I’m very pleased to report that I’ll be teaching full-time in the Music Department at Harvard this year, filling the big shoes of two ethnomusicolleagues on leave, Ingrid Monson & Richard Wolf. This is an honor and a pleasure, and even as a one-year non-renewable gig, it sure beats the adjunct beat I was walking last year. Plus, I can walk to work, so that’s nice.
Best of all, though, is that the fine people here are happy to let me offer the kinds of courses that I’d like to — namely, courses that grapple with some of the themes central to my research — which apparently complement the ongoing offerings here rather well. This semester I’m teaching two seminars, to a mix of undergrads and grad students, and I’m happy to share the syllabi here.
The first, Music 207r: Music, Race and Nation (PDF), takes as its subject the entanglements between these three things, entanglements that readers of this blog know have been central to my work on reggae, hip-hop, reggaeton, and nu world music, to name a few. After reading several pieces which attempt to clarify the meanings of these terms and their uses in the musicological (and anthropological) literature, we will turn to a series of case studies. Allow me to share the description here, but feel free to download the PDF for closer perusal:
This seminar reviews recent theoretical perspectives on race, nationalism, and music, both from within ethno/musicology and beyond, including general works and a series of specific studies articulating music’s relationship to such projects and ideas. Examining how musical representations and experiences figure in the creation of public and private notions of race and nation, our course grapples with musicâs power to mediate imagined and inscribed cartographies of self and other.
While the course will give students a broad foundation for discussing matters of music, race, and nationalism, our study of various forms of modern encounter with musical difference centers on European imperialism, the transatlantic African diaspora, and their myriad intersections. Coursework will center on readings (typically between 80-100 pages/week) and in-class discussion, brief weekly writing assignments, and a final paper of studentsâ own design.
The second class, Music 190r: Technomusicology (PDF), is, as I’ve noted here before, something of a concept that I’m making up as I go along. Really, though, it’s an idea that I’ve been working through on this blog for many years now, and I’m simply delighted that I’m getting a chance to bring some of these experiments in multimedia forms of music scholarship/play directly into the classroom as our primary object and method. Here’s the description:
If in a previous moment âbi-musicalityâ represented cutting-edge musicological literacy, today’s technology suffused world may call for the development of something akin to âtechnomusicology.â This course concentrates on the longstanding and increasing interplay between music and technology while exploring new modes of technologically assisted research and publication.
Beginning by reading across the growing literature that attends to music in the age of its technological reproducibility, we will then turn to a series of exercises or etudes, alongside germane readings, to explore some technologically-mediated forms and practices as potential openings for new directions in music scholarship.
In addition to developing an historical grasp on the imbrication of music and tech, students will cultivate competencies in audio and video editing, sampling and arranging, mixing and remixing, producing mashups and composing soundscapes. Occasional evening tutorials will be available over the course of the semester to assist with ongoing projects and to help get familiar with the software we will be using: Ableton Live.
Did I mention that I secured an internal arts-making grant to buy all of my students Ableton? Pretty cool, eh? And that we will have at least two technomusicological luminaries as guests this semester? (Namely, Jace Clayton talking Sufi Plug-Ins, and Harmonix’s Matt Boch talking interactive musical video game design.) I don’t know about you, but I would have killed to take this course as an undergrad — or as a grad student for that matter. Here’s hoping we produce a series of experiments that stand as shining examples and help to move this fledgling “field” forward (technomusicology, that is — shouts to my ethno-sistren Kiri Miller for her own efforts in this regard).
Of course, as is always the case, I’m already considering additions and revisions to the syllabi. For one, I think the Music, Race and Nation course would be nicely rounded out by reading the recent book by the Comaroffs (who also arrived at Harvard this fall), Ethnicity Inc.. And after listening to Keith Fullerton Whitman’s live-mix of early recordings by pioneer ethnomusicologist / field-recordist Hugh Tracey, I’m seriously considering adding a “remix the Harvard audio archives” project to Technomusicology. This is a really stunning and wonderful way to work with audio archives, and we’ll certainly be giving it a good listen and some thought together (bravo, Keith!) —
In the spring I will be offering my own version of Music 97c (Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective), focusing on the music of North America, Latin America/Caribbean, and Indonesia, as well as a graduate seminar on “Musical Publics.” But I’ve still got some work to put into those syllabi, so if these titles pique your curiosity, please check back later in the semester. Between now and then, I hope to have lots of interesting things to share as they emerge from this term’s offerings.
It begins with a six minute opening from me, then I introduce my esteemed co-panelists — Boima, Poirier, Ripley, Max, and Jesse — and we finally REALLY get into the convo about 10 minutes in. From there it’s a solid 50 minutes of discussion (but not a minute more! #realtalk), followed by another 15 of tantalizing open-mic action (just joking; stop watching at that point; really).
These are some of my favorite voices in wot-ever-we-wanna-call this thing (though the labeling, as we discuss, remains inextricable and carries consequences), so they may be of interest to you too –
Check it out, my micropublic: I’ve got another “Throwback Thursdays” post over at Okayplayer’s LargeUp blog. This time I’m waxing nostalgic about a song produced by none other than El Chombo –
Incluye el tema…
Veteran readers of W&W may remember El Chombo as the producer of the notorious “Chacarron,” a song which — back in my blogspot days — consumed a seriesofposts as I attempted to document in relative realtime my endeavor to discover the story behind the song.
I’m not quite ready to reminisce about “Chacarron,” however; rather my post turns to “El Gato Volador,” which I also once discussed on this very blog. Alas, the brilliant homemade slideshow that inspired that ol’ post has since disappeared, but the official video is still on the ‘Tube, and this gives me a chance to discuss the song in a little more detail. And quite a song it is.
Here’s the frame:
While Panama is widely acknowledged as the birthplace of dancehall reggae en espaĂ±ol, Puerto Rico gets credit for eating up the faithful versions of Panamanian artists like Nando Boom and El General and spitting out something more hip-hop laced and sample-based, as heard on the Noisy collages that made dembow loops the centerpiece of maratĂłn mixtapes. But Panamanian producers deserve props of their own for developing and popularizing an equally distinctive and irreverent, sample-based approach to Spanish dancehall (though faithful approaches persist under the plena banner, sin duda).
Panama’s master of the style is El Chombo, aka Rodney Clark, a pretty Jamaican name, though the internet reports (very vaguely of course) that he was born in the US and moved to Panama in the late 70s as a youngster. None of these facts is remarkable in Panama, where people have been named Rodney Clark for a century (at the turn of the 20th, Panama was receiving 62% of all Jamaican emigrants), and where foreigners continually arrive, especially from the US in more recent times, drawn into Canal-related work as so many Caribbean migrants before them. “El Chombo” is also something dark-skinned people, especially Afro-Caribbean folk, have been called in Panama for a long time. El Chombo’s embrace of the term and intentional projection of blackness were central to his first mixtape series, Spanish Oil, which he was issuing annually in the mid-late 90s at the same time Playero and The Noise were circulating their seminal mixtapes. The reference to oil is, of course, a reference to blackness, and it’s telling that reggae in Panama was sometimes called petrĂłleo in the 90s, not unlike melaza (molasses) in Puerto Rico.
