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 Boomâs âEllos Benia,â produced by Dennis âthe Menaceâ Thompson, rather than directly from Shabba Ranksâs âDem Bowâ (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 âDem Bowâ not unlike the way that, say, the instrumental from Dirtsmanâs âHot This Yearâ — 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 couldnât locate an actual record called âPounder,â my best assumption, given what Iâd 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 Shabbaâs 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 RamĂłn âPuchoâ Bustamante collaborating with a Jamaican to create a salsa-infused variant of âdem bowâ called âpounda,â 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 âdem bow,â 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 AĂO QUE UNO ES EL DEL ESTILO QUE LLEVA LA CANCIĂN “PENSIĂN” DE NANDO BOOM Y EL OTRO DEL ESTILO QUE LLEVA “DEM BOW” DE SHABBA RANKS QUE ESE FUĂ HECHO POR STEELIE & CLEEVIE POR VP RECORDS. PERO EL PONDER DE “DEM BOW” DE SHABBA RANKS FUĂ EL MĂS FUERTE EN ESE TIEMPO Y LAS DOS DE NANDO BOOM CON LA BASE RĂTMICA HECHA POR DENNIS FUERON LAS QUE MĂS APOJEARON HASTA EN CANADĂ QUE LAS OTRAS EN INGLĂS. ——————– 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 âPuchoâ Bustamante (a name bearing witness to his Jamaican heritage, recalling Jamaicaâs 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!
West Coast examples of raggamuffin rap only appear briefly toward the end of our mix, so it’s great to have the picture fleshed out a little more. Here’s the hook —
Back when Shabba and Super Cat were killing the game in the early â90s, the influence of dancehall could be felt throughout hip-hop. While East Coast rappers with Caribbean backgrounds like KRS-One and Heavy D collaborated with dancehallâs heavyweights themselves, artists from the West Coastâwhere the connections to Jamaica were less apparentâhad to get a little more creative. Hence, the faux raggamuffin deejay styles on records by NWA, DJ Quik and other gangster rap acts of the day.
While I’ve got you here, I thought I should share something of an author’s cut of the Cluster Mag article, which had to be about half the length that I wanted it to be. At one point in the article, there appears a rather brief history of Jamaican soundsystem culture, accompanied by the disclaimer, “To make the very long story unforgivably short…”
Well, what else are blogs for? Here’s the longer version for any of you who care to read. For me, the little leaps of logic involved in the beginnings of reggae and rap really do deserve explication and emphasis —
Playing records to people, interactively, sounds totally commonplace today, because it is. But at the time that âsoundsystemsâ in Kingston started holding dances backed not by bands but by savvy selectors with hot and hit records and powerful speakers, that sort of thing was hardly seen outside of sock hops or the first French discothĂ¨ques. As they later did with the recording studio itself, Jamaicans were in the process of making the jukebox a live instrument, which required some little leaps of logic and a lot of ingenuity.
When Clement âCoxsoneâ Dodd was working as a migrant laborer in Florida in the 1950s, he attended lots of parties. And while picking oranges, he was also picking up plenty of the 45s running the local jukeboxes. Back then, there were two main sources for the soundtrack of the party: canned jukebox or live band. Returning home to Kingston, Coxsone decided to combine the two: to play records as live performance. He started with a PA at his parentsâ pharmacy, bringing in customers with the slick sounds of Southern R&B. Before long Coxsoneâs Downbeat soundsystems were operating across Western Kingston and beyond, vying with Duke Reidâs Trojan as keeper of the best downtown dancehall sessions. Soon after, he opened up Studio One, where the feedback loop between what dancers liked and selectors played could be made even tighter. Eventually, through the magic of dubplates and multitracks, selectors could rinse instrumental versions of popular tunes while, inspired by African-American radio disc jockeys, jive-slanging âdeejaysâ such as King Stitt and U-Roy toasted in a local, cosmopolitan tongue. It didnât take much longer, if another little leap of logic, for these masters of ceremony to become recording stars in their own right: in 1970, U-Royâs first âtalkoverâ singlesâa trio of rocksteady-repurposing noveltiesâheld the top spots on Jamaican radio for months.
This interactive approach to playing commercial dance records is, of course, essentially the same insight that would engender disco right around the same time, and which carries forward via house, techno, and their EDM ilk as perhaps the dominant paradigm of modern musical experience. It is also the same insight that sparked hip-hopâquite directly, in fact.
As the story goes, hip-hop was born on a summer night in 1973 in a rec-room on the ground floor of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, an apartment building in the West Bronx, when Clive Campbell, better known as Kool Herc, hosted a party with his older sister Cindy. Born and raised in Kingston, Campbell was well familiar with the importance of a customizedâand loud and clearâsonic experience. For the party, Herc borrowed a powerful PA from his father, a soundman for local R&B acts, and played the role of selector, hand-picking and cueing up records, as well as MC, using a mic to praise partygoers with rhyming routines, and to hype the musical selections, make announcements, and encourage dancing.
Like any good DJ, Herc sought to respond to the demands of his audience. Given the context, this entailed embracing certain soundsystem techniquesâespecially the license to manipulate a recording in realtimeâwhile departing from what one might have heard at a dance in Jamaica. Despite borrowing liberally from soundsystem culture, Herc didnât play reggae at the party. Among his peers, Jamaican music and style had yet to undergo the cool recuperation that eventually followed Bob Marleyâs success and, more important in New York, the violent dominance of the drug trade by Jamaican gangs, or âposses,â in the mid-80s. Just as Herc made an effort to swap his Jamaican accent for a Bronx brogue, he played soul, funk, and driving disco tracksâespecially records with stripped-down, percussion-led breaksâin place of reggae anthems.
Herc and Cindy began throwing parties regularly, and the audience steadily grewâas did Hercâs crew, including dedicated MCs like Coke La Rock and a coterie of flashy dancers. Running out of room at 1520 Sedgwick, Herc relocated to nearby Cedar Park where, repurposing what little civic infrastructure remained in a place haunted by the politics of neglect, electricity from a utility pole powered the soundsystem. In contrast to clubs, where cover charges and age restrictions kept teenagers out, the âpark jamsâ were active incubators, stylistically and socially, of a new kind of public youth culture. In this way, Hercâs burgeoning audience, some driven West by gang violence in the South Bronx, helped essentially to co-produce a remarkable phenomenon: a vibrant party scene where local culture thrived as DJs, MCs, and dancers wrested new forms out of the resources at hand.
Hip-hop was so tied to realtime social gatherings in its early years that the idea of committing such performances to tape and selling them as commodities required some imagination. Recordings of parties were made, of course, and tapes circulated informally and even quasi-commercially, but it was not until a seasoned and savvy record executive, Silvia Robinson of Sugar Hill Records, saw potential in the form that the rap song emerged as such, six years after Hercâs back-to-school jam on Sedgwick Ave. Most of hip-hopâs biggest names at that time were not easily convinced, or drawn away from the relatively lucrative party circuit, so Robinsonâs first attempt was more a studio simulation than a faithful rendering of contemporary party practice. Assembling a ragtag crew of aspiring rappers as the Sugar Hill Gang, Robinson released a 15-minute single called âRapperâs Delightâ stitching together popular routines drawn from such prominent MCs as Grandmaster Caz over a replayed loop from Chicâs âGood Times,â then a current favorite among hip-hop DJs. Despite its unusual length for a pop single, as a passably genuine artifact of hip-hopâs sprawling party style, âRapperâs Delightâ became a massive hit on urban radio, selling millions of copies and offering the wider world its first exposure to hip-hop. (Multiple Jamaican acts recorded reggae-fied versions of the song before the year was out.)
Thanks again to my eloquent interlocutors, all of whom had colorful stories & trenchant perspectives to share, and to the Together panel people — especially Sara Skolnik and Ethan Kiermaier — for making it happen. And thx to everyone who attended the panel, tuned in, and/or wish to help continue the convo.
