Thanks to Todd Burns for the keen editing, making things nice and concise. Per usual, I’m going to take the opportunity to use my blog to run an author’s cut, or an unabridged version. A couple missing paragraphs below help flesh out the picture, especially regarding the Afro-Jamaican roots — and, hence, pan-Caribbean / Afrodiasporic resonance — of the dancehall riddim that started it all. A phrase like “Steely & Clevieâs post-Poco riddim” might seem like a slightly cryptic reference without this particular passage (i.e., paragraph #4 below); but maybe people thought I was calling it post-colonial, which is also true.
I’m also happy to report that a forthcoming issue of Wax Poetics will feature an article I wrote entirely about the (once mysterious) origins of reggaeton’s bedrock riddim on the unlikely outpost of Long Island, heavily featuring Boom’s manager Pucho Bustamante (who I interviewed a few years ago on MySpace). Will let you know soon as that one’s ready to read!
For now, head over to RBMA for their slick version, see below for the full monty, & check out this video I whipped up (also at the RBMA site & embedded below) to see & hear how the various versions all relate. If you want to get even more dembow in your ears, there’s lots to find around the web, but here are a couple of mixes I’ve made that focus on it: Dembow Legacies, Dembow Dem.
Without further ado, let’s loop –
In the world of sample-based music, few recordings have enjoyed so active an afterlife as the Dembow. A two-bar loop with unmistakably familiar kicks and snares, it underpins the vast majority of reggaeton tracks as an almost required sonic signpost. Thanks to crossover jams like Lornaâs âPapi Chuloâ and Daddy Yankeeâs âGasolina,â the Dembow has spread its distinctive boom-ch-boom-chick to glossy Latin pop, raw electro-chaabi in Egypt, transnational moombahton, and Indonesian dangdut seksi, to name a few.
With such remarkable resonance and staggering frequency of appearance, the Dembow would seem to deserve a place alongside such well-worn loops as the Amen break, the Triggerman, the Tamborzao. All these brief but inspired moments âon tapeââand all of them rolling drum rhythmsâafter having been sampled and looped and diced and spliced by hundreds and hundreds of digital-age producers, have proven so crucial to the sound of entire genres that they have taken on names, and lives, all their own.
There are a few things, however, that make the Dembow an unusual member of the sample canon. For one, the recording most often identified as the origin of the sample is not actually the source of reggaetonâs favorite loop, not exactly anyway. Itâs true that Shabba Ranksâs anti-gay, anti-imperialist anthem âDem Bowâ may as well be patient zero for the infectious rhythm that still carries the songâs name, but samples of the track accompanying Shabbaâthe riddim in reggae parlanceârarely actually turn up in reggaeton. Jamaican studio duo Steely and Clevie deserve credit for the bouncy beat they boiled down for Bobby Digital, but not as the creators of a intensely re-used sound recording. Rather, their riddim planted the seed that would grow into what we now call Dembow.
Like other popular riddims the duo produced in the early 90s, especially Poco Man Jam (to which Dembow is audibly indebted), the track accompanying Shabbaâs rally-cry draws on the deep rhythms associated with Pocomania, a neo-African Jamaican religion with practices and aesthetics that run parallel to other post-slave cultures across the Caribbean. The driving boom-ch-boom-chick that emerges between the steady kick on each beat and the polyrhythmic play of the snares, can also be threaded through rumba, salsa, soca, bachata. Itâs at the heart of whatâs been called jazzâs âSpanish tinge,â known variously as the cinquillo or the habenera. This may help explain the broad appeal of these particular Jamaican recordings, why Puerto Rican hip-hop producers moved more or less wholesale into making Spanish dancehall, and how reggaeton so quickly swept across dance scenes across the Americas and beyond. Shabbaâs âDem Bowâ was a big chune in the wide world of reggae, and not just because of its bullish stance, colorful lyrics, and catchy chorus.
But rather than samples of Steely & Clevieâs riddim resounding from trunks across the Spanish-speaking world, and rather aptly given reggaetonâs transnational roots, the set of sounds most often identified as the Dembow per se (as opposed to just the generalized rhythm which, confusingly, is also sometimes called Dembow), is a version cooked up by Jamaican and Panamanian collaborators laboring on Long Island, NY in the early 90s to create reggae en espaĂ±ol anthemsâand succeeding.
By the early 90s, Philip Smartâs HC&F studio was the premier spot for producing dancehall hits, Jamaica notwithstanding. A native Kingstonian who apprenticed under King Tubby, Smart moved to New York in the mid-70s and launched HC&F in 1982 enlisting as house musicians such fellow expatriates as Dennis âThe Menaceâ Thompson, the sole musician credited with âDub Mix II,â better known today as the Dembow riddim, or in Panama, the Pounda. Initially crafted as an instrumental for Panamanian vocalist Nando Boomâs âEllos Benia,â a close translation of Shabbaâs âDem Bow,â Thompson captured the rhythmic essence of Steely & Clevieâs post-Poco riddim while adding some digital timbales and other touches for extra sabor at the prompt of Ramon âPuchoâ Bustamante, the Panamanian manager of Nando Boom who helped engineer the reggae en espaĂ±ol movement. The wordless version that would soon play backing track to hundreds of Puerto Rican rap parties was not actually released until two NYC-based Jamaican deejays, Bobo General and Smiley Wonder, recorded their own single over the riddim, âPounder,â with the dubbed-out instrumental as a quickly coveted B-side. (âA bad custom of the Jamaicans,â Bustamante once told me.)