But go ahead and click thru to hear about (and watch) El Chombo’s “unlikely hit ostensibly about a flying cat but alsoâŠa joke of a song that seems to offer meta-commentary on the state of the genre itself.”
It should be said that these two songs — “Chacarron” and “El Gato Volador” — are obviously rather on the silly side, but El Chombo is also in his way a serious producer. Over the last decade he’s enjoyed quite a bit of success, and its remarkable that even his crossover hits (mainly in Latin American and European dance markets) bear the same trademark sampladelia, largely drawn from American crossover dance-pop.
His crown jewel in this regard (perhaps his flying cat?) is no doubt Lorna’s Dee-Lite sampling “Papi Chulo” (2003), the first reggaeton song to become an international hit, years before Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina.” The song was a top ten hit in several European countries (#1 in France, #2 in Italy) and huge across Latin America. It’s really something of an underrated classic. (When I dropped it at Que Bajo a few years back, people went plĂĄtanos.)
So widespread is the song’s popularity that, among other spin-offs, it inspired a Pakistani cover which some, according to YouTube comments, even read as a pan-African gesture c/o “Makrani singer Younis Jani” (-Wikipedia). Makrani, I’m told (also by Wikipedia), is sometimes synonymous with “Siddi / Sheedi” (which is what one commenter calls Younis), which is also, far as I can tell, more-or-less Urdu for “El Chombo.” Now how do ya like that?
Africa Is a Country, a wry but passionate blog devoted to “Africa” — the idea, not (simply) the song — in contemporary media (but “not about famine, Bono, or Barack Obama”) has been threatening to make a weekly series out of the genuinely remarkable resonance of Toto’s 1982 soft-rock anthem. It’s a begrudging tribute of sorts to the song’s “resilience as a piece of media about Africa.” Did you know that in addition to dozens of covers, which they promise to feature, the song is also popular sampling fodder for hip-hop producers (among them, Madlib)?
It promises to be entertaining, whether or not you can withstand the earworm. This week they pointed to a new appearance of what they’re calling “the Toto ‘Africa’ meme” courtesy of r&b crooner Jason Derulo, which, I have to admit is both “inane” as they note over there and a pallid by-the-numbers attempt to reproduce the feel and form of “Watcha Say,” his debut single and highest charting song (it hit #1).
I can’t help but be reminded of a strange and oddly apropos discovery about Toto’s “Africa” I made a few years ago, which may be of passing interest to some of you, especially fellow followers of Africasacountry.
Here’s how it happened: my dear friend and colleague, Sharon, is a doctoral student in anthropology who studies the transmission of traditional Malian dance, especially in transnational contexts. A longtime trad-African dancer herself, she has studied and danced in Mali, the US, and France. Anyway, long story semi-short, when Sharon was getting hitched a few years back she asked me whether I might help her arrange some music for her reception (an awesome & lively affair, full of drums and dance, in which a young & chubby Nico got to prance about with the august & strikingly spry Dr. J. Lorand Matory).
Her idea was to take one of the common rhythms from the Malian repertory and mash it up with some pop or hip-hop tracks that employ the same patterns. The idea was suggested to her by the fact that her local teacher, Joh Camara, himself would reference Will Smith’s “Gettin Jiggy Wit It” as a sort of mnemonic device when introducing students to the didadi rhythm. You know, the na-na-na-na-nana-nah bit. You can hear it pretty clearly in this performance I turned up on the ‘Tube (esp between 0:40 and 1:00):
This seemed like a fun task, especially given how much I love tracing patterns across different repertories. But after a few days of intense humming along to myself and attempting to trigger things in the recesses of musical memory, I had come up with relatively little. However, while I had only located a couple tracks that make reference to the rhythm, I had seemingly stumbled across an almost incredible possibility: that Toto’s “Africa,” which seemed like one of the least African songs I could imagine, might actually be based around an actual African rhythm. (And I use actual there twice because it’s a magic word, like Africa.)
Here’s what I shared with Sharon:
I have to confess that I’ve found it rather challenging to think up other songs that employ the same rhythm(s) as Didadi (aside from the tight fit that is “Gettin Jiggy Wit It”). Been racking my musical memory, which has led to some false leads and close fits, but nothing else — until this afternoon — save for a funny refrain from a Cypress Hill song (“la la la la la la la la” in “Hand on the Pump”).
Funny enough — actually I think you may find this discovery fascinating — as I was trying once more this afternoon to think of other songs that might match (and I’m being fairly exacting in wanting a good match — a direct rhythmic overlay), I started humming the rhythm to myself: buh-duh-duh-duhduh-duh-duh. Eventually a vaguely familiar bassline / chord progression emerged from my murky brain. I couldn’t place it, though, and couldn’t remember any words, so I just sang along with the melody until I reached the chorus, where, I hoped, I might remember a single Googlable word. When I got there, I was stunned: the word was “Africa” and the song, natch, “Africa” by Toto! What a hilarious coincidence! I have no idea whether the group was intentionally figuring Africa with that rhythm — it’s never sounded very African to me, but it sure does now!
Anyhow, I’m afraid that means I have only turned up 3 songs that use the same rhythm(s) as Didadi. And two of them are quite cheesy. But this is all in good fun, right? Anyhow, see attached and tell me what you think. For now, I’ve chosen to leave Joh’s performance unedited, so you hear the entire ~2:00 rendition that he gave us, the full arc, including all his variations and the general accretionary/crescendoing dynamic. If that works for you, that’s cool. If not, we can do some editing. Just let me know what you think. It’s easy enough to loop any of the measures he plays or to cut something here or add something there. I could extend any of the songs mashed with the drums, or shorten them, or change their order. I could also change the tempo so that it is faster or slower or gets faster over time (Jo does gradually get faster, and that’s one change I’ve made: now he stays at the same tempo, which helped me to mash/match things up).
Now, judging by this Wikipedia entry and it’s detailed accounts by members of Toto of the way the song came together, it sounds like the guys in Toto might have more or less entirely stumbled upon this felicitous rhythmic concordance. Meter minutiae aside (however fascinating), I find this quotation from drummer Jeff Porcaro most pregnant:
… a white boy is trying to write a song on Africa, but since he’s never been there, he can only tell what he’s seen on TV or remembers in the past.
