Bigger than Jah: Celine Dion in JA

So I went to see Celine Dion perform in JA. It was unbelievable. I ended up being interviewed on radio (NewsTalk 93–to be broadcast this Sunday between 9-10am) about the show and writing a piece for the Montreal Mirror. Thought I’d throw up a director’s cut version of the piece here and some more photos.

It’s 2:30am on an average Monday morning. The unmistakeable, song-starting humming of Celine Dion fills the air. Women with their hands over their hearts and heads thrown back belt out the words to “I’m Alive” into the warm evening. Couples dressed to the nines—women in shimmery, sparkling dresses and men sporting bright coloured shirts and well-shined shoes—spin into the street through a huge crowd of dancers. Headlights light up the scene as cars fight their way through the road, which is bookended with huge walls of speakers. This is the Rae Town Old Hits street dance in downtown East Kingston, Jamaica, ground zero for the love this island has for Quebec’s most famous vedette.

If you expect Jamaica to be the home of reggae and dancehall, you’d be right, but it’s also home to one of the most committed groups of smooth adult contemporary and country music fans. If there’s one thing that Jamaicans love, it’s darned good singers singing darned good songs. From bad men to rude bwoys to Rastafari to uptown top ranking folks, Jamaicans are just as, if not more, likely to love Kenny Rogers and Air Supply as they are the Marleys, Buju and Kartel. For Jamaica, Bounty Killer might be the Poor People’s Governor, but Celine is the Commander in Chief.

Given the depth of Jamaican passion for Celine, it’s not surprising that when she was announced as headliner for the Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival, the public thought it too good to be true. Festival founder Walter Elmore had to travel to Miami and beg a picture with Ms. Dion in order to prove that her heart was going to go all the way to JA. Sure, the Temptations, Ceelo Green, Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill, Ralph Trevesant and a weekend’s worth of some of the best reggae artists Jamaica has produced are already a draw, but nothing compared to the excitement surrounding the most well-known Canadian performer in the world.

In the middle of the Caribbean countryside, the Trelawney Multi-Purpose stadium was built for the 2007 World Cup of Cricket, but it’s not seen so many people as Friday, January 27, 2012. The Jamaica Observer newspaper headline screamed “Celine at last!” The two lane highway leading to the show expanded to an adhoc five, but people calmly dealt with the gridlock. Celine is worth waiting for. What would normally be a 30 minute drive from Montego Bay to the venue located just outside the cruise-port town of Falmouth took over two hours. While our taxi driver navigated through the seemingly endless sea of cars, we asked if there was anyone else he would have liked to see at the Jamaica Jazz and Blues festival, his response was, “No, she is better than number one. There is no one better. No one.”

Stepping on the stage in silver jeans and shimmering shirt—the type of outfit that would fit right in at Rae Town—Celine went on to make three costume changes, each more bejeweled than the last. The crowd roared, some women crying, and most holding their blackberries in the air so as to prove that they were actually there, and Celine talked about her excitement about being in Jamaica. “It’s the best place in the world,” she exclaimed, pausing before finishing the sentence with “…to get a plate of jerk chicken!” Wild applause followed, and her bits of banter about rum cake and weather seemed genuine—she’d only arrived that evening, a couple of hours before, so it was pretty impressive. Sure, she’s from Charlemagne, but she might has well have driven up from Kingston given her ability to immediately engage the crowd. Proof? When she sang “I’m your lady, and you are my man”, a fellow next to me yelled out “Yes I am!!”

Being Canadian, hell, being alive means that you’ve probably heard every song in Celine’s catalogue whether it be in a mall or randomly on the radio, and the woman performs ‘em like it’s the first time. It was impossible not to join in the 25,000 person strong singalong. Sure, the crowd couldn’t keep up with “Pour Que Tu M’aimes Encore,” but it didn’t matter. Kicking up the drama, commotion began near the stage in the middle of Dion’s duet with a be-screened Andrea Bocelli as a concert goer took to his knees to propose.

Even Shaggy, who stood at the front of the stage, staring up in awe for every single song, was clearly taken with the power of Celine: “I was very moved,” he said, “Every Jamaican think they’re superstars anyway, so when she came in and was very complimentary about the country and the food and the culture. The crowd was like, ‘You’re a superstar like us now!’” Mr. Boombastic knows that Celine connects.

Carl Wilson, music critic and author of Let’s Talk About Love, a book about loving and hating Celine Dion, admits that her music is “sentimentalized”, but as he puts it, “presents itself in this explicit and over the top way that is easy to identify across language and cultural barriers. There’s not a lot of subtext.” As well, the slight awkwardness of her cutesy jokes, what Wilson calls “a lack of polish within all the polish,” is endearing. And the fact that English is her second language and that she’s from a small town is important: “People understand that she cares about her roots but she has moved on and achieved success.”

