. He’d even found just about every little typo.

When I went to the University of the West Indies in the fall, it took me about a month to get up the nerve to speak to Professor Chevannes. I had met him a couple of times, and he was always enthusiastic about my research, connecting me with all sorts of interesting and informative people from Giulia Bonacci to Jakes Homiak. I first really got to know him when, after a Revival table ceremony at UWI in July of 2008, he drove myself and Steven Jacobs back to the Nettleford residences. We were some of the few conference attendees who had stayed through the night until the end of the ceremony. We were on our way to walk back and Professor Chevannes offered us a ride, chatting about religion and history and Jamaica. It was the perfect ending to an incredible evening.

I was concerned, however, that his reading of my thesis had changed all this positivity. I thought I’d let him down with my crumby thesis. So I would think about calling him and then I wouldn’t. I’d sit in the library editing my thesis for final submission, going over and over his comments and complaints, sure that he’d lost respect for me and my research. Finally, after much goading by my adviser and boyfriend, I called him up and made an appointment.

Going to Professor Chevannes’s office, in recent years, meant going to the lovely new peach buildings on the UWI campus, but his office looked as if he’d been installed there for ever. There were books and papers everywhere. I’d chatted with him in this office when I was working on my thesis (having him look quizzically at pamphlets published by groups of anti-Rastafari Ethiopian protestants who’d quoted his work completely out of context) and I entered this time, nervously grasping the post-it-noted, dogeared version of my dissertation and the equally dog-eared copy of his reading notes on said dissertation.

After a bit of chit chat, and his congratulations on my successful defense, he asked me what I had thought about his comments. I started to talk about how valuable I found his comments and went on about how I saw my thesis as the beginnings of a larger project…and then he cut me off, saying, quite seriously, “Erin, really, what did you think of the comments?”

I paused, looked at him and said, hesitatingly, “Well, I thought they were, well, a little severe…” At this point, Professor Chevannes’s very serious expression transformed into a smile and then he started laughing. “Then I did my job!” he exclaimed, and I couldn’t hold back a smile of my own. “They call it a defense for a reason,” he said.

Today, I think back to that moment. To the fact that Professor Chevannes always did his job, and did it exceptionally. He was right, academia is about the defense of ideas. Though I still struggle with this fact, Professor Chevannes was trying to teach me that I need not fear criticism, that it simply exists to help one improve. With his commitment to community, Kingston, Jamaica, fatherhood, Rastafari, anthropology, and so far beyond, I was but one of so many he taught so much–and he will be missed.