Amazingly — given I didn’t know it has existed for a decade — my mellow Marvin Hall dropped a YouTube bomb last night in a comment on my recent re-post, “School Bell Nuh Ring“: he actually has video of the awesome impromptu dancehall freestyle session that the students from St. Andrew’s broke into on the day that we visited the school while a teacher’s strike loomed large. Check it out!
I just love this for so many reasons: they’re being clever, having fun, amusing themselves, teasing the teachers, riffing on a Shabba Ranks tune in fine DJ tradition, and using the simple but totally sufficient accompaniment of a soda bottle banging out that ol’ 3+3+2.
Here’s the Shabba track that inspired their cipher. Even though it was already over 10 years old, you can see why the tune — and the video — would still be so resonant for Jamaican school kids back in 2003:
If you haven’t heard it yet, I finally cooked down a Zunguzung Mega Mix that features all 50+ instances that have come to my attention since I first started listening for that catchy likkle tune and, with the publication of this piece back in 2007, enlisting others to lend me their ears.
The impetus for finally bringing this together is that my friend and fellow music scribe, Garnette Cadogen, was visiting Yellowman last week and told him about my work. (Garnette reported, much to my delight, that King Yellow was “touched, truly touched” by my work on his legacy.) When he requested a full mix of the “Zigzagging Zunguzung Meme,” I could hardly refuse.
So here it is, for now anyway: 54 strikingly similiar contours! (See full track list below.)
1982 — Yellowman, “Zunguzungunguzunguzeng”
1982 — Yellowman & Fathead, “Physical / Zunguzung (Live at Aces)”
1982 — Sister Nancy, “Coward of the Country”
1984 — Frankie Paul, “Alesha”
1984 — Toyan, “Hot Bubble Gum”
1985 — Little John, “Clarks Booty”
1985 — Super Cat, “Boops”
1986 — Cocoa Tea, âCome Againâ
1986 — Cutty Ranks @ StereoMars PNP Rally
1986 — BDP, “The P Is Free”
1987 — BDP, “Remix For P Is Free”
1988 — BDP, “T Cha T Cha”
1988 — Queen Latifah, “Princess of the Posse”
1988 — Masters of Ceremony, “Keep on Moving”
1988 — Sublime, “Roots of Creation”
1989 — Nice & Smooth, “Nice & Smooth”
1989 — Nice & Smooth, “Dope on a Rope”
1991 — Leaders of the New School, “Case of the P.T.A.”
1992 — Lecturer, âGal Yu Mean Itâ
1992 — Sublime, “Scarlet Begonias”
1992 — Leila K, “Open Sesame”
1993 — Us3, “I Got It Goinâ On”
1993 — K7, “Zunga Zeng”
1993 — KRS-One, “P Is Still Free”
1993 — Jamalski, “African Border”
1993 — Buju Banton, “Big It Up”
1994 — The Coup, âPimps (Freestyling at the Fortune 500 Club)â
1994 — Ninjaman, “Funeral Again”
1994 — Bounty Killer, “Kill Or Be Killed”
1995 — Buju Banton, “Man a Look Yu”
1995 — Junior M.A.F.I.A. ft. Biggie Smalls, “Player’s Anthem”
1996 — 2pac, “Hit ‘Em Up”
1996 — Captain Barkey, “Go Go Wine”
1996 — Junior Dangerous ft. Lucas, “Comin’ Out To Play”
1997 — Cru, “Pronto”
1998 — Mr. Notty, “Sentencia de Muerte”
1998 — Black Star, “Definition”
1999 — Lilâ Cease ft. Jay-Z, “4 My Niggaz”
2000 — Dead Prez, “It’s Bigger than Hip-Hop”
2000 — Daisy Dee, “Open Sesame”
2000 — Wyclef Jean ft. Xzibit and Yellowman, âPerfect Gentlemen Remixâ
2001 — Ăejo, “El Problema Ser Bellaco”
2003 — Joe Budden, “Pump It Up”
2004 — Jin, “Learn Chinese”
2005 — Looptroop, “Chana Masala”
2006 — POD ft. Matisyahu, “Roots in Stereo”
2006 — JD (aka Dready), “UK Zunga Zeng”
2007 — White Rappers, “One Night Stand”
2007 — Gwen Stefani ft. Damian Marley, âNow That You Got Itâ
2009 — Wax Taylor ft. ASM, “Say Yes”
2010 — Vybz Kartel, “Whine (Wine)”
2011 — Tifa, “Matey Wine”
2011 — Yellowman, “Zungguzungguguzungguzeng (Horsepower Productions Remix / Dub)”
2013 — Benga & Kano, “Forefather”
Notably, with the exception of Nice & Smooth, K7, and Horsepower Productions, all of the echoes of Yellowman’s tune to date have been re-sung rather than sampled. Sometimes a one-off phrase, at other times it structures the chorus. The tune twists and turns in so many ways over the course of 30 years, I find it truly beguiling. I just want to sing it all the time. That’s a good riff for you.
[Update: Only took a day before another version popped up in the comments! Thanks to Noriko Manabe and Marvin Sterling for pointing out that Rankin Taxi’s “You Can’t See It, and You Can’t Smell It Either” — a 2011 post-Fukushima protest song — also contains a zunguzung allusion. Guess I’ll have to re-mix the mega mix, again, at some point. Nice to have an appearance from beyond the Americas & Europe.]
I can’t leave you with just that, however, as similar threads demand to be looped in.
When we make songs, Spanish people take it and sing it different, and we don’t speak Spanish, so we don’t realise. Because of that, the Spanish artistes don’t pay us royalties and it slips right under our nose. I think the Spanish owe reggae music millions of dollars right now.
Niney may be right. It’s true that this happens all the time. Indeed, the latest example I stumbled across is classic in its overt and simultaneously reverent and irreverent reanimation of a hit reggae song. Still, I wonder whether Ricky Blaze knows about this (or, for that matter, this) and what he’d think —
Niney offers additional barbs about white people owning ska & other perversions of property. He even raises the specter of the entire genre of reggaeton owing a grand debt to Shabba Ranks’s (and hence, Bobby Digital’s / Steely & Clevie’s) “Dem Bow” — though he reduces it to a general rhythmic pattern that is hardly copyrightable. And though I could discuss dembow for days, here I want to flag another specific allegation and its recursive riffs on riffs:
Songs like Murder She Wrote is in Spanish right now and I don’t even think Sly and Robbie know.
Niney’s reference to “Murder She Wrote” is interesting, especially as the first track mentioned in this light. Of course, he’s right, to some extent. But it’s not actually true that “Spanish people” are singing the song so much; more precisely, little loops and bits of the riddim from “Murder She Wrote” have, by this point, been as deeply embedded into the aesthetic code of reggaeton (especially Dominican dembow) as “Dem Bow” itself. (& I will add that I find Niney’s comments on “Dem Bow” quite timely given that I’ve got a piece in a forthcoming Wax Poetics detailing the surprisingly mixed-up and mysterious “origin” of reggaeton’s Dem Bow. Spoiler alert: reggaeton’s favorite loop was not recorded in Jamaica.)
As it happens, not only does “Murder She Wrote” live on in a thousand DJ Scuff mini-mega-mixes, it’s about to get as big a push into the US (& global) mainstream as it has received since the early 90s thanks to none other than French Montana (featuring, natch, Nicki Minaj), who additionally riffs on the vocal melody from Chaka Demus & Pliers’ warhorse:
As odd as I find the juxtaposition of two unrelated early 90s dancehall songs here, and as squirmy as such caricatured takes on dancehall make me, “Freaks” represents an exciting moment for the lil lilting riff that so defines “Murder She Wrote” (also known as the Bam Bam riddim) — a riff which, as I’ve explored in mini-mega-mix form, is itself quite caught up in international networks of creative riffing —
I hope French’s folks licensed those samples, though, since his jam is not as likely to fly under the radar as its Puerto Rican cousins. That said, I’d love to see a case like this actually go to court somewhere. (Not really.) It’s more than clear that this stuff goes around and around and around, and hence making claims to ultimate origins (and exclusive exploitation rights) always seems a little suspect. But who knows what a judge or jury might decide.
