Today is the final meeting of my last class at Harvard this year — and possibly my final class as a college-level instructor, but we’ll save that discussion for another day. For now, I’ll leave you with a few playlists I created in order to have some examples a click on during class.
In short, this was the one class this year that I didn’t completely make up myself. Music 97c (“Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective”) is a long-running requirement for Music concentrators here. Essentially an introduction to ethnomusicology — theories, methods, and repertories — it departs from standard “World Music” courses by eschewing the survey/smorgasbord and instead focusing on just a few geographical areas in some depth. I designed my own syllabus from scratch, of course, and perhaps unsurprisingly the emphasis largely fell on the Caribbean, North America, and Afrodiasporic matters. We did, however, also include units on Turkish and Balinese/Indonesian music. You can see the whole syllabus here, if you like.
Or you can just edutain yourself by perusing these playlists–
Allow me to point you over to Norient.com, where I’ve just contributed an article that attempts a brief history of perreo and other “spectacular copulative” dances, including a glance at such recent instantiations as daggering, perreo chacalonero, and of course, choque.
Longtime readers know I’ve been working to develop an analysis of such practices — and their fraught reception in local and extra-local spheres — for sometimenow (often in collaboration with queridas colegas). The invitation from Norient — in conjunction with their 3rd annual music-film festival (ostensibly to help frame the screening of this doc) — was a fine opportunity to provide some historical perspective, as well as to offer a concise primer on the central questions of power and race/gender at the heart of debates around such dances.
It’s a short piece, so it only scrapes the surface really, but here’s hoping it proves a stimulating read and leads to a richer framework for our discussion and dancing alike. Here’s a teaser, but do click on through –
Sexual pantomime runs deep through dance, not surprisingly, and moral panic right alongside. In the New World and trans-colonial Europe, Afrodiasporic rhythms like reggaetonâs dembow (for some, a synonym for perreo) have repeatedly engendered the kind of intimate dance that provokes policing along the lines of race, class, and age, usually under the banners of Christian moral authority or the civilizing imperatives of nation-building.
Among other predecessors of perreo, consider the European reception of the zarabanda, a high-energy dance first recorded in Panama in 1539. In his book on the music of Cuba, Ned Sublette describes the zarabanda as âa mimetic dance that simulated sexual actionâ which âruledâ dance floors in Spain for 30 years around the turn of the 17th century despite clergy attempts to suppress it with threats of whippings for men and exile for women.
Another fascinating forbear appears in new research from historian Lara Putnam who turned up archival evidence of weekly âreggeeâ dances held in the early 1930s by West Indian migrants to Costa Rica. Propelled by jazz, mento, and tango and tarred by reports of coarse language, public drinking, and vulgar dancing, the parties appear in local newspapers as causes for concern, at odds with notions of racial uplift held by local editorialists who recommended that organizers instruct musicians ânot to play any pieces which may be a temptation to those spectacular copulative gyrations.â
I’m headed down to the University of Delaware tomorrow for “The African Americas Project,” a two-day symposium bringing together quite a mix of artists, musicians, and scholars to explore the connections between Latin America, the Caribbean and the US.
For my part, I’ll be talking about “Reggaeton’s Afro-American Address,” by which I mean the ways that reggaeton — despite a certain divisiveness — is best understood as a genre articulating a powerful synthesis of Afrodiasporic style which directly (and indexically, musically/semiotically speaking) addresses an Afro-American listening public (and here I use “Afro-American” — an outdated term in the US — in the broadest sense, as a term encompassing Afro-Jamaican, Afro-Puerto-Rican, Afro-Panamanian, and African-American styles and practices).
I’ll make this argument by revealing the secret of the mystery of the mighty dembow. Here’s a hint: the loop that turns up in the lion’s share of reggaeton productions is not sampled from Shabba’s seminal song, despite what Wikipedia and everyone else says. Nope. What you think was made in Kingston actually hails from Long Island! But you’ll have to catch the talk, or wait for a forthcoming article, to get the full scoop.
It’s an honor to be part of a program featuring so many distinguished speakers, among them keynoter Franklin W. Knight, a towering figure in Caribbean Studies. You can see the full program here (PDF), but let me also note, with some excitement, that another participant is none other than Jamaican filmmaker Storm Saulter, who will be screening Better Mus Come and other works tomorrow afternoon (and, awesomely, offering comment on the music panel I’m a part of on Friday).
If you’re in the area, do drop by. Should be a stimulating session.
Also, how refreshing to be described as a “DJ, technomusicologist, and journalist”! Works for me.
Despite my relative silence here this summer — about which, more soon — big tings a gwaan, especially as the fall semester rolls around.
First up, I’m thrilled to report that I leave today for Rotterdam, my first visit to Holland / the Netherlands! I’m fortunate to have been invited to participate in a conference gathered around an exhibition on Bengali film at De Nieuwe Oogst –
You might be wondering what I have to say about Bengali film, but you’ll have to ask me after the weekend is over for that. Happily, the conference organizers are using the event to stage some broader conversations about media and popular culture, and I’ve decided to take the opportunity to organize my thoughts around a topic that’s been bubbling up on my blog from time to time: Dutch club music — or more specifically, the contrasting media ecologies and aesthetic affinities between 90s bubbling and 00s dirty house / moombahton. In other words, Dutch club music from Moortje to Munchi, with a lil Afrojack along the way. Or in other words:
Look at Me Now: Dutch Club Music from Invisible Local Marginality to Invisible Global Ubiquity
Holland’s bubbling scene of the 1990s was so unremittingly anchored in local sites of realtime production and material circulation that in two decades, with few exceptions, the genre has hardly migrated beyond Rotterdam and the Hague. In marked contrast, contemporary Dutch house producer Afrojack, whose style audibly emerges from a national club music inspired by bubbling’s distinctive take on foreign but familiar forms, could credibly be counted among today’s top-tier producers of global dance-pop (if often overshadowed by US-based partners such as Diplo and Pitbull). Moreover, Afrojack’s remix of “Moombah,” slowed down several clicks by a Washington DC-based DJ named Dave Nada, has served as the basis for an emergent genre, moombahton, that enjoys a similar breadth of engagement and international circulation, but with relatively little attention to questions of Dutch origins — again, offering a striking departure from bubbling’s insistent locality and marginality. Although at a glance, then, the formal aesthetic qualities of mid-90s bubbling and today’s moombahton might have a lot in common — highly referential and resonant drum loops, Afro-diasporic signposts, a strong embrace of denatured synths and samples — a closer attention to their particular contexts and technologies of production and circulation can reveal striking shifts in the cultural politics of urban Holland, and the wider wired world, in an age of digital and so-called “social” media. Tracing the shapes and forms of Holland’s club music from bubbling’s Antillean counterpublics to the multicultural mix of participants addressed by Dutch “dirty” house and moombahton, this paper examines the distinct media ecologies that fostered the rise of such styles while considering the implications for understanding how musical media can facilitate forms of social collectivity and interaction, mobilization and disarticulation, audibility and illegibility.
