Ethnomusicology Meets King Tubby Inna Barnes&Nobles

Been working on a review of ethnomusicologist Michael Veal’s recently published book on dub (it’s called Dub [BUY!]), which I will share with y’all before too long; meantime, as I jot down some excerpts, I thought I’d share some of my favorite passages — insightful thoughts and neat narratives and such.

To wit, a nice summation of different directions in Jamaican pop circa the 70s:

The sylistic evolution of Jamaican popular music along both local and transnational lines was a complex and intertwined process; in terms of the aesthetics of production, however, reggae developed in two general directions during the 1970s. One direction was represented by musicians like Marley, Peter Tosh, Toots and the Maytals, Jimmy Cliff, and others: these were the figureheads anointed by the multinational record industry to introduce Jamaican popular music to the international audience. For this reason, their music was often recorded at better-equipped studios outside of Jamaica and was marked by high-end production values, more sophisticated chord progressions than were the local norm, and rock/pop stylizations such as electronic synthesizers and lead guitar solos. As with most pop music, there was a strong emphasis on singing, and specific songs tended to be associated with specific performers. Song lyrics tended toward themes of social and political justice filtered through the religious vision of Rastafari. The biblical undertones of this vision translated onto the world stage as a universalist sentiment that struck a chord with post-World War II American and European rock audiences.

Although it came to sell significantly abroad, another direction in which reggae developed was represented by musicians producing music largely aimed at the local Jamaican audience, associated during the 1970s and early 1980s with producers like Bunny Lee, Linval Thompson, Joe Gibbs, Junjo Lawes, and the Hookim brothers. How did the music differ from that of performers like Marley and Tosh? DJs — vocalists who rapped over rhythm tracks — were becoming nearly as popular as singers inside of Jamaica; in terms of song lyrics, however, the difference was not always so pronounced. The Rastafari-inspired lyrical themes were shared by both camps, such as those addressing African repatriation, the benefits of ganja (marijuana) smoking, the heroism of Marcus Garvey, quotations of Scripture, or the divinity of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. Certain topics tended to be more prevalent in the local sphere, such as the ever-present “slackness” song (generally sung by DJs) focusing on sexual topics, the “lover’s rock” genre of romantic reggae (which actually had roots in the music of Jamaican immigrants in England), the songs addressing the political violence that was engulfing Jamaica, or songs relating to current events in general. One clearly important difference between local and international reggae was in their respective sites of consumption. As opposed to attending the concerts staged abroad by musicians like Marley and Tosh, most Jamaicans enjoyed music in dancehalls and at outdoor dances at which recorded music was provided by mobile entertainment collectives known as sound systems.

Possibly the clearest difference between the two types of reggae was in the sound, and it is the sound of Jamaican reggae that I primarily address in this book. In contrast to the music aimed at the international market, the production values and seemingly “virtual” construction of much of the music aimed at Kingston’s sound system audiences probably seemed downright errant to many American, European, and upper-class Jamaican listeners at that time, whose listening tastes were conditioned by the naturalist values of much rock and roll and soul music. This music, in contrast, drew attention to itself as a _recording_ in a particular way. These Jamaican singers did not always conform to the chord changes of a song, and sometimes even sang in a different key altogether from the musicians. Vocalists didn’t even always sing; many times they casually rapped over the rhythm tracks as if they were carrying on a conversation in spite of the music underneath. The vocals also sometimes seemed strangely discontinuous; no sooner would a singer complete a stanza of a song, before a different vocalist (usually a DJ) began shouting over the music in apparent disregard of the original vocalist; the varying fidelity made it clear that these vocalists did not record their parts at the same time. The music also seemed oddly mixed. The bass sounded unusually heavy and the equalization strangely inconsistent, as the sound veered back and forth from cloudy and bass-heavy to sharp and tinny. The individual instruments didn’t play continuously, but zipped in and out of the mix in a strangely incoherent manner. At a dance or on the radio, it seemed as if you could hear the same rhythm track for hours on end. …

Essentially, the artist-based marketing of Jamaican musicians in the Euro-American audience by multinational corporations did not prepare one for the often bewildering complexity of a music that, in its natural context, was multiply elaborated by a multitude of voices moving between the fluid sites of stage, studio, and sound system. Even within Jamaica, popular music has moved in and out of phase with radio networks, with music producers and radio programmers sometimes holding strongly contrasting ideas about what constitutes acceptable or appropriate broadcast quality and/or content. It was these rougher qualities that were sometimes deemed in need of “smoothing out” by multinational record labels, in their attempt to market reggae internationally. As such, they are largely absent from the Jamaican music most familiar to non-Jamaicans. Ironically, however, the same musical choices that made local Jamaican music sound so “pre-professional” to mainstream Western ears were simultaneously visionary and deliberate. The approach Jamaican producers and recording engineers took to the production of music would make a subtle, structural, and long-term impact on world popular music in subsequent years, providing openings for new practice in the areas of form, structure, harmony, orchestration, and music production. It illustrates that postindependence Jamaica has been an important source of material and sound concepts for the international music industry, with reggae itself being, in the words of Louis Chude-Sokei, “a vehicle for the dissemination of larger ideas about sound, oral/aural knowledge, and technical innovation. (4-6)

I’d say that’s a clear and informative summary as well as a sly, persuasive argument that makes dub the kernal, the center, the impetus even, of what comes to be known as dancehall — and then of “world popular music” more generally (which I wouldn’t really disagree with, though the process was a messy and multinodal one). Veal seems to elide over eras a little easily here, and he sets up value judgments (only to knock them down) from a norm residing well within the (how imaginary?) world of “mainstream Western ears” (I know why he does this — he’s writing a book for musicologists and works in a “music” department — but I wonder if we should continue doing this sort of thing); despite a few quibbles, however, I find it a cogent passage. In just a few paragraphs, Veal imparts a much deeper sense of what reggae is than most people tend to have — (Isn’t it remarkable how often reggae gets tagged with the “all sounds the same” pejorative? A classic confession of cultural ignorance.) — and provides an orientation to dub’s significance for the wider musical world.