Along those lines, the last riff on a riff (on a riff?) I want to share here is based around a story BigBlackBarry told me when I was in Kingston last month. Check this set of echoes:
As complicated as this may seem, just because Bo Diddley recorded it “first” (and who knows who he may have been riffing off) didn’t stop Willie Cobb from shaking down Dawn Penn when her rocksteady hit was rejuvenated with a mid90s twist and became a sudden crossover success.
So I’ll leave it here for now: big up the one King Yellowman for recognizing how influence and allusion work, for relentlessly riffing on the sounds around him, and for never suing the many, many souls who did him the same service and extended his echoing chant into a realm of truly remarkable reverberation.
We had a lovely time in JA. It was especially nice & easy thanks to our local hosts and longtime frens, Sara & Marvin, who in addition to leading our party round the island, convening some great crews of friends & colleagues, carrying us to this party and that beach, and being total sports about hanging with our large fam, opened their home to us — a sweet perch in town, complete with mangoes in the yard!
Like any Kingston hosts worth their salt, Sara & Marv made sure we made it to Hellshire Beach our first weekend there, where we had our fill of oysters, lobster, and fried fish —
We couldn’t resist a likkle dip, the first of many on the trip —
That night we hit up Rockers Sound Station’s Rock Ur Soul Sundays, a dubwise session held at a spot called the Dub Club way up Jack’s Hill. It was a wild & windy ride, but the payoff was an incredible vista and some good, heavy vibes. It was a serious system, frequently exploited by the selectors who mostly withheld the massive bass for maximum effect. And when it dropped, bomba… While we were there, and this is hardly surprising, we were treated to an Italian guest selector wielding a single turntable (and the mixer & airhorn, of course), playing tracks with lines like “African or British, Italian, Japanese / it’s important that we share in love and harmony.” Amazingly, I found the session archived on Ustream! —
But we only got a couple nights in town. Most of our time was spent up in Portland at a far more leisurely pace. When we finally made it to the other side of the island, after threading mountain turns for a few hours, the first thing I saw was some graffiti nodding north & repping the THUG LIFE (G-UNOT!) —
We stayed in an amazing place called the Belmount, an exquisite little spot on the San San peninsula, overlooking the Blue Lagoon, Monkey Island, and San San Beach —
Pretty sweet at sunset too —
Here’s from the other side of the house/peninsula —
And don’t get me started on the plantings and flowers and such. But I will share one great moment: on one walk around the yard, I noticed a flower that had been choked by a small vine, so I snapped the vine and gently unraveled it and the flower opened right up, as if in some act of magical gratitude —
Belmount is just down the road from Frenchman’s Cove, so we spent a couple days in the special spot where the cool river meets the warm sea and a swing hangs from an almond tree at just the right height —
Of course, we also pilgrimaged to Winnifred Beach, maybe the most perfect natural beach I’ve ever seen, so well captured in this epic panorama shot by Sara —
Of course, we had to stop for some post-beach jellies (& about a dozen other fruits during the week) —
Becca had her first otaheite apple in a decade, and the girls their first ever, so that was sweet —
If only we could plant one of these things up in Cambridge…
Of all the delicious and alien fruit we sought out and encountered, I discovered I’m a sucker for almonds. Sea almonds, I believe. And more the trees than the fruit, which I didn’t get much a chance to try. (I did bite into a freshly fallen one I found on the beach, which had a tart, pear-ish taste and an almost avocado feel. Pretty good, but it wasn’t ripe enough.) I hadn’t noticed before, but almond trees totally proliferate in Jamaica, both as wild beach majesties and squat sculpted lawn ornaments —
They have great teardrop leaves, which turn orange, then red, and drop gently from the trees —
This ol’ struggler provided crucial shade at Frenchman’s —
While this one in the Belmount yard has orchids growing out of it!
I was even enamored of the morbid beauty of fallen almonds being dismantled by beetles —
But enough about trees. That’s enough, I’m sure. Thanks for watching! Since I’ve had you here this long, I’ll leave you a couple parting shots I can’t resist leaving out: a herd of goats running the road —
Special thanks to Charlie 1.0, driving above, and Fern, not pictured, for making the whole dang thing possible. It was a Jamaican vacation I’ve always dreamed of — and to be able to introduce Nico and Charlie to the place this way was wonderful.
I’m thrilled to report that tomorrow morning I’m headed back to Jamaica for the first time in a couple years. It’ll also be the first time in a decade for Rebecca, and the very first time for Nico and Charlie. I can’t describe how excited I am to see their faces upon having a cold jelly, a sun-ripened banana, some ackee & saltfish, and other likkle wonders of the place. We’re very lucky to have the opportunity for a multigenerational vacation (Charlie 1.0 and Fern will be there too), to have dear friends in Kingston to receive us (bigup Sara & Marvin), and to have a lovely time ahead of us, both in town and up in Portland, arguably the most beautiful corner of a beautiful country.
Our vacation will no doubt stand in some contrast to the all-inclusive tourist-traps many college students and other folk are looking forward to this Spring Break. And so it seems as fitting a time as ever to re-run an excerpt from an ol’ “Jamaica Blog” post about our experience of an all-inclusive in Ocho Rios some 10 years back. (This was first published on 25 Feb 2003, so, yeah, still lagging a bit. Soon Come ;) I don’t feel like quite as strident a critic of other people’s experience of Jamiaca as I did 10 years ago, but I think it’s useful to register (and re-register) my experiences, aesthetics, and prejudices all the same. And I have to admit that the questions i raise at the end remain trenchant and recurring ones for me. We’ll see whether I have anything to say about all of that when I return next weekend.
L to R: sour sop, naseberry, naseberry tree, at our friend kush’s place, just outside ochi
after four weeks of living in jamaica, becca and i finally got a chance to spend a few days outside of kingston. becca was asked to speak at an internet forum being held in ocho rios by the ministry of utilities. for her part, she was provided accommodations at the hotel where the conference was to take place, the renaissance jamaica grande, a subsidiary of marriott, the largest and most prominent all-inclusive resort in the attractive coastal town. (ocho rios stands third to montego bay and negril as a tourist spot in jamaica.) despite the pre-packaged feel we suspected the hotel would have, we were both looking forward to spending some time on a beach and taking a little holiday. moreover, we were curious about the hotel, wanting to compare our experience in jamaica so far with the jamaica that most tourists are shown. we were glad to have a complimentary chance to check it out.
since i was conducting workshops at the american school on thursday, i decided to meet becca in ocho rios later in the day (she left at five am). i had planned to take a bus from kingston, which seemed to be an inexpensive and interesting prospect. it turned out, however, that one of the companies at the conference was offering a cruise departing at 5:30 that evening, so i chartered a taxi to get me there quickly (the ride can take well under two hours, depending on traffic and the driver’s desire to tempt fate). driving in jamaica is quite an experience. never mind the wrong side of the road problem, which, for the passenger (being a driver, i assume, requires more adjustment) quickly loses its jarring effect. taking corners and passing cars in kingston is often enough of an adventure. taking corners and passing cars (sometimes several at once) as one winds through the mountains, pedal to the floor, is a more grueling experience.