When instrumental CDs such as Pistas de Reggaeton Famosas include a âDem Bowâ trackâand they always include at least oneâthe track labeled as such is nearly always based on the drums Dennis the Menace laid down for Nando Boom at HC&F. Likewise, do a search for âdembow loopâ on YouTube or 4shared, and youâll hear the same echoes there too. By this point, the instrumental has been looped, compressed, remastered, and reconstituted dozens of times over. But the lineage is audible, and it makes Dennis and companyâs Dembow one of a few recordings, like the Funky Drummer or the Apache break, which has provided the basis for hundreds if not thousands of other tracks.
The story of the Dembow and its legacy gets even more complicated, since beyond a relatively small circle of reggaeton producers and connoisseurs, when most people say Dembow, they refer to its rhythmâthe boom-ch-boom-chick patternâmore generally. And in practice, reggaeton producers have been chopping up dancehall riddims and recombining them with a greater interest in split-second allusion than faithful reproduction. While wholesale loops of Dembow do sometimes appear, reggaeton drum tracks tend more often to comprise samples drawn from a small storehouse of treasured timbres: a handful of reggae riddims which have animated Spanish-language dancehall for decades. Bam Bam, Fever Pitch, Drum Song, and yes, Dembow, are all common sources, but the ingredients could come from almost anywhere if they sound right. Reggaetoneros swap sample sets like playing cards, and a willy-nilly archive of reconfigurable samples traverses the North and South American Hulkshare-osphere like a reggaeton robotics kit. For lots of listeners and producers, any of the snares from these well-worn riddims, or any snare with similar properties, could suffice to say Dembow.
A line can be drawn from Steely & Clevie, though Smart and Thompson and Bustamante, to what we call Dembow today, but for all that collective, transnational effort, the foundation for this single recordingâs remarkable resonance was most crucially fashioned in mid-90s San Juan by proto-reggaeton pioneers like DJ Playero and The Noise. On their seminal underground mixtapes, these Puerto Rican producers took a hip-hop hatchet to dancehall riddims, chopping up favorite drum loops, baselines, and riffs to create dynamic, reference-laden collages of contemporary club beats for local rappersâ double-time, flip-tongue, street-level lyrics. Over the course of Playero 38 or The Noise 6 one hears a constantly shifting bed of beats composed of signature samples from Bam Bam, Fever Pitch, and the like. Dembow was such a staple source that the entire genre for a time, after being known as underground but before reggaeton, was simply called dembow.
Crucially, around the turn of the millennium, the Dembowâand Puerto Rican reggae en espaĂ±ol more generallyâwas transmuted and extended by DJ Blass. With the rise of Fruity Loops and other software, techno-inspired bleeps, presets, and arpeggios could be sutured to Dembow snares for a killer club-ready concoction. Blassâs mixtapes like Sandunguero and Reggaeton Sex changed the sound of what would soon be crowned reggaeton while maintaining important links to predecessors. Namely, by chopping well-worn loops into discrete kicks and snares, Blass could nod to the riddims that dancers, vocalists, and audiences had come to love while shaping the sounds into his own lean patterns. Blassâs influential techniques carry forward into the productions of the duo who finally took reggaeton to the pop charts and the Anglo mainstream, Luny Tunes.
If you listen to the track Luny Tunes produced for their biggest hit, âGasolinaââor most of their other pistasâyouâll hear snare samples swap every four measures, embodying in their own subtle but audible manner the loop-switching practices of Playeroâs proto-reggaeton. Revising the Dembow as something more general, more flexible, and in its way, less Jamaican than it had been, Luny Tunes honored reggaetonâs rhythmic and timbral heritage while opening it up to a new variety of textural, harmonic, and melodic gestures, especially âpan-Latinoâ sounds. When Wisin y Yandel reprise Shabbaâs chorus for their club-friendly, bachata-steeped, Luny Tunes-produced update of âDem Bowâ in 2003, the phrase has little to do with imperialism or sexual orientation and everything to do with the backbone beat and criss-crossing snares that compel people to perreo, or do the doggystyle dance so synonymous with the genre.
In the decade since reggaeton galloped into the mainstream, the Dembow has been Cubanized, Colombified, Peruvinated, watered-down, dressed-up, and recomposed to fit a thousand new contexts. Recently, the rhythmâand to a lesser extent, the riddimâhas even made inroads into the more frequently foursquare world of EDM via Dave Nadaâs moombahton, where Dembow comes full circle in a strange and surprising way. Nada famously invented moombahton by slowing down Dutch house tracks to please a house of reggaeton-loving teens, but the reason this worked was precisely because Dutch house had itself absorbed Caribbean rhythms via bubbling, a short-lived but influential local club scene clustered around Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and the Hague. Producing personalized soundtracks for dance battles, first- and second-generation kids from Curacao and Suriname made hyperspeed, bricolage remixes of the same dancehall riddims that had Puerto Rican youngsters going nuts across the Atlantic.