Here’s another good one, one which tells you again about the kind of book Dub is:

All the talk of circuits, knobs, and switches can distract one from the fundamental reality that what these musicians were doing was synthesizing a new popular art form, creating a space where people could come together joyously despite the harshness that surrounded them. They created a music as roughly textured as the physical reality of the place, but with the power to transport their listeners to dancefloor nirvana as well as far reaches of the cultural and political imagination: Africa, outer space, inner space, nature, and political/economic liberation. Nevertheless, this book will focus on those knobs and the the people who operated them, in order to develop an understanding of the role of sound technology, sound technicians, and sound aesthetics within the larger cultural and political realities of Jamaica in the 1970s. (13-14)

then there’s this sharp statement on the prominence of bass in JA pop and the stylistic transition from rocksteady to reggae, a moment that has needed more elucidation than most periods in reggae history:

Ever since the R&B and ska years, when sound system operators pushed their bass controls to full capacity in order to thrill and traumatize their audiences and have their sounds heard over the widest possible outdoor distances, the electric bass had grown in prominence in Jamaican music. The first Fender bass had been introduced into Jamaica around 1959 by bassist/entrepreneur Byron Lee and by the rock steady period, Jackie Jackson had emerged to define the instrument’s role more precisely. As rock steady began to slow down into what became known as reggae, it was this instrument that became the key to the new style. Structurally, reggae was partly common practice harmony and song form, and partly a neo-African music of fairly rigid ensemble stratification in which the fundamental ingredients were an aggressive, syncopated bass line, a minimalist (but highly ornamented) drum set pattern, and a chordal instrument (usually guitar and/or piano) playing starkly on each offbeat eighth note, elaborated by a syncopated “shuffle organ” emphasizing the offbeats in sixteenth-note double time. The “one drop” became standardized into a minimalist pattern in which the bass drum emphasized beats 2 and 4, the snare (playing mainly on the rim) alternately doubled the bass drum or improvised syncopations, while the hi-hat kept straight or swung eighth note time. There were also several other popular patterns and variations, such as the popular “steppers” rhythm in which the bass drum sounded on each beat while the snare played interlocking syncopations, or the “flying cymbal,” which imported the offbeat hi-hat splash of disco music and fused it with the one drop.

Although rock steady is generally considered to have “slowed down” into reggae, it actually accelerated (via the double-time shuffle organ) and decelerated (via the half time drum and bass) simultaneously. It also tightened considerably, as rock steady had at times retained some of the ensemble looseness of ska. Because of this juxtaposition of downbeat and offbeat, along with the tighter ensemble texture, the net effect of “roots” reggae (as it came to be known) was simultaneously of midair suspension and firm grounding, of density and spaciousness, of weightiness and weightlessness. (32)

Well put, I’d say.

& this is an interesting, and insightful, interpretation of the role the DJs played in breaking apart notions of song, thus suggesting (or indeed, “prefiguring”) some of dub’s profound approach to form:

… the process of stripping songs down to their essential components must be understood as substantially intertwined with the practice of deejaying; while studio engineers were beginning to use the mixing board to open songs up from the inside, their work was clearly prefigured by the deejays who destroyed song form from the outside. Rapping, chanting, and shouting their laconic improvisations often irrespective of harmonic or formal changes, and asking their selectors to “pull up” (stop and restart the record) at every opportunity, the deejays were rudely and creatively disrespectful of song form. Ultimately, the aesthetic of fragmented and superimposed vocalizing that would become such an important part of dub music could be thought of as at least partially inspired by the performance style of the sound system DJs and selectors. (56)

and this pithy bit on (musically-mediated) notions of “Africa” is well worth repeating:

Drum & bass was thus one of many instances in which musicians of African descent began to deconstruct and Africanize the Western popular song according to whatever ideas prevailed about which musical choices constituted “Africa” in their particular location.

further —

despite the de-emphasis on Africa as a lyrical trope (although this also began to reverse in the early 1990s), the emphasis on dance music has allowed ragga to become arguably _more_ polyrhythmic than the one drop orientation of roots reggae, drawing simultaneously on Jamaica’s neo-African drumming traditions and the accumulative logics of digital sampling as influenced by hip-hop. In fact, the interaction between Jamaican music and hip-hop since the 1980s has been as dynamic as its earlier interactions with jazz, soul, rhythm and blues, and funk.

If those weren’t enough to get any reggae enthusiast reading, take Veal’s conclusion that dub’s “Afro-inflected humanizing, communalizing, and spiritualizing of new forms of sound technology is almost surely its most profound contribution to global popular music” (260). It’s a strong contention and one that Veal largely supports in his detailed study. The best part of the book is no doubt the middle section, which features interview-supported readings of some of dub’s greatest engineers/producers and the recordings they made, accounting for technological, social, and sonic matters. But more on that in a few days, when I post my review (which won’t appear in print, I’m afraid, for about a year).