my driver was an excellent driver, which did a little to assuage my frequent fear of hurtling to my death. i don’t think he ever let up on the gas so long as he could accelerate, which meant down-shifting — not breaking — and speeding up around tight corners, getting as close as possible to the rapidly traveling (though never rapidly enough) car ahead, and passing caravans of slower cars if possible. that said, my driver did an impressive job. he was easily the fastest car on the road (no one passed us anyway), partly because he knew the winding road so well that he traced it incredibly efficiently. i asked him how many times he had driven this route. “how many times? nuff times, mon. sunday, tuesday, and wednesday of this week.” i got the point. he had been driving twenty-years, probably with this kind of weekly frequency through the mountains. he got me to ocho rios in the time he said he would (two hours), which was rather fast considering the thursday afternoon traffic.
having, towards the end, grown a bit nauseated by the twisting, turning, and lurching, i was not looking forward to a cruise. but it was refreshing and reinvigorating to pass through fern gully (a cool, damp stretch of road, surrounded by ferns on both sides, and covered overhead by a thick canopy of trees) and then into town, sun still shining. i shouldn’t skip over the beautiful ride by focusing on the dangerous driving. the roads through the mountains have granted me some of the most gorgeous glimpses of grand jamaica i have ever beheld. from kingston, you pass through spanish town (with its central-but-abandoned colonial-era courtyards) then you ascend into the hills, where before long, the vegetation grows denser and the air cooler. soon enough, you are driving along high mountain roads through bamboo forests. here and there people sell fresh fruit, mostly mangoes and otaheite apples. then the vegetation recedes a bit, villages spring up, and the descent begins. fern gully makes for a fitting cool down in the final stretch before the coast. once through fern gully, ocho rios springs up fairly quickly. dancehall reggae fills the air from several directions as soundsystems (advertising that night’s dance or a particular record store), cars, and vendor’s carts take part in an informal soundclash (the dancehall term for a competition between soundsystems). the jamaica grande is located right on the beach and right off the main road. i paid my driver JA$3000 (US$60), which is the standard fare for the journey in a taxi (the prices dive for buses: JA$125 – 250, or US$3-5), and not a bad price considering that my stay at the hotel would cost me nothing.
i met becca at the aptly titled “fantasy pool,” which, i noticed, was cleaned every morning by a shirtless dread, the stella-got-her-groove-back type. the cruise left from the hotel dock. (you really never have to leave the hotel.) it was not worth the breakneck pace of the drive through the mountains, but it was a good introduction to the culture of the jamaica grande (not, mind you, the culture of jamaica. oh, no. this was an entirely different animal). we shoved off with twin speakers blaring lovers rock at us, a little heavy on the treble, and set off down the coast to dunn’s river falls, a famous waterfall nearby. it was a nice enough view from the boat, but not quite worth the trip. still, the sunset was lovely, and then the stars. and the rum punch (white overproof rum mixed with water and syrup) hit the spot. the water got very choppy and we had to head in early because some people, myself not included (remarkably enough), were feeling ill. we cruised back into the hotel bay and camped out in the calm waters while a man entertained us all by eating fire, ripping apart a coconut with his teeth, and lifting up women by the belt with his teeth. then there was a limbo and a beer-drinking contest. i kid you not. participation was lackluster (we’re talking about internet service providers here), especially since the prizes were promotional company-logo polo-shirts. “hey, that would look sharp on the golf course! or on casual friday!” thoreau says beware any enterprise that requires new clothes, especially promotional polo-shirts.
the rest of the jamaica grande was less impressive than the boat ride. for an expensive resort, the lack of quality was astounding. the all-you-can-eat buffet was practically inedible, though becca and i knew quite well (and confirmed on friday night) that there was absolutely astounding food to be had around town. they couldn’t even put out fresh, local fruit or juice, never mind fish, bammie, and calalloo. (world of fish on james avenue, a short walk from the hotel, is not to be missed. even so, one is lucky to see another white face in the vicinity, especially after sundown.). it seemed as if, in truly contemporary jamaican fashion, everything was imported. the beach was a flimsy, artificial-looking strip along a stale bay. white girls aged 10-18 walked around with their hair in complimentary braids. a high percentage of guests — over half were american, and there seemed to be an inordinate number of italians this weekend — could best be described as resembling whales or lobsters, and there were plenty of lobsterish whales. the music and “culture” were completely canned. consider, for example, the dinner-time serenade of a smooth-jazz-ish reggae band doing lionel richie covers or the friday night faux-naughtiness of doing the limbo and conga-line-dancing to the lascivious sounds of trinidadian soca (“turn it around and push it back in” [repeat ad nauseum]). compare this music with the dancehall and roots reggae pounding away, day and night, in the center of town — just a stone’s throw away. to the detriment of their own experience, and certainly their cultural horizons, the all-included set miss out on the vibrant local music scene as much as they miss out on ochi’s culinary delights.
it would be incorrect to call the hotel’s bizarre mix of cultural signs a representation of jamaicanness, for the mix was too messy and the focus too vague. to be more precise, we might talk about the hotel’s “projection of caribbeanness,” which struck somewhere between exoticism and familiar fun. one wonders how much the presentation is fueled by the guests’ actual desire or by an assumption on the part of the proprietors (who are american) that such is the experience people desire. i am sure it is more of a push-and-pull than any supply/demand model could attempt to explain. still, i can’t help but feel cynical about the phenomenon. don’t get me wrong: i hold no delusion that there is some “authentic” jamaica to be found and presented, oyster-like, to fat, ignorant american tourists or to naive anthropologists or to reggae lovers. the real jamaica is, of course, all of the jamaicas anyone imagines. the projection of the idyllic and carefree jamaica creates some serious tension when compared with, say, the reputation of jamaica as the country with the highest murder rate. (the tension jumps out of the little pink booklet of dos-and-don’ts that the hotels distribute to guests.) for all of the fantasy, one always bumps up against the stark reality of poverty, of desperation, of hunger. but perhaps not if one never leaves the hotel.
i am deeply interested in the concept of authenticity, at least partly because i recognize that it operates on my own perception, my “reception,” or interpretation, of various texts, cultural and literal. i also see the way it plays into other people’s ideas about life and art, essence and appearance, soul and race. it is good to confront oneself about what one deems to be real and why. what is involved in such a value judgment? what kind of assumptions undergird the determinations we make, the reactions we have, especially to cultural materials (e.g., music, film, advertisements, language, social practices)? examining the way that i react to music that i deem to be authentic or not, and asking myself why and how i confer authenticity to something, is usually an edifying experience. the conversation about hip-hop, including and far-exceeding the lyrics themselves, is pervaded by the question of what, or more often, who, is real. i am curious about how authenticity is communicated in sonic terms — what are the musical signs which convey the real? i wonder how it works as a psychological process — is it a kind of elicited empathy? i wonder about the negative ideas that often travel with things deemed authentic — how are one’s ideas about race, about the inherent differences and aptitudes of groups of people, informed, reinforced, or challenged by the experience of the “real” in music? i wonder whether by making the machinery of authenticity more visible, i can challenge people’s complacency about their received knowledge. i wonder whether happy italian tourists give a damn. i doubt it.
me & naseberry tree, in a quieter and prettier (if less “grande”) part of ochi
I’ve already fallen behind on my goal of reblogging our ’03 Jamaica Blog in sync with this year’s calendar. But since I don’t plan on re-running every single post (and since you can still see them here), I haven’t built up too huge a queue yet. Speaking of queues, the following re-post is one of my favorites from our time in Jamaica, expressing vividly — including a handy visual aid! — our deeply frustrating encounters with Jamaica’s bloated bureaucracy. Given the topic, I shouldn’t make you wait any longer. Here goes…
i left my pro-tools system in cambridge because i thought my laptop would be sufficient for organizing sound and creating music here and because the system would have been way too much to carry (the mixing board itself is not big, but the computer it runs on is). during my second week here, however, it became clear that the pro-tools system would be indispensable to my efforts. there is a good amount of interest on the part of many artists down here to collaborate with me, which, as far as i’m concerned, creates some rather ideal circumstances for trying to understand the musical choices that people make and why.