Every Jamaican gets this. Back in Kingston, all the people I know were beside themselves when I said I’d seen Celine Dion. When I revealed the fact that Celine doesn’t seem to connect with all Canadians and that there are actually more than a few people in Canada (and the rest of the world) who aren’t big fans of her music, a friend looked at me like I was out of my mind. “You don’t all love Celine?” she said, astonished, “You people all are backwards, seriously.”

“No one will dance until reggae starts” – An Extended Interview with A Tribe Called Red

Since this week A Tribe Called Red released their terrific Moombah Hip Moombah Hop EP (go download it now, and then come back a read while listening…), I thought it might be a good time to post a long-form version of my interview for the Montreal Mirror piece I wrote back in August. Enjoy!

Erin: Who are A Tribe Called Red?

Bear Witness: I come from a family of artists – my father is a photographer, my mother an actor. My grandmother and great aunt are involved in Spiderwoman theatre – the longest continuously running women’s theatre company in North America.

I grew up between the theatre and the darkroom and at arts and theatre events, aroundd an exposed to lots of different things. Grew up in Toronto. Work as a video artist started with my father. We would go on walks where he would take pictures of me, and him taking pictures of me started to become a big part of his work—a whole body of his work called “The Bear Portraits”. Growing up with that and becoming more and more aware of why my father was taking pictures of me to represent aboriginal people in the urban landscape, that relationship grew more and more as I became more aware and started taking part in the photographs to now, about 2003, my father and I started working collaboratively. So that’s how the video art started. As for the music part of it, I’ve been a huge music fanatic my whole life. I’ve been a collector and around 95-96, my friends really pushed me to start Djing. So I have been djing now for abut 15 years or so. But really, a big change was hooking up with Ian and Dan and having us come together as a group, as aboriginal djs was really what changed the whole dj experience for me. And then incorporating that video work, which was always really close to my dj work as well.

Dan a.k.a. DJ Shub: My brother started me on this whole dj thing. He was a mobile dj. He used to play weddings, and he used to play at bars in Buffalo. And he’s the one who got me into this whole dj thing. He is the one that bought me the first set up of turntables and mixers, and this was back in 2000. I started out as a battle dj which is a lot different from djing in a club. You are always in a contest. In 2007, I won the Canadian championship and placed 6th in the world. I won the year after and then placed 5th in the world. The DMCs were something I always grew up watching. I started producing before I started djing—terrible, terrible hip hop beats [laughter]. The two just coincided together as time went on.

Ian a.k.a. DJ NDN: I started playing in punk bands when I was 13 or 14. I toured with the Ripcordz in my early twenties. After that, I worked in bars as a bouncer and in between bands I would play tracks. A new night started at the bar I was working at and from knowing that I could pick good music in between the bands, they let me start that new night. That’s how my music career began. That was 2006, I would say. I have been djing since 2006. I am married and have two daughters—one two and one three. Somehow we all mesh.

Erin: Tell me about the style of music.

Ian: When we started the Electric Pow Wow in Ottawa, we wanted to showcase that we were aboriginal djs in the city and that we were doing something and people should come and check it out. It was almost in the same vein as Koreans having a Korean party, that sort of thing. We just thought, why don’t we have a party like that? So we just threw it together, a few of us, and it was rammed with people that we had never met before. Growing up in the city, you typically know most of the other Indians, but this was a packed bar with people we didn’t know. It ended up being a lot of students who didn’t feel comfortable going out until they heard of our party.

We wanted to remix Pow Wow music to add to the flavour of the party and it just so happened that dubstep was the closest tempo and it was big music at the time. It was right to mix with traditional pow wow music. And then, with the dancehall reggae…Bear has been the best reggae dj in Ottawa for years now.

Bear: The first time we put together pow wow singing and a dubstep track was at a rehearsal that Ian and I were having for a gig and he said, “check this out”: he played a grass dance song and he asked if I would have anything that could go behind it. The first track I pulled up was a Jahdan Blakamoore instrumental for “The General”. It’s a really open, dubby, dubstep track and it just clicked in right away—it was at the right tempo, and it just worked really smoothly. But soon after that was when we added Dan to the group. We played that for Dan and showed him some of the ideas we were working with. At the time, Dan was living in Fort Erie, so he drove home, and the next morning he sent us this track, which is “Electric Pow Wow Drum”. He took this idea that we were working on and just ran so hard with it. We really saw something coming together.

Erin: Tell me about the love of dancehall.

Bear: I grew up in Toronto with dancehall all around me. I was a big fan and a big jungle fan too, back in the day. I’ve also found that a lot of aboriginal people love dancehall. I’ve always found it a funny thing, being the Indian dancehall dj, but as I’ve played for more and more native audiences, people bug out for it.

Ian: No one will dance until reggae starts.