At any rate, you can imagine the bizarro eureka moment as I pulled that schmaltzy tune out of some dark corner of my mind. As for the main keyboard riff’s Africanness, you’ll have to decide for yourself. Here’s the “mashup” I sent to Sharon (which, suffice to say, was a little too goofy to work for the wedding):
It may be tempting to read something like “Karibu Ya Bintou” as a relatively straightforward exercise in “indigenizing” or localizing hip-hop, but the story of Baloji’s transnational musical moorings — especially his ambivalence toward Congolese pop — complicates such an interpretation:
His first rap outfit, Les Malfrats Linguistiques (“The Linguistic Hustlers”), morphed into Starflam and Baloji became something of a Belgian hip-hop heartthrob. Meanwhile, living above a legendary record store, Caroline Music, in LiĂšge did wonders for his musical education. “I heard everythingâŠPiL, Kraftwerk, Queens of the Stone Age, the SmithsâŠ”
Despite suffering from the rampant racism of smalltown Belgium â he was almost deported back to the Congo at the age of 20 â Baloji can thank his adoptive country for the eclecticism of his style. Until recently, however, he hated most African music, especially Congolese soukous, the bedrock style of post-independence pan-African pop. “For me, it was the worst music in the world,” he says. Nonetheless, when he received a letter from his mother out of the blue, in 2007, his Congolese heritage came back into his life with a vengeance. It inspired Baloji to return to his roots and record an album â a kind of soundtrack without a film â to tell his mother what his life had been like over the past 20 years.
That said, it’s perhaps telling — as with the success of Crammed Discs’ marketing of Konono NÂ°1 as Congotronics — that Baloji would find the greatest interest in his work at precisely the moment he decides to place himself on a map that is easy enough to read.
Legibility does have its advantages. So it’s not terribly surprising that Baloji’s surrender to soukous on another song, “Independence,” ends up serving as a vehicle for a sort of Congolese nationalism, if one that strongly resists the authority of the state. As with “Karibu Ya Bintou,” the video is directed by the duo Spike & Jones, who have an awesome name and seem to make pretty awesome clips:
Most poignant though, I think, are Baloji’s own words on the matter of musical heritage and nationhood, or of signifying Africanness vis-a-vis certain source material. Here he shows himself to be, among other things, a thoughtful student of hip-hop, which, for all the dots it connects around the world, clearly draws plenty of lines in the process–
I want to make music that is very African and very modern. You have to be proud of who you are. You can sample Bob James or Curtis Mayfield, but it means more when Talib Kweli or Kanye West sample them because that’s their heritage. But we Africans also have an interesting heritage, which has richness and a diversity that is huge and under-exploited. We can also go deep into it and make it modern, celebrate its value, just like the Americans.
If I may be allowed one last little addendum, I’d like to share a recording that seems somewhat germane. While revisiting The Noise 6 for the post I wrote for LargeUp, I came across a real gem of a pre-reggaeton track. Don’t get me wrong, the Ivy Queen and Bebe songs are standouts, to be sure, but the final track — #16 to be exact — is definitely the biggest eyebrow-raiser. It’s worth noting, if you don’t know, that the last tracks on proto-reggaeton albums are often the weirdest, and this one, simply labeled “Bonus Track” (mp3), is an interesting outlier indeed:
As you’ll hear, there’s definitely a nod to “Whoomp! (There It Is)” and no doubt a few other jams from the Miami-Atlanta axis (though all the percussion can make it sound a bit like drum’n'bass at times, save for the tempo). Oh, yeah, and there’s the appearance of that ol’ “Egyptian” melody.
Although plenty is going over my head, no doubt, I suspect this is about as allusive as any other track from this era, which means it’s utterly full of vocal references and direct samples. It definitely gives a good sense of how widely Puerto Ricans were listening to hip-hop and contemporary club music as they sought to synthesize their own thing. No doubt for plenty of listeners — and maybe the producers and performers themselves — such a track might even sound both “very African and very modern.”
I’m happy to announce, and not a moment too soon, that I’ve arranged some festive music for today.
When I put together my first St. Patrick’s Day mix some years ago, it was an obviously tongue-in-cheek gesture. You might recall that I began with House of Pain before bringing in the romping stomp of the Timelords’ (aka KLF’s) “Doctorin’ the Tardis” — a formula-breaking (if formula following!) ravetastic classic that seems to anticipate mashups and jock-jams alike.
Consistent with the track’s logic — and often in shuffle-step with its triple-time roll — I mushed together a bunch of iconic Irish jigs & ballads and (corn-)beefed them up with electronic dance propulsion. Not all the festive selections had the 6/8 swing that interlocked with the proto-shaffel Timelords track, so I teased it in and out of the mix. Here ’tis again:
But that was then, and this is now.
Readers here are no doubt familiar with tribal guarachero, the Mexican techno mutation centered in Monterrey and DF, which has enjoyed an enthusiastic, international reception among DJs, listeners, and bloggers in the last year. You might also be aware that the genre’s distinctive rhythms happen to line up perfectly with some of these jiggy Irish jams. Or maybe that’s never occurred to you. Given this tempting correspondence, I decided to cook up a little tribal irlandese for El DĂa de San Patricio — or, if you’ll permit an irresistible but probably awful pun, tribal greengo.
Before I launch into the backstory, let me present the 2011 version for your St. Paddy’s party pleasure (some standalone tracks are available at the end of the post, FYI):
You may have heard the story, recounted here, that the term gringo derives from 19th century pop songs sung by Yankee invaders that began with (and repeated in every chorus) the words “Green Grow,” a sound that became so associated with foreign presence, it became the name for it.
John Ross, the longtime resident of Mexico (City), American activist, and recently deceased author of the epic El Monstruo (which I’ve quoted here before), tells the tale of the “greengos” in a section of the book bearing the heading, PINCHES AMERICANOS. “Of all the invading armies,” writes Ross, and he recounts a great many in Mexico’s history, “the Yankees were the most annoying.”
The US had long coveted and sought to annex, as Ross carefully puts it, “the vast, sparsely populated (except for 200,000 native peoples) northern territories of Nueva Galicia that Mexico had inherited from Spain.” In the mid-1840s, the “expansionist” President Polk began taking action. As Ross explains, despite its association with another set of conquistadors, “greengo” was not always clearly an epithet:
With his headlights set on the 1848 election, Polk promised the American people a “short war” (where have we heard that one before?) and orchestrated a Gulf of Tonkin-like provocation at Matamoros, drawing Mexican troops across the RĂo Bravo where they managed to whack a few Americanos. Polk wept at the death of the Yanqui soldiers — “our blood has now fallen on our own soil” (sic) — and organized a five-point invasion of Mexico. The U.S. Navy sailed into San Francisco Bay, and Los Angeles was besieged by Kit Carson and his irregulars in Alta, California. Marines landed at MazatlĂĄn on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Zachary Taylor would swoop south from Tejas, and grizzled old General Winfield Scott landed in Veracruz and followed Cortez’s footprints to the Halls of Moctezuma.
Starting out in the spring of 1847, General Scott directed his army to take TenochtitlĂĄn, encountering, as expected, little resistance from the Mexicans. Indeed, like Cortez, Scott forged alliances with disaffected Mexicans along the route — the “Polkos” rejoiced in the Americano invasion. As the Yankee Doodle Dandies climbed into the antiplano (highlands), the sang the popular songs of the day, one of which, “Green Grow the Lilacs Oh,” became their signature tune, and forever they would be known as “greengos.” (71-2)
Whether affectionate or pejorative initially, the term survives today, and over the years I think it’s safe to say that it has taken on some real sting. (That gringos remain perennial invaders of Mexico can’t help.) And why shouldn’t it sting? What we in the US call the Mexican-American War is remembered in Mexico as “El Gran Despojo — the Great Robbery.” Here’s Ross again, taking stock of what was settled by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (signed on 2 feb 1848), which
ceded the Americanos all the land from the RĂo Bravo to Wyoming, 13 western states from Iowa all the way down to California where gold had just been discovered, 1,572,741 square kilometers, a land grab the size of western Europe and fully 51 percent of Mexico’s geographical territory. Mexico got nothing in return. (74)
The story of the “greengos,” regardless of its veracity, offers a provocative opening for a little musical project I’ve been plotting. The prominence of music in the term’s myth of origins is, of course, a nice touch — not to mention the color green. But the Irish-Mexican connection, and the significance of this story (and this war), is deeper than a colorful coincidence. Irish people have been living in Mexico for centuries. (Indeed, an image search for some fodder for this post turned up a small cottage industry around “Irish-Mexicans” — with or without injunctions to kiss one.)
Perhaps the best known Irish arrivals in Mexico are a group of soldiers who famously switched sides during the Mexican-American War. These notorious turncoats, a preponderance of whom were Irish, are known (fondly in Mexico) as St. Patrick’s Battalion, or El BatallĂłn de San Patricio — national heroes of a sort, whose sacrifices (many were ultimately hanged as traitors) are celebrated every September 12 on the agreed-upon anniversary of their executions, as well as on March 17, today: the feast of Saint Patrick, patron saint of the Irish in general and this battalion in particular.
Many reasons are given for their extraordinary act: not merely deserting, but taking up arms for the other side. Like their European compatriots in the BatallĂłn, Irish immigrants enlisted in the US army in exchange for pay and land, many having fled the Potato Famine. Mistreated at the hands of Protestant superiors, some soldiers found themselves more sympathetic to the cause of their Catholic brethren in Mexico. (Notably, Catholic churches in Texas were terrorized in the years of provocation that became the “run up” to the war.) Indeed, such sectarian appeals were allegedly part of a Mexican recruitment campaign. They fought bravely alongside Mexican militia members — sometimes a little too bravely: a few desperate San Patricios, refusing to surrender (for it was death on the battlefield or death by hanging, perhaps after a good lashing and branding), physically rescinded their comrades’ attempts to wave a white flag, even killing a couple Mexican soldiers in the process.
While reading up on the Battalion, I discovered a felicitous fact: they “first fought as a recognised Mexican unit in the Battle of Monterrey on 21 September 1846, as an artillery battery.”
Battle of Monterrey? Artillery battery? Sounds like 3ball to me!
The foregoing isn’t intended as an elaborate bit of cultural baggage to freight some frivolous mixing and mashing. I simply mean to share some of what goes through my head as I work on such a juxtaposition and reflect on what it means for someone like me to make something like this. Far as my relation to the San Patricios, it’s not all that clear to me that we’re not already embroiled in a war with Mexico (and one with a grossly disproportionate deathtoll), but if the US ever did formally declare war on our neighbors to the south, I’m pretty sure where my sympathies would lie.
Beyond the connections I trace above, and the shared rhythmic sensibilities of jiggy & guarachero shuffles, tribal irlandese cultivates other types of possibly productive symbolic ground too. For just as St. Patrick’s Day and Irish heritage more generally (at least in the US) have been blown up into cartoonish proportions (certainly a sickly green sometimes) — in a sort of auto-essentializing practice — tribal/3ball producers in Mexico frequently play with figures of “tribal” identity whether Aztec or African (and often both, as Jace notes in his excellent profile of the scene). I didn’t go so campy on this mix as with Doctorin’ the Guinness (which includes a version of “Danny Boy” for chrissakes) but I want to note that a certain kitsch factor is unavoidable given my points of departure.
Essentially, what I’ve slapped together here is a series of mashups, in both mini-mix and standalone form. I didn’t have a lot of time to work on these (and, at bottom, it’s still a novelty act — I don’t expect these to be listened to beyond mid-March, or just today), so I went looking for relatively easy correspondences, matches that didn’t demand too much pitching around, tempo tweaking, or super-precise attention to form (though, naturally, I’ve attended in some detail to all those things).
If nothing else, mashups always offer a ripe opportunity for playing with titles. That said, I present to you: the mini-mix (again) & three standalones (y’know, just in case you’re DJing just the right gig tonight) –
I could have stuck to more percussive sections of the Mexican tracks, but I wanted to represent tribal bass and melody too, so I was glad when a needling guarachero synth melody seemed to dovetail with the pentatonic heterophony of the jigs and reels. I’m not saying these things ever really match up. There’s a fair amount of strange stuff going on here, harmonically speaking. Pardon any sour notes in your doctored Guinness! Generally, I hope I’ve been able to do the main things I wanted to: 1) let you hear these two musics alongside each other, and 2) give your St. Patrick’s Day just a little extra push in the tush.
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.
If I were writing my mega-essay on reggaeton today, I’d want to make a lot more space for the Dominican Republic’s local take on the genre. Generally referred to as dembow (rather than reggaeton) — or dembow dominicano, to signal a certain national(istic) distinction — the Dominican artists and producers working in the style essentially proceed as if the reggaeton boom never happened, as if Luny Tunes’ once hegemonic synth-romps never held sway.
Instead, the same building-blocks that were in place in Puerto Rico in the 90s, back when Puerto Ricans were themselves often calling the genre dembow, remain the basic resources for new performances and recordings. And whereas Playero and the Noise had to wrest their cut-and-paste collages out of clunky if cherished hardware, today’s digital domain means its easier than ever for some kid to grab a snare here, a hi-hat there, a beloved synth-stab, etc. Consequently, dembow dominicano is catching grassroots fire, on the internet, on the island, and in the diaspora.
I’ve blogged a little about the offshoot style known as jerkbow and about the mini-mixes of DJ Scuff, one of the premier producers and party-rockers of the scene — in particular, in order to show that “reggaeton” (or whatever we want to call it) is, despite pronouncement after pronouncement, far from “dead” — but I think it’s time to take a deeper dive into some Dominican dembow rabbitholes, since I’ve just returned from a little virtual spelunking. (And in case you missed it in a recent post, here’s a link to DJ Effresh’s dembow roundup from last spring, and here’s a link to a followup from later in the year.)
An article on dembow’s origins nods to Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Panama before rehearsing the genre’s local history, including nods to Dominican contemporaries of Playero’s such as DJ Boyo, who notes that they were listening to the same sources that inspired their PR brethren:
But before long the localized mashup emanating from San Juan clearly made its mark in DR, and productions there have more closely resembled PR’s dancehall bricolage than, say, Panama’s direct emulation. While a small, steady dembow scene appears to have persevered in the intervening years, Nova points to the “viral” success of Boyo’s âLa Gorda Buduscaâ (w/ PR vocalists Maicol y Manuel) and, later, Doble T & El Crow’s âPepeâ as initiating a new turn for the genre — an era of unprecedented popularity and widespread participation.
One of the hallmarks of dembow dominicano in its resurgent form — certainly as typified by “Pepe” — is how much it marks itself as homegrown, especially in the videos made to promote the songs, artists, producers, and associated brands. The internet, especially YouTube, has been central to this development, though Nova is careful to connect the easy distro of web2.0 to previous alternative distribution and promotion methods, namely hand-to-hand “piracy” (which is how Playero’s early tapes circulated as well).
Indeed, according to Nova, dembow’s remarkable popularity in DR today is especially striking because it has managed to dominate the soundscape without traversing the traditional media route. Another article, focusing on the role of the internet in the dembow scene, begins thusly:
Se escucha por todas partes. Es el ritmo de moda. Ha dejado sin efecto la teorĂa de que para sonar en la radio o en las discotecas los cantantes deben pagar âpayolaâ o ser una figura consagrada de la mĂșsica. No es asĂ.
[You hear it everywhere. It's the rhythm of the day. It has invalidated the theory that to be heard on the radio or in clubs artists must pay "payola" or be a consecrated figure of music. Not so.]
And it ends by noting that the grassroots popularity of the music, as evidenced by millions of YouTube views as well as the sheer ubiquity of the beat in meatspace, has, in turn, forced established media outlets, especially radio and TV, to embrace the genre. Nova quotes radio disc-jock Sandy VĂĄsquez (aka Sandy Sandy), who says that radio has to keep up with what’s hot on the streets and in the clubs, lest the kids just switch the station:
Si notamos, los temas primero se han pegado en las calles (lamentablemente para la industria, pero gracias a los discos pirateados), en las discotecas e indudablemente en el Internet, y luego la radio se ha visto obligada a sonarlos para entrar a la competencia, porque sino la juventud te cambia de dial.
One overriding point in the series is that dembow has emerged as a national style, a national music. It would seem that dembow has been nationalized — and is felt as deeply Dominican, at least by its legion devotees — in the same way as, say, the Congolese made “rumba” their own. The occasional use of the term “dembow criollo” (which I mainly find as a recurring cut-and-paste reference around the net) — as in calling DJ Boyo (or Bollo?), “el padre del Dembow criollo” — would seem to suggest a certain sense of local hybridization. Perhaps the clearest statement of this outright identification is a recent posse cut that brings together upwards of 15 of the scene’s biggest stars. It is titled, simply, “Yo Soy Dembow”:
Eagle-eared, reggae-loving listeners will no doubt pick out snatches of some of the most popular dancehall riddims of the 1990s, including Bam Bam / Murder She Wrote / Fever Pitch, Dem Bow / Pocoman Jam, Drum Song / Hot This Year, Stalag, and others — not to mention a nod or two to some iconic hip-hop beats (the “Mardi Gras” break, the beat from Slick Rick’s “Mona Lisa”). This is par for the course for dembow dominicano, or for PR’s proto-reggaeton — both of which (re)cycle through this set of sonic signposts ad infinitum.
Listeners less versed in the twisted transformations of Shabba’s “Dem Bow” into reggaeton’s dembow might be a little perplexed by this turn. Jamaicans in particular would no doubt be bemused by such a statement. “I am they bow,” it seems to say, at least to Jamaicans. We’ve gone from Nando Boom translating Shabba directly into Spanish and calling on audiences to “put up your hand if you’re not a bow” to artists themselves proclaiming “I am dembow”!
Of course, those questions are extra-local and academic to say the least. At this point, in the Dominican Republic, as in Puerto Rico, “dembow” simply translates as “this awesome music of ours with that great beat.” It’s no surprise that leaders of the new school such as Pablo Piddy have recorded several songs with dembow in the title, among them the self-consciously nationalizing “Quisqueyano Dembow.”
The video for Piddy’s “Si Tu Quiere Dembow” is a fine example of the genre’s largely rough-hewn, real-walk aesthetic, complete with contact numbers for bookings and other opportunities:
But while it’s a fully nationalized style, and pretty “throwback” in sonic profile, dembow artists and audiences simultaneously insert themselves into today’s global flows. The “jerkbow” stuff is, of course, one clear example of this, looking toward LA, but others nod to JA, giving glimpses of how, perhaps unsurprisingly, contemporary dancehall style — especially sartorial taste and dance moves — can comfortably fit pon top of yesteryear’s dancehall riddims:
Of course, for all its distance from reggaeton, Dominican dembow shares a great deal with it — everything except the slick industrial integration and accordant aesthetics, pretty much. Like reggaeton prior to its formal commercialization, dembow is pretty raw stuff, carrying DIY production values, issuing from “the street” (i.e., the underclass), and pushing plenty of bourgeois buttons. So you probably won’t be surprised, if you’re familiar with the arguments around reggaeton (and its forbears, dancehall and hip-hop), that the articles have already invited a couple comments dismissing any value the music might have and, indeed, calling for an outright ban on the genre:
juanito: Esa musica es la musica que insita a la violencia PROHIBANLA y YA!….JOder!
luis: esa musica entre comilla lo unico que trae es reverdia una reverdia pendeja poner los niĂ±os mas malcriaos de los que son gran musica no la ponga y ya denle banda a eso
Moreover, as this Chosen Few-produced posse cut shows, lots of DR’s dembow stars are also happy getting down with comtemporary reggaeton style (that is, “con adornos de mĂșsica electrĂłnica“). I’m sure, despite having a decent and distinctive thing going, that they see no good reason to cut themselves off from new avenues to promote themselves and sustain, or expand, what they’re doing:
As a sort of middle-ground, and perhaps a sign of things to come, Secreto’s “Pa Que Te De” manages to have its cake and eat it too, juxtaposing high-res imagery and production values with dembow’s signature low-fi sonic palette (including samples from “Murder She Wrote” and an awesomely pitched-around synth-stab from “Hot This Year”):
But for my clickthroughs (since g0d knows how one could spend money on this stuff), I’ll take a goofball homemade vid any day:
Next week I begin teaching my second course at MIT. It’s a new syllabus, though it draws on certain materials I’ve used before. In contrast to previous offerings, however, this will be the first time I teach a class with a primary focus on reggae outside of Jamaica — on what I’m calling here “global reggae” or “reggae as transnational culture.”
No doubt we’ll encounter a good number of themes resonant with the inextricably related subject of global hip-hop. But I’m also keen to identify particular dimensions of reggae’s transmission and transformation abroad that might, for significant reasons, diverge from the reception and refiguring of hip-hop around the world. We’ll let you know ;)
Meantime, if you happen to know any MIT students to whom this sort of course would appeal, by all means point them this-a-way. And if you spot any conspicuous absences in the syllabus below — a work-in-progress, as always — please do point them out, make recommendations, & feel free to offer critiques, supplements, and blessings.
21F.035 / 21M.539 Topics in Culture and Globalization
Global Reggae: Reggae as Transnational Culture
Mellon Fellow in the Humanities
Foreign Languages and Literatures
Music and Theater Arts
Tuesday/Thursday 12:30-2:00 pm
Reggae is incontestably one of the most popular musics in the world. Despite its origins in the working-class urban culture of the relatively small country of Jamaica, reggae artists have powerfully projected their voices outward (in part via the imperial networks of the UK and USA) and one can hear reggae today in almost any corner of the globeânot just Jamaican reggae, but local versions and fusions with nearly every other conceivable genre. Reggae precedes the global reach of its progeny, hip-hop, but, in its dancehall guise, it has also in turn piggybacked on hip-hopâs own impressive international spread. As remix approaches and massive sound systems have become increasingly common worldwide, reggae stands as a remarkably influential template for world music, electronic dance music, and popular music more generally. Itself constituted by international flows of music and musicians but increasingly produced outside of Jamaica, reggae thus offers a rich resource for the examination of todayâs global circulations of music and media.
This course considers reggae, or Jamaican popular music more generallyâin its various forms (ska, rocksteady, roots, dancehall)âas constituted by international movements and exchanges and as a product that circulates globally in complex ways, cast variously as Jamaican, Caribbean, Afrodiasporic, and/or black, and recast through the cultural logics of the new spaces it enters, the new soundscapes it permeates. By reading across the reggae literature, as well as considering reggae texts themselves (songs, films, videos, and images), we will scrutinize the different interpretations of reggaeâs significance and the implications of different interpretations of the story of Jamaica and its music. We will attend in particular to how reggae informs notions of selfhood and nationhood, race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, religion and politicsâin particular places and at particular times.
Although Bob Marley still serves as the most ubiquitous symbol of reggae (and, indeed, of Jamaica), the reggae tradition and repertory go far deeper and represent a great deal to listeners and practitioners. In its shifting shapes and forms the genre has served for four decades as a potent symbol of independence and social critique, communitarian commitment as well as rugged individualism. While certain core values appear regularly in reggae, the genre also offers a rather flexible palette for a wide range of ideological positions, from Pan-Africanism and other forms of transnationalism to utterly provincial nationalism, from peaceful and respectful postures to aggressive machismo and militancy, from tolerance to its own forms of oppression. Perhaps most notably, reggae has made such scripts of personhood and nationhood available not only to Jamaicans but to people around the world who have adopted the genreâs gestures as their own.
Beginning with a consideration of how Jamaicaâs popular music industry emerged out of transnational exchanges, the course will proceed to focus on reggaeâs circulation outside of Jamaica via diasporic networks and commercial mediascapes. Attending to how the genreâs pliable but distinct forms have been, in turn, transformed in particular localities, the course will help to illuminate ongoing dynamics between the global and local. Among other sites, we will consider reggaeâs resonance and impact elsewhere in the Anglo Caribbean (e.g., Trinidad, Barbados), the United Kingdom (including British reggae styles but also such progeny as jungle, grime, and dubstep), the United States (both as reggae per se and in hip-hop), France and Germany, Panama and Puerto Rico and other Latin American locales (e.g., Brazil), Japan and Australia, as well as West, South, and East Africa (CĂŽte d’Ivoire, Tanzania, Uganda).
Bilby, Kenneth. âJamaica.â In Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae, ed. Peter Manuel, 143-182. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.
Veal, Michael. Dub: Soundscapes & Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007. [Intro & ch. 1, p. 1-44]
Thomas, Deborah. âModern Blackness; or, Theoretical âTrippingâ on Black Vernacular Culture.â In Modern Blackness: Nationalism, Globalization, and the Politics of Culture in Jamaica, 230-62. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004.
Jones, Simon. Black Culture, White Youth: The Reggae Tradition from JA to UK. London: Macmillan, 1988. [ch. 2, 4, Conclusion, p. 33-56, 87-118, 231-40.]
Gilroy, Paul. âBetween the Blues and the Blues Dance: Some Soundscapes of the Black Atlantic.â In The Auditory Culture Reader, ed. Michael Bull and Les Back, 381-95. Oxford and New York: Berg Publishers, 2003.
Hebdige, Dick. CutânâMix: Culture, Identity, and Caribbean Music. London: Routledge, 1987. [ch. 11-12, p. 90-117]
Sharma, Sanjay. âNoisy Asians or âAsianâ Noise?â [p. 32-60] & Shirin Housee & Mukhtar Dar, âRe-Mixing Identities: âOffâ the Turn-Tableâ [p. 81-104]. In Dis-Orienting Rhythms: The Politics of the New Asian Dance Music. London: Zed Books, 1996.
Quinn, Steven. âRumble In The Jungle: The Invisible History of DrumânâBass.â Transformations, No. 3 (May 2002): 1-12.
Watch: excerpts from Reggae In a Babylon, Babylon, Mutiny: Asians Storm British Music
Listen: âAn England Storyâ
Chang, Jeff. âMaking a Name: How DJ Kool Herc Lost His Accent and Started Hip-Hop.â In Canât Stop Wonât Stop: A History of the Hip-hop Generation. New York: St. Martins Press, 2005. [ch. 4, p. 67-88]
Kenner, Rob. âDancehall,â In The Vibe History of Hip-hop, ed. Alan Light, 350-7. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999.
Stephens, Michelle A. âBabylonâs âNatural Mysticâ: The North American Music Industry, the Legend of Bob Marley, and the Incorporation of Transnationalism.â Cultural Studies Vol. 12, No. 2 (1998): 139â167.
Watch: excerpts from Sound Class, Marked for Death, Belly, Predator 2
Putnam, Lara. âThe Weekly Reggee: The Greater Caribbean Jazz Age and Youth Dances in Limon, Costa Rica, 1930-1932.â Unpublished/forthcoming.
Giovannetti, Jorge L. âPopular Music and Culture in Puerto Rico: Jamaican and Rap Music as Cross-Cultural Symbols.â In Musical Migrations: Transnationalism and Cultural Hybridity in the Americas, ed. Frances R. Aparicio and CĂĄndida F. JĂĄquez, 81-98. New York: Palgrave, 2003.
Hansing, Katrin. âRasta, Race and Revolution: Transnational Connections in Socialist Cuba.â Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Vol. 27, No. 4 (2001): 733 â 747.
Baker, Geoffrey. 2009. “The Politics of Dancing.” In Reggaeton, eds. Rivera, Marshall, and Pacini-Hernandez, 165-99. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.
Fairley, Jan. 2008. “How To Make Love With Your Clothes On: Dancing Regeton, Gender and Sexuality in Cuba.” In Reggaeton, eds. Rivera, Marshall, and Pacini-Hernandez, 280-96. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.
Behague, Gerard. “Rap, Reggae, Rock, or Samba: The Local and the Global in Brazilian Popular Music (1985-95).” Latin American Music Review 27, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2006): 79-90.
de AraĂșjo Pinho, Osmundo. ââFogo na BabilĂŽniaâ: Reggae, Black Counterculture, and Globalization in Brazil.â In Brazilian Popular Music & Globalization, ed. Charles A. Perrone and Christopher Dunn (New York: Routledge, 2001), 192-206.
dos Santos Godi, Antonio J. V. “Reggae and Samba-Reggae in Bahia: A Case of Long-Distance Belonging.” In Brazilian Popular Music & Globalization, ed. Charles A. Perrone and Christopher Dunn (New York: Routledge, 2001), 207-219.
Neate, Patrick and Damian Platt. Culture Is Our Weapon: Afroreggae in the Favelas of Rio [ch 3, 4, 7, 8].
Goodman, Steve. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009. [ch. 31, p. 171-5]
Watch: excerpts from Favela Rising, Favela on Blast
WEST, EAST, AND SOUTHERN AFRICA
Akindes, Simon. âPlaying It âLoud and Straightâ: Reggae, Zouglou, Mapouka and Youth Insubordination in CĂŽte d’Ivoire.â In Playing with Identities in Contemporary Music in Africa, ed. Mai Palmberg & Annemette Kirkegaard, 86-103. Nordic Africa Institute, 2002.
McNee, Lisa. âBack From Babylon: Popular Musical Cultures of the Diaspora, Youth Culture and Identity in Francophone West Africa.â In Music, Popular Culture, Identities, ed. Richard Young, 213-228. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2002.
Savishinsky, Neil J. âRastafari in the Promised Land: The Spread of a Jamaican Socioreligious Movement among the Youth of West Africa.â African Studies Review Vol. 37, No. 3 (Dec 1994): 19-50.
Remes, Pieter. âGlobal Popular Musics and Changing Awareness of Urban Tanzanian Youth.â Yearbook for Traditional Music, Vol. 31 (1999): 1-26.
Gilman, Lisa and John Fenn. âDance, Gender, and Popular Music in Malawi: The Case of Rap and Ragga.â Popular Music Vol. 25, No. 3 (2006): 369-81.
Maxwell, Ian. “Sydney Stylee: Hip-Hop Down Under Comin’ Up.” In Global Noise: Rap and Hip-Hop Outside the USA, ed. Tony Mitchell, 259-79. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2001.
White, Cameron. âRapper on a Rampage: Theorising the Political Significance of Aboriginal Australian Hip Hop and Reggae.â Transforming Cultures eJournal, Vol. 4 No 1 (April 2009): 108-130.
Baulch, Emma. Making Scenes: Reggae, Punk, and Death Metal in 1990s Bali. Durham: Duke University Press, 200 [ch. 3, p. 73-90]
That’s it, for now. There are plenty of holes that I’m aware of (anything on roots reggae in Cuba, say [update: after one day of comments, that's been ameliorated; new readings now above!]), and surely plenty more that I’m not. Then again, I’m finding the extant literature on local reggae scenes outside of Jamaica fairly impoverished at the moment. (Nothing on Italian sound systems? Really?) The course can’t exactly be comprehensive — we only have so much time — but I would love for this post to serve as a spot for collecting some good materials. So, as they say inna di dancehall, send on!
This is the second post in a sporadic series here at w&w, an ongoing excavation, digitization, and interpretation of my wife’s grandparents’ record collection — i.e., the historico-musical profile of Seymour & Bernice. See here for the previous entry, and here for a note remembering Seymour.
Of the many delights I’ve come across in Seymour and Bernice’s record collection, perhaps none is outweighed by the substantial number of kitschy, exotica-tinged, midcentury dance records. They reflect a time in American life when Afro-Latin forms such as mambo, rumba, samba became ballroom and parlor staples. The fact that these words all look and sound similarly is probably no accident. As Ned Sublette notes in Cuba and its Music –
The largest number of African words that have come into the common Cuban vocabulary are of Bantu origin. Phonologically its legacy is instantly recognizable. Okra in Cuba is called quimbombĂł. That intervocalic “mb” cluster — the one that turns up in countless words like tumbao, mambo, bemba, bombo — is often (though not necessarily) a Bantu touch… (179)
But despite their semi-exotic origins (Cuba is not Long Island, though New York City was pretty Cuban by mid-century) and the way these dances and genres were marketed as ’spicy’ and ‘flavorful’ — terms which continue to narrate the circulation of Latin-Caribbean sounds — what is particularly striking about their appearance in the record collection of a Jewish family in Rockville Center is their simultaneous mundanity, their utter familiarity, their almost unremarkable commonplaceness. Already by the mid-50s, these styles had been carefully and pretty thoroughly domesticated and popularized — i.e., successfully marketed to a non-Latin/Caribbean audience — under the direction of the Fred Astaire Dance Studios (and, no doubt, companies of its ilk), which issued a series of Perfect for Dancing compilations via RCA/Victor, complete with how-to instructions and steps. Bernice and Seymour ended up with several –
and where, exactly, are the women’s steps? oh yeah…
I could choose lots of tracks to share from this odd but rad compilation, but for this particular post — and for reasons that will become clear below — I’m going to highlight Fafa Lemos & co.’s version of “Brazil,” aka “Aquarela do Brasil” (“Watercolor of Brazil”) — a song composed by Ary Barroso back in 1939, and no doubt a song familiar to many, whether due to Terry Gilliam, or Walt Disney, or any number of other eruptions in popular culture (just take a glance at all these “notable versions” and appearances in film of the tune). But it’s not simply beloved abroad: in 1997, it was named “Best Brazilian Song of the Century” by a jury of 13 “experts” convened by the Brazilian Academy of Letters.
As with the rest of the Astaire collection, the arrangement here is on the schmaltzy side. But there’s a rather satisfying richness in rendered chicken fat, isn’t there? For one, you’ve gotta love that moony french horn (?) in the opening, and Fafa’s violin work is quite fun throughout, playing around the melody without straying too far. Also delightful are all the little details in the orchestration, offering sweet little responses to the soloists’ calls.
But I should be more frank: there’s an unexplainable personal affinity motivating this Brazil-ian excursion. Like certain friends (check the only comment on that post), I’ve long had a softspot for the song — I love the plaintive melody over the softly chugging samba rhythms — and I was thrilled to find it a recurring theme across Seymour’s and Bernice’s record stash.
// .. Digesting the World .. //
A similar treatment to the Fred Astaire / Fafa Lemos recording, for example, can be found on volume 8, side 2 (Latin Rhythms for Dancing) of an amazing/amusing 10 record collection called Popular Music THAT WILL LIVE FOREVER published by Reader’s Digest sometime in the early 1960s, I’m guessing. (Someone has taken the trouble of rapidsharing the entire boxed set, if you’re interested).
A closer look, however, reveals some pretty telling tropes, including a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too deployment of “culture” and “tribe” that primitivizes certain forms of dance music and elevating others while implicitly erasing the African heritage embodied by so many of the genres on display:
Dancing is a vital part of the lives of every culture. There are rain dances, fertility dances, war dances, marriage dances, death dances, harvest dances, and a few enlightened (or naĂŻve) tribes even have dances with no purpose other than the pleasure of the dance itself.
The more primitive the tribe, the more primitive the music. It may only be a man beating two sticks together in rhythmic cadences. If his job is to provide an accompaniment for dancers, he is creating dance music.
Today’s dance music is considerably more sophisticated, but its essential quality is still the best — the rhythm. Underneath the melody of the mambo, the waltz, the fox trot, there is the drum — the direct descendant of the man beating two sticks together.
Nevermind that forms like mambo (elsewhere called “a musical half-breed“), included on this record, still often feature a man “beating” two sticks together (i.e., clave), or that the drum as we know it — and as it figures in this music — is basically African. The editors here draw a squiggly line from cavemen to sophisticates.
It’s not the only oddity in the notes. Ironically, for all the information proffered, the names of the musicians involved only appear in small print on the records themselves. Perhaps it’s because bandleaders like Martin Slavin, a British music director who worked in Hollywood for many years, don’t quite cut the right cloth for this sort of slighty salacious contextualization? At any rate, he whipped up a pretty entertaining version with “his orchestra” (whoever they were) –
This recording is actually a medley, beginning — and mostly concerned — with “Brazil” but then moving into two other Brazilian standards of the day, “Tico Tico” and “Copacabana” (incidentally, if you’ve never seen Ethel Smith tearing up “Tico Tico” on a Hammond organ, supported by a gaggle of percussion playing kiddies ladies “hot” for some “South American jive,” it’s not to be missed). Whoever the musicians are, they smoke, and the arrangement is surprisingly whimsical. I love the piano tinkles, the ever-present and fairly foregrounded percussion, the unexpected and repeated quotation of that ol’ circus theme song, the jazzy guitar lead, and so on. The segues are pretty damn smooth too.
I’ve wondered about what made “Brazil” so popular that it seems almost ubiquitous at the historical moment during which Seymour’s and Bernice’s record collection coalesced. Of course, there’s a strong romantic nationalism at the heart of the song, and, related to my thoughts in the previous post, I think there’s a very interesting way that such dreamy visions of foreign nationalism could serve simultaneously to shore up postwar US (not to mention US Jews’) notions of national attachment and belonging and identititity. It’s not too surprising that such a compelling portrait of another country would resonate elsewhere too. For some, conjuring a sense of national unity out of diversity and inequity is what the mystery of samba is all about.
Of course, the kind of samba being promoted was itself far from the spontaneous, impromptu tradition from which the music sprang. âAquarela do Brasilâ was a samba-exaltaĂ§ĂŁo (exaltation samba), patriotic in purpose and serving the interests of the dictatorial and quasi-fascist Vargas regime. It was Vargas who had institutionalized the samba parade in Rio during the 1930s, turning it into a tool of nationalist pride, making it rigid, orderly, an almost military processional. The state, in essence, co-opted a cultural form â or at least one major manifestation of it â steeped in resistance to the dominant order.
// .. Italians do it .. //
The final example brings things back home in a funny but apt sort of way, as Hollywood nationalism, AuslĂ€ndisch stereotypes, and American exceptionalism all seem to congeal in Dick Contino’s swingin’ romp through the tune’s familiar strains:
The Latin-ate percussion is here subsumed into jazzster kit drumming, and, in contrast to the other ensemble versions above, this one seems arranged more principally as a showcase for a supposedly showboat soloist. Contino’s relatively understated performance, however, hardly rises to the level of the liner notes’ incredible superlatives –
“ever heard anywhere” … “never been matched” !!! — then again, even on his own current website, Contino is called “The World’s Greatest Accordionist” — & he does seem to inspire a certain admiration, strange story and all:
Dick Contino is an icon of cool. Dick Contino plays the accordion. These are not contradictory statements.
It helps that he is probably the best-looking guy to ever play the accordion for a living, handsome enough to have had his own groupies back when hardly anyone except Sinatra had groupies, handsome enough to have appeared in a few movies–and without an accordion. It also helps that he had enough scandals and brush-ups in his career to earn his tough guy merit badge. And it helped to have crime writer James Ellroy come along and mythologize Contino just about the time when he might otherwise have become a forgotten nostalgic act.
Contino’s father bought him his first accordion when he was seven, but he didn’t really take it seriously until he was 12. Within a few years, he had become so proficient, he was travelling to San Francisco, 180 miles away, for regular lessons. His big break came in 1946, when he competed on bandleader Horace Heidt’s “Youth Opportunity Talent Show.” Contino gyrated around while his fingers flew through “Lady of Spain” (condemning that song to accordion hell forever after) and won the night’s show. He returned to win the show’s grand prize for the season, and soon, he was a star in his own right, with his own string of fan clubs around the country.
Unfortunately, a couple of years later as his career was hitting full-stride, he received notice that he was being drafted to serve in the Korean War. For reasons he’s never fully explained, he ignored the notice and wound up being jailed for six months. Although he did eventually enlist and serve honorably in Korea, the “draft dodger” label hung over him for years and knocked him out of the ranks of the top stars for good. It also later provided Ellroy with the raw material for his story, “Dick Contino’s Blues,” which appears in the collection, Hollywood Nocturnes.
Contino lost his movie and recording contracts with Paramount and RCA Victor, and although he was picked up by Mercury within a year or so, his movie career dropped down to the realm of B-movies. Ironically, this raised his tough guy status significantly, for one of the few roles he got after his discharge was the cult B-movie, “Daddy-O.” Playing a badass rock ‘n’ roller and part time drug smuggler, Contino did his own driving for one of the earliest showcase car chases, doing a little Evel Knievel number to get past a roadblock. “Daddy-O” is certainly not great cinema (“That thing was like a class Z picture,” Contino said), but it ranks up there with “The Wild One” as piece of 50s rebel iconography.
This places his recording of “Brazil” — which I believe was made in the late 50s — in the second-wind of Contino’s career. And I have to say, while I wouldn’t apply such superlatives myself, I find his playing perfectly passable, tasteful even (to commit a revealing Bourdieuian sin), and the arrangement sure keeps up with the other big bands we’ve heard above. It’s pretty darn brash, really — peppy even, offering a nice contrast to the more stately, “exalted” march of other interpretations.
But beyond the inflated prose and other obvious points of interest in the liner notes — e.g., the array of (European, if incl “gypsy”) peoples who are, ahem, “doing it” — I want to call attention to the twice-used italicized phrase all yours. That sentiment, of course, is a central myth of the midcentury recording industry: that the music encoded on this slab of vinyl can in fact be possessed by the owner. This claim is distinct from earlier attempts to sell musical commodities. As Tim Taylor outlines in his excellent article, “The Commodification of Music at the Dawn of the Era of ‘Mechanical Music’,” the makers of player-pianos and player-piano rolls initially took great pains to assure consumers that they were in fact still the players of the music, that they retained control and power, that they remained central to the process of filling one’s home with music. We see by this point, however, that the rhetoric has firmly shifted: it’s not about possessing the ability to make music, it’s about possessing the music itself.
By extension, we might wonder what it means for a song like “Brazil” to become one’s possession by virtue of buying a somewhat schlocky dance record by a had-been like Dick Contino. Listening to these three instances of “Brazil” in Seymour’s and Bernice’s collection, I have to surmise that the song must have felt, in some way, as if it was all theirs, at least as long as it could also be made one’s own by their friends and neighbors and others in the (imagined) communities or various publics created/addressed by widely-circulating records like these — no doubt, markers of a certain sort of cultural distinction, an everyday worldliness available even to a modest middle-class family living out on Long Island.
At least, that’s how it sounds in my imagination. We’ll see what my daughter’s daughter’s son-in-law, should he ever exist, thinks of that.