late last week, upon his return to cambridge, charlie fed-exed me a large suitcase containing the pro-tools mixing board, the computer, mouse, and keyboard. we received a note saying that it was being held at customs at the airport, that we needed to bring a number of mysterious forms with us, and that charges would begin to accrue if we did not pick up our package within one week. remembering our awful experience running back and forth between various ministries to get our visas extended, becca and i were prepared for the worst. we made sure to call both fed-ex and customs ahead of time to make sure we would have everything in order and would not be sent home from the airport (an expensive cab ride that we would rather not have to repeat). we were told that all we needed was the notice itself, some identification, and plenty of cash (“be prepared,” was, i believe, the way they phrased it).
we took a taxi to the airport and went to the customs office, but it turned out that we needed to go to a separate fed-ex facility a bit down the road. upon reaching the building, we were waved into the parking lot by a man in a bright white-shirt gesticulating rather frenetically. not knowing whether he worked there or not, but assuming by his clothing and his officiousness that he did, i handed the papers to him, which he was grabbing out of my hands at any rate. he flipped through the pages, already printed in triplicate, and mumbled things like, “oh, this is very bad,” “you will have some trouble,” “you will need three copies of this,” and so on. it soon became apparent that he did not work there but was offering to help me out, bypassing official channels (he introduced me to a “customs official,” who was dressed similarly, but had a badge, and who claimed that if i attained a c-79 form inside he could get me my package within a week — not a promising agreement). to be honest, i was not sure whether these guys were telling me the truth or just trying to get some money from me. it seemed totally plausible that they could guide me through the bureaucracy and get me my package faster, but at the same time i didn’t want to be taken for a sucker, especially when such valuable belongings were at stake. taking my papers back, i told them i would try my hand inside, but thanks for the help. they said i would be back. they were right.
we went into the building and joined the queue. a security guard approached us and told us that we would indeed need three copies of the first form. no one had told us this when we called, of course. and where could we get copies made? outside, he told us. of course. at this point, i became deeply distrustful of the entire place, feeling that everyone was in collusion, but i wanted to get my computer, so i went back outside while becca stayed in line. after a few i-told-you-sos and a few JA$20 coins, the man went off to make the copies for me (through the back of the same building), leaving me with his customs-officer partner. the freelance “officer” again offered his services. i complained about the system here: the impenetrable and illogical bureaucracy, the corruption, the chaos of it all. he told me matter-of-factly, and a bit pridefully, that there was no avoiding the system. fair enough, but i was not about to support its messy outgrowth if i did not have to. i got my copies and walked back toward the building, knowing full well that i may have to come back out and swallow my own pride.
i rejoined becca in the queue, which had not budged. the customs office was small: two window-partitioned cubicles, a long desk opposite them, a small desk wedged between a cashier’s window and a room with a mirror-plated door, and, across from this, another door opening out into a large, cardboard-box-filled warehouse. the path that i would take through this small room over the next hour was stupefying in its zig-zag pattern, its redundancy, its absurdity. this is bureaucracy at its worst: too many people doing too little and exercising every bit of power they have at every opportunity. i went to each spot at least once, had to present my passport at nearly every checkpoint, and never knew whether people were dealing with me on the up-and-up. i understand that such a system of checkpoints and paperwork is in place to limit the possibility of theft or the smuggling of contraband into the country. nevertheless, i feel the need to illustrate the surreality of the experience, which made last week’s travels, or travails, between the ministries of labor and national security seem like a cup of tea. so pardon the detail. (see becca’s diagram for an intricate pictorial representation, whose colors paint the experience as more cheerful than it was, of our customs house wanderings.)
we finally reached the end of the first queue, where i submit my papers, including the three additional copies i had procured (which, in fact, turned out to be quite necessary). the man behind the window checked my passport, put a number of stamps on a number of things, signed within the stamps, generated a several carbon-copy forms to add to my pile, and accepted JA$300 (about US$6) for his labor. next, i was sent to the adjacent cubicle, where i re-presented my passport and papers, which were stamped a bit more. the man behind the window collected a copy for himself (at each stage, some paperwork was generated and retained) and gave me a carbon-copy form, the famous c-79, to fill out. the same security guard who sent me back outside was very helpful in assisting me with the form. from there, i first went to the warehouse door, presenting one copy to a man who would fetch my package, and then to the other side of the room, to a small desk where a young woman once again verified my identity, took more copies, generated more forms, and sent me back to the warehouse door to get my package. there the suitcase stood in pretty good shape (much better than the dented cardboard boxes which littered the place and frightened me with the prospect that my computer had experienced similar handling). the next stop was the long desk, where someone would determine how much i had to pay to bring my computer into the country. at first, no one was there and it seemed that we may have to wait for some time, especially if the fellow had gone to lunch. fortunately, someone emerged from behind the mirror-plated door soon enough. the clerk asked me to open the suitcase so he could inspect its contents. there, under a pillow and surrounded by foam, was my computer, the mixing board, the peripherals, and, in a little stroke of genius by charlie, a copy of the no substitute cd. the clerk quickly reached for the cd, saying, “this fellow looks familiar,” giving me the chance to explain that i use this very computer to make my music, that my name is actually wayne marshall, that i’m into dancehall and rap, etc. the whole tenor of things changed after this exchange. i told him he could keep the copy of the cd, if he was nice to me, and he seemed grateful and cooperative. he totaled up the tax to JA$700, and sent me behind the mirror-glass door to get yet another new form signed by a woman inside. next, i went to the cashier’s window to pay the charge. the cashier was already listening to “no substitute” and seemingly enjoying it. a co-worker in the cashier’s office was surprised by the opening track with its dancehall rhythm and amused by the wayne&wax name. (oddly enough, wayne is quite a popular name in jamaica. i have probably met and/or heard of at least twenty to thirty jamaican waynes.) after paying i was sent back to the long desk, where my papers were validated once again by the same woman who was digging “no sub” in the cashier’s office. she did some more paperwork and then sent me back across to the second cubicle i had visited. there i was given a final carbon-copy form, which would get me through the security at the door. at each of the two security check-points i gave the guard the proper copy of the form, and my passport, and we were finally done. we got in our cab (we paid the driver to wait for us) and headed back into town in time to make our third meeting of the day.
it was a long and harrowing day. carrying around a couple heavy bags, loaded with computer equipment, tired me out and gave me a splitting headache. when we finally got home, we took cold showers, had a drink on the porch, and tried to relax a bit. we made ackee and saltfish for dinner and watched the local news. given the day’s events, i was extremely amused by an excerpt from the morning’s parliament meeting. the permanent secretary of finance, speaking on a problem with some inter-government accounting in nigeria, explained that “nigerian culture does not lend itself to good record keeping.” “sometimes,” he continued, “you cannot get an original invoice.” the irony of this statement was just too much for me at this point in the day. i cracked up laughing. i must admit that i am a little apalled by the degree to which many jamaicans — especially those working for the government or some other sprawling corporation — not only accept but naturalize the thick bureaucracy here, as if proper paperwork is innate to “jamaican culture.” as if anything is. surely, the british are responsible for these structures: how better to keep the reigns tight on colonial control than to regulate the most mundane comings-and-goings through a labyrinthine process, subject to the arbitrary exercise of power along each rung of the ladder. though the brits officially took their leave in ’62, it seems that jamaicans have adopted many of their practices and structures uncritically, sometimes with pride.