Bear: There is something in it. It’s got that heartbeat rhythm to it. And moombahton takes off from that same place. Moombahton is something that we have all got really excited over. It is something that is new and happening right now – it’s got lots of producers really excited.

Ian: With moombahton, there are no real rules yet, so you just make what you want. And it gets out there pretty quick.

Bear: As producers, that’s what you are looking for – something that you can help shape, that you’re there at the right moment. But beyond that, anything with a damn fine bassline and a nice danceable chug to it, we’ll play.

Shub: Moombahton has pretty much taken over my production life for the past year or so. [laughter] Ever since Ian showed it to me for the first time.

Erin: Can you tell me about connecting traditional with the modern? Obviously, there’s been a number of collaborations between western music and southern styles—I think of the controversy surrounding Diplo and the discussions about appropriation and exploitation. Can you explain your approach in working through these issues?

Bear: Right away, it is different for us as aboriginal people, as people from a minority group working with other aboriginals or other people from a minority groups or people of colour. There’s automatically a different kind of collaboration that is going to happen then when you are working with someone from the settler nation.

So what’s got us all really excited now is the idea of global indigenous electronic music. Cause it’s happening all over right now. And I think all of the really, really exciting things that are happening in electronic music are coming from indigenous people from all over the world. We are all really excited to do more collaborations with people. The more that we get in touch with people from all over the place, we’re finding that people are thinking in the same ways and moving in the same directions as we are. We’ve made friends with these guys out west, World Hood – online friends and we are going to see them at Aborginal Music Week this fall.

These guys are doing the same thing—fusing their traditional knowledge with their urban experience. Connecting with people like that for us is a huge thing.

Erin: How should people go about collaboration?

Bear: Credit your samples! It was a really important thing for us as soon as we started working with this pow wow music to credit the groups that we were sampling. Huge thanks goes out to Guillaume Decouflet. He really worked hard to make sure that we had a deal with the record label and that Northern Cree, the group we remixed for “Red Skin Girl”, that that was all done correctly – we weren’t just jacking this music without giving credit or respect to the people who originally created it

Erin: What do Northern Cree think of it?

Shub: Northern Cree loved it. There was a pow wow here in Ottawa – Northern Cree was the host drum of the pow wow. And we were really excited that they were going to come to our event. We held an electric pow wow the same night. We had the pleasure of having Northern Cree there. We were all nervous because it was the first time I’d ever met them. The way we do the song live is a live remix, and we were on our toes as to the way they would react when they heard their track all cut up and remixed the way we do it. We were totally surprised with the reaction we got from them. Their jaws dropped. They were floored. We actually played it twice—they came up to us and asked us to play it again. It was a reaction we were hoping for.

Erin: Can you tell me the relationship between traditional pow wow and your electronic version?

Ian: It’s centred around the music and a gathering of people – a celebration of our culture. It’s all about dancing at the same time and having a good time and seeing friends that you haven’t seen in forever and seeing friends that you saw yesterday, but you can still have fun with them. It’s about fun—it’s about gathering.

Erin: You have talked in other interviews about the identity of the urban aboriginal – can you explain this further?

Ian: It’s someone who is aboriginal, and identifies as aboriginal, but has never lived on a reservation. Which makes it hard to find roots and any form of culture. I grew up in Ottawa, but I would go back to my reserve and stay with my grandmother for weeks on end during the summer, and I was always an outsider on the reserve at the same time. I would hang out with my cousins, but I wasn’t from there. I was always accepted, but I was different. But at the same time, growing up and all through highschool I was called chief, or “No Tax” was my nickname through highschool.

That’s the other side. You are made fun of because you are an aboriginal, but you don’t really have a strong sense of identity. And right now we are trying to give ourselves an identity. That’s what our party is about anyways.

Bear: My family has been urban for generations now. My grandfather, my father and I were all born in Buffalo, New York. On my mom’s side it’s four or five generations that go back in New York city. They’re an old New York City and Brooklyn family. So I have spent time, like Ian did, on my reservation; I still have some family there. But you are always treated as a city Indian when you are down there. I guess it’s the same as for any community when you go back to where you’re from and you’ve grown up having different experiences. For me, my community growing up was the urban aboriginal arts community, and that was my family. That’s how I had my connection to my culture was through the arts and through the theatre community in the 80s in Toronto, which was a very exciting time. I never felt that I lacked having a community in that sense, but there was always that thing at school where there was one other native kid and we always hated each other [laughs]. That was the guy I got in fights with in the early 90s. But Toronto was very different than it is now . . . communities have grown so fast.

But as we are going along, we are creating this aboriginal urban identity in everything that we are doing.

Ian: It’s not like there hasn’t been an urban identity before, it’s that we are doing it in a more positive way than say gangsta rap. As far as aboriginal music goes, you can either be a blues singer, traditional singer,

Bear: Or heavy metal . . .