Slowed down once again and rebranded as moombahton, Nadaâs wildly successful experiment introduced the Dembow to new listeners across the networked world, especially after producers like Rotterdamâs Munchi heard ways to move beyond screwed house remixes and connect the burgeoning genre to its Puerto Rican cousins. Munchi was initially drawn to the genre because of his love of Dembow and reggaeton and the possibilities moombahton offered to revisit these irresistible rhythms: âThe idea was so simple,â Munchi wrote to me, describing moombahton as âTHE chance for reggaeton to get out of its hole.â Having nearly abandoned the stagnant genre, Munchi noted that âIt felt so good that I could make âreggaetonâ again.â And while no one would confuse Munchiâs genre-busting work with reggaeton per se, no one could deny the genreâs presence in his tracks.
For his part, Nada himself has occasionally sampled the actual Dembow riddim for his moombahton productions (though he wouldnât say which ones), but like many others, Nada more often recreates his own Dembow-indebted patterns using a variety of drum sounds and samples. âI’ve used it in the past to help dirty up a few tracks. I’ll mangle the sample and bury it though.â
Moombahton may have already enjoyed its moment in the social media sun, but there are other corners of the so-called global bass scene where that old boom-ch-boom-chick still resounds. âThe post-tropical flight from Caribbean percussion at the end of the mini-Moombathon craze has left a large side of EDM dembowless lately,â says Rizzla, whose soca and reggaeton influences help to keep Caribbean polyrhythms in the metropolitan mix. Rizzla trawls 4shared and Hulkshare for Dembow tracks and samples but reports that, âMost of the time I use sampled individual drums and reconstruct a Dembow with variations I make myself.â
Dubbel Dutch describes a similar process for his own productions: âI personally have never sampled the Dembow riddim but have used various rhythmic cousin ‘Dembow’ loops in my productions. Most of these I’ve found via reggaeton sample packs downloaded from 4shared while searching for Mexican tribal and perreo tracks.â Bearing witness to the sonic priorities of digital bass culture, Dutch confesses that, âAdmittedly, my awareness of certain loops has even preceded my knowledge of their origins.â Accordingly, he repurposes cherished dancehall loops without being parochial, which actually places him squarely in the reggaeton tradition: âOne of my favorite âDembow’ loops comes from the Fever Pitch riddim. That one keeps popping up at various speeds in a lot of my tracks. It manages to work flawlessly at just about any tempo, whether it’s a Dutch bubbling track or an 80 bpm reggaeton beat, which is sort of a rare quality for any loop to have.â
Not unlike their sample-raiding peers in reggaeton, then, producers such as Rizzla, Dubbel Dutch, and Uproot Andy tend toward an inclusive idea of what constitutes the Dembow riddim, complicating simple narratives of a single sampleâs afterlife. âI’d say the Fever Pitch (aka Rich Girl) âDembowâ loop is a better possible candidate,â Dubbel Dutch argued, âfor an Amen or Think type breakbeat.â
For Uproot Andy, who recently released Worldwide Ting, which he calls âan hour long celebration of the Dembow in all kinds of contexts, some natural and some forced,â even such tributes are necessarily mongrel in their make-up: âThe opening track is a song I just made called the âWorldwide Dembowâ and itâs sort of an homage to the Dembow rhythm, it samples Pablo Piddy, a Dominican dembow artist, saying âsi tu quiere dembow,â and the tune is basically a reimagining of Drum Song riddim (melodically), and Fever Pitch riddim (rhythmically), although it doesn’t actually sample either of them, but pretty much picks apart the elements and recreates them with more synthetic sounds.â
Uproot Andyâs reference to Dominican dembow bring us full circle for this lively, and living, story of a loved loop. No place today can lay stronger claim to bearing the Dembow flame than the Dominican Republic, where a rejuvenated version of San Juanâs proto-reggaeton, in all its referential richness, manages to move kids on the streets (and YouTube) and, increasingly, to move into the pop sphere as well.
In the mixes of DJ Scuff and countrymenâor, say, just about anything in the Dominican dembow Soundcloud groupâthe Dembow (as such) is on constant, quicksilver rotation with chops and stabs from Bam Bam, Fever Pitch, Poco Man Jam and the like. But once again, enthralled as Dominican dembow may be with such well-worn samples, its restless producers also emulate the voracious and pliant approach of their mid-90s muses, Playero and the Noise. So a classic hip-hop break like Think, or even funk cariocaâs Tamborzao, might make it into the mix. But no matter how wide the circle of references, the name of the genre bears witness, at bottom, to the fact that Dominican dembow is built on a commitment to some relatively old riddims and some far older rhythms.
For Linton Kwesi Johnson, the UK-based dub poet and bass culture theorist, the same dancehall riddims so central to the Dembow variations were popular precisely because they can sound at once modern and traditional. âOn one hand, this music is totally technological,â he notes, âon the other the rhythms are far more Jamaican: they’re drawn from Etu, Pocomania, KuminaâAfrican-based religious cults who provide the rhythms used by Shabba Ranks or Buju Banton. So despite the extent of the technology being used, the music is becoming even rootsier, with a resonance even for quite old listeners, because it echoes back to what they first heard in rural Jamaica.â
Uproot Andy offers a similar take: âIf reggaeton took the rhythm and ran with it, Dominican dembow brings it strictly back to the roots.â
Here’s what you’re seeing/hearing in the video above:
first, shabba ranks’s “dem bow” produced by steely & clevie (for bobby digital)
then, nando boom’s “ellos benia” produced by dennis the menace (for philip smart & pucho bustamante)
then, the instrumental of the boom track, released as “dub mix II” on b-side of “pounder” by bobo general & sleepy wonder
then, a commonly circulating version of the dembow riddim (“original”), audibly related to the dennis the menace instrumental, if a bit beefed up and boiled down
finally, a return to “dub mix II” to hear how dennis the menace added subtle dub effects to his track — sounds which never turn up in reggaeton productions because of the way the loop circulates as a digital (re)sample rather than a vinyl b-side
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?
Tonight at Enormous Room, Beat Research is delighted to welcome Zuzana HusĂĄrovĂĄ, a Slovakian scholar currently in residence at MIT. In her own words, Zuzana is into:
electronic literature, inter/transmedial narrative, digital art, interdisciplinary literary theory, theory of fictional worlds, multilinear writing, techno-aesthetics, performativity of digital sign, playful aspects of culture, etc.
She also takes very pretty pictures of Cambridge and Boston and hereabouts. And she has an ear for bass music that strikes somewhere between the slamming and the subtle. Here’s a recent mix she put together, which may give a sense of what to expect tonight — or not. (She’ll also present a simultaneous film.)
As usual, the details are:
567 Mass Ave
9-1 | FREE
And later this week — Thursday to be exact — Boston is muy suerte to have Los Rakas sweeping into town in support of Collie Buddz.
Because this blog is a lot more sporadic than comprehensive, I don’t think I’ve mentioned either of those acts here before. Which is weird. Because I rate them both highly and have enjoyed a lot of their music. Collie Buddz has really developed a style of his own, and to my mind he occupies an important niche in reggae right now: not credible whiteboy, but suave singjay of timeless topics.
For their part, Los Rakas have been on the radar for a minute, for reasons that should be obvious to readers of this blog, and I was more than happy when they asked me to retool their bio. Need I say more?
Los Rakas represent pan-American flows. Two cousins who grew up in Panama before spending their teens in Oakland, Dun Dun and Rico put a distinctive “Panabay” twist on hip-hop and reggae, bridging the streetwise sounds of the places they’ve called home. Drawing on Panamanian plena’s faithful approach to reggae classics and the Bay Area’s independent and idiosyncratic hip-hop scene, Los Rakas merge familiar dancehall melodies with a lyricism all their own. The approach is audible on their 2010 standout, “AbrĂĄzame,” translating and transforming Gyptian’s “Hold Yuh” with vivid portraits of local love and drama. Thanks to their sustained hustle and creative efforts, Los Rakas have been embraced all over: in the Bay and back in Panama, at local hip-hop rallies and global bass parties. Looking to reach new listeners and never out of place, they tour widely, appearing alongside underground hip-hop mainstays like Brother Ali, Latin rap luminaries like Bocafloja and Mala Rodriquez, and rising reggae star Collie Buddz. Critically acclaimed and blog favorites, Los Rakas keep on top of their game by releasing a steady stream of tracks, remixes, mixtapes, and videos, and expanding their circle of collaborators to include the Austrian aggro-dancehall of Stereotyp and the electro-tropicalia of New York’s Uproot Andy. Working the flexible idioms of hip-hop and dancehall into their own pliant medium, Rico and Dun Dun channel Afrodiasporic dance currents to reflect on race and racism, poverty and violence, love and pride, partying, and the sundry stuff of everyday life. Los Rakas make music born of migration and tradition, critique and celebration, joy and pain. They make New World music. American music. Panamanian Jamaican Californian music. Music for b-boys and rude boys, dancers and romancers, mainlanders and islanders and isthmus folk alike.
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.
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!
I first got in touch with DJ El NiĂ±o several years ago, dead in the middle of a little research project that would finish like this. (Incidentally, my co-editor Deborah Pacini Hernandez just publlished a new book which is well worth checking: a sweeping and deep synthesis of the history of Latin American popular music, Oye Como Va! includes a stellar chapter on cumbia’s migration from Colombia to Mexico, and beyond, which begins with a quote from former Heatwave specialist, Gervase de Wilde!)
Although his contribution to my research goes beyond what made it into the chapter I wrote, I do quote some of my correspondence with El NiĂ±o a couple times in the piece, complete with “lols” and such in order to maintain a sense of, as I put it in a footnote, “the tone of the exchage.” Here’s one of my favorite such bits:
According to DJ El NiĂ±o, the embrace of bachata by reggaeton producers was a marriage of convenience: âpeople who were into reggaeton hated bachata,â he recounted via email, âit even got dissed on some early reggaeton tracks…as things became more mainstream (including bachata) and not so underground it became ok and then u see watt happens now they all have at least 2 âbachataâ tracks per cd…lol!!â
As a DJ who had already been playing Latin dance/club parties in the tri-state area and beyond for many years, El NiĂ±o had some great perspectives on the historical arc of reggaeton, and how it related to all the other styles he played: bachata, merengue, salsa, house, freestyle, Latin hip-hop, reggae, pop. In the years since, we’ve continued to go back and forth, connecting dots between Jamaican dancehall and what some call reggaespaĂ±ol, IDing riddims and cover versions, etc.
Doing the research for my chapter, and digging into what was also (maybe misguidedly) referred to as Spanglish Roots N Hall, turned me into a big fan of the early days of Spanish-language reggae. Sometimes it tips toward the cheesy, but a lot of reggae walks that line, especially in the synth era. It was by listening to a 1991 compilation on Columbia records, putting Jamaican originals and Spanish covers side by side, that I began to better appreciate reggae’s routes and reggaeton’s roots — the transmission / translation / transmogrification of Jamaican reggae into Panamanian plena and Puerto Rican reggaeton.
Keeping the torch aloft for the somewhat liminal genre, DJ El NiĂ±o has put together a comp of his own devoted to reggaespaĂ±ol. (I love that it’s called “Dancehall ReggaespaĂ±ol 2010″ despite featuring songs that are all about 20 years old! #atemporality) Like the Columbia comp, it also draws audible threads through the recordings, as registered in the riddim-wise tracklisting. Apparently, our exchanges about this stuff have been deep enough that El NiĂ±o even gives W&W a shout in the artwork! So consider this something of a W&W “exclusive” — but do spread it far and wide!
Oh yeah, yo DJs!: this isn’t one big mixed mp3, it’s a collection of non-mixed, meta-massaged, mastered tracks for your listening and mixing pleasure. But you should really appreciate the level of detail provided by a working DJ like El NiĂ±o himself. As noted in Gmail –
1.cd is non mixed
2.properly tagged(bpm,date of release,cover,riddim name, etc… so its serato/dj friendly)
3.all songs were edited(eliminated silence space, fixed volume and eqd)
4.all songs are 192k and ripped by me from original cds (unless indicated)
5.all songs come from cd except track 15 (vinyl rip converted at 160k) and track 14 (ripped by a friend at 128k from cd)
6.all songs are in their original state except track 15 is pitched up a bit(not much) and track 11 which is the club version from the maxi single(i cut the instrumental section at the end which rides close to 2 min)(all shabba ranks cds use the club version but fade it out at the last chorus all i did was let the last chorus ride and fade it out after)
7.some jamaican songs have differnt versions (ie gregory isaacs song was done by arzu and included in the original cd,papa san song was also done by shabbacan/shabakan..the version i included is by ledesma which was a big hit in ny and dr radio)
8.the only non panamanian/jamaincan on this cd is ledesma…..hes dominican
9.theres some tracks marked with an arterisk which means the riddim is not the original(redone)
10.i have tracks to do at least 2 more cds
11.i included some songs from the original cd cus i felt they are better situated in this compilation
12.i think i said it all…ure the first person to have this…review it ,posted in your site(added it to the cover), give it to ppl, do what u must to “spread” the knowledge(cd).once you have done what u could i will posted in every forum imaginable(feel free to help)
ps once again all songs come from original cds except track 15 .theres some songs that u can hear a “pop” here and there.thats because the cd was done from a “vinyl master”(which sucks) examples are trailer lleno,te ves buena,noche enferma
And for those of you who’d like to continue compiling some summer mixxage for your mobile devices and such, El NiĂ±o also shares his latest confection (and I use that term purposely). But be forwarned: this short “pop” mix is bookended by Ace of Bass and Cher, but it takes some nice twists and turns in between.
Or for those who are looking for something very different, here’s a 1999 mix devoted to “Latin Hip Hop.” In typical fashion, El NiĂ±o reports: “some goodies in here including tegos first song and a blend i did with puff daddy…lol”
* One of the mixtapes listed there is Sensato’s El 28 (por DJ Scuff) — I don’t know what LMP’s role in that is, besides spreading it further, but it’s well worth grabbing if you’re over there. We listened to it last weekend on the drive from NYC back to Boston, and it had my mind blown / side in stitches over & over. Dude can flo! [Update: El NiĂ±o clarifies.]
I’ve written a lot here about the “riddim method,” a cheeky term suggested by my co-author Peter Manuel to describe a well-worn practice (and in the case of our article, a distinctly Jamaican version of it). We jest, but we’re serious. In short, what we try to explain is an approach to musical materials as shared/public/communal resources which people feel a certain license to riff on, reinvent, rearrange, remix — an approach sharpened and modernized in some special ways in the soundsystem<->studio industry-ecology of L20C Kingston, and an approach long gone global via reggae’s own migrations not to mention as absorbed and additionally broadcast by hip-hop, house, jungle, garage, grime, you name it.
But just because people participate in riddim/remix culture doesn’t mean they aren’t quick to turn the screws of copyright when it suits them. As Peter and I note in our article and as Larisa’s thesis will no doubt illuminate in lots of nuanced detail, plenty of reggae artists, musicians, and producers have sued each other over the years over allegedly unauthorized examples of plagiarism or infringement or tiefing.
Take Nando Boom, for instance, one of the Panamanian pioneers of dancehall reggaespaĂ±ol. My co-editor-y-compi, Raquel, told me many months ago that SĂ±r Boom was suing Don Omar (as well as Wisin y Yandel and their producers) for the unauthorized use of elements from his “Enfermo de Amor” in their relatively successful single, “MySpace” (a song initially discussed here way back when). So thanks to Raq for putting it on my radar, though I’ve been steadily wondering — even while sitting on a draft of this post — what’s been happening with the suit. In that regard, I gotta thank my tweep Tito for letting me know yesterday that the case was recently settled, at least between Nando Boom and Don Omar.
Indeed, it apparently was announced earlier this month that SĂ±r Boom was withdrawing “counterfeit charges” against Don Omar and would accept his $100k offer as “bastante” despite having turned up his nose at it for about a year and a half (he initially demanded a sum in the millions and is still waiting on W&Y to “square up”).
When I discussed “MySpace” back in June 2007, what I appreciated about it was the brief moments when Don Omar performs a retro style reggae/ton flow —
We hear a number of signposts of the new reggaeton â state-of-the-art synths, emotive harmonic progression, dembow loops â but we also hear a nostalgia for âold schoolâ stylee in a few retro interludes (e.g., around 1:10, 2:10), complete with throw-back, flip-tongue rapping by Don Omar over a crunchy, skanking, digi-reggae loop (though I canât quite place it) â
Jace was quick to note that the riddim itself seemed to be a version of “Night Nurse,” and about that he was right. What neither of us caught at the time was that Omar was actually directly alluding to — really, re-performing — a central phrase from Nando Boom’s own version of “Night Nurse” (and it’s worth noting that a good number of Boom’s songs, including his own big hits, have been covers of Jamaican dancehall recordings):
While taking more departures than Arzu’s siempre fiel (save for Spanish) “Amor” — including, of course, the very melody / flow and lyrics that Don Omar recites — Nando Boom’s song is itself quite audibly a version of Gregory Isaac’s rubadub classic, employing the Night Nurse riddim as well as some of Isaac’s vocal melodies (and, yeah, underlying medical conceit). Doing what Omar does in “MySpace” or what Nando does on “Enfermo” — i.e., inserting a musical mnemonic, invoking a familiar phrase — is not merely commonplace but arguably central to the poetics of reggae and its many musical kin. (Can I get a zunguzungung?)
Call it quotation, homage, allusion — we have lots of words for this sort of thing (including, I’m afraid, “interpolation,” which is an attempt to bend language & culture to the demands of commerce & its legal armature). So while there’s no disputing that Don Omar has, in a word, “copied” something from Nando Boom, there’s no way that SĂ±r Boom himself can avoid the same charge on the very song for which he is claiming ownership. (Or just about any other song in his “catalog,” to risk reifying another recording industry concept.)
“Defamation”? Oh man, could the litigiousness get any more specious? (I better watch my mouth though, don’t?)
To his credit, Omar has essentially gone the genteel route, proclaiming himself a “caballero” all along, apologizing throughout, offering praise and respect for Nando, and offering $100k in recompense. Actually, it’s not clear how much they eventually settled for. Nando Boom will only say it’s “bastante”; he won’t specify p/q “hay secuestradores” (kidnappers).
Now, I’m not saying that SĂ±r Boom didn’t pay some serious dues. I feel too that, in some sense — indeed, in the same sense that applies to the pioneers of hip-hop who never got to profit from its eventual global commercial triumph — dude deserves some “reggaeton money,” if you know what I’m saying. Despite his seminal contributions to the genre, Nando Boom never made the kind of cheese that these guys have. And maybe that’s what Don Omar’s magnanimous settlement is nodding to. Still, I don’t know about shaking down random infringers participants in riddim/remix/REGGAE culture.
Among other things, it just adds to bad precedent — and I don’t mean actual legal precedent, since this never went to court, and I’m not really sure about the wider implications of a Panamanian ruling about reggae copyright infringement (except that it could be bad for a lot of Panamanian reggae artists) — I’m talking about how bad faith behavior can have chilling effects on an immense, international, interlocked system of peer-to-peer cultural norms.
I hope Wisin y Yandel and the producers of the song continue to stand their ground. Or maybe just break dude off with a micro-writing credit or something, if that’s what he’s getting at. That seems fair enough, especially if it can be dialed down to the degree to which his so-called “property” animates the song — good luck trying to calculate that, folks.
I can understand if the bad blood / press might have itself felt like bastante to Omar, but I still can’t believe he didn’t go to court over this. Would it really have cost him $100k in lawyers’ fees? (Did they really make that kinda dough with “MySpace”?) Then again, given that the Panamanian courts had apparently granted Nando Boom’s request to arrest Don Omar and Wisin y Yandel should they ever come to Panama (see last para here), who knows whether he could have beaten the charge. In a US trial, I think he might be able to make a decent argument, despite that I don’t have great faith in this country’s legal system when it comes to policing musical practice. But when the issue becomes a question of national patrimony (even if that so-called patrimony is also Jamaican), tensions can really flare.
As I’ve been noting for a while, this sort of geographical enmity / argument among reggaeton’s “stakeholders” (i.e., would-be stockholders) — in particular between Panama and Puerto Rico — animates a great deal of online discourse about reggaeton, and my chapter in the reggaeton book was an attempt to speak to and sort out the various claims. Ultimately, I try to show the various and distinctive ways that each node in the network — Jamaica, Panama, Puerto Rico, New York — have done their part to shape what we now call reggaeton. Clearly, not enough people have read it ;)
Nearly every blogpost, news article, and vaguely related YouTube video have played host to strongly jingoistic arguments about who is owed what in this case. See, for example, the comments from one particularly UNHINGED fellow on that blogpost about Tego pointing out Boom’s hypocrisy –
CARLITO EL PANAMENO is practically calling for his gente to receive reparations from reggaeton. But shouldn’t that open the floodgates of such claims? Should reggae and hip-hop artists, in turn, shake down their legion interpreters in Panama and Puerto Rico alike? I mean, if that’s the game, better be prepared to play by those rules. If it’s true that, as is alleged, Hector El Father decided to drop a dime on Omar + W&Y, I wonder whether Nando Boom should worry about someone making a call to the Cool Ruler.
This is all, sin duda, par for the course inna Panama where, as I’ve beennoting, the ol’ riddim method is audibly alive and well. I’m gonna have to keep falling into these reggae rabbit holes to get a sense of how deep they go. & I’m grateful to Boima and any other digital spelunkers — never mind actual ppl in Pana — for leaving lights along the way.*
* Much as I attempt to avoid travel/tourist/adventure metaphors in my writing about music from other times and places, I kind of like ’spelunker’ in this case for the way it calls attention to my being fairly in-the-dark here — both in terms of what am able to access and see and hear (via second-language internetting) and in terms of my understanding itself needing plenty more illumination (not to fall into an ocularcentric frame, but let me stop the self-conscious qualifying already…)
Thanks again to Tom, our man in Panama, who recently pointed me to an additional, and interesting, instantiation of the Miss Independent riddim. As we heard previously, the Ne-Yo instrumental — most famously reappropriated in Vybz&Spice’s “Rampin Shop” — has become a veritable version in Panama, supporting no fewer than a dozen local voicings (and probably many more).
I did a little poking around and discovered that the meaning of las dianas goes a lot deeper than its occasional appearance in Panamanian reggae. This Miss Independent mash is therefore particularly interesting b/c of how strongly, supposedly, dianas represent Panamanian patriotism, see e.g. –
… Dianas con mĂĄs de 100 aĂ±os de rendirle tributo a la Patria. Se escuchan desde antes del nacimiento de la RepĂșblica (1891), cuando PanamĂĄ pertenecĂa a la Gran Colombia. Inclusive forman parte integral de las fiestas patrias.Parte del fervor de las fiestas patrias la implementan las famosas dianas, que tiene sus mĂĄximos exponentes con los miembros del Cuerpo de Bomberos de PanamĂĄ, aunque existen informes de que la PolicĂa Nacional puede interpretarlas. … (link)
Giving the Ne-Yo instrumental a dianas remix seems a pretty powerful gesture of nationalization. Try taking that away with a cease and desist order. Obviously, given my general sympathies toward samplers over samplees, I can’t help but grin (not least b/c I rly dig that beat) whenever I hear yet another version of what can only be described now as the Miss Independent riddim. Despite EMI’s best efforts, the cat is way out the bag. The track has, ironically and iconically, attained an inarguable degree of independence.
Further testament: that Sentimiento Reggaetonero CD I picked up in Mexico last week turns out to contain three tracks (out of 21 total) which feature a pista audibly indebted to “Miss Independent”: Arthur’s “Quedate Conmigo Esta Noche,” La Factoria & Original Dan’s “Olvidarte De Mi,” and Joseph’s “Dale Con Tu Amor.” At the same time — pace the riddim method — the riddim in these cases has been completely replayed and reconstructed, or relicked inna reggae parlance. I don’t actually think it even contains samples from the original, though it clearly closely mirrors — is ‘gestures to’ too subtle? — everything from the harmonic progression (bridge included), drum and synth rhythms, and timbres. The producer(s?) also add an unfortunate, if mercifully muted, marimba line —
Sin duda, the producer here — whoever it is (Pablito?) — has put their own stamp on this very popular, very public, and now very Panamanian instrumental. Interestingly, this latest remarkable versioning of Miss Independent also suggests a shift in significance for the riddim not simply within Panama, where it has moved squarely into the pop/balada sphere, but throughout the Latin American reggae/ton network, where Panamanian productions leave a long, large footprint. (Incidentally, Marisol LeBron has some fascinating things to say about the Puerto Rican reaction — macho, retro, and authenticist — to the significantly Panamanian-propelled romantiqueo turn for the genre.)
I’ll leave it here, for now, with a few choice bits about stealing and national pride from a recent interview with Panamanian reggae artist Eddie Lover:
Would you say Panamanian music is finally getting its due?
I wouldn’t say we’re “getting our due.” Although the roots of reggae lie in PanamĂĄ, los Boricuas took a huge step forward with the commercialization of reggaetĂłn. We feel a certain amount of gratitude because they’ve opened doors and thanks to them, our music has been able to evolve.
Do you think artists from other countries steal their style from PanamĂĄ?
I think the influence of PanamĂĄ in what’s currently happening in reggaetĂłn around the world is obvious. But I don’t want to take any credit away from anyone who decides to become a reggae or reggaetĂłn artist.
The saga continues. Speaking of which, I’ll be talking about transnationalism, commerce, race, nation, narrative and reggaeton this very afternoon at Harvard; moreover, I’ll be joined by my co-editor, Deborah Pacini-Hernandez, who will be touching on similar issues with regard to cumbia. Deets here.
In Panama, plena refers to reggae — homegrown reggae en espaĂ±ol in particular.
The riddim method has been alive and well in Panama for many years. Before Puerto Ricans took up the mantle, it was Panamanian pioneers such as Nando Boom and El General who showed the way for gente to rap (or better, deejay) over dancehall riddims in Spanish. As demo’d by collections such as this one, a good number of formative Panamanian reggae jams were essentially traducciones of contemporary Jamaican hits. That tradition — of translating and transforming the latest greatest Jamaican reggae songs for Panamanian audiences — continues apace today.
When I was writing my chapter for our reggaeton book, I surveyed the contemporary Panamanian scene to see how that time-honored reggae tradition was faring and found a good number of cover songs amidst the current crop of productions. Here’s part of what ended up in a footnote:
… in 2006, one could hear Panamanian DJ Principal proclaiming himself “El Rey del Dancehall” with the same cadences and over the same riddim that Jamaica’s Beenie Man used to crown himself “King of the Dancehall” a few months earlier, or Panama’s Aspirante employing for “Las Cenizas Dijeron Goodbye” the melody from Jamaican singer Gyptian’s “Serious Times” over a reverent re-lick of the strikingly acoustic Spiritual War riddim that propels the original (though Aspirante changes the text from a meditation on the state of the world to a failed relationship).
All of this is un poco preamble to put into context the tip I received from a reader this week (thx, Tom!), reporting that Panamanian reggae artists are, unsurprisingly, enthralled by the “Miss Independent” riddim. No doubt this is well below the radar — none of these Panamanian versions are about to get played on, say, Hot 97 as Vybz’s “Ramping Shop” was — so I doubt that N_-Y_ or St_rg_te or E_I will be sending threatening emails anytime soon (certain vowels omitted to evade litigious Googlers).
Tom says that he counted no fewer than 11 (!) songs employing the riddim. Here are a few, including one which, funny and densely, simply features someone rapping in Spanish on top of Vybz and Spice’s song. The rest employ the instrumental riddim-wise –
I’ve already discussed and DJ-demo’d the degree to which the Dem Bow riddim underpins the lion’s share of reggaeton tracks. But one remarkable part of the story I haven’t given much focus here is how “Dem Bow” the song — in particular, the chorus melody, but also the basic theme of the lyrics — has also seen its share of reincarnations (often in the form of creative, localized translations).
Last year I wrote an article that specifically traces the migrations, transformations, and connotations of Shabba’s “Dem Bow,” a song released in 1991 and, that same year, covered (twice!) en espaĂ±ol. Shabba’s tune has inspired versions of varying fidelity to the original by Jamaicans, Panamanians, Puerto Ricans, and Frenchmen, no doubt among others I’ve yet to hear. Over the course of its already long life, it has gone from a relatively stable anti-gay anthem to a floating signifier for reggaeton’s sexy beat — or, in the case of Paris-based Daddy Yod, a Verlan inversion (“delbor” from “bordel”) for trouble or agitation (h/t Guillaumepour la traduction*). I try to make sense of the implications of such shifts, linking translation to transnation, or the audible articulation (pace Stuart Hall) of communities that transcend as they traverse state borders — something I hear deeply embedded in reggaeton’s sonic structures themselves.
But enough about the article, here’s the thing itself. It was an invited contribution by the editor of a special issue on popular song in Latin America, published in a German journal. Please note that the copy I’m making available here is a pre-print proof, though the final version is quite close to this. Here goes –
Having tracked down all these versions of “Dem Bow” (including no fewer than THREE songs by Wisin y Yandel, who seem quite content to rip themselves off), I couldn’t resist putting them alongside each other “in the mix,” as they say. It’s a little weird to put a bunch of anti-gay anthems “to tape,” but then again, one thing that’s interesting about the history of this song is that, despite the musical continuities, only the first third of the mix contains homophobic sentiments (many of them, as I describe in the article, quite colorful and imaginative). As you’ll hear, however, “Dem Bow” quickly comes to stand for other things (in other words, it becomes THE dembow, dembo, denbo). Notably, even in the suave hands of W&Y (or w&w for that matter), it remains a chant centering a heteronormative/macho subject. What’d you expect?
Yeah so no reference to sexuality, just straight up social problems and that the society is fucked up. You even have an eschatological reference at the end of the song. What’s interesting is that they use verlan only in the first verse, like an indication for the listener to make the chorus easier to understand at first. They don’t use verlan in the rest of the song as far as I could understand. Bottom line, it’s pretty safe to say that this song reference the 2005 riots and expand it to express a view of a fucked up society.
[Update 6/2010: A few months ago I found the original recording of Daddy Yod's "Delbor" (which can be purchased here); also, although it's not strictly a "Dem Bow" cover, Nando Boom's "Pension" very clearly traces the melody/vowel-sounds rather closely, and indeed many of the lyrics are the same that he later uses in "Ellos Benia." The riddim undergirding both Boom tracks, the Pounder, was clearly inspired by the Dem Bow riddim and may just be the missing link between Bobby Digital's / Steely & Clevie's production for Shabba and the dembow beat so widely used in reggaeton.]