shortly after the news, i began to feel quite ill: my headache worsened, i got the chills, my joints began to ache, my nose grew congested. i was overtaken by flu-like symptoms. my worst fears kept whispering, “ackee-poisoning,” but i was pretty sure i just had the flu, or some similar stomach-bug. forced into bed before 9 pm, i spent most of the night tossing and turning, feeling my body slowly recover. i got a chance, with all my restlessness, to listen closely to kingston’s night noise. as the cars on hope became less frequent and noisy, the dogs began their all-night barking. they were joined a little before sunrise by the crowing of cocks. soon the cars began again, and by about 7, the kids were arriving at school next door, filling the air with the sounds of play. had i felt at all able to get out of bed, i would have made more recordings (the dogs were especially impressive last night). [2013 note: hear recordings of these sounds at this re-post.]
the most disappointing result of my sudden illness was that i was unable to attend a wayne marshall sing-alike competition at a nearby club. my jamaican doppleganger has made quite a name for himself with his sing-songy style, and i would have loved to see a room of people trying to judge who sounded most like the “tr-true-true” wayne marshall. talk about life in triplicate: here was the chance to see a dozen wayne marshalls! supposedly, wayne marshall himself was to attend, and i am sorry i missed the chance to bear witness to such weirdness and to meet the other mr. marshall. at some point, perhaps in the not too distant future, i will get a chance to cause a little trouble with my name, confronting wayne with his american double, and really get underway on some mobius-strip-style research. alas, last night was not the night.
ps — I’ve still never met the Jamaican Wayne Marshall in the 10 years since this post, despite no small number of mutual friends or offers to introduce us. Someone needs to rectify this! Also, can an ethnomusicoloblogger get a disambiguation page or what?
Here’s another ten-years-gone re-post from the initial instantiation of my blog, back in 2003 when Rebecca and I moved to Jamaica for six months of doctoral research — and, as a side gig (if one deeply intertwined with my research), a series of digital music workshops in schools and prisons.
What I’m going to do in this case is cobble together and remix two overlapping posts by yours truly and my “companion on Hope Road” — detailing a trip to a nearby high school where we conducted one of our first workshops after moving to Kingston, exactly 10 years ago today. Mainly, what I want to share here are the ebullient sounds of students at St. Andrew High School for Girls freestyling about an upcoming teacher’s strike — and working up some first-time beats.
Howard Campbell is a teacher at St. Andrew High School for girls, just down the road from us in Halfway Tree. He is the head of the computer labs and the coordinator for all kinds of technology education at St. Andrew. We met him at the Harvard-Jamaica Association meeting where he had come with his friend Marvin, not because they were from Harvard or cared at all about a Harvard Alumni Association, but because they were educators interested in our project. In fact, it seemed that from experience both Howard and Marvin had learned that top-down organizations, such as the association we were forming and the school system in Kingston-St. Andrew were not the best way to get things done. They encouraged us to start from the teachers in the schools if we wanted to get in and start working. After seeing Wayne’s demo, Howard offered St. Andrew as a good place to start. Yesterday we went to St. Andrew for the first time.
At 8am we had a class of 4th formers (10th grade). We were to do a demo with them in this period and then a workshop with them from 10-11 in the computer lab. When Wayne got Fruityloops up on the screen and started talking, the class was polite and paid attention. Once he hit the first kick drum, they began to look really interested. And as soon as he put up a little hip-hop beat and then turned it into the grindin’ beat, they were hooked. (Side note: from Cambridge to Kingston, it seems that kids everywhere are loving the grindin’ beat and banging it out on their desks. Way to go Neptunes.) They started dancing in their chairs when he showed them how to make some dancehall. Next he made a song with the class, getting a few brave souls to make some noises and sing a bit and putting it together into a dancehall rhythm:
[2013 Wayne here just pointing out the obvious reference here to “In Da Club,” another ubiquitous song at this time.]
At 9 they reluctantly left for their next class, seemingly a combination of a particular attachment to Mr. Campbell, interest in what Wayne was doing, and dislike of whatever they would have to do for the next hour.
At 10, girls piled in and sat one or two to a computer. Wayne managed to hold their attention for a few minutes to repeat some basics. And they got started. I was glad I had watched Wayne so much and messed around on Fruityloops myself because there were too many questions for Wayne to handle by himself. Girls went at different paces and made every kind of music from dancehall to techno. As they would run into trouble, Wayne would go to them and give them a few pointers to keep them moving in a good direction. At 11 they were all still going strong. Howard came and told us that it was their lunch period, but if we didn’t mind, they could stay. We didn’t mind. Most of them stayed through most of their lunch period and came away with some pretty good little songs.
Cue 2003 Wayne:
the workshop proved to be quite productive, if a little cacophonous at times. (half a dozen computers blasting beats together in a small room can create quite a sound clash, to use the local term; headphones are helpful). through their own predilections, and the contingent curve-balls of the creative process, the girls came up with some diverse stylings. “catherine’s rock rhythm” (as she titled it), probably takes its name from the “dirty-guitar” sample that, unfortunately, is missing here since i seem to be missing it in my own sound bank (i am converting it to mp3 on my laptop today, away from the school). nevertheless, it puts a strong foot forward with its bouncy bed of techno–not the most popular genre here but one in which a couple of girls decided to create.
sydoney and zelieka collaborated to create a rhythm that, while borrowing from the neptune’s ubiquitous grindin’ beat (in the third and fourth bars of each six-bar, AABBAA phrase), almost defies category with its future-funk, electro-slanted hip-hop.
and “shanika’s hip-hop beat” is, quite honestly, one of the illest things i have heard in a while. not bad for a first try!
we went home to have lunch and do laundry. at two o’clock we headed back to the school to do another demo–this one for an afterschool music club, which seemed like an appropriate audience. howard told us on the way down hope road that a buzz was already passing through the school, accelerated in part by my famous name. we had some time to see the grounds before the music club meeting, so howard showed us around. most impressive was a front courtyard where girls were hanging out and waiting to be picked up from school.
one group of girls stood in a circle under a tree, coaxing a makeshift rhythm out of an empty coke bottle and an igloo thermos. they were DJing, laughing, dancing and exhorting each other. it was an absolutely wonderful moment of improvisation and collective music-making. as howard (with his video camera), i (with mic and laptop), and becca (with her digital camera) moved in for some samples, it was clear that this cipher was no rehearsal. these girls were not only creating extemporaneous raps in DJ-style, they were humorously riffing on the topic of the hour: the imminent teachers’ strike and the small holiday the students would enjoy.
as the girls waited for the beat to begin again (having located another empty coke bottle), one called out for them to freestyle, dubbing the day “freestyle friday” — a reference to a popular segment during a music-video program on BET. the seamlessness of this reference in the context of the girls’ play is another testament to the fluidity of cultural forms here: hip-hop and other american exports are absorbed and spun back out, sometimes more and sometimes less like a copy. today was no copy. the girls may have assimilated the hip-hop term for in-the-moment rap, but their form was strictly dancehall. [Indeed, though I didn’t realize it at the time, they were closely riffing on a beloved Shabba ranks routine.]
hear the distinctive 3+3+2 dancehall beat, the staccato, end-rhyme style of the vocals, the chorus of gun-shot-big-ups that follow the first good rhyme, the “booyaka” refrain — more onamatopoetic gunfire — that cracks everyone up. listen closer for the topicality of the text: “ting-a-ling-a-ling / school bell nuh ring / go and mek the teacher buy the bling-bling.” the call to give the teachers some money to buy jewelry and other nice things [but also basics, like “dumpling”] is at once a crack at those not providing for their teachers and a good-natured ribbing for the teachers themselves (who are either impoverished or greedy by implication). and lest one think these students are disappointed about school being cancelled, they dispel any such notions with a “no school” celebratory chant.
back to Bec for a sec:
“No school, no school!” was the main refrain and the main topic of conversation. Why? A nation-wide teacher’s strike is scheduled for Monday and Tuesday as a demonstration of dissatisfaction with the wage increase that the teacher’s union and the government have negotiated. Here, as in the U.S. but on a more extreme scale, the teachers are drastically underpaid and their work undervalued. Howard takes the problem quite seriously and is an active participant in organizing some form of peaceful resistance. He is clearly a caring and beloved teacher. He supports programs like ours as a way to move education forward in Jamaica. He is just the sort of person one would want to see standing up for the rights of teachers because it is teachers like him who demonstrate how much a teacher’s work is worth.