Ian: I’d love to see more heavy metal . . . But you are either a gangsta rapper, blues singer, traditional singer, or country singer. We don’t really fit yet being aboriginal club producers. Or electronic producers. It hasn’t necessarily been done yet.

Erin: Tomson Highway once wrote that the image of the “urban Indian” is pretty negative.

Ian: The music that we’re making is more positive than most gangsta rap that’s out there—and I’m not saying that we’re not into the native gangsta rap scene, it’s just that it is a little over abundant. It’s part of why we stand out.

And can you imagine if these kids in these remote communities who are killing themselves at higher rates than ever – if we gave them a computer with something like Garage Band to make some music – how bored they are – how amazing some of that music would be? It’s a little frustrating.

Erin: I have heard that you were pretty inspired by the work of Heaps Decent in Australian aboriginal communities. Are you are work on something like that?

Ian: Because of all that is going on right now, it has been put on the backburner, but only just slightly . . . We need sponsorship. We need to get in touch with Pioneer or Serato or Ableton or any of those production companies where we personally use their products and see if they would be into giving us some of their product to give to communities so that it would help them with that. And maybe at the same time get some well-known producers to come up and sit with these kids and show them how they make tracks and collaborate and make tracks together. Because there is nothing more satisfying and self gratifying than that. When A Trak went down [to Australia] and worked with kids with Heaps Decent, those kids had nothing and now they have 10,000 people who have downloaded their song. I just can’t wait for that to happen to the aboriginal youth here.

Erin: It’s really about empowerment through the arts.

Ian: Empowerment through music is a way to express yourself and a way for other people to accept you.

Bear: I had a really hard time in school. I was one of those kids that was put in the learning disabled and the gifted class at the same time. They never knew what to do with me. It was through my experience outside of school with the arts and through being able to bring that into school that I was really able to do anything positive within my educational experience. I started doing video when I was in highschool and that switched it for me. I started doing video essays and things. It changed the way that I felt – from feeling really stupid most of the time to someone who had found his way to express his ideas through art. That really changed the way I felt about myself. This is something I have always remembered and carried with me. And as an individual artist I have done workshop work with aboriginal youth and in remote communities and it is something that is really important for me and really important to all of us in A Tribe Called Red. Something that we have talked about quite a bit is doing that – giving back into that idea that we can show people a lot about themselves, about their self worth, about what they can do with a lap top. We are fortunately going to get our first chance as a group to do a workshop not specifically directed towards youth in Peterborough this coming fall with Spiderwoman Theatre . . . The original idea was for us to get a bus and tour around Canada. Find funding and time. But it is definitely in the top of what were thinking of

Erin: Tell me about “Woodcarver”—the song and video piece about the shooting of John T. Williams.

Ian: I first heard about the shooting. The dashcam shooting video went viral and I got sick to my stomach as soon as I saw it. I thought to myself, at least it’s caught on camera and this cop is going to get the book thrown at him. And it is so sad that this poor guy had to die. And then six months later, the verdict comes back and he is set free and I was just completely flabbergasted and hurt and mad all at the same time. We had a meeting and I said we had to do something. We already had tracks made and I thought we could call a song “John T. Williams – look it up” or do something like that. We had a platform that people were going to listen to what we were going to say and we should probably use that properly right now and just bring some sort of awareness, because we can’t necessarily change what the judge said, but we can definitely make more people aware of the situation. Dan sprinkled a little Shub dust on a track and Bear made a movie to that and the rest is history, it took off from there.

Bear: One of my favourite things about “Woodcarver” is that Ian said, ok, I have this idea, I want to do something about this, and Dan went back to Fort Erie and again, the next morning sent us this track that he had kicked out and it was amazing and was exactly what all of us were thinking of. And then I was able to run with that idea and make the video. It was a really smooth collaboration from the inception of the idea to everyone working to put it together. In that way it is one of the pieces that I am most proud of. Also, as Ian was saying, we get more than a thousand hits a week on our Soundcloud, so it was a chance to use all those hits that we were getting to raise some awareness.

As far as the video itself, watching the dashcam video was so difficult and such a haunting piece, and when I first got it I watched it a bunch of times over, just the straight footage and what really struck me about it was, here’s this incident that is so heavy, and so telling about where things still are to this day in North America for aboriginal people. Here’s a man who was walking down the street with a legal sized blade who was shot four times in the back.

Ian: After ten seconds warning.

Bear: It’s such a heavy, loaded thing, but that day was just a day. And the dashcam footage starts with him driving his route. And after he walks out of camera and you hear the shots for that first five minutes before all the emergency crews arrive, it’s still just a day. There was something about that that really stuck with me. So that’s why there is the repetition of that whole first part in the video, where it’s like, what happened before? He’s just driving. And John T. Williams was just walking. The image of the man running in the video was just my way to say, run man, get the fuck out of there!!!

Erin: You do have a platform, a sense of responsibility and ability to comment. Is there anything you wish people thought about?

Bear: Wearing headdresses isn’t cool.

Shub: Stop wearing headdresses and whooping at our shows. Don’t do that anymore.

Erin: Really? That has happened?

Ian: Yes. I just got on the mike and said “That’s Racist. Stop!!”

Shub: This last party we had, we dropped this song that is a remix of the Atlanta Braves track, the “Tomahawk Chop”, so I figured, when we drop this, people are either going to start doing the Tomahawk Chop or something like the whooping. We kind of expected it and, sure enough, there were people in the crowd doing the “Indian calls”. We got on the microphone right away and said, that’s not cool. They seem to listen to us.

Erin: There have been a number of discussions over appropriation on the internet, but it still seems to happen.

Ian: I am more than willing to sit and talk to anyone and with a cool head explain to them exactly why it’s not cool. I started a couple of campaigns where we went against certain aspects that I personally felt, that I was being made fun of. One of them ended nicely it was about an Esko Water ad, and they took it down. All it takes is a simple conversation and nobody swearing at each other where I can explain. People typically get it. I would say 99% percent of people do.

Erin: Where do you get your clothes – like the t-shirts that say “Caucasians” instead of “Indians”?

Ian: On the internet. There’s also a guy that does Falldown gear. He’s doing the same thing we’re doing but on a fashion tip. Cool, hip, clothes with aboriginal designs on them, so we’ve been wearing a lot of that stuff too.

Bear: It blows my mind that it’s suddenly become ok again in the 2000s to wear red face. This whole Pocohontas and Brave dressing up thing and headdresses and war paint and all of this stuff is kind of like, what happened to the last thirty years of work that’s been put into working against that kind of imagery. Avatar—which was so disturbing because it was this mish mash of bits and pieces from every aboriginal culture around the world. What is interesting with what we’re doing right now and people like Robbie and other artists is that right now Indian is cool. Right now is that wearing headdresses is cool – but what’s cool is really fake, one dimensional, Hollywood image. Partially, due to that coolness, we’ve gained some popularity. In this insidious way we are starting to affect these people. The door is cracked open. And we’re going to stick our foot in it and say, ok, you want to wear a fake headdress? This is what the real deal is. This is what real pow wow music is. That’s an amazing opportunity we have right now.

Erin: And your music speaks quite loudly – literally. It’s big music.

Bear: We’re big guys. [laughing]

Erin: Any collaborations happening soon?

Shub: We are going to get the chance to work with a drum group from Montana called Midnite Express. This is going to be the first time we are going to collaborate with a drum group instead of us taking the music they have already recorded and remixing it. We are going to actually start something from scratch and work collaboratively as a presentation for Aboriginal Music Week in November, so that is something that we are really looking forward to and something that we really wanted to do from the beginning but we didn’t have the chance to. This is just one step closer to something that we want to do on a whole. We want to collaborate with more singers this way as opposed to doing it by remixing.

At the Gathering of Nations in Alberquerque there are competitions. Whoever wins there is the world’s best. We’ll call it like the DMC of pow wow. [laughter] It came down to Northern Cree and Midnite Express this year. They tied. They had one more song. Northern Cree edged it. But it was a great competition. And we get to work with them. These guys and Northern Cree are the best of the best. They are the two giant names in pow wow right now.

Rewind #2: Three Piece Suit and Ting


















Six years ago this week I did my first ever interview. It was with Sanchez and was in the Montreal Mirror, a paper I still write for. I was terribly nervous, but Sanchez was terribly kind and friendly. The printed piece was rather short, but I did transcribe quite a piece more–I particularly like Sanchez’s focus on the importance of soundsystems. I posted it way back when on my old blog, but given my recent revived interest in all thing Sanchez, I thought I might throw it up here again. I also hope to be updating a little more than I have been so far this year!


E: When you first started, you were selecting on a soundsystem, and you still run your own sound, Sexylus. How important do you think the sound system is to Jamaican music?

S: It’s the most vital thing in the music right now. I think the sound system is what really puts an artist on the map because not all of that is stuff that being played on the air. And I’m sure that it’s always being played in the dancehall.

E: Do you think that sound system culture is as vibrant as its always been?

S: Any time the sound systems from Jamaica die out, I think the music will be no more.

E: You live in the US. Do you notice any change from living in Jamaica?

S: A whole lot. It’s somewhat more secure to me. It’s a place where I’m at right now for bringing up families, they’re all about kids. You know I’m a family man straight up. From get go, my family comes first.

E: Your wife is your manager, you’re very proud of your children. What is the role of family in your life?

S: Just to keep me going. For real. Them a greatest support. And I’ve got fans who support me over the years, day in day out, but a family is always there through thick and thin. Things that even my fans don’t know, my family they know about it and they just be there for me.

E: When you perform, you often sing the Jamaican national anthem.

S: That’s a thing for representing. Number one, it’s kinda shows, for me, who is in the crowd. to start off. Whenever you go on stage you say “Hands up all Jamaicans” point blank. You’re among your fellow citizens. It’s very nice because, even a boxer, a team go to play somewhere else, it’s good to hear your national anthem, it give you a boost, a sort of energy.

E:You’re know for not only your own music, but for taking other tunes and giving them a real Sanchez twist. What kind of songs do you look for and how do you think your songs differ from the originals?

S: When I’m choosing my songs I choose songs that has a good composition to it. Songs that can be played on air, a song that even kids would relate to. Something to do with love—I love to sing a song that has something to do with love, bringing people together and all of that stuff.

E: Along with your secular albums, you also have some gospel.

S: Gospel is my first choice of music. I grew up in a church, I grew up on these musics. Overall, without the father, what are we? Yeah, I look into that very deeply and I consider it a lot. You get up everyday and you eat and you visit your friends and it’s all good, but what about the man upstairs? That wakes you up. Do you think you can wake yourself up? Nobody does. So I think, at the end of the day, I’m just giving thanks to the father, man.

E: Are there any other artists that you respect?

S: I respect any artist in the field that is trying to get some positive vibes outta all of this. Not just to go out there to make money or to be famous but to truly go out there and preach on the highways and byways about more love and togetherness. And we need that.

E: You have terrific outfits that you wear on the stage that you and your wife design. How important is it for a performer to have a really strong stage presence?

S: It is number one! I think an artist could be well attired and just go on stage for the first 20 minutes and just take the show right there. Him don’t have to say nothing, just put on something nice and the right coordination.

E: And those who don’t take the time?

S: You will hear critics. You will hear people that are really true fans and they’re saying “man, did he have to come like that, he couldn’t put a suit on? he couldn’t tuck his shirt in?” For real! Some of these artists they don’t care. They think that what matters the most is just money and who is better than who. You have to remember attirement. Because a lot of artists out there could be very good, they could sing, they could write, but the state of appearance is just not there.

E: A lot of your fans are women. Why do you think your music communicates so well to women?

S: As I said before, I try to choose my songs that are really dealing with love, respect for ladies overall, just bringing people together. I love that thing about the music. I mean yes, you have the voice or the power to go out there and say something to the world, so make it positive.


As I try to get my head around being back at the full time job and all, there’s been a lot of stuff going on. Photo above was taken at what might be referred to as a Turbocrunk reunion party a couple of weeks back here in lovely Montreal. Megasoid joined Ango and Lunice for some live PA action alongside DJs Seb Diamond, Hovatron (best website ever, btw) and Grand Mal. It was darned good fun.

I’ve been quite the fan of turbocrunk folks, and specifically Lunice, for a while now. Apparently the new term is “aquacrunk” (though it’s actually an old term, having been explained by the Guardian’s Lanre Bakare a couple years back), referencing the cross-Atlantic sounds of Glasgow, Montreal, L.A., New York and beyond, as reflected in the work of a whole range of folks like Rustie, Hudson Mohawke, Joker, Lazer Sword, Glitch Mob, our hometown boys (‘cept for Megasoid’s Speakerbruiser, who’s made tracks out west in recent months), Machine Drum and on and on. One wonders whatever happened to “wonky” as a moniker?

Anyhow, the stuff is damned good, and capable of bringing all sorts of sounds together. Myself and my dancing partner kept it going the entire evening like there was no one watching.

To try a taste of the good ol’ days, way back in 2008, when it wasn’t wonky or aqua or nothing, just darned good music for dancin’, download this excellent Mofomatronix (Seb and Phil/Hovatron) mix. (If you want to be hip to the new stuff, check Lucky Me’s often-updated treasure trove of mix tapes)

Happy Birthday Passa Passa!

Last night was Passa Passa’s 6th birthday. In light of this auspicious occasion, I thought I’d post a piece I wrote about the now legendary dance. Pictures by the great Roy Sweetland. Favourite line: “This music was born outside.”

Every week, on Wednesday night, Spanish Town Road in the Tivoli Gardens area of West Kingston, Jamaica, transforms into Passa Passa. Five thousand people gather to dance and listen to music played by the soundsystem Swatch International—for free, outdoors and as loud as possible. Passa Passa is not just a local street party. Since its inception in 2003, it has grown to attract corporate sponsors in Jamaica, and also to attract the world. And the world has attracted Passa Passa—this coming weekend, Nico Skill and Maestro, two of Swatch’s top selectors (the Jamaican term for DJs), are coming to Montreal to bring a taste of what they do to our winter wonderland.

To get a sense of why this weekly dance is not your average party, it’s important to take a look at exactly where it happens—yes, Jamaica in general is important to reggae, but West Kingston, an area notorious for violence, is specifically important to dancehall. Though many of dancehall’s biggest stars hail from neighbourhoods in West Kingston, it’s still known as a dangerous place.

As Nicholas “Nico Skill” Smith explains, “Before Passa Passa, there was crazy war going on in Kingston, in the Denham Town, Tivoli area and all these places. Every minute, we had something flare up. But since Passa Passa came about, we’ve been playing and it’s been drawing such a huge crowd, the violence in the community is no more. Communities have been fighting, but not in Tivoli area.”

Carl “Maestro” Shelley agrees. “Jamaica was on the verge of a dancehall breakdown. Fun and unity had deteriorated. Different people from different areas, different communities that shared different political views, did not cooperate. We introduced Passa Passa and it became a way of unifying the garrisons, the communities that make up Jamaica’s inner city.”

Excite and unite

It was convenient for Swatch International, who, at the inception of Passa Passa, had been around for over a decade. “Swatch wasn’t born big,” laughs Nico. “It started with one speaker box and one amplifier. And we would get bookings within our communities and you have to know that you’ve got to play well to please those people!”

In addition to having the reputation, the sound, run by O’Neil Miles, proprietor of Miles Enterprise at 47 Spanish Town Road, had a venue—the street in front of the business.

Maestro provided the name. “Generally, in Jamaica,” he says, “the words ‘passa passa’ mean excitement, mix up—anything can be termed as ‘passa passa.’ So we decided we would create a little passa passa where people would enjoy themselves and try to work out their views, and even if they come from different communities, they can party together.

“This is a place known as an area where no one wanted to go—it’s been like rags to riches, but rich in the sense of positivity. People admire that—no one used to want to go there and all of a sudden, everyone wants to go there because it is safe. Nothing can happen. Your car won’t get broken into, nobody is going to rob you. Stuff like that doesn’t happen. It is generally safe overall because this is an area where you have not only Passa Passa but other big events. Passa Passa is the one that opened the gate for all these things to be positively accepted. Everyone wants to party here.”

RESPECTED SELECTORS: Nico Skill and Maestro

Here come the clones

When Maestro says everyone, he means it. Passa Passa doesn’t just draw folks from different communities in Kingston. Any weekly round-up of Passa Passa’s crowd might also include visitors from the U.S., Canada, Australia, Israel, Ireland, Sweden, Austria, Germany, England and Japan.

Swatch has also taken their night on the road. “International audiences appreciate the music, just like when we are downtown,” says Maestro. “They watch the tapes, they go on the Internet to all of these Web sites and they download all these DVDs. When I go to Japan, all the parties that we talk about in Jamaica, they have them in Japan. Every night. They have a Passa Passa and a Maestro down there. When I see this, I think, they are literally cloning us! It’s amazing.”

But what makes Passa Passa what it is are the people who make it their own every week. “Passa Passa is kept in the ghetto and ghetto people love excitement,” Nico explains. “These people are fun people. They love to dance and they do crazy stuff. They come up with all these ideas. It’s just mad. They come together as one and listen to music to the fullest. We play the music and if someone comes and says to us that they have a hot song, we’ll play it to see if it has a vibe—if it does, it could turn out to be number one next month!”

It’s not just hit tunes that get their break at Passa Passa. It’s dance styles too. “If I were to explain everything that Passa Passa has brought to the forefront,” laughs Maestro, “it would take us days! Passa Passa is the one that invented many of the styles in the dancehall. Passa Passa is where we see Thunderclap, Dutty Wine, all of these dances. That’s where they started. Downtown.”

Nico concurs. “Before, it was the DJs and the sounds making all the money, but right now, where dancing is concerned, it opened a new door for a lot of young youth who never dreamed they could have a life like this. And it’s ghetto youth, because all ghetto youth can try to dance and make a style. It happens. They dance and dance and go to more parties and do the same dances. We, the selectors, endorse it and it just gets big.”

In defence of daggering

Still, some commentators think that some of the sexually inspired dancing, called “daggering,” is a bit much. Maestro thinks that these people should change their focus. “They used to say that dancehall creates too much violence. It was a problem, so we said, ‘Alright. No more gun talk.’ Daggering for the girls—why is this still a problem? They need to make up their minds about what they really want in the dancehall. As a selector, I can’t see daggering starting trouble. There are so many things that can come out of this thing called dancehall. They need to appreciate it. A whole heap of people eat food, youths go to school, all just because of daggering! You know how many youths used to kill people and then stop kill people just to become a dancer and bust a new style, get lucky, get a visa and go in foreign countries, travelling as a dancer?”

Even with the recent crackdown on night noise in Jamaica, Passa Passa keeps going. “Passa Passa’s roots are in the ghetto,” says Nico. “Uptown, you cannot play your sound outdoors and have an outdoor party. The Noise Abatement Act means that your neighbour can’t hear your music. If he does, he’ll call the cops and the cops’ll turn it down.

“In the ghetto, it is totally the opposite. You just play until daylight,” he laughs. “You have a sound, outdoor music, big amplifiers, three huge columns of boxes and we just blast it so that whosoever come to that party, Passa Passa, it’s not like the club.”

But, as Maestro explains, “Passa Passa is really the only street dance that is left on a high level right now because the law is cracking down on the night noise. It is really hurting dancehall music. People come to hear the music outside. To see the men cooking jerk chicken. To see the man walking around with a big bunch a’ herb. They come to see the big tower of boxes outside. And the cane man. The corn man with his soup. This music was born outside.”

P.S. If you want more Maestro, check his single out: “Up Inna Di Tings”.

Best of 2009 & Resolution for 2010

When I started this blog in 2006, I thought I’d write about soundclash. I apparently have not. Hopefully, in the future (i.e. 2010) this will change. I might expand the horizons beyond soundsystems in this space, and to give anyone reading an idea of what might be included, here’s my best of 2009 as published in the Montreal Mirror (big thanks to hinaddis for the heads up on Staff Benda Bilili-so incredible):

Top 10 albums
Bisso Na Bisso Africa (Warner France)
Bonjay Gimme Gimme EP (independent)
Buraka Som Sistema Fabriclive 49 (Fabric)
Chief Boima African by the Bay EP (Akwaaba)
Grizzly Bear Veckatimest (Warp)
Oumou Sangare Seya (World Circuit)
Poirier Run the Riddim EP (Ninja Tune)
Staff Benda Bilili Tres Tres Fort (Crammed)
Tinariwen Imidiwan: Companions (Independiente)
Various Biggest Ragga Dancehall Anthems 2009 (VP)

Bottom 3 albums
Asher Roth Asleep in the Bread Aisle (Universal)
Vybz Kartel Pon Di Gaza (Adidjahiem)
Weezer Raditude (Geffen)

Best Song (tie): Chino, “Pon Your Head”/Vybz Kartel, “Like a Movie”/Ding Dong and Chevaughn, “Holiday”
Worst Song: Miley Cyrus, “Party in the USA”

Best Show: Bridge Burner, Mile-End, June 24
Worst Show: Rye Rye, Coda, March 9

“While Rye Rye’s tired, just-got-off-a-plane performance didn’t live up to the famed excitement of her hometown of Baltimore, Montreal brought the energy for la fête St-Jean. Megasoid, Valeo, Poirier and Face T kicked the summer into high gear with their huge Bridge Burner. There is nothing better than listening to loud music outside—particularly some of this year’s reggae and dancehall, genres that always prove themselves to be single-driven: killer tunes, crumy albums.”

The Immortal Stone Love

To kick off this blog, a blog specifically dedicated to all things soundsystem related, why not reprint a piece on Stone Love, written for the Montreal Mirror this past May. Stay tuned to this space for soundclash reviews, news and other fun.

The flat-out best way to listen to Jamaican music is outside, late at night, and earth-shakingly loud—and the perfect formula for this experience is Stone Love. A soundsystem, a label, and a studio, they’re set for worldwide domination. They aren’t called the “Immortal Stone Love” for nothing. The Mirror spoke to one of Stone Love’s 30-plus staff and star selector, Gee-Fus, from the home base in Kingston, Jamaica.

M: In your own words, what is Stone Love?

Gee-Fus: Stone Love started out in 1972. We’re a soundsystem, meaning that we have speaker boxes, turntable, and now CD. We’ve got what you people call djs, but we call selectors, which is consist of Rory, Gee-Fus, Billy Slaughter, Bill Cosby, Diamond, Richie Feelings, and Iceberg. Stone Love was founded by WeePow. We play a variety of music. Stone Love never bus’ as a reggae sound. When Stone Love get recognition, we play reggae, disco, and R&B, back in the day. By ’86, Stone Love become number one sound which played mostly reggae. We play at various venues on a weekly basis. Every night Stone Love play.

M: Does Stone Love have more than one soundsystem?

G: It’s really one soundsystem, you know, but it’s a very big sound so it can be split into three. Since the past four years, WeePow has built a sound called Purple Love. It’s a small version of Stone Love. He’s coming with the idea saying it’s a sound to play at parties, office parties, certain events. We’re breaking boundaries. We’re not just in the dancehall.

M: You’re also overseas.

G: WeePow come with the idea of having us selectors circulate the globe. So one or two persons would be in the US, one person might be in Canada, one in Brazil, one in Israel, one in Italy, and a couple over here in Jamaica. Every week at an overseas show, you get sent different selectors so that the people get used to everybody in the system Stone Love.

M: Everyone knows that Stone Love isn’t a clashing sound.

G: At the level that Stone Love is at now, Stone Love is immortal. And we’ve moving from immortal to be a legendary sound. We don’t need to clash.