See here for the full program. I’ll be giving my talk on Friday, Sept 1 at 11:45am as part of a panel addressing questions of “Urban Form.” Even more exciting (for me anyway), I’ll be DJing an afterparty on Friday night alongside Munchi himself! (not to mention State of Bengal and Nafer Loves You) It’s gonna be fun connecting all these dots! Sentello velocity indeed…
The second upcoming event I want to mention here is another DJ gig of sorts. On the evening of September 7, I’ll be performing at openLAB_03, a gathering at Harvard’s cool new experimental research unit, metaLAB, happening in conjunction with the Berkman Center’s iLaw conference.
The directors have been using the openLAB event series to present projects from Boston-area artists and share ongoing metaLAB experiments with the public. The theme of openLAB_03 is remix/curation of media archives (“broadly interpreted,” I’m told). Along these lines, they’ve asked me to reignite the Boston Mashacre/Smashacre stuff I worked up a few years ago, and I’ve decided that the next chapter in this series of sonic explorations of Boston’s sound(scape) will focus on radio transmissions.
Although I haven’t had a chance to write about the subject here yet, I’m deeply interested in how Boston’s radio landscape offers a uniquely audible picture of the city and the people who live here. The vivid, if often muted, presence of low-power and “pirate” radio stations — especially emanating from Caribbean communities — is something I’d like to explore, and accentuate, especially alongside the crushing amount of hi-fi, ClearChannel, middle-of-the-roaditude that saturates the airwaves here. In terms of aesthetic procedures, I plan on toying with degrees of distance and difference, signal and noise. To that end, I’ve been making my own “personal” (and/or public) archive of Boston radio scans, which I plan to cut up and loop and reassemble in the spirit of, e.g., my 2003 Jamaican radio edit.
Not sure yet about the title — think I’ve exhausted the (s)mashacre schtick, so maybe something like “Towers of Power” — but, at any rate, I hope something suggesting these power relations emerges in the performance. Will share in audio form here once I get a chance to bounce it all down, but please do come to openLAB_03 for the live mix if you’re in the area.
Association with the Berkman Center is always a felicitous thing, IMO, and I’m happy to report that, in addition to this latest bit of convergence, I’ve been selected to serve as one of the Berkman Center’s Faculty Associates for the 2011-2012 academic year (alongside a humbling list of luminaries).
Speaking of the academic year, the fall semester is soon to commence, and although I don’t have time (right now) to go into the long story of my academic employment situation, I’m excited to report that although my fellowship at MIT ended this spring, I’ll be continuing to teach here in the Boston area. I’m offering two courses this fall, one at Brandeis and another at UMass-Boston. I’m delighted to be teaching at both institutions, and very much looking forward to meeting the students. If you happen to know anyone at either place, please help spread the word. In brief the deets are:
1) On Monday evenings from 5:30-8:00 at UMass-Boston, I’ll be attempting to fill the very large shoes of Reebee Garofalo, who is retiring, teaching his perennial and popular course on the “Social History of Popular Music.” This is a great opportunity to dig into the question of the “popular” and how it opens into, emerges from, and informs social history. I’ll share the syllabus here as soon as I’ve got it into good enough shape. It’s being offered through the American Studies department (AMST 235).
2) On Tuesday nights from 6:30-9:20 at Brandeis I’ll be returning to the topic of “Reggae, Race, and Nation” for the department of African and African American Studies (AAAS 171a). The syllabus will not look too unlike my Global Reggae course for MIT (now on OpenCourseWare!), though I will be tweaking it a little, of course.
These topics are near and dear to my heart & work, and I feel fortunate (if a little undercompensated — twice the teaching for 20% the pay!) to be able to continue thinking and talking about music, popular culture, and social history & theory for a “living.” Nice work if you can get it. Do help me out by directing good students my way!
Hope to see some of y’all at some of these things. And I promise to fill you in on my Summer of Relative Silence very soon. Also, I’ve got some pieces of writing to share. Soon come, patient readers, soon come.
So, yeah. There’s rearing; and then there’s rearing –
Slightly older kids, well enculturated & irrepressibly motivated, can tend to take things to the next level, bumping body parts with acrobatic abandon and lighting rooftops (and laptops) on fire –
Devotees of dancehall reggae and reggaeton will no doubt recognize elements of perreo and daggering in the “choque” (alt. “choke” or “shoke”) — named after the collisions so central to the dance. (One bump on each beat = 95 bumps per minute!) As one choque song goes, and there are many of them, the dance might be conceived as “perreo con toque.” Musically speaking, all the big choque songs (whether by La Combinacion, Son de AK, Element Black, Los de Tura, etc.) are basically reggaeton productions, if by reggaeton we mean Spanish-language, reggae-inflected rap over beats constructed piecemeal from mid-90s dancehall riddims — a stab of guitar from Murder She Wrote, a Fever Pitch hi-hat, kicks and snares resampled so many times they’ve taken on a new character, thick and crunchy, perfect for soundtracking the crashing of hips. In this way, we might appreciate an aesthetic symmetry between the ways the dance and the music both sample from as they explode well-worn forms.
