I don’t know if you dear readers get tired of hearing about dembow, but I sure don’t. That said, if my boom-ch-boom-chick narratives start to seem as monotonous a march as some allege with regard to the dembow beat itself, do let me know. Well-worn paths notwithstanding, I’m happy to share this latest riff on a loopy history I’ve been trying to put together for many years, especially since it was the result of some protracted detective work, including actual purchasing of vinyl (s/o Deadly Dragon), interviews conducted via MySpace, and a whole heap of Spanglish-spelunking through Panamanian plena chatroom rabbitholes and other lively niches of the net.
First things first, go over to Wax Poetics to read the article in its full multimedia glory:
I’m pleased to have placed the piece there, as Wax Poetics is a publication I’ve admired for a long time, but especially because the story of the dembow’s origins is, crucially, a story about a particular physical record, an actual piece of vinyl, a deeply generative slab of “wax” that thousands of producers have molded into their own shapes and forms since it first issued from a Brooklyn-based distributor in 1991.
It’s also a record that, hard to believe, I was unable to locate and listen to back when I was writing my epic chapter for our reggaeton book. At the time, though, close listening was leading me in the right direction, as indicated in footnote #55 (p.72):
Significantly, it appears (to my ears) that the most common versions of the Dem Bow riddim circulating in Puerto Rico may in fact be sampled from Nando Boom’s “Ellos Benia,” produced by Dennis “the Menace” Thompson, rather than directly from Shabba Ranks’s “Dem Bow” (though elements from the Bobby Digital version crop up as well).
While my ears had more or less figured out the identity of the actual samples traveling under the Dembow banner, I still didn’t know the story of how, or who, or when or where, someone first got their hands on the instrumental, which didn’t appear on any Nando Boom records (and never appears as a naked loop in “Ellos Benia”). Maybe most mysteriously, I hadn’t been able to figure out why Panamanian enthusiasts seemed to refer to the same riddim as the Pounda, or sometimes Ponda (a transformation / transliteration not unlike such Puerto Rican variations as Dembo or Denbo).
When I first read about the Pounda on Panamanian websites, the way people described it, I thought it might simply be a local way of naming “Dem Bow” not unlike the way that, say, the instrumental from Dirtsman’s “Hot This Year” — better known to reggae aficionados as a re-lick of the classic Drum Song riddim — sometimes masquerades as “El Chespa Riddim” in tribute to the stuttering repetition of Dirtsman’s “dress back!” in the vocal version: chespa, chespa ches, chespa, chespa ches, chespa! And because I couldn’t locate an actual record called “Pounder,” my best assumption, given what I’d read, was that it was simply another name for the same riddim Puerto Ricans call Dem Bow. Which it is. (What it is not, however, is the same version propelling Shabba’s influential performance on “Dem Bow.”) But I had no idea what that would have happened.
The identity of the Pounda, and its relationship to the loop people call Dembow, seemed crucial to understanding the transnational history of reggaeton. And though I felt I had done my best by the time of publication, it still nagged at me. Moreover, this missing link continued to complicate the fraught retellings of reggaeton history. Take, for example, this quintessential collection of lore from a 2009 article on reggae in Panama:
By some reports, Jamaican dancehall first arrived in Puerto Rico in the suitcases of visiting musicians from Panama. Another story has the Panamanian producer Ramón “Pucho” Bustamante collaborating with a Jamaican to create a salsa-infused variant of “dem bow” called “pounda,” then handing it over to Puerto Rican producers. While the truth is likely less clear-cut than either yarn, the debate over who started reggaeton, or rather, how Puerto Rican artists discovered “dem bow,” rages on outside shows and on countless Internet message boards today.
Indeed, as a gringo gawker, but a devotee and champion of all this music, it was largely these online debates that served as a key set of texts for the meta-narrative I was trying to tease out, my story of the stories people tell about reggaeton. I would come across fascinating debates and tantalizing fragments hinting at a history still largely uncovered, or certainly unpromulgated —
EL PONDER REALMENTE ES UN RITMO JAMAIQUINO, HAY COMO DOS ESTILOS DEL MISMO Y DEL MISMO AÑO QUE UNO ES EL DEL ESTILO QUE LLEVA LA CANCIÓN “PENSIÓN” DE NANDO BOOM Y EL OTRO DEL ESTILO QUE LLEVA “DEM BOW” DE SHABBA RANKS QUE ESE FUÉ HECHO POR STEELIE & CLEEVIE POR VP RECORDS. PERO EL PONDER DE “DEM BOW” DE SHABBA RANKS FUÉ EL MÁS FUERTE EN ESE TIEMPO Y LAS DOS DE NANDO BOOM CON LA BASE RÍTMICA HECHA POR DENNIS FUERON LAS QUE MÁS APOJEARON HASTA EN CANADÁ QUE LAS OTRAS EN INGLÉS. ——————– pAnAmAiCaN jAm
To get to the bottom, I had to go beyond reading Spanish wiki entries and their discussion pages, and even beyond Panamanian reggae discussion forum rabbit holes and email follow-ups with their authors. I had to track down one of the record’s producers on MySpace and, ultimately, at least for my peace of mind, I had to get my hands on a real, physical copy of the record, since there were no online instantiations of a song called “Pounda” or “Pounder” — never mind its instrumental b-side (given the distinctive label, “Dub Mix II,” I would later discover).
I have Marlon Bishop to thank for putting me back on the trail again, which is ironic since he contacted me while researching an article he was writing on reggae in Panama for none other than Wax Poetics. At any rate, Marlon’s reasonable inquiry about the Pounda riddim sent me back into the chat forums, which eventually led me to the Deadly Dragon guys, who actually had the record in stock. And of course, when I listened to it, and it contained precisely the same sounds propelling Nando Boom’s “Ellos Benia” and appearing as “Dembow Original” on CDs like Pistas Famosas de Reggaeton, it came as a revelation.
Also revelatory, and useful for confirming some things, was getting to talk with none other than “Pucho,” aka Ramon “Pucho” Bustamante (a name bearing witness to his Jamaican heritage, recalling Jamaica’s first prime minister). We had an illuminating exchange via MySpace, and I’ll never forget his funny opinion about Jamaica’s riddim tradition, or as he put it, “UNA MALA COSTUMBRE DE LOS JAMAICANOS” —
And that’s all she wrote. Or, at least, that’s all I’ve written so far. You might think that a 24,000 word essay might suffice, but apparently not. And as another way to share an amazing story, I’m grateful to have been able to put the pieces together. Thanks to everyone, from Pucho to pAnAmAiCaN jAm, Marlon to Wax Poetics, for aiding me in my not-so-quixotic quest. Always room for another dub!