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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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…

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”.