Notably, however — and clearly departing from perreo and daggering in this way — the choque has a strong and, for many, surprising (or even subversive) “equal opportunity” character. As seen in the video above (and in many others), after doing some “leading” of their own, the men take turns being “led” (i.e., smashed on) by the women. Moreover, as I’ll discuss below, the choque also appears to lend itself to a fair amount of same-sex coupling — a rather rare sight in dancehall or reggaeton (especially male-to-male). But despite (or perhaps because of?) how clearly the choque is indebted to Caribbean forms — both musical and embodied — the video above has been received and recoded, again and again, as “African.”
When I first “stumbled upon” and reshared that video (via @culturedoctor, aka Sonjah Stanley Niaah), it wasn’t just called “Best Dance Ever. Watch it.” — it was called “Best African Dance Ever. Watch it.” And while I have no doubt that Africanists and Caribbeanists and scholars and enthusiasts of all stripes could hold an animated debate over what constitutes an “African” dance, whether here or there, and how much it hinges on aesthetics and history and politics — or, per Sonjah, whether “there is ground for analyzing inter-dependent genealogies” — I’m not so interested in hashing out that particular argument as I am in teasing out how ideologies of race and nation and sexuality, as routed through the charged site of Africa, play out in the public spheres gathered around YouTube and the myriad places, online and off, where a video like the one above can be discussed or re-embedded.
Comments on the various instantiations of the video reveal a remarkable resonance produced by the familiar movements and milieu. (It’s actually rather striking how little of the YouTube discourse around the song&dance mention the music at all.) This everyday but spirited rooftop jam clearly activates viewers’ social, global, and racial imaginations (to name a few). Some claim the dance for themselves, folding it into a capacious sense of identititity, others distance themselves from the scene and all it opens into –
All manner of associations and explanations are proffered –
Remarkably, debate continues despite that the uploader — who was, incidentally, not the first: this copy has nearly 20X as many views — finally “corrected” the title after several commenters correctly ID’d it as a Colombian scene/song (i.e., “Choque” by Son de AK).
People remain keenly interested in, skeptical of, and, indeed, ignorant of the video’s provenance. Some insist it is African African. Of course, even once we locate it in the Americas, that hardly means it’s not “African.” Note that Sonjah refers to the dance as a product of “the African community in South America,” an interesting (and, of course, political) way to describe it — as opposed to say, “Colombian” or “Afro-Colombian” or “Buenaventuran” etc. — and, I hasten to add, not necessarily an identititity that the kids in the video would oppose.
But pan-African commitments do not always lead to the tightest coalitions, for local cultural mores can produce fissures. It’s clear, for instance, that certain Jamaican viewers, even as they observe strong links to their own dear practices (“Dagga dat”!), find themselves repelled by certain practices that, no pun intended, give them pause (“dat cyaah gwaan a yaard”) –
And I think he was further convinced, and a little dismayed and bemused, when I shared some other choque videos I had turned up:
That video led me to a couple more, where the action is set in front of and then inside a home, and (thus?) it gets a little more intimate:
As you might imagine, given how YouTube has become ground zero for gay slurs, the comments on these videos get pretty hyperbolic. Indeed, trawling for interesting responses, I came across some classic chatroom Spanglish invective:
My friend and colleague, Michael Birenbaum Quintero, a self-identified “ethnomusicĂłlogo gringolombiano” who has been working in Colombia (and specifically in Buenaventura) for many years now, and is well acquainted with the choque phenomenon, offered another interpretation. He told me this sort of display — dancing in front of one’s house with a small soundsystem — is a commonplace practice in Buenaventura, including same-sex partnering. It may be homosocial, but it is not necessarily homoerotic — and according to MBQ such activity is rarely seen that way. Rather, and perhaps ironically (for some outside observers), this sort of galavanting is, more often than not, a means of showing off for girls. (But tell that to YouTube.)
Moreover, and this is something I hadn’t picked up on, MBQ noted that there’s a fair amount of subtle deflection in the dancing between men: rather than a square crotch-to-ass thrust, the guys are more likely to swivel hips at the last moment, so the bumping of sides is more frequent.
This is not always so, however, as some fellow Buenaventuran fellows demonstrate:
Then again, here they are again (and again), with opp-sex partners, so go figure:
And here’s a great example of two girls from Buenaventura, at what appears to be a family party, showing how the dance can be a lot more athletic than erotic –
Clearly, specific cultural frames and contextual understandings structure the meanings of choque, even as translocal elements (reggaeton, daggering, skinnyjeans) undeniably inform both local engagements and global circulation / fascination / revulsion. That said, it’s worth noting that the reason the choque became the phenomenon that it did — inspiring local and regional artists to record songs about and for it — is precisely because of all the kids in Buenaventura and ChocĂł dancing with abandon out in the street, up on the roof, and, eventually, on YouTube. This has made the choque more popular than ever, and it has invited contributions and appropriations of all sorts.
For one, thanks no doubt to YouTube, it has long since traveled beyond Buenaventura and Colombia: uploaded in September 2009, this video finds a Dominican couple doing the “baile de choque” (as well as jerkin’s “reject”) to some local dembow beats:
Closer to home, some recording artists have attempted to court crossover success by translating the choque for audiences outside of Colombia’s Afro-Pacific communities. As noted on the Masala blog a few months ago, Element Black and Bloke 18 premiered an upscale take on the tune, complete with HD video:
note the mambo outro
According to MBQ, although hailing from Buenaventura, Element Black appear to be targeting the regional capital, Cali, with this production. The most obvious cue is the participation of Cali-based group Bloke 18, but as MBQ told me via email, there are other signs to be read here: for one, whereas “videos for Pacific-focused music tends to have a generally darker demographic like that of the Pacific itself,” in this video we see “much lighter-skinned, upper-class-CaleĂ±o-looking models”; moreover, MBQ contends that “the fact that the more virtuosic aspects of the dance (e.g. head to butt headbutts) don’t appear” suggests that they wanted to “make it easier for Cali dancers,” a strategy seemingly buttressed by the use of mambo / merengue in the production. (But then, MBQ adds: “This is more that post-Ilegales No Pare Sigue Sigue neo-merengue mambo stuff than merengue, but it’s probably important that merengue is generally associated with the upper classes in Cali.”)