And I’ll pile on just a little more:
many of the students were worried about the strike, including a number of them pursuing a rumor that howard, a clear favorite at st. andrews, would be resigning. as various girls ran up to greet him after school, howard assuaged their fears and pointed out that, although he may be “on strike,” as they could see, he was still at school, and well into afterschool hours. as we continued walking through the grounds, on our way back to the computer lab, we came across a girl practicing piano in a large performance hall that stands in the middle of the campus. i got a little of her rendition of beethoven’s moonlight sonata on my laptop, a chord of which ended up in the song i created with music club, who decided to do their own little version of sean paul’s terribly popular, “gimme the light.” [n.b.: fairly horribly harmonized — or not at all, really — on my part]
after the demo, which was received positively, complete with (in true jamaican style) some fairly formal and very charming thanks from the music club’s spokesperson, i went back to the lab to collect the tracks that the students had created in the morning so that i could post them on the blog. at four o’clock on a friday afternoon, the lab was full of girls making music, most of them new. very promising indeed.
Almost incredibly, it was ten years ago today that I put my first blogpost online, less than a week into a six month stay in Kingston for doctoral research, accompanied by my better half — my partner on Hope Road, as I ultimately dedicated the dissertation — who blogged along with me. Written in plain ol’ HTML — if I had known about the recently launched Blogger, I would have jumped on it — and posted to a domain that I let lapse long ago (but which is all archived here), it began bloggily enough:
it is my intention to keep a daily, or near daily, weblog of my thoughts, experiences, and other media that i record or create while in jamaica. not only is this a great way to force myself to articulate some things on a regular basis, but i hope that by sharing ideas, sounds, and images with a larger audience i can invite others to get in on the conversation.
A great deal of that first post is, frankly, hard for me to read (probably for you too — don’t feel obliged). And not just for the typical reasons of feeling like a different person and cringing at my naive former self. No, it’s just some really awful writing, almost the whole way through. Not only is it rather muddled (if, ok, a first post and an attempt to condense several days of activity and months of preparation), it’s riddled by doubt and qualification, on the one hand, and by smugness and narcissism on the other. Shit, maybe my writing is still like that, but I think I’ve been able to get away from some truly bad grad-school habits over the years, especially the endless hedging and explication. It’s funny that even then I was consciously struggling with these issues —
to some extent i am striving to expunge jargon from my vocabulary and to speak and write in clear, simple prose. on the other hand, i am swayed by the feeling that i can express myself more succinctly and precisely with these newly accented words of critical/cultural/post- studies. words which tend to sound either vague or big to the uninitiated. words like discourse and liminal.
LOL. I can’t even tell if I’m being sarcastic there at the end. Despite the cringeworthy moments, I have to remind myself that I was writing in a strange hybrid style mixing personal fieldnotes and public-facing presentation — not only unorthodox from the perspective of field research but with little aside from gonzo journalism as a guide (not that I was trying to do that either). It was a risky voice to assume at the time, and it’s still a dangerzone I find myself inhabiting here and on Twitter and every other (semi)public forum where private/unguarded/frank talk mingles with more carefully crafted performances.
I’d be remiss not to note that the way I ultimately got myself through that awfully awkward phase was, fairly simply, by keeping up a “near daily” regimen of putting my words together and putting them out there for anyone to see — just as I had promised to do. But I shouldn’t exactly say “got myself,” since it was the engagement and encouragement from friends and strangers that made these posts into something more than notes to myself. As folks found the blog and left comments and sent me emails, a deeply fulfilling and remarkably fast feedback loop began to emerge (especially in comparison to academic conventions and tempos). Over the years, such a discipline — in combination with a real community of co-readers (reading me but also reading the world along with me) — has helped me to find a voice that feels less awkward and more authentic. I’m grateful there’s a record of all of that, even if earlier versions of myself are sometimes, as they say, not a good look.
forever <3 that tam becca knit me tho
In lieu of reposting much prose from my initial post here, I’d like instead to highlight some short recordings I posted, mostly attempts to record and represent our new soundscape but a couple whimsical collages too and snippets that, looking back, seem to capture some little moments pretty vividly.
Like an aborted excursion on Hope Road, cut short by sudden rain–
Or the sounds of kids playing at the primary school across the street — quite a delightful part of our daily soundscape:
Or the stray dogs that liked to hang out in the yard behind our apartment and bark and howl, often pathetically, at night — not quite as delightful, but an inescapable part of the sound of Kingston:
A few weeks later I chopped up the barking and whining for “Dog Gone Diwali,” a humorous attempt to cut-and-paste some very local sounds into a riddim that was at that moment totally ubiquitous and which I wanted to better understand by recomposing (this was the spring that Sean Paul’s “Get Busy” ran the world, though I swear “Sufferer” was the more popular Diwali voicing inna JA):
Along those lines, my initial post also included an odd bit of dancehall concrĂ¨te, a piece I whipped up in front of and with the help of a live audience at an ICT conference Rebecca and I attended in the hope of making some contacts to help with our volunteer work in prisons and schools. This was a little schtick of mine back then — making a little ditty out of the sounds people would make in front of my laptop — sometimes with great results, sometimes more meh, but usually at least producing an interesting memento of sorts, e.g.:
Over the course of this spring I hope to revisit a number of the more interesting posts from our likkle Jamrock fieldwork adventure. If they’re not too embarrassingly full of qualifiers and parentheticals, I might even run one on occasion as a full re-post here. I don’t think any readers, even longtime friends of W&W, should be too annoyed. I mean, really, it’s been ten years!
I’m happy to report that the semester has been going swimmingly. Sorry for the dearth of posts here, but I’ve been rather engaged with reading, for one course, across a vast and dense literature on music, race, & nation while exploring, in another, the history and potential of music’s (and sound’s) deep entanglement with technologies of transduction & reproduction.
As we barrel almost unbelievably toward the end of the term, we’ve managed to produce a pretty striking set of technomusicological etudes. While two big assignments remain (a video montage and a DJ mix), the students have produced soundscapes, radio collages, sample-based beats, and mashups. Impressed and entertained by them all, I want to share a few exemplary pieces to give people a (musique) concrete sense of what we’ve been up to. We recommend listening with headphones.
First, a couple entries from the soundscape assignment (including requisite if brief prose descriptions):
Sunday afternoon shopping [for soy sauce!] at the Boston Chinese Supermarket (C-mart).
In this tasty space, life takes many different forms: the entrance music that occupies its own territory 0:00-0:20; 2:36-end); people conversing on their wants and needs in Cantonese (0:21 – 0:40; 2:10-2:22); living lobsters/crabs breathing in tank [with running water] waiting to be picked, killed and consumed (0:45-1:15; 2:23-2:35); frozen dumplings resting in ice cases (1:22-1:26), listening to the check-out machine busy reading barcodes (starting 1:27 through 1:53, transposed); butchers cleaning, peeling and chopping off fish head using their fine/scary collection of life-taking tools (1:46 – 2:09).
All is intertwined and yet at the same time irrelevant. One eats to live, others live to be eaten. Together we breathe.