While listening to an Element Black mixtape I turned up, it occurred to me that mambo (as well as reggaeton) was working as a sort of platform in itself — as a means to project and promote one’s act, to invite the participation of a readymade public (i.e., one already addressed/amassed by mambo). It seems telling that there are multiple choque mambos circulating with their name on it. Then again, is mambo the platform, or does “choque” itself create a new scaffolding?
Perhaps inspired by the same crossover dreams, another act drummed up a (blanqueado?) salsa version:
Given the choque’s “African” connotations, there are consequences — in terms of social, cultural, and financial capital — for facilitating the circulation of choque beyond Colombia’s Pacific coast. While I can’t speak further to its reception in Cali, I have noticed a few videos portraying the choque in BogotĂĄ, where it is definitely received ambivalently, not least because the suggestive dance has been embraced by (putatively) non-Afro-Colombians — most scandalously of course, by highschool kids and even younger.
Indeed, the following footage of uniformed students in BogotĂĄ doing “EL NUEVO BAILE PARA JOVENES” (as the description phrases it) became the focus of an alarmist “national” news story –
Despite, then, what we might observe — and some would celebrate — as a certain set of cultural mores on display in choque videos, discourses of shame and scandal persist, at least in certain quarters. (One gets the sense, looking across these various videos and their metatexts, that these dances are ok, y’know, on the coasts, but not in the center!) Or maybe it’s just another lame excuse for the moralist media to replay the same supposedly salacious imagery again and again and again:
Resonant (and in conversation) with mediatized youth dance scenes the world over, the choque stands as another site of cultural and social contest. The myriad comments on choque videos using terms like “mierda” or “porquerĂa” alongside racist and heterosexist epithets merely serve to confirm, among other things, that as with its kindred genres (perreo, daggering, wining, freakin’) the choque can do a whole lot of cultural work at once. Whether teaching kids how to be in their bodies and cavort with their peers (sometimes a lot more innocently and playfully than critics let on), or pushing against longstanding biases, the choque vividly embodies the inevitable collisions in a post-slave, post-colonial, and multicultural society like Colombia.
And, indeed, despite vitriolic debates on YouTube and the fanning of populist fears on TV news, a large part of the choque’s cultural work may already be done. As MBQ also noted in our email exchange:
As for the upward mobility of choque, I recently saw on a friend of mine’s Facebook page a video of a middle-class white mother of about 40 and her 20something son in Buenaventura unironically dancing choque together.
Since we’re back to the topic of the wide and contested world of reggaeton, it felt fortuitous to find in my inbox this morning a link to a new interview with Renato, Panamanian pioneer of reggae en espaĂ±ol. With the effective prodding of Peter Szok, a history professor from Texas, Renato helps to further flesh out the picture of how reggae has been translated and transformed in Panama. Go read the whole thing, but allow me to highlight some illuminating excerpts below.
If you didn’t, you should know that Renato, of Bajan and Jamaican parentage, grew up in the Canal Zone alongside other English-speaking labor migrants from the Caribbean (and their children), and that he strongly identified with US pop culture before moving to Panama City as a teen, where he learned Spanish and participated in a number of crucial ways in the emergent reggae scene: MCing parties, recording songs for drivers of diablos rojos or mini-buses (which Renato describes as “like radio stations”), and, among other things, assisting the rise of Edgardo Franco, aka El General, who got his start as one of Renato’s 4 Estrellas.
Renato’s tale of making the transition from Canal Zone to Panama, from americano to panameĂ±o, deserves a little quotation at length:
What I knew was âBuenos dĂas,â âHola,â and âÂżCĂłmo estĂĄs?â So I had a lot of problems. Since I came from the Canal Zone, the kids jumped on me and called me the americano. Once I took an apple to the teacher. That was something they taught us in the Zone, and they went after me for being a brown-nose. So you know, from those experiences, I had a lot of fights. They didnât like me, because I came from the Canal Zone. The whole experience was a bit confusing. When we moved to Panama, my grandmother told me, âSon, I have to tell you something important. Youâre Panamanian. We never told you before, because we thought that you knew.â I initially had a hard time believing. But she explained that we were Panamanians, but grew up American-style, because we lived in the Canal Zone. Thatâs why we knew the National Anthem of the United States and not the Panamanian song. And that was another problem. When I was at school, I had to sing the Panamanian anthem, and I didnât know it. This also created a lot of problems. Because youâre Panamanian, and people think that you donât love your country. But itâs not that. I grew up in a country that was in another country.
And here’s Renato describing how he and Wassanga, a local DJ, made their foray into production — for the buses/busdrivers, before music on buses was banned — using reggae instrumentals:
Iâm learning now how to speak in Spanish and sing in Spanish, and so we start doing tapes with the reggae instrumental versions. The guys from the diablos rojos were a big deal for us. The bus drivers would tell us, âHey I want you to do a song, saying that Iâm the number one driver in this sector. Iâm the best conductor. Iâve got the girls.â So Iâd do something like, âYeah, this is the number one conductor. Yeah, heâs got the number one structure. Girls like him, so get on the bus.â And we would do it in Spanish and put it on a tape, and he would play it on his bus. Remember that Panamanians had music on their buses. Panamanian buses were like radio stations. What you heard on the buses, was what was hitting. So after we started getting this popularity in Spanish, we began to write our own songs.
Here’s Renato on rap and the Canal Zone’s relationship to the US/NYC:
Rap started in Panama with âRapperâs Delight.â It was a big hit, The Sugar Hill Gang was really popular. Then came Run-DMC. They brought in the breakdancing. I used to breakdance. Remember that I came from the Canal Zone, and so everything from the United States was my style. And so while I was in Panama and trying to do Panamanian stuff, it was still my style. I used to try to go every day to Balboa, because I was so accustomed to my style of living that I couldnât stand being here in Panama. I used to go every day and spend all my money on bus fairs and taxis, just to be in Balboa, just to be in Pedro Miguel with my people, my friends. You know it was hard for me to leave my friends and to live in a place where I didnât know anyone. Then everyone started to leave for New York. Almost everyone who grew up with me now lives in the States.
Finally, Renato gets to parsing the difference between Panamanian reggae (or plena / bultron) and Puerto Rican reggaeton:
But if you hearâŠthe way we sing, then youâll understand that itâs different from the Puerto Ricans. Itâs a little more suave, and you can understand the Spanish more. Puerto Ricans like to invent a lot of words that most people donât understand. In Panama, we have a different type of reggae. We have the most romantic reggae, because we are a romantic country. We donât have so much gangster music. I can tell you how many gangster rappers we have. Itâs like six or seven. But we have so many romantic singers, almost six or seven hundred singers who donât sing about gangster stuff. Because we are not a violent country.
And when it comes to explaining reggae vis-a-vis “black identity,” Renato draws the lines pretty starkly, in blood red:
Yes, because we took it from Jamaica, and it has a black culture. And remember something. The majority of Panamanian reggae singers are black. In Puerto Rico, theyâre white. The Puerto Rican reggae singers are white. Over here, theyâre black. Why? To them, it was like something new, these new moves that they wanted to do. But for us, it was something from our families, something we loved.
He paints in some broad strokes here, and perhaps fans a few flames, especially with such sweeping generalizations about national difference, but I appreciate the greater sense of context he gives us for hearing how reggae resonates in Panama.
Notably — at least for this enthusiast of Jamaican culture bubbling through the American mainstream — to help stage Lil Wayne’s big comeback, producer Bangladesh contributed another a-milli-esque banger, in this case opting to deliciously substitute Harry Belafonte’s well-worn Jamaicanisms for Phife Dog’s more obscure ragga filigree —
What’s funny — and telling, in a lost-in-translation-but-who-cares sorta way — is that the centerpiece of the song is a sample of the part of Belafonte’s recording that departs oddly, and some would say wrongly, from the Jamaican folk song that is its source. A chorus chanting six foot, seven foot, eight foot, bunch! underpins Weezy’s relentless show-and-prove show, but as the Honorable Doctor Louise Bennett Coverly — better known as Miss Lou — would explain, bananas don’t come in feet, they come in hands. Or as she puts it, they don’t have toes, they have fingers!
You have to hear how Miss Lou puts it herself. If you aren’t familiar with the pioneering work of Miss Lou, you should know, at least, that she’s a towering figure in Jamaican culture, more responsible than perhaps anyone else for recuperating the distinctive twists and turns of Jamaican creole English, aka patois / patwa. (Miss Lou’s legacy on this count includes her legitimation of alternate spelling and pronunciation practices.) Not only was Miss Lou a walking, talking, singing vessel of Jamaican folklore, she also created a body of patwa poetry that has been committed to memory by generations of Jamaican children and which includes my favorite poem about reggae (even though it was written in 1966, before reggae hit the town).
Just hear how she tells the story of “Banana Boat Song” and coaxes a sympathetic call&response from her adoring audience (note: after thinking aloud about it — what year it was? — Miss Lou guesses it was the 1960s when she and Belafonte first sang the song together, but given that Calypso came out in 1956, she must have meant the 50s):
The only thing is I did teach him to say “6 hand, 7 hand, 8 hand” and him a say “6 foot, 7 foot” [laughter]. My dear! So I said, after it became famous now, I think, great. Singer of Jamaican folk songs. I say, “Harry, but what about this foot ting? Banana don’t have toe, y’know. Di banana have fingers.” Him say, “yes.”
Notably, Belafonte did apparently eventually correct his rendition. By the time he’s performing the song on the Muppet Show in 1978, we’re back to “hand” –
But the classic version, as heard on the old 78, as famously re-animated in Beetlejuice, and now again given new life by Bangladesh, most definitely says “foot” –
And, so, funny enough, the one part that Belafonte gets bizarrely backwards is the part that Bangladesh and Weezy fasten onto. This makes sense: it sounds like a proud, strong-backed boast in Belafonte’s rendition, fit for full-throated brag-raps and ennobling folkloric worksongs alike.
What’s especially interesting then, about Miss Lou’s exegesis, is that it’s not so much about the correct body part to describe clusters of bananas, it’s about the central meaning of the song itself. The workers may be strong and proud; they came to work, not to idle. But they’ve been working all night and they’re exhausted. They waaaaaaan go home, and they want the bossman and the tallyman to take it easy on them as they make the final, daybreak round of a backbreaking night.
Hearing Miss Lou provide the context makes one hear even the exclamation on “bunch” as less a matter of celebration and more of consternation — “Banana Boat Song,” she explains, is a good ol’ workaday kvetch:
That is a banana loading song, and you sing it when it coming on to morning time and the poor men — mostly they were men — working at this loading of the banana boat, the whole night, and when you coming out at like four o’clock in the morning, dem waan go home. And they wanted the smallest amount of bananas they can get. And you know the six-hand little? Of course, those stay. Seven-hand. Eight-hand. Bunch!? Nine. Ten. Bunch!?! Cooyah. Noh gimme so-so bunch, me no horse wid bridle. [laughter]
Now, Miss Lou’s explanation might itself merit some explication, at least for those who aren’t quite up on their patois proverbs or banana facts. About the horse and the bridle: this is a colorful and humorous worker’s plea, eager to intervene before he gets too heavily weighed down. He’s cool (cooyah) with the reasonably-sized stems, the smaller sets of clusters, the six-hands and seven-hands and so forth. But not a bunch! And certainly not a bunch like that, not so-so bunch. If he were a horse with a bridle maybe he could handle such a load, but poor overworked human that he is, a whole bunch at this point strikes him as unfair — and worthy of some patois-peppered protest.
The use of so-so here marks a significant way to voice the resistance of an Afro-Jamaican laborer. As this Dictionary of Jamaican English elaborates, so-so(h) is possibly derived from a Yoruba term (sho-sho). Of course, tellingly and a little confoundingly, it sources the very line Miss Lou quotes from the “Banana Boat Song” as an example of usage:
Now, if all that six-hand, seven-hand stuff is still not clear, we can look to, say, early twentieth-century accounts of the burgeoning banana industry for some good technical prose. In his 1914 work, Conquest of the Tropics: The Story of the Creative Enterprises Conducted by the United Fruit Company, Frederick Upham Adams provides the basic lowdown on counting clusters while specifically big-upping Jamaica and black Jamaican workers (who, we should note with a nod to reggaeton, were also crucial, as migrant workers, to the operation of plantations across Central America):
âŠA bunch of bananas consists of a stem, hands, and fingers. Each hand has from ten to fifteen fingers. A bunch of bananas is thus known to the trade as a “five-hand stem,” “a six-hand stem,” and from that up to the nine or ten-hand stems, which are average commercial limit, though Costa Rica has produced stems containing as high as twenty-two hands — a veritable giant of tropical fecundity.
In Jamaica the bananas range from five to nine hands to the bunch, with an occasional one exceeding this grading, but the individual fingers are smaller than those which grow in the humid lowlands of the Central American coast. But they are good bananas, wholesome and marketable. The Jamaican negro is the workman who has made possible the wonders which the United Fruit Company has achieved in Central America, and Jamaica can lay just claim as the birthplace of the banana industry.
And now, dear readers, as they say inna Jamaica, you done know.
It may not matter much to that Wayne and his flights of fancy, but it does to this one.
I first met Benjamen Walker in prison in Jamaica. Either there or the hotel down the street. We were both in Kingston together, with a ragtag band of a couple dozen more, in order to, as best I can understand it today, sprinkle some internet magic on the place. (And help support some serious reform of the prison system.) Back then Benjamen was producing radio for Christopher Lydon while doing his own show, Your Radio Nightlight, on WZBC in Boston.
When Your Radio Nightlight morphed into Theory of Everything, I hardly skipped a beat, though I enjoyed Benjamen’s reinvigorated play with notions of fact and fiction, myth and reality. Grokking one’s way through Ben’s shows is always a fun hermeneutical exercise in that way. Since last year he’s tweaked the title once again, now offering Too Much Information every Monday evening on WFMU (right before /Rupture’s Mudd Up!) though the format — if we can call it that — remains similar.
Ever since meeting him and getting to know his voice, I’ve been consistently entertained and edified by Benjamen’s particular approach to telling the truth. But maybe the current WFMU teaser best hits the nail:
Too Much Information is the sober hangover after the digital party has run out of memes, apps and schemes. Host Benjamen Walker finds out that, in a world where everyone overshares the truth 140 characters at a time, telling tales might be the most honest thing to do.
And so I was pleased once again to make an appearance in one of Ben’s shows for last week’s TMI episode, “The Island.” It’s a special episode for a number of reasons. You should just go and listen, but let me tell you briefly why I think so:
Benjamen recycles some really poignant bits from an earlier Theory of Everything show (inspired by some of our on-island adventures together several years back), but rather than sounding dated, it seems as relevant and resonant as ever, particularly the parts about Jamaica’s threatened sovereignty in the face of US drug-don extradition requests (!!!).
His storytelling remains as twitchy as ever, inviting listeners to identify and dis-identify with the unreliable narrator and to guess at what is real and what is not — and to think about whether it matters and why.
There are plenty of funny send-ups of island/Jamaican culture, especially with regard to outsider observers/enthusiasts. This latter camp is one that Benjamen, i&i, and Christina Xu all firmly fall into — not to mention the guy from the “Voice of the Revolution” soundsystem.
You get to hear my ol’ “boom-ch-boom-chick” routine once more, this time in the context of explaining how I’ve changed my line on the so-called “island rhythm” over the last several years of giving lectures on Caribbean music at Harvard. Bonus: much beatboxing throughout!
I highly recommend going and listening to the whole episode (mp3 stream | pop-up player). It unfolds in an engrossing way and I think there’s something important about the accretion of meanings over the course of the show. But if you want to jump right to my part, here’s a direct link (mp3 stream | pop-up).
White people can’t dance, you know — to be more precise, not if they’ve been raised in a place or community or family where they’re not socialized and enculturated into dancing, or don’t later make great efforts to correct such an impoverished upbringing. (& of course, that goes for ppl of any color.)
The song is by Jessy Matador, who is apparently from the DRC but whose MySpace has him repping “Paris/Dakar/Miami/Kinshasa.” He’s clearly plugged into the Francophone world, and if I’m not mistaken this track is somehow connected to Guadeloupe (Gwada). But Google doesn’t translate most of the (French?) lyrics. I do like what it gives me for the first verse, tho –
It is there to do the show
Did you want to heat
One meter is for the ambience
Did you want to dance
You can compare her choreography to the original here. Notably the top comment on the YouTube video leads with this:
Gavin’s throwing darts again, and he hits a couple bullseyes — or offers some sharp prodding at any rate. The post is on par with his thoughtful and provocative ruminations on the ethics of musical tourism from almost exactly a year ago, and we can read it as something of a follow-up, a continuation not just of bloggy resonances but of nagging questions that must be asked.
The subject Gavin returns to is near and dear to me: (brave?) nu-whirled music / global ghettotech. He distills into a neat narrative arc a certain dynamic of the musical blogosphere (or at least one humble corner of it). As Gavin sees it, most of the nu-whirled/global-gtech genres follow a predictable pattern, the ol’ boom-and-bust of the hype machine –
The dominant narrative is well established: in the midst of urban poverty afflicting a community of color/nonWestern nationality, young people appropriate the techniques of hip hop/reggae/techno and make their own version of these established genres in their vernacular. A flurry of creativity creates an entire musical culture full of rapid stylistic changes and hybridity; meanwhile, the older generation and middle classes disdain the music as oversexual and immoral. Then the music hits the shores of the West, through immigrant diasporas, study-abroad programs, and canny journos looking for the next big thing. Gushing articles are written, cosmopolitan centers host parties centered around the sound, and the most recognizable sonic elements of these genres (dem bow, tamborazo) show up in remixes and DJ sets. A few artists are cherrypicked as leading the crop. A compilation album firms up the brand identity (what are genres but brands?). Tours and careers are launched. And then the genre fails to keep up with the rapid cultural turnover endemic to digital capitalism and interest fades. Luckily new genres from new locales spring up to fill the void.
A lot of this makes a lot of sense. And Gavin’s call for a close examination of the “political economy of global ghettotech” is imperative. Of course, the call for an attn to specific political economies seems in conflict with the impulse, on the other hand, to offer meta-narratives (i.e., “global ghettotech” itself) — but perhaps Gavin acknowledges this with his use of “dominant narrative,” a distancing gesture or sorts.
It’s funny, though, that Gavin picks reggaeton as his example — & funny for two reasons:
1) it’s misleading
2) it’s wrong
Wrt #1: As I initially commented on Gavin’s post, I think reggaeton is a misleading example for understanding the general dynamics of global ghettotech because it is, in some respects, exceptional. Although it may have been one of the first non-Anglo/non-mainstream genres to find uptake on the (world/whirled) music connoisseurosphere (getting lots of love here, & at Muddup, Ghettobassquake, Masala, etc.), it also departs from what I would consider more representative worldmusic2.0 genres (funk carioca, kuduro, nu-cumbia, juke) in significant ways. Perhaps most obviously, while we might be able to argue that nu-whirled bloggers played some role in the popularization of such genres as funk carioca and kuduro and (nu)cumbia — outside of their originary/primary sites of production, that is — I think we can hardly say the same for reggaeton.
Indeed, the economic arc of reggaeton’s story — which Gavin describes pretty accurately, actually — makes it seem like quite the outlier in all of this, since none of the other genres so popular among “global ghettotech” (for lack of a better term) DJs and bloggers, etc., have enjoyed even a modicum of reggaeton’s remarkable success within American (and global) commercial culture. One might be able to make an argument for cumbia — but not nu-cumbia — which has enjoyed a steady, and growing, level of popularity across Latin America for the better part of a century (though reggaeton’s incursions into English-language media still make it special in this regard).
Given the scale of the reggaeton phenomenon, it’s popularity among a relatively small number of DJs and music bloggers hardly seems remarkable. I do think it’s remarkable that reggaeton was among the first non-English genres to make inroads in the INTL urban DJ/enthusiast scene (for lack of better terms), and in this way it’s an important footnote in the story of global gobbledicunk, sin duda. Perhaps, and maybe this is what Gavin cares more about, the way in which reggaeton quickly fell out of favor for this set (which, yes, finds parallels in a broader “recession” for reggaeton) is endemic to the nu-whirled phenomenon. In that case, I would certainly agree. Nu-black is the new black.
Wrt #2: Despite all the chatter about it crashing or, more cutely, running out of gasolina, reggaeton is far from dead.
Among other indicators, as I tweeted the other day (pointing to this):
And I was happy to get some quick, on-the-ground affirmation from Brooklyn:
For my part, in the days since reading Gavin’s post I’ve counted several dembow-rattled trunks passing me on the street here in Cambridge.
And indeed, I was heartened to read this morning that Gavin himself has recanted somewhat. After attending Chicago’s Puerto Rican Pride festival this weekend (in my former hood, Humboldt Park!), he reports that, having heard a dosa buena de dembow, “[r]umors of reggaetonâs death are be greatly exaggerated.” That’s reassuring, especially since I think Gavin has long held a keen ear to the reggaetony (under)ground, as demonstrated in this relatively early piece on the genre.
Moreover, Gavin’s critical ears and eyes remain sharp. His description of the contemporary sound of reggaeton (or wot-ever se llama) hits the nail on the head —
The Dem Bow is definitely muted or completely absent in a lot of these tracks, instead thereâs a kind of digital-dancehall feel, with lots of effervesynths and autotune. The way reggaeton (if you can call it that) is looking in 2009 is a hybrid of T-Pain R&B, Caribbean pop, and hints of trance.
But what more should we expect from a “genre” that has consistently engaged with contemporary hip-hop, pop, and dancehall for the last 15 years? To my ears, this is hardly a departure for what we call(ed?) reggaeton, but which has gone under many other names (and forms). If anything, the LunyTuny dembow orthodoxy of 2002-07 stands as a greater aesthetic aberration — a formal “distortion” produced by a timely collision with market “forces” — than the current crop of tracks coming out of PR (and the diaspora).
Even without an explicit dembow in the more recent productions (by the same people who produced hits during reggaeton’s heyday, to date), there’s still a recognizable aesthetic core there, I’d argue — one that emerges precisely out of the PR-based engagement with US and Caribbean and Latin American dance/pop/rap. You might miss it if it’s dembow orthodoxy you’re searching for (and I may be as guilty as any in pointing people to keep their ears on the snares). I could go on in some detail and elaborate, but, you know what, I already have. If you’re interested in this aesthetic history (and the role different genre names and forms have played), READ MY CHAPTER ALREADY.
To me, it’s more telling that reggaeton continues to generate such heated debate than that radio stations (and reggaeton stars) have shifted their strategies and broadened their palettes. That the genre still serves as such a (self-serving?) target speaks volumes.
For one, I’ll point any curious gawkers to the video I posted to YouTube in which Vico C demonstrates by beatbox the difference between hip-hop and reggaeton. Like a lot of other reggaeton-related postings around the net, it has become a vehicle for anti-reggaeton vitriol. How could something so dead generate such heat?
i think reggaeton’s gonna be around (and popular) for some time to come. we’ll see what it sounds like, though. and whether people still call “it” reggaeton (they did, after all, used to call “it” any number of names).
colon may be right that the “euphoria” has passed, but that doesn’t mean the genre’s days are numbered. plus, this is clearly a bit of self-promotion for his own music, talking bout how people have returned to salsa. they never really turned away.
on another note, isn’t saying “mĂșsica urbana” basically like saying “mĂșsica negra”? it is in english — a pretty specious euphemism really. might as well say “race records.” so maybe we’re back where we started, but in a worse place?
The exchange made me think that if I were writing my chapter now, it might have to be titled “MĂșsica Negra to MĂșsica Urbana” — a sly story of commodification, accommodation, and shape-shifting.
I also spoke recently to a reporter asking essentially the same questions (is reggaeton dead? has it crashed? its moment passed?), and I told her I think it’s just as possible that 2004-06 represents the first of several “reggaeton” waves (que onda!), as opposed to but a flash in the pan. And I’m not simply talking in terms of the periodic Latin “booms” (and busts) that have punctuated US popular culture for at least the last century. It seems totally plausible to me that “Gasolina” and the other reggaetony blips on the “mainstream” radar were just the tip of the iceberg for Afro-Latin-American media finding a permanent place in American (in the broadest sense) mass culture. I guess we’ll have to wait and see whether history & demographics & (American/global) popular culture bear this out.
I think one could contend, at any rate, that reggaeton is as popular as it’s ever been, billboard hits notwithstanding: reggaeton stars still fill stadiums across the Americas, sell millions of CDs, and have secured a spot on urban Spanish-language radio and in the “Latin” wing of the Music Industry; moreover, there are more “bedroom” producers at work producing the music than ever before, and in more places. That reggaeton (whatever it gets called) continues to thrive at both the corporate and grassroots levels is not to be underplayed, whether or not the “euphoria” has passed (for whom?).
In a sense, this question of whether reggaeton is “dead” amounts to the PR-centric version of an odd question posed recently in the Jamaica Observer: “Is Dancehall Still Dancehall?” On the one hand, as I noted somewhat cheekily, with a nod to Norm Stolzoff, dancehall is now, was always, and ever shall be dancehall. On the other, it’s also reggae. But then again, it’s not. People distinguish roots from dancehall all the time, sometimes with the confusingly metonymic use of “reggae” as a stand-in for “roots reggae”; ask these sample people, however, and reggae is reggae is reggae (even if it’s ska). Or yet another angle: a good friend of mine, a Jamaican who grew up in Cambridge, wouldn’t consider Bounty Killer to be dancehall since, for him, Josey Wales chatting over some rub-a-dub reggae was dancehall (indeed, the music of Josey, et al., was the first style of Jamaican pop to be so strongly identified with the music’s social space — the dancehall — that it took on its name); rather, Bounty & Beenie, et al., represented something else, perhaps better described as rap (at least from my fren’s perspective).
As usual, I’m not saying there’s a there there. It can all get pretty tautological really. (Word to Wiley.) Some labels stick, some don’t. Some become brands, some don’t.
It’s still pretty astounding to me that something as clunky and freighted as “global ghettotech” might prove a useful brand, but DJs/bloggers like UMB are waving the banner, apparently with some modest success. Guillaume has some interesting thoughts about all of this, which I hope he’ll share soon. Lest we get carried away, I think we should keep in mind, as /Rupture noted, that
The exposure and interest is overrated. âGlobal ghettotechâ club nights are a minority, it is just a few individuals in a few cities doing it.
As I put these thoughts together, and commented on Gavin’s next post, it occurred to me that I might sound at times as if my own meta-narrative about reggaeton is akin to some sort of Afro-Latino version of TEH NUUM. And I hardly intend anything like that. The last thing I want to do is “overdetermine” a lot of fresh music by imposing some sort of totalizing theory on it. And I sure don’t want to produce for myself (and others) a myopic lens for interpreting new music by saddling it with the weight of tradition (e.g., bassline as hardcore?), much as that can seem inevitable. Kinda like missing the trees for the forest, innit.
On the other hand, sometimes these metanarratives can serve as profoundly meaningful frames for making sense of music (and cultural politics) as it engages our senses. For better or worse, that’s what “global ghettotech” has done / attempts to do — to contain within its ambivalent name(brand?) a set of questions, challenges, critiques. Not to beat a dead horse (or an undead one!), but one reason I employed the term “ghettotech” — problematic or confusing as that “appropriation” may be — is that it perhaps acknowledges the “uncomfortably romantic” dimension in so much of this engagement and activity. Then again, my hope — if I may risk such technoptimism — is that the (increasingly) p2p nature of all this musical exchange might promise some rapprochement between the celebraters and celebratees, the metropolitan DJs/promoters/bloggers/critics and their bredren on the peripheries (or right next door).
This is something I’ve been struggling with — in part c/o some provocative talks and interviews given in the last 6 months by Kode9 (occasionally with Kodwo Eshun). Honored as I am to find “global ghettotech” appearing alongside the ‘nuum and their own possible (afro)futurisms, I am definitely wary of creating a critical apparatus that somehow absorbs the future shock of new music. Grappling with this issue — with the critical effects of web2.0 discourse on worldmusic2.0 — seems very necessary, indeed central to my next/current project.
But I’d better stop here, as I’ve still got a lot to think through in this regard, and I’ve already written too much already. (Congrats if you made it this far!)
If you’re not familiar with the modyfier series, here’s a primer, written back at the 50th episode milestone (mine’s #124). Rayna has commissioned tons of great mixes, with ruminations on process, from such lovelies & luminaries as Luomo, Philip Sherburne, Ripley, Catchdubs, David Last, Mochipet, & many many more. I’m delighted to join the list — and happy to deliver after maybe a year and a half of gentle prodding. (Best intentions, knamean?)
Given that my mixes can tend toward the thematic (if not didactic), I was pretty torn wrt what to submit. In the end, wanting to stress process, rather than cooking up something so conceptually organized (several sets of which languished & perished), I decided to go with a refined/revised excerpt from recent adventures in Beat Research. In essence, although you’ll hear me criss-crossing genre & geography as usual, what anchors things here is the long-overdue (long-building? longstanding?) intermixture of global dub and global techno. Post-disco dance music has gotten a lot more polyrhythmic in recent years, and Caribbean club beats have gotten a lot more techy. Hooray for all of that.
I’ve already given away the ending, and I’ve got a bunch more words over at modyfier-modifying that I invite you to digest while/before/after gigging wit it, so I’ll leave you here with what I hope is a tantalizing tracklist (w/ a little linkthink for good measure). I don’t ask for permission to play tracks in the club, and I didn’t ask for permission to include these in my mix. Lots of tracks come direct from friends who produced them or are promoting them. To the artists included, I hope you like hearing your music all mixed&mashed with other people’s. Thx for keeping things moving & letting us gig along –