This recording encompasses the tragedy I face in procrastination â enjoyment of the meaningless which ends as soon as it metamorphoses into the meaningful. This tragedy is composed of five chapters. At first, the frustration with the ominous âpaperâ becomes not only overwhelming, but overwhelming to the point that I must abandon work with a very definitive âfuck this paper.â I venture outside into Harvard Square where meaningless interaction forms a melody. âHeyâ defines the relationship I have with the grand majority of my acquaintances â an acknowledgement of each otherâs existence is all we share. However, âheyâ leaves me craving for real social interaction, and I do summon a friend upon stumbling on a musical gem in the Harvard Square âpit.â However, reality freezes the real pressure I have found in The Square. I am reminded that the ominous paper is still, in fact, in need of being submitted, and I am forced to retract into my study lair. âWhy, why, whyâ is procrastination always halted when it gets good? The answer: itâs procrastination, itâs temporary. Oh, the tragedy that is procrastination.
The second pair of examples comes from the week we devoted to (Boston) radio collages, and each offers a rather interesting portrait of a particular slice of the local airwaves:
This soundscape/radioscape takes all of its material from a cheap radio clock in a bedroom in Cambridge, MA. The sounds were collected at about 2:00 PM on a weekday afternoon.
The goal in creating a weekday afternoon radioscape of Boston is to represent Boston radio at a time that I’ve always considered to be the least interesting time of day for radio. Because it lacks the audience that rush hour in the morning and evening (and to some extent lunch hour as well) draw, radio in the afternoon does not cater to a specific audience other than those who happen to be driving, are listening to radio as they work, or have nothing better to do for one reason or another. The music tends to be generic and fairly random, the talk shows discuss mundane topics in order to save more important thoughts for the busier hours, and there is no concerted effort to create a certain ambience, as in evening radio.
Strangely enough, though, this all serves to loosen radio to a certain extent, encouraging hosts to let their hair down a bit, and allowing each station to be a little less authoritarian in their choices of music. While listening to the radio for easy entertainment or interesting concepts may be difficult in the afternoon, listening with a critical ear at this times can become immensely entertaining. It is that strange combination of humor, flair, mediocrity, and commercialism that I am trying to convey in this piece, representing most of the material I found while striving to keep the pace entertaining for the listener, who doesn’t have the comfort of being at the control. I used a lot of layering, blending, and automation to splice events together convincingly, as well as some other effects like looping, delay, reverb, and mixing in cleaner recordings of songs in order to give a little surrealism and extra realism to the sound, which was limited by the reception of the radio.
The piece starts out with quick flipping through a few channels, then settles in with a couple of announcements about the time and place. The first section mainly moves back and forth between songs on different channels, but as we go on, new characters are and themes are introduced, such as talk radio, advertisements, a discussion about receipts, a sportscast and the ever-present (in New England) Dunkin Donuts. Finally, we close with a “goodbye” and a contrast between upbeat folk-classic music that evokes a kind of “simple gifts” feel characteristic of old-time New England and some inspirational words in Spanish. And maybe one last quip about Dunkin Donuts and their great coffee.
The voice is often used as a symbol of personal interaction. In early descriptions of radio, the feeling of such interaction and indeed of intimacy through the radio was often dependent on speech and the voice. In this exercise, I have edited short clips of radio recordings taken on October 14 and 15 in Allston, MA. The resulting mix produces a simulated radio world that is all talk, all voices speaking in different registers, different levels of excitement, and different languages. The listener’s relationship to the various voices depends on many markers of identity – religious, political, linguistic, sports, etc. This collage is thus a reflection on the limits of radio voices to convey intimacy.
Our third assignment required students to get into the aesthetics of sample-based hip-hop, combining samples of their choice with two classic breakbeats I provided (the Funky Drummer and Apache). Here’s a few fun standouts (including one dubsteppy excursion):
On the surface, this piece is a hip hop beat that goes on for a couple of minutes, and this is probably all that’s really apparent when listening. In some ways, it’s all that really needs to be apparent; when putting this together I was trying to make a new piece out of the materials that I sampled from a few other songs, but there is some thought that went into the choices of material. The beat takes sounds from the Funky Drummer and Apache breakbeats, cut up and made into new rhythms: pretty standard. The harmonic and melodic material, though, all comes from a couple of songs by Billy Joel and Elton John. For some reason, maybe because they’re both rock/pop pianists, I’ve always considered Billy and Elton to be two sides of the same coin, so I wanted, at least intellectually, to put them together in one piece. I don’t really feel like the interaction is audible, mostly because I limited myself to just one or two samples each from two songs by Elton and one by Billy, cut down to the point where they are really just a note or two in most cases and often edited until they don’t resemble the original at all (for instance, slowed and deepened until a medium-high synth sounds almost like dubstep) but I still like the idea of them both being in there.
Turkey is sometimes known as the crossroads of the world, and here, the shape (Dilli DĂźdĂźk) and electronic sounds (Ăakk?d?) of Turkish popular music mix with the rhythms (Funky Drummer) and jazzy lines (Apache) of Western samples. Their interaction makes a dense sonic fabric, and there is some tension scattered throughout, but ultimately, the two pairs of samples serve to reinforce and advance each other.
I decided to be quite liberal with the Funky Drummer sample provided to us, and chopped it down to individual sounds. I then put this on a new drum rack and treated it with a filter delay, reverb, and a couple other elements to create a dub-like effect. The tempo and syncopation is reminiscent of most dubstep tracks, with a BPM of 140 and the snare falling on the third beat. The melody and vocals of the track come from chopped samples of the 1970’s Angolan protest song ValĂłdia by Santocas. Samples are treated with various filters and reverb as well as sidechained to the kick drum via a compressor. We hear a looped verse, “Bem longe/ OuvĂ aquele nome/ InesquecĂvel/ dos filhos de Angola” (Far away/ I heard that name/ Unforgettable/ to Angola’s children).
And one last example, a rather esoteric mashup from one of the grad students in the course:
Here’s a mash-up of a Brazilian maracatĂş (“SerĂĄ” by Siba e a Fuloresta) and an unaccompanied Cretan rizitiko song performed by Vasilis Stavrakakis. Instead of mashing two pieces of similar tempo, I decided, inspired by the a capella intro to “SerĂĄ,” to liberally chop up the unmetered Cretan song and manipulate it in various ways (pitch changes, overlapping punches, the creation of drones) to frame and comment on various musical events in the Brazilian song. Aside from a small gap inserted near the beginning, “SerĂĄ” is basically intact; the challenge was to isolate and reconfigure phrases, both short and extended, from Stavrakakis’ performance to give the impression of a melodic, harmonic, and phrasal dialogue with Siba, the chorus, and the brass band. I especially like how, though the melodic trajectories of the two songs are similar, they often treat the second and sixth degrees of the scale in opposite ways (minor second and major sixth from Crete, major second and minor sixth from Brazil). This adds a nice pinch of tension without spoiling the soup (at least to my modally biased ears), and points to the manufactured nature of the operation.
It’s been a real thrill to hear what these talented students have cooked up this term. The best of these productions really speak for themselves. And that’s the point: how can we make audible stories about audition in the age of technological reproducibility? Toward that end, I was delighted to stumble across these thoughts just yesterday:
I think of the Marshallâs taxicab soundscape, how it captures not only the sonic communications of Jamaican cab drivers, and the broader dancehall soundscape in which they live, but also something of the musicologist himself. Itâs just an essay transduced. What if students and academics were to pursue the craft of phrasing and editing sound, photographs, and film with the same doggedness with which we pursue the written word, aiming for the same sophistication that we do in our written texts? What would anthropology sound, look, feel like then?
“It’s just an essay transduced”! I like that. Gonna run with it — or take it for a ride? On that note, let me leave you with an intentionally schizophonic video mashup of my “Taximan” piece (as discussed here) set to soundtrack a trip down the Palisadoes to Norman Manley International Airport, where I chat a bit (in my own odd wavering accent) about Sunday radio in Jamaica (an old fave topic) with the driver: