Search Results for ‘dembow’

Representing Dembow Dominicano

As I wrote back in 2011,

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.

And that has only gotten truer in the 8 years since, as Dominican dembow has continued to grow, change, and gather steam, including outside of the DR. So I was thrilled that People en Español’s CHICA decided to devote so much space to the genre last month. Jennifer Mota has written the definitive piece on the genre, and while I did provide some quotes and Jenny generously cites my research, it’s a piece that I would recommend whether or not you’re a W&W fan.

Among other things, the article is careful to place Dominican dembow in the longer transnational story of reggaeton, from Jamaica to Panama, New York to Puerto Rico, while also showing how the genre has taken a distinct path from its Puerto Rican cousin. Indeed, while I had long understood dembow as a direct DR response to Playero’s and The Noise’s seminal (proto-reggaeton) mixtapes, Mota shows that Dominican producers such as DJ Boyo had been concocting their own mixed up, hyped up version of Jamaican dancehall since 1993!

In addition to showing how dembow has developed according to a distinct Dominican aesthetic, Mota also attends to critical questions of colorism, gender, and the importance of dance, including the importance of collective/solo “display” dances (i.e., not perreo) — and how such street dance videos on YouTube have been a major vector in the genre’s increasing popularity and reach.

Of course, there’s a reason one might get the space for an article like this at this particular moment in time (though even then, this is of remarkable depth and substance): dembow is hot. The genre appears on the verge of a mainstream breakthrough, especially via the popularity of El Alfa, whose high profile collaborations with Bad Bunny and Cardi B have helped bring as much recognition to the genre as it perhaps has ever seen.

One of the things that has always appealed to me about Dominican dembow is its intensity and weirdness: the density of samples, the rapid tempos, the rough, repetitive refrains. Dominican producers seemed content to pitch their music to Dominican tastes, raised on breakneck merengue, and — like Dutch bubbling — this made the music, by some measures, quite strange to outside ears and perhaps so esoteric as to resist further popularization, never mind appropriation.

That may yet remain the case for Dominican dembow. As the article notes at the outset, El Alfa has yet to push the dembow side of his sound into the mainstream. His collaboration with Cardi B tends toward conventional reggaeton / “tropical pop” and avoids the bracing tempos (except, of course, in his flow) and jarring arrangements of dembow. Framing the question in the article is a telling quote from Chael Produciendo, producer of “Mi Mami,” the collabo with Cardi–

“We understood that to hit the [mainstream] public with it out of nowhere could be overbearing so what we did was create a more pop-influenced beat so that it can touch other waters and later introduce the sound.”

El Alfa’s work with Bad Bunny gets us closer to what mainstream dembow might sound like: “Dame Ga Ge Gi Go Gu” is relentless and noisy, and the beat switch in “La Romana” — notably, moving the song away from bachata-infused trap — gets us pretty close to a dembow sound less invested in the same cherished samples but still drawing broadly on the aesthetic that emerged from such samples being potent vehicles for familiarity and innovation. In some sense, this is not unlike what (Dominican) producers Luny Tunes did to change the sound of reggaeton, redirecting the genre toward the plasticity of synths and “Latin” musical signs while still nodding subtly to the sample-based aesthetic that gave rise to the genre. (Keep your ears on the snares ;)

Whether Dominican dembow’s future parallels reggaeton’s remarkable path to mainstream success and influence remains to be seen, though I agree with the author that 2019 may be the year we find out. If Dominican dembow does take off beyond the DR, Washington Heights, and certain corners of YouTube, this article will provide an excellent guide as to why, when, and how.

Add comment February 13th, 2019

Desperately Seeking Dembow: Wayne & Wax Poetics

I don’t know if you dear readers get tired of hearing about dembow, but I sure don’t. That said, if my boom-ch-boom-chick narratives start to seem as monotonous a march as some allege with regard to the dembow beat itself, do let me know. Well-worn paths notwithstanding, I’m happy to share this latest riff on a loopy history I’ve been trying to put together for many years, especially since it was the result of some protracted detective work, including actual purchasing of vinyl (s/o Deadly Dragon), interviews conducted via MySpace, and a whole heap of Spanglish-spelunking through Panamanian plena chatroom rabbitholes and other lively niches of the net.

First things first, go over to Wax Poetics to read the article in its full multimedia glory:

      >> “Digital Rhythm: The loopy origins of dembow and reggaeton’s knotty dancehall roots”

I’m pleased to have placed the piece there, as Wax Poetics is a publication I’ve admired for a long time, but especially because the story of the dembow’s origins is, crucially, a story about a particular physical record, an actual piece of vinyl, a deeply generative slab of “wax” that thousands of producers have molded into their own shapes and forms since it first issued from a Brooklyn-based distributor in 1991.

It’s also a record that, hard to believe, I was unable to locate and listen to back when I was writing my epic chapter for our reggaeton book. At the time, though, close listening was leading me in the right direction, as indicated in footnote #55 (p.72):

Significantly, it appears (to my ears) that the most common versions of the Dem Bow riddim circulating in Puerto Rico may in fact be sampled from Nando Boom’s “Ellos Benia,” produced by Dennis “the Menace” Thompson, rather than directly from Shabba Ranks’s “Dem Bow” (though elements from the Bobby Digital version crop up as well).

While my ears had more or less figured out the identity of the actual samples traveling under the Dembow banner, I still didn’t know the story of how, or who, or when or where, someone first got their hands on the instrumental, which didn’t appear on any Nando Boom records (and never appears as a naked loop in “Ellos Benia”). Maybe most mysteriously, I hadn’t been able to figure out why Panamanian enthusiasts seemed to refer to the same riddim as the Pounda, or sometimes Ponda (a transformation / transliteration not unlike such Puerto Rican variations as Dembo or Denbo).

When I first read about the Pounda on Panamanian websites, the way people described it, I thought it might simply be a local way of naming “Dem Bow” not unlike the way that, say, the instrumental from Dirtsman’s “Hot This Year” — better known to reggae aficionados as a re-lick of the classic Drum Song riddim — sometimes masquerades as “El Chespa Riddim” in tribute to the stuttering repetition of Dirtsman’s “dress back!” in the vocal version: chespa, chespa ches, chespa, chespa ches, chespa! And because I couldn’t locate an actual record called “Pounder,” my best assumption, given what I’d read, was that it was simply another name for the same riddim Puerto Ricans call Dem Bow. Which it is. (What it is not, however, is the same version propelling Shabba’s influential performance on “Dem Bow.”) But I had no idea what that would have happened.

The identity of the Pounda, and its relationship to the loop people call Dembow, seemed crucial to understanding the transnational history of reggaeton. And though I felt I had done my best by the time of publication, it still nagged at me. Moreover, this missing link continued to complicate the fraught retellings of reggaeton history. Take, for example, this quintessential collection of lore from a 2009 article on reggae in Panama:

By some reports, Jamaican dancehall first arrived in Puerto Rico in the suitcases of visiting musicians from Panama. Another story has the Panamanian producer Ramón “Pucho” Bustamante collaborating with a Jamaican to create a salsa-infused variant of “dem bow” called “pounda,” then handing it over to Puerto Rican producers. While the truth is likely less clear-cut than either yarn, the debate over who started reggaeton, or rather, how Puerto Rican artists discovered “dem bow,” rages on outside shows and on countless Internet message boards today.

Indeed, as a gringo gawker, but a devotee and champion of all this music, it was largely these online debates that served as a key set of texts for the meta-narrative I was trying to tease out, my story of the stories people tell about reggaeton. I would come across fascinating debates and tantalizing fragments hinting at a history still largely uncovered, or certainly unpromulgated —

EL PONDER REALMENTE ES UN RITMO JAMAIQUINO, HAY COMO DOS ESTILOS DEL MISMO Y DEL MISMO AÑO QUE UNO ES EL DEL ESTILO QUE LLEVA LA CANCIÓN “PENSIÓN” DE NANDO BOOM Y EL OTRO DEL ESTILO QUE LLEVA “DEM BOW” DE SHABBA RANKS QUE ESE FUÉ HECHO POR STEELIE & CLEEVIE POR VP RECORDS. PERO EL PONDER DE “DEM BOW” DE SHABBA RANKS FUÉ EL MÁS FUERTE EN ESE TIEMPO Y LAS DOS DE NANDO BOOM CON LA BASE RÍTMICA HECHA POR DENNIS FUERON LAS QUE MÁS APOJEARON HASTA EN CANADÁ QUE LAS OTRAS EN INGLÉS. ——————– pAnAmAiCaN jAm

To get to the bottom, I had to go beyond reading Spanish wiki entries and their discussion pages, and even beyond Panamanian reggae discussion forum rabbit holes and email follow-ups with their authors. I had to track down one of the record’s producers on MySpace and, ultimately, at least for my peace of mind, I had to get my hands on a real, physical copy of the record, since there were no online instantiations of a song called “Pounda” or “Pounder” — never mind its instrumental b-side (given the distinctive label, “Dub Mix II,” I would later discover).

I have Marlon Bishop to thank for putting me back on the trail again, which is ironic since he contacted me while researching an article he was writing on reggae in Panama for none other than Wax Poetics. At any rate, Marlon’s reasonable inquiry about the Pounda riddim sent me back into the chat forums, which eventually led me to the Deadly Dragon guys, who actually had the record in stock. And of course, when I listened to it, and it contained precisely the same sounds propelling Nando Boom’s “Ellos Benia” and appearing as “Dembow Original” on CDs like Pistas Famosas de Reggaeton, it came as a revelation.

Also revelatory, and useful for confirming some things, was getting to talk with none other than “Pucho,” aka Ramon “Pucho” Bustamante (a name bearing witness to his Jamaican heritage, recalling Jamaica’s first prime minister). We had an illuminating exchange via MySpace, and I’ll never forget his funny opinion about Jamaica’s riddim tradition, or as he put it, “UNA MALA COSTUMBRE DE LOS JAMAICANOS” —

And that’s all she wrote. Or, at least, that’s all I’ve written so far. You might think that a 24,000 word essay might suffice, but apparently not. And as another way to share an amazing story, I’m grateful to have been able to put the pieces together. Thanks to everyone, from Pucho to pAnAmAiCaN jAm, Marlon to Wax Poetics, for aiding me in my not-so-quixotic quest. Always room for another dub!

1 comment January 29th, 2014

Dembow Complex

In case you missed it, I recently published a piece in RBMA mag about the history of the Dembow, a history I’ve been working to tease apart and put together for a looooong time now.

If you’re not familiar with RBMA, it stands for Red Bull Music Academy. And I was pretty happy to be invited to do something there. If you’re unfamiliar, you should get familiar. Red Bull may seem like a strange sponsor for music culture (though they’re been well integrated as a beverage for more than a decade), but they’ve been sponsoring great stuff lately, from hosting a dope cross-cultural soundclash between some of NYC’s top sounds to commissioning some of my favorite writers to produce punchy pieces on all manner of musical topics. (And their lecture series has been full of revelations.) See, e.g.: Noz on the history of hip-hop mixtapes, Rishi Bonneville on Caribbean pirate radio in New York, Jeff Weiss on the cultural history of the airhorn, or this rich recent interview with Kode9. Oh, and don’t miss the pieces helpfully & aptly linked from the bottom of my own contribution: a chat with Steely & Clevie and a piece on the one and only Philip Smart by Rob Kenner.

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 & Clevie’s 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 Lorna’s “Papi Chulo” and Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina,” 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 “on tape”—and all of them rolling drum rhythms—after 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 reggaeton’s favorite loop, not exactly anyway. It’s true that Shabba Ranks’s anti-gay, anti-imperialist anthem “Dem Bow” may as well be patient zero for the infectious rhythm that still carries the song’s name, but samples of the track accompanying Shabba—the riddim in reggae parlance—rarely 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 Shabba’s 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. It’s at the heart of what’s been called jazz’s “Spanish tinge,” 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. Shabba’s “Dem Bow” 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 & Clevie’s riddim resounding from trunks across the Spanish-speaking world, and rather aptly given reggaeton’s 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 español anthems—and succeeding.

By the early 90s, Philip Smart’s 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 “The Menace” Thompson, the sole musician credited with “Dub Mix II,” better known today as the Dembow riddim, or in Panama, the Pounda. Initially crafted as an instrumental for Panamanian vocalist Nando Boom’s “Ellos Benia,” a close translation of Shabba’s “Dem Bow,” Thompson captured the rhythmic essence of Steely & Clevie’s post-Poco riddim while adding some digital timbales and other touches for extra sabor at the prompt of Ramon “Pucho” Bustamante, the Panamanian manager of Nando Boom who helped engineer the reggae en español 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, “Pounder,” with the dubbed-out instrumental as a quickly coveted B-side. (“A bad custom of the Jamaicans,” Bustamante once told me.)

When instrumental CDs such as Pistas de Reggaeton Famosas include a “Dem Bow” track—and they always include at least one—the 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 “dembow loop” on YouTube or 4shared, and you’ll 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 company’s 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 rhythm—the boom-ch-boom-chick pattern—more 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 recording’s 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 rappers’ 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 Dembow—and Puerto Rican reggae en español more generally—was 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. Blass’s 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. Blass’s 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, “Gasolina”—or most of their other pistas—you’ll hear snare samples swap every four measures, embodying in their own subtle but audible manner the loop-switching practices of Playero’s proto-reggaeton. Revising the Dembow as something more general, more flexible, and in its way, less Jamaican than it had been, Luny Tunes honored reggaeton’s rhythmic and timbral heritage while opening it up to a new variety of textural, harmonic, and melodic gestures, especially “pan-Latino” sounds. When Wisin y Yandel reprise Shabba’s chorus for their club-friendly, bachata-steeped, Luny Tunes-produced update of “Dem Bow” 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 rhythm—and to a lesser extent, the riddim—has even made inroads into the more frequently foursquare world of EDM via Dave Nada’s 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, Nada’s wildly successful experiment introduced the Dembow to new listeners across the networked world, especially after producers like Rotterdam’s 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: “The idea was so simple,” Munchi wrote to me, describing moombahton as “THE chance for reggaeton to get out of its hole.” Having nearly abandoned the stagnant genre, Munchi noted that “It felt so good that I could make ‘reggaeton’ again.” And while no one would confuse Munchi’s genre-busting work with reggaeton per se, no one could deny the genre’s presence in his tracks.

For his part, Nada himself has occasionally sampled the actual Dembow riddim for his moombahton productions (though he wouldn’t say which ones), but like many others, Nada more often recreates his own Dembow-indebted patterns using a variety of drum sounds and samples. “I’ve used it in the past to help dirty up a few tracks. I’ll mangle the sample and bury it though.”

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. “The post-tropical flight from Caribbean percussion at the end of the mini-Moombathon craze has left a large side of EDM dembowless lately,” 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, “Most of the time I use sampled individual drums and reconstruct a Dembow with variations I make myself.”

Dubbel Dutch describes a similar process for his own productions: “I 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.” Bearing witness to the sonic priorities of digital bass culture, Dutch confesses that, “Admittedly, my awareness of certain loops has even preceded my knowledge of their origins.” Accordingly, he repurposes cherished dancehall loops without being parochial, which actually places him squarely in the reggaeton tradition: “One of my favorite ‘Dembow’ 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.”

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 sample’s afterlife. “I’d say the Fever Pitch (aka Rich Girl) ‘Dembow’ loop is a better possible candidate,” Dubbel Dutch argued, “for an Amen or Think type breakbeat.”

For Uproot Andy, who recently released Worldwide Ting, which he calls “an hour long celebration of the Dembow in all kinds of contexts, some natural and some forced,” even such tributes are necessarily mongrel in their make-up: “The opening track is a song I just made called the ‘Worldwide Dembow’ and it’s sort of an homage to the Dembow rhythm, it samples Pablo Piddy, a Dominican dembow artist, saying ‘si tu quiere dembow,’ 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.”

Uproot Andy’s 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 Juan’s 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 countrymen—or, say, just about anything in the Dominican dembow Soundcloud group—the 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 carioca’s 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. “On one hand, this music is totally technological,” he notes, “on the other the rhythms are far more Jamaican: they’re drawn from Etu, Pocomania, Kumina—African-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.”

Uproot Andy offers a similar take: “If reggaeton took the rhythm and ran with it, Dominican dembow brings it strictly back to the roots.”

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

9 comments July 25th, 2013

Dembow Criollo

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.)

My co-editor/compi Raquel Rivera is to blame for this most recent jaunt. Yesterday morning she brought to my attention a series of articles published in El Caribe this week. Mostly penned by local music journo José Nova, the series mixes reportage with a certain romanticism in order to offer an informative, supportive view of the formerly marginal but now ubiquitous sound.

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:

En el 1993 comencé a escuchar a Shabba Ranks y a otras grandes estrellas del reggae, y dije: esa música me gusta… tomé la pista de la canción “Wake the Man”, de Cutty Ranks, y le hice este sencillo que tuvo una buena acogida.

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 “La Gorda Budusca” (w/ PR vocalists Maicol y Manuel) and, later, Doble T & El Crow’s “Pepe” 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 teoría de que para sonar en la radio o en las discotecas los cantantes deben pagar “payola” o ser una figura consagrada de la música. No es así.

[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 Vásquez (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 niños 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 música electrónica“). 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:

19 comments January 7th, 2011

Why 7 Rings Rings So Many Bells

This month’s New York magazine features a set of articles about popular music today and why questions of plagiarism seem to dog so many hit songs. I was happy to contribute an article teasing out the controversies around Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” by taking a musicological deep-dive into the disputed musical figure in question, a resurgently popular rhythm that some would call a Scotch Snap.

You can find an online version, complete with technomusicological examples — a few mashups and a mini-mega-mix! — over at Vulture. They’ve gone and slicked up the Ableton screengrabs I made, which is nice, but I also like the charm and simplicity (especially the ability to track audio, notation, and video) of the originals. Here, for instance, is the Scotch Snap megamix I worked up — just follow the bouncing cowbell!

I first started noticing the Scotch Snap a while back, and I flagged it on the blog here in March 2014, proposing that the “remarkable spread” of the “stuttered, splattered, staccato syllables” popularized by Chicago rappers Lil Reese and Chief Keef made it second only to the Migos flow. I noted that it was already a trope among such pop singers as Rihanna and Beyonce, and I suggested that “perhaps I need to make a supercut to make my point.”

Well, it only took me 5 years, but here we are. How funny to look back, especially in the wake of this Ariana Grande piece, and see myself writing that “far as I can tell, that Chicago drill flow has less of a history than 8th note triplets.” Now I can tell farther. Far farther. As I explore in the article, while it’s important to recognize how rappers have crucially contributed to the vogue for this rhythm, the Scotch Snap has a long history, spanning all manner of music in the United States and pointing back to Scotland (as well as West Africa). In the words of musicologist Philip Tagg,

The Scotch snap is used by Henry Purcell, Béla Bartók, Mahalia Jackson, Woody Guthrie, Stevie Wonder, Ry Cooder, James Brown, Buck Owens etc., etc., etc. You’ll find it in Strathspeys, traditional English ballads, Appalachian fiddling, string band music, spirituals, white gospel, black gospel, rock music, even in West African time lines, but you won’t hear it in mariachi, mbaqanga or MPB, nor in the musics of South or Central Europe, including (continental) European art music.

I’m indebted to Tagg’s amazing video on the Scotch Snap for helping me connect all these dots. Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t reference his video in that blog post. I count Tagg as a technomusicological pioneer and have been assigning his videos in my classes for years. (Tagg’s Milksap Montage is a classic mega-mix of 52 midcentury pop songs using the same 4 chords, and it helped convince me that mega-mixes and montages could compellingly tell musicological stories.)

Going through my records, I see that I even emailed him back in May 2011, as soon as he shared his video with the IASPM list. I was eager to report that one could also hear the Scotch Snap in current rap songs, such as Travis Porter’s “Make It Rain” — an example that I probably should have included in my mega-mix, especially as it comes out around the same time as “Pretty Boy Swag,” which Soulja Boy would like to pose as patient zero for this rhythmic meme.

While we’re on the topic of additional examples, if I had another crack at the mega-mix — and thought people could deal with a few more minutes of follow-the-cowbell — I would definitely add Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” BTS’s “Fake Love,” Rich Brian’s “Dat $tick,” and Florida Georgia Line’s “Swerve,” each of which shows how the rhythm, as (re-)popularized by rappers, has gone global and jumped genre-lines.

But telling as much of the story as my mini-mega-mix does is maybe enough, and a little late is better than never. That said, having filed the story and produced the mix back in February, I was gutted to get scooped by popular YouTube music-explainer, Adam Neely, who published a Scotch Snap video covering a lot of the same ground — and also pivoting on Ariana Grande — in the middle of March, as my own work was slowly working its way through fact-checking and other editorial processes. So it goes. Like the rhythm itself, this story has been in the air, and “7 Rings” made as good a platform for telling it as any.

Neely’s a Berklee alum, and my students brought his work to my attention last year. I like what he does (especially his Giant Steps / music+math piece), and he did a fine job on the Scotch Snap story. In the end, Neely gets more into the musical and linguistic weeds, where my article focuses more on the historical context and questions of plagiarism and appropriation. They can complement each other, to be sure. (I just wish my own video could do numbers like his, which, in under a month, has netted nearly half a million views!) I’m grateful that he linked to my montage and added my name to the credits, where, par for the course, I discovered that a French fellow was walking this trail back in October 2018 (and used the same Purcell sample that I grabbed via Tagg).

That said, I suppose this blog is as good a space as any to express some skepticism over Neely’s suggestion that the beat of dancehall and reggaeton is derived from the rhythmic tendencies of Jamaican English and Spanish. While there may be some happy overlap between that 3+3+2 beat (aka dembow) and idiomatic stress patterns in those languages, that beat is at bottom a dance rhythm — not a speech rhythm — and is far older than those languages, and more African.

I’m also not convinced that the Scotch Snap is all that (relatively) rare in Jamaican music and language, especially given that Scottish-African cultural interplay happened there too. Off the top of my head, I can recall that Elephant Man’s “The Bombing” (2001) drops Scotch Snaps throughout the verses, though I’ll have to start listening more closely for it across the reggae repertory.

While we’re talking Jamaica, allow me to include here my favorite of the souped-up videos in the article. In this case, the video design, combined with the text I prepared, serves to make clear what we’re hearing when we’re hearing it (especially if you use headphones) — far better than I do waving around my cursor. I’m glad to finally share this story with the world, especially since, although Junior Reid apparently enjoyed the mashup, he lost interest in the lawsuit and it never went anywhere. I would have been quite curious to know how persuasive this may have proven in court (or in settlement negotiations), or in the court of public opinion, to which I now submit it.

One of the problems I noticed when scanning the Scotch Snap literature is that the data — i.e., the corpora — referenced in studies such as the Temperleys’ (PDF) are deeply Eurocentric, making it difficult to come to broader conclusions about the geographical distribution of the rhythm. I’d be very curious to know what sort of patterns and proclivities would emerge given a wider, larger, and much more global sample. Perhaps the increasing popularity and recognition of the Scotch Snap will help spur more research in that vein.

I’ll be keeping my ears peeled, and now, I suspect, so will you.

1 comment April 8th, 2019

Ich kann ein bisschen Reggaeton verstehen

ila, a German magazine devoted to Latin America published a special issue on reggaeton this summer, including an interview with yours truly. If you kann ein bisschen Duetsch lesen (like those of us who studied vergleichende Musikwissenschaft in graduate school), then you can click on that link in the last sentence and read it there.

If not, allow me to share our exchange in English, which is how it happened. This took place back in May, and I would have a lot more to say about some of these questions at this point in this year, but I’ll no doubt have another chance soon — yet another lingering “Despacito effect.” But more on that luego/pronto.

For now, please read on for questions by Britt Weyde, editor of ila, in italics, followed by some answers.

BW: After the „despacito effect“ in 2017 – What’s the actual position of Reggaetón according to your opinion?

W&W: Reggaeton is as popular as ever, at a grassroots and industry level, and on a national/regional as well as global scale. Reggaeton enjoys a strong presence across the pop / club landscapes of the United States, Colombia, Cuba, Spain, and the wider world. YouTube not only bears witness to Despacito’s staggering 5 billion views but to a remarkable presence of reggaeton artists and tracks among the top viewed videos of all time.

BW: The worldwide success of Reggaeton – is it simply demographics (increasing latino population in the US, migrated latino Diaspora in Europe, i.e. Spain)? – or are there other reasons, for example the immense possibilities/capability of the genre to merge/fuse/integrate always other/new musical styles? Is it because Reggaeton already had started as a hybrid genre it easily continues developing/integrating other styles?

W&W: I think demographics play a role in terms of the genre’s ability to establish metropolitan beachheads around the world, but I also think you’re right that there’s a broader aesthetic resonance there. To my ears, it has a lot to do with how reggaeton takes up dancehall’s modern, electronic distillation of a classic Afrodiasporic rhythm. It’s a rhythm that itself undergirds so much of reggaeton’s ability to integrate and fuse with kindred genres. Indeed, while the sound of reggaeton has changed profoundly over the last 20 years — in step with broader trends in hip-hop, dancehall, and global club music — that bedrock rhythm has remained its lynchpin.

BW: Who are the most important/interesting artists representing the genre nowadays (according to your opinion, male and female)?

W&W: This question demands that we think about the genre’s contents — and discontents. Who represents the genre? Who has the authority to say so? Depending on how and where you locate the genre (and its boundaries), you may find that the most interesting or important things, in terms of stylistic innovation and a re-imagination of the genre’s contents, are happening along those borders of the genre (which, as I’ve chronicled, are often intensely policed and debated by reggaeton enthusiasts).

Though it had been floating around since the mid-90s, the term reggaeton only really came to prominence around 2003. Prior to that, artists and audiences were as likely to call it dembow, underground, Spanish reggae, or just reggae — or possibly even melaza (molasses) in Puerto Rico or petróleo (oil) in Panama, terms clearly linked to the genre’s black, working-class base. During the genre’s 2004-08 heyday, all manner of artists were happy to hitch their wagons to reggaeton, but after the hype died down (and perhaps a certain oversaturation), a number of artists sought to distance themselves from it, preferring more vague terms such as “música urbana.” Someone like Residente of Calle 13 rose to prominence on the reggaeton wave but he has long since embraced a range of other styles. Is he (still) a reggaeton artist? He’s definitely making some of the most ambitious and incisive music on the planet right now.

More recently, we’ve seen the rise of Latin trap as an alternative approach for a new generation of Puerto Rican and Latin American artists, and something like the #neoperreo movement queers the genre in more ways than one. Should we consider any of the artists associated with those movements part of the wider reggaeton genre? Are “soundcloud rappers” and DIY dembow scenes part of reggaeton? Are artists from the Dominican Republic, or elsewhere, who use reggaeton rhythms as part of a broader musical palette part of the genre? In which case, Amara La Negra definitely deserves attention for the ways she challenges racism within the music industry.

If the Despacito effect now entails a new wave of reggaeton, branded as such, centered in Colombia, should we consider someone like J Balvin a reggaeton artist? He’s making a strong play for global pop crossover stardom; as such, he’s certainly interesting as a force in bringing Spanish-language songs into the Anglo mainstream, and via reggaeton’s hallmark rhythms. Inevitably, such efforts will reshape the contours of the genre yet again — and inspire no end of debates.

BW: Is Colombia the new Reggaetón hotspot (since Reggaeton Superstars like Maluma, J. Balvin come from there and Nicky Jam lived there for a while)?

W&W: Clearly, Colombian artists have been making major waves for a few years now, and I might go so far as to argue that, where it once resided in San Juan, New York, or Colón, reggaeton’s new capital is arguably Medellín. Although Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee are Puerto Rican, “Despacito” was co-written with a Colombian songwriter, produced by Colombian producers, and initially pitched at the Latin American audience that increasingly looks to Colombia for reggaeton hits. The success of J. Balvin, Maluma, Karol G and others are part and parcel of this wave. Despite the expansion of audience and market-share for the genre this represents, this Colombian turn is not seen by all as a positive development. Some have argued that the Colombian industry has “sanded down” reggaeton’s rough edges to produce a slicker, pop-ready sound, an aesthetic form of gentrification, blanqueamiento / whitewashing, perhaps even appropriation.

BW: What about the postcolonial promise you named in your article “from Música negra to Reggaetón Latino” – that of a convivial, cosmopolitan multiculture – on the musical level we might have got another step closer, but regarding politics we seem far more away?

W&W: Indeed, one might hear global pop today sounding as convivial and cosmopolitan as ever, undergirded by Afrodiasporic rhythms, open to far-flung musical references, and even increasingly multilingual. Meanwhile, we seem to behold a deeply acrimonious social wedge being driven between people based on racism and xenophobia. The fact that a Spanish-language song like “Despacito” would dominate the US and global pop charts during Trump’s first year in office seems downright paradoxical. For me, it actually signals that the vast majority of people are not xenophobes and do not want to build huge walls, whether physical or cultural. For all the “top-down” industry meddling that can structure things, I still think of popular music as a deeply “bottom-up” movement, and the abiding (and sometimes surging) popularity of reggaeton perhaps prefigures the next political wave to come. People who have been voting “with their feet” so to speak, dancing along to beloved polyrhythms, may one day vote together with their ballots too, though that might be an optimistic assessment of the present political circumstances.

BW: With artists like Fonsi, Maluma, Nicky Jam, J.Balvin, Natti Natasha and even Europeans like Enrique Iglesias – Did we reach another stadium of whitewashing the original mostly black music? (exception regarding mainstream superstars is Ozuna)?

W&W: I think one can make the case that, yes, the artists most effectively able to exploit reggaeton in the mass market are artists who are less constrained by anti-blackness. The “mainstream” — which is to say, middle-class consumption — at least in the United States but also across the post-colonial world, is still a sphere of racialized class order. From Elvis and the Rolling Stones through Eminem and Justin Bieber, this has been the case. I believe this is less an indictment of any of the artists that we’re discussing here, however, and more an indictment of white supremacy.

BW: In mainstream reggaetón lyrics refer mostly to romanticism and love, in many hits the reggaetoneros not only rap, nowadays they also sing (p.g. Nicky Jam, Fonsi, Iglesias) – is this still reggaeton or simply latin pop?

W&W: This line, between reggaeton and Latin pop, has often been a blurry one. Certainly, many reggaetoneros have aspired to the level of success that would allow them to operate as pop stars rather than be confined to a smaller genre. Stylistically speaking, reggaetoneros have always mixed rapping with singing, which is the Jamaican way too. If anything, we can hear the recent pop-ification of reggaeton more in the “clean” production values that characterize the Colombian style. That said, Luny Tunes and other producers were pushing reggaeton in that direction during the genre’s initial heyday, and it’s worth remembering that reggaeton itself became Latin pop on its own terms before this more recent turn in which we might hear a more thorough remaking of reggaeton style by pop-leaning producers. Originally, reggaeton was a DIY music made by working-class producers who reveled in their ability to exploit recording technologies — and let these sonic seams proudly show; today, reggaeton is increasingly produced by middle-class or elite producers who approach it not as a tradition but as a stylistic palette.

BW: What do you think about the discussion about cultural appropriation? Most recent example: the discussion roundabout lesbian reggaetonera “Chocolate remix” from Argentina

W&W: As long as racialized, patriarchal structural inequality persists, we’re going to have these debates. Reggaeton itself emerges on the margins, but as a rather macho cultural formation, it also reproduces certain forms of oppression too — especially in terms of gender and sexuality. I’ve tried to chart certain openings with regard to some of reggaeton’s “harder” stances about gender roles or sexual identities, and I think there is a great deal happening in different local scenes that challenges some of these “established” features of the genre. Given a certain degree of exclusion and objectification, I think that women and queer artists should feel free to “appropriate” the genre for their own ends, especially if in service of political critique and intervention. As I explored in my chapter in our Reggaeton book, a great deal of ink has been spilled over whether reggaeton is essentially the property of Jamaicans, Panamanians, Puerto Ricans, Latinos, “morenos,” etc. Discussions about appropriation are, at bottom, about the question of who has the right to exploit some piece of (common / communal) property and whether they reside in or outside the circle.

BW: Some of the successful reggaetoneros of the moment are doing also Trap, recovering in these tracks the gansta/macho/blinblin/objectifying women “aesthetics” (p.e. maluma – cuatro babies, ozuna – la occasion) – is Trap digging Reggaetons grave?

W&W: Given reggaeton’s recent comeback and the fact that it has maintained popularity in so many places, it is hard for me to imagine it being swiftly or simply pushed aside by something like Latin trap. Because reggaeton moved away from hip-hop references at a certain point, the genres now seem further away from each other than, say, reggaeton from dancehall reggae. But hip-hop has always been a part of reggaeton, and Latin trap — and its inevitable intersections with reggaeton — just represents another set of possibilities for collaboration and stylistic innovation.

BW: Regarding gender – there are still not so many women doing reggaeton (or at least having big success) – why?

W&W: As I mentioned above, reggaeton remains a fairly macho genre, and the entire industry is, of course, part of the wider patriarchal culture and society we live in. This has made it difficult for women to succeed in the genre, until fairly recently, unless they were willing to play the sing-song, subservient foil: e.g., Glory or Jenny La Sexy Voz. One big exception of course is Ivy Queen, though it’s notable that she came to prominence by being as tough and fierce as any man in the genre. This is remarkably similar in some ways to the rise of women rappers, many of whom approached the art as hyper-competitive and took up the themes of powerful braggadocio that characterized their male peers’ performances. Over time, though, as we have seen in hip-hop, there are always ways to subvert or break that mold, and in the same way we’ve seen a wider range of possibilities emerge among hip-hop artists (and both men and women, notably), I believe reggaeton has that potential too. Indeed, the number of women participating as artists is as large as ever and offers quite a range of approaches.

BW: On the other hand: regarding lyrics, we don’t have the monolithic macho structures anymore, in J.Balvins “Ambiente” the girl he’s interested in is kissing another girl, or Maluma is up to a quite polyamory stile in his “Felizes los cuatro” – do you share these observations?

W&W: Yes, exactly, and I think this also mirrors popular culture more widely, which has softened in its ideas about policing ideas about gender and sexuality. This is as true for, say, mainstream television as it is for, say, hip-hop and dancehall and reggaeton.

BW: What are legendary producers like Luny Tunes doing today? In ´”The chosen few” they said they would like to do things together with “the Neptunes” (but Pharell is featured in Malumas “Safari” instead) … And some of the reggaetoneros present in “the chosen few” have still success nowadays (Daddy Yankee, Nicky Jam …) what about the others?

W&W: I’m afraid I don’t know what they’re up to at the moment! I wish I’d had a chance to ask DJ Nelson last week. I haven’t really kept tabs on all of these artists, though their “disappearance” is in no way exceptional for popular music. There’s always a lot of turnover and churn. It’s not an easy way to make a career. That said, this does make the careers of Daddy Yankee and Nicky Jam all the more remarkable. Twenty years of popular success is impressive in any genre.

Add comment December 30th, 2018

Prisma Tropical Liner Notes

As I mention below, I’ve been a Balún fan for over a decade, so I was utterly thrilled when the band wrote to me earlier this year and asked if I would write the liner notes for their stunning new album, Prisma Tropical. It was a dream(pop) assignment, especially since it’s their best work to date and, though I may be biased, it is my favorite recording of 2018, hands down.

A gorgeous, meticulous combination of dreampop, Puerto Rican styles old and new, and a world of music more, Prisma Tropical finds Balún exploring the space between Puerto Rico and Brooklyn that they traverse physically, imaginatively, and emotionally. I won’t say much more, since I say enough below, but I am delighted that so many outlets — from NPR, to Remezcla, to Bandcamp — have already recognized what a great, interesting, and important record this is. (And I confess to some satisfaction in seeing my liners helping to shape the music’s reception.) This project obviously pushes a LOT of my buttons, and I hope it will for you too.

If you’re a physical media person, you’ll be glad to know that vinyl and other versions are coming, and I’m psyched that my liners will appear there as well. In classic style too: the band was inspired by the format Ansonia Records used for their back covers, which always included an album description in English and Spanish (e.g., the Arsenio album above). Toward that end, my liner notes have been felicitously translated by Mariné Pérez, and they also have been published online en español at 80grados. [Update: you can now find both the English and Spanish versions on Balún’s own website too.]

Ok, that’s plenty preamble — here’s the text. Go listen along (and support)!

When I first heard Balún over a decade ago, I was enthralled by reggaeton and wondered about other electronic music from Puerto Rico. What a thrill to discover a group of musicians making sparkling, shape-shifting synth-pop with nary a nod to dembow — as if I had found reggaeton’s chill cousin, humming techno lullabies and painting in the cool palettes of Berlin, London, or Reykjavík. San Juan? Not as obviously. But sights shift as sites shift.

Prisma Tropical reveals the band residing in Borinquen, Brooklyn, and in between — and making the most of it. Music of old cities and new ones. Sites and sounds of love and longing, home and away — electronic and acoustic, vintage and vanguard, roots and routes. Deeply local but never provincial. Heavy as luggage yet lighter than air.

Imagine all the Caribbean on one island. The saturation of the tropical prism. New York as tropical base. Resounding alongside dancehall, bachata, konpa, salsa, soca, and hip-hop, reggaeton sounds different in diasporic Greenpoint than in hometown Carolina. No longer the dominant soundscape presence, that old dembow might be recalled fondly, even missed. Lejos, más cerca.

While dreampop often evokes nonplaces, here Balún ground their otherworldly sound in Puerto Rican folk music, from the dembow to the cuatro. The band does not dabble in such traditions as guaracha, salsa, or reggaeton, however, nor do they nod in those directions without love and respect. They approach such sounds and instruments as deeply resonant resources, a musical palette charged with the power of accumulated listening, singing, and dancing. A repertory ripe for reinterpretation. Home as port of departure. Dreambow.

The opening track, “Vaivén,” sets the tone. Coquís chirping in the background. A slow melody plucked out on the cuatro. An idea from home. (To be processed elsewhere.) As the tones ring out into an enveloping wash, we’re transported. Going and coming, coming and going. A submerged dancehall beat builds steam, heralding the majestic, mysterious vistas of “La Nueva Ciudad.” Strange but familiar shapes come into focus as wispy vocals, dembow fragments, and fluttering bass tones conjure a new city, another planet, a hidden place. When the dembow loop finally fully drops for the chorus, cherished snare samples shifting every four measures like a maratón mixtape, we know we’ve arrived somewhere special. Far from a facile or ironic nod to reggaeton, the classic timbres and patterns support a new song of a different sort—a song of buoyant vocals and intimate thoughts, whispered aloud, of uplifting harmonies billowed by outboard synths, of swirling guitar ornaments channeling Reich and Fripp, of bomba barrel drums and jíbaro guitarrillos.

The album’s expansive, evocative sound is a consequence of each member playing and writing for a rotating cast of instruments and effects, from programmed synths and robotic percussion to accordions and guitar pedals, string quartets and traditional Puerto Rican lutes. Either the cuatro or its older, soprano cousin, the tiple — one built by Noraliz no less! — appear on nearly every track. (The tiple’s distinctive ring might be processed with delay inspired by the Cocteau Twins, of course, and while that may not be típico, for Balún it’s typical.) Between Nora fingerpicking across acoustic heritage, José on the beats and synths (ever in conversation with electronic subgenres old and new), Angélica’s clarion voice and soaring string arrangements, and Raúl providing mesmerizing, percussive guitar lines, Balún bring a wealth of resources and references into the mix.

This time around the lead instruments on each song are acoustic and meant to be played live. Producer Lawson White encouraged Balún to bring acoustic instruments to the fore and explore what they had to say. The approach speaks volumes, infusing the band’s music with new (and old) idioms. White, who has added countless ideas and production touches, horn arrangements and marimba lines, deserves praise for pushing the band to realize such an ambitious vision. The album is brilliantly conceived, recorded, mixed, and sequenced. It shines as it should.

While Angélica, Nora, José, Raúl, and Lawson steer the ship, Prisma Tropical is an extended ensemble work, including Antibalas horns, an all-female string quartet, drummer Henry Cole accompanying programmed loops with panache, and among other contributions, numerous appearances by Obanilú Allende playing bomba drums, Enrique Bayoan on Andean panpipes and an Argentinian drum that can be heard a league away, and various friends pitching in on production and backup vocals.

It would be a fool’s errand to list all that is packed into these songs, so dense is the album with allusion, collaboration, and inspiration. A multitude of colors and contrasts appear within and across tracks, a distinctive and remarkable stylistic versatility and fluency at the service of some wonderful songs. Cruzando bordes sin pensarlo. Whimsical turns make forms that delight and surprise, while a pop sensibility smooths experimental edges (but not too much). That Balún pack so much into a single hour of music is no small achievement. Listen closely and make the connections you need to make yourself.

But don’t miss the nod to the customary son montuno opening of “El Flamboyán,” a guaracha popularized by El Cuarteto Mayarí, on “Coralina,” which opens the B-side of the album. Or the glorious jungle coda of “El Espanto”! Or the way that “Pulsos” glides from Afrobeat to prog rock before building into a disco-era Salsoul burner that I wish David Mancuso could have lived to hear. Or the shimmering outro, “Reflejo,” five reverberant minutes of rippling guitar, occasionally interrupted by blasts of effects — a moment to gaze at one’s shoes and reflect, to wonder where we’ve been, where we’re at, where we’re going.

Wayne Marshall
May 2018

Add comment August 7th, 2018

More Re:ggaeton

The “Despacito” effect continues. That is to say, I continue to receive media inquiries about reggaeton a good year after the song’s triumphant run. And while I’ve started to get a little tired of the same questions, this newfound enthusiasm over and curiosity about reggaeton has also resulted in some cool invitations and some strong media. Allow me to round up a little of it here.

First, I want to say that I had an absolute blast talking with Uproot Andy, Riobamba, Isabelia Herrera, and, of course, reggaeton pioneer DJ Nelson at the Redbull Music Festival back in May. We did a live version of Andy’s and Sara’s internet radio show, “Bien Buena,” where the three of us essentially took turns asking Nelson to recount some of the highlights of his career and the genre’s history. Alas, I don’t think the audio is available, though I’m hoping it might one day appear. Really, though, I would die for a video of the event, especially the moment where Nelson reached over and played classic reggaeton drum sounds that I had loaded on my laptop, noting which particular drums he himself had sampled! (I was in reggaeton scholar heaven at that moment, as anyone who was there will attest.) At least I’ve got this sweet photo to show for it —

That said, I do have some excellent video to share courtesy of Al-Jazeera Plus, who recently produced two short pieces about reggaeton, race, gender, and a host of other issues. In addition to yours truly looking academic in a Berklee classroom, there are some really wonderful performers and scholars who contribute to the videos (and AJ+ was fortunate to find out about the Redbull festival in time to catch up with the likes of DJ Negro and Ivy Queen). Here’s the first one —

The second video, focused on the role of women in reggaeton, does not appear to be on YouTube, but you can watch it on Twitter or FB.

While I’m here collecting reggaetony media, I’ve got to put in another shoutout to Eddie Cepeda for his work in this vein. His piece for Redbull on the history of the Noise is required reading, and I was glad to see some my ol’ words appear in his piece on Luny Tunes. I also spoke with Eddie for a piece he wrote about perreo and its wider Afrodiasporic genealogy — a topic I’ve written about before and which I’ve thought about in greater historical depth through the “American Social Dance” class I’ve been teaching at Berklee.

Recently, Eddie tweeted that “We need more reggaeton scholars.” I absolutely agree, though I can’t help but feel that Eddie is a little sick of citing me LOL. Anyway, the game is wide open, and work is being done. I hope all this activity can help to stimulate a next generation of people writing about this music, and I remain humbled by the contributions I’ve made as an engaged outsider.

Ok, one more thing, as reggaeton does figure in it (yet again). Below I will embed a video of my keynote, “From Breakbeats to Fruity Loops. Small Sounds and Scenes in the Age of the DAW,” delivered last December at the “Future Sound of Pop Music” symposium at Bern University of the Arts. As the title suggests, I’m interested in a variety of scenes in which creative re-use of communal, cherished sounds becomes absolutely central. In the keynote I discuss reggaeton in those terms (and demonstrate some dembow), alongside hip-hop, bubbling, and ballroom. Here’s the abstract for a little more detail:

In contrast to the aesthetics fostered by turntable practice in the 1970s and by the first generation of digital samplers in the 80s – both oriented toward vinyl-based repertories and familiar grooves – a more atomized approach to sample-based music has emerged over the last decade in the wake of widespread access to music software and broadband access to a global musical archive. The advent of the digital audio workstation (DAW), especially the virtual step-sequencer known as FL Studio (or Fruity Loops), has served to extend and intensify the sample-based practices of previous generations. This is especially audible in the establishment of new canons of cherished, iconic samples among certain circles of producers and of listening, dancing publics. A genre or musical public may now be based as much around a small set of samples – and their distinctive timbres – as, say, conventions of rhythm, tempo, harmony, or form. Notably, such samples can be surprisingly small as they speak volumes.

The resonant snares of reggaeton, the tamborzao toolkit of Brazilian funk, the “Ha” stab of the ballroom/vogue scene, the “Ice Rink” clink percolating through UK club music and beyond – and let’s not forget the myriad emulations of practically every drum machine Roland produced in the 1980s – all of these serve as potent cultural dogwhistles, addressing musical publics and shared among private and public networks of producers. Today, musical publics gathered around all manner of popular (and obscure) electronic dance music are more likely to be hailed by a set of brief sonic signifiers than by looping breakbeats or well-worn melodies; the new instrument of choice, the DAW, looms as large over this ascendant approach as the turntable or the guitar did in their own heydays.

This atomized, “timbral” turn in musical production would thus seem to reiterate the familiar story of how profoundly an instrument can shape the sound of music through its particular affordances and constraints – even an instrument so seemingly “neutral” as an “empty” DAW. At the same time, we also bear witness to the ways musicians (and the listening/dancing publics implicated by their productions) inevitably use instruments according to particular cultural logics, political economies, and social contexts. This lecture will explore and examine some of these scenes and sounds, probing the implications for creativity and authorship, ownership and participation, repertory and community.

Add comment August 6th, 2018

Música Negra to Pop Reggaeton

I think the jury’s still out on whether the so-called “Despacito effect” will translate into a sustained presence of Spanish-language hits in the Hot 100, in regular radio rotation, on top-level pop playlists (and not just reggaeton / Latin ones), and so forth. I’m sure the “YouTube factor” will continue to make these decisions increasingly less provincial, but so far, aside from Fonsi and Yankee, I’ve only otherwise heard J Balvin and Bad Bunny on the local Anglo hip-hop & R&B station.

I’d say, however, that there has been a pronounced effect on the public discourse about reggaeton / dembow / urban Latin pop, and that may prove a powerful factor in its own right. Despite that I get a kick — and maybe even wring a little hope — out of the implicit political statement of a song like “Despacito” dominating pop music under the most xenophobic president in decades, I agree that the song will not save us. And I am heartened to see so much critical conversation happening around the genre in the wake of new prominence and an expanding public.

Last week, I spoke with Riobamba and Uproot Andy — soon to launch a co-hosted monthly radio show called “Bien Buena” — about the history of dembow, and we discussed the implications of reggaeton moving from the social margins to the pop mainstream over the course of its history. This shift in the publics that reggaeton artists address, as I argued ten years back, paralleled the changing names and sounds of the genre: from “música negra” (a chant often heard on proto-reggaeton, underground mixtapes) to “reggaeton latino” (a Don Omar hit directly indexing a broader Latin American heritage), and from references to dancehall and hip-hop to suggestions of bachata, salsa, and other putatively Latin genres. In recent years, especially with the rise of the slick, “sanded down” Colombian sound — and a set of lighter-skinned stars — the genre has arguably undergone an additional process of blanqueamiento.

So I was glad to see — also last week — the issue taken up directly in the first post of a new column by Eddie Cepeda devoted to “reggaeton’s history, sociopolitical struggles, and its impact as a global force in music and culture.” (Notably, both the column and the radio show take their names from songs by El General, the Afro-Panamanian reggae en español pioneer who is as much a “godfather of reggaeton” as anyone.) Go ahead and read the whole thing, but I want to share the provocative and promising final paragraphs:

Reggaeton has come a long way from the besieged “música negra” of the caseríos. And it’s more important now than ever to tell the story of how it got here. Reggaeton’s increased visibility will undoubtedly lead to further dilution of the genre, which purists say is already coming in the form of the “sanded-down” new wave of Colombian artists leading the genre’s charge over the charts. The gradual blanqueamiento of a genre is nothing new. Jazz, blues, and disco have all suffered from similar battles – both from attempted regulation and from industry sanitization. The Larry Levans of yesteryear are replaced by the Diplos of today.

Musical commodification is never monolithic. There’s complex nuance in a genre’s growth. Reggaeton’s domination is important for Latinx visibility on a global scale, but at what price? As the genre increases in acceptance and popularity, it’s key to remember that it was considered low-class and dangerous when it was predominantly read as black. The image that reggaeton’s new wave of marketable, light-skinned stars portray sweeps its origins as “música negra” under the rug, and affirms colorism’s strong grip on Latin American culture. That’s not to say that the artists leading reggaeton’s pop surge shouldn’t be allowed to the party. But a truly inclusive understanding of Latinidad and its diverse, complex communities should represent all facets of it – especially the Afro-diasporic communities who created it.

I’m looking forward to reading more from Eddie, and I’m grateful for the nod/cite/link he provides to my chapter in the Reggaeton book. It’s a little stunning to me that the essay is now a decade old, and I’m thrilled that the story I tried to suss out remains relevant to the contemporary convo.

I’ve been wanting to share the article as a “freeDF” for years now, and this seems as good a moment as ever. So for those who haven’t read it yet and aren’t going to buy the book (but the book is good! get the book!) — you can download a PDF here:

Marshall, Wayne. “From Música Negra to Reggaeton Latino: The Cultural Politics of Nation, Migration, and Commercialization.” In Reggaeton, 19-76. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. [PDF]

I’ve also posted the PDF at this page, where you can find the musical figures / examples from the chapter and related materials.

2 comments February 7th, 2018

¡Antigua Vaina!

This mix amplifies the resonances between the music of 19th century composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk and the bedrock rhythm of reggaeton and a great deal of recent pop music — a/k/a, dembow. As much a tribute to Gottschalk’s faithful fantasias as to the numerous architects of dembow aesthetics, we hear in their juxtaposition how one particular Afrodiasporic beat has served as foundation for social music and dance across the Americas and across time. While it is tempting to interpret the recent ascent of dembow and other 3+3+2 “electronic tresillo” rhythms as part of a new wave of Afro-Caribbean influence on pop and club music, Gottschalk’s parlor proto-dembow of the mid-19th-century reveals this recent prominence as less a sea change than an old tide washing ashore once more — and, moreover, that the US is no exception in this pan-American history, no island unto itself.

This mix may be a novel confection, but the music here is more than a BRAND NEWWW NOW TING. It’s an ancestral wellspring. Not ¡NUEVA VAINA! but ¡ANTIGUA VAINA! — an ancient thing. Get hip already–

w&w, Louis Dembeau Gottschalk (¡Antigua Vaina!) [MP3 13:46 31mb]

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tracklist:

Bamboula: Danse des Negres, Op. 2 (1849)
The Banjo (Grotesque Fantasie), Op. 15 (1854)
Ojos Criollos: Danse Cubaine, Op. 37 (1859)
Danza, Op. 33 (1857)
Souvenir de la Havane, Op. 39 (1859)
Souvenir de Porto Rico: Marche des Gibaros, Op. 31 (1860)
b/w “Panameña” (Colon/Lavoe, 1970)

Historical Context

170 years before “Despacito” made the dembow as ubiquitous as ever, an 18-year-old composer and piano virtuoso from New Orleans deployed the same Afro-duple rhythm to score a remarkable international hit of his own. Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “Bamboula” took the Parisian salon scene by storm, and among others, Chopin sang his praises as the most impressive musician the United States had produced. Subtitled “Danse des Negres,” the composition was inspired by the songs and dances of Place Congo, or Congo Square, a public site where free and enslaved Africans would gather on Sundays to participate in a market and in collective singing and dancing. These gatherings began during French rule and continued for decades under the Spanish before New Orleans became US territory, and Place Congo remained a rare site where African and Afrodiasporic drumming and dancing were permitted even into the Anglo-American era.

Gottschalk’s oeuvre bears early witness to the popularity of certain Afrodiasporic rhythms that have become central to the entire world’s popular dance music. Fifty years before ragtime would popularize “syncopated” dance music and revolutionize the world of popular music and publishing, and 150 years before dancehall’s and reggaeton’s global pop insurgence, Gottschalk’s representations and “souvenirs” of the folk/dance music of New Orleans, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, et al., offer a wonderful sort of musical record — before audio recording was possible. In this sense, I’ve been using Gottschalk’s music in my classes to discuss the epistemological issues associated with recovering the musical past, and I like to compare him with the likes of Lomax, Gershwin, perhaps even a Diplo — as well as to Dvorak, Chopin, or Ellington for that matter.

His efforts were certainly received among his publics and contemporaries as of-a-piece with other attempts to use folk sources as the basis for art music. In some way, a composition like Bamboula is as close as we can get to hearing Congo Square — or at least echoes of the songs and rhythms that animated the dances there. The question of what Congo Square sounded like is what Ned Sublette, in The World That Made New Orleans, calls “the city’s great musical riddle” (121). It was in Sublette’s work, in fact, where I first began to learn about the significance of Gottschalk to American musical history (i.e., American in the broadest sense — not, as I joke with my students, the “greatest” sense). Incidentally, Sublette specifically invokes Gottschalk to discuss this great riddle. Allow me to quote Ned’s punchy prose at some length:

Congo Square occupies a central place in the popular memory and imagination of New Orleans. At the core of it is the city’s greatest musical riddle: what did it sound like? Since we don’t have recordings, we don’t exactly know. But we have some knowledge of the instruments that were played at Congo Square.

And I think I have a pretty good idea of at least one rhythm that was played there.

… It’s a simple figure that can generate a thousand dances all by itself, depending on what drums, registers, pitches, or tense rests you assign to which of the notes, what tempo you play it, and how much you polyrhythmacize it by laying other, compatible rhythmic figures on top of it. It’s the rhythm of the aria Bizet wrote for the cigarette-rolling Carmen to sing (though he lifted the melody from Basque composer Sebastián Yradier), and it’s the defining rhythm of reggaetón. You can hear it in the contemporary music of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico, to say nothing of the nineteenth-century Cuban contradanza. It’s Jelly Roll Morton’s oft-cited “Spanish tinge,” it’s the accompaniment figure to W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” and you’ll hear it from brass bands at a second line in New Orleans today. At half speed, with timpani or drum set, it was a signature rhythm of the Brill Building songwriters, and it was the basic template of clean-studio 1980s corporate rock. You could write it as a dotted eighth, sixteenth, and two eighths. If you don’t know what I’m talking about yet, it’s the rhythm of the first four notes of the Dragnet theme. DOMM, DA DOM DOM.

It’s the rhythm the right hand repeats throughout “La Bamboula (Danse des Negres),” Op. 2, a piano piece composed in 1848 to international acclaim by the eighteen-year-old Domingan-descended New Orleanian piano prodigy Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1830-70). A stellar concert attraction of his time, and, in this writer’s opinion, the most important nineteenth-century U.S. composer, Gottschalk’s legacy is inexplicably neglected today in his home country. As a toddler, he lived briefly on Rampart Streetm about a half mile down from Congo Square, at a time when the dances were still active, and he would have, like other New Orleanians in the old part of town, been familiar with the sound of the square. Some have suggested that Gottschalk was not trying to evoke the sound of Congo Square literally in the piece. But I think Gottschalk was telling us something: when they danced the bamboula at Congo Square, they repeated that rhythm over and over, the way Gottschalk’s piano piece does, the way reggaetón does today–and over that rhythm, they sang songs everyone knew.

Frederick Starr identifies the basis for the main theme of Gottschalk’s “Bamboula” as a popular song of old Saint-Domingue, “Quan’ patate la cuite,” which Gottschalk learned from Sally, his black Domingan governess. Was Gottschalk, a programmatic composer, drawing a sound portrait of a dance at Congo Square? And might he be inadvertently telling us that the singing, drumming, and dancing circles put popular melodies into their own rhythms and style? (121-125)

Sounds a lot like reggaeton, dembow, and dancehall to me! And not just in conceptual terms — i.e., invoking familiar melodies over cherished rhythms. What is especially striking is that the rhythmic figures in question are, in essence, one and the same: that ol’ 3+3+2, especially in the form of a tresillo (A) or habanera / tango pattern (B) and/or as the slightly embellished, 5-strike form (C) that became a signature rhythm in ragtime (and appears in so many other styles since, including as a common 4th or 8th measure turnaround in reggaeton productions).

A:
B:
C:

Indeed, the words that may have underpin “Bamboula” as a Place Congo chant themselves appear to engender this 5-strike rhythm:

The word bamboula here, notably, sits at the crux of the dembow rhythm. You could imagine J Balvin saying it instead of “Beyoncé” or “C’est comme-ci … c’est comme-ça” or Wyclef subbing it in for “Bonita … Mi Casa” or Lionel Richie putting it in place of “Fiesta … Forever.” In other words, this figure’s been around, still underpins so much, and as such offers a wonderful way to counterpose seemingly disparate songs and styles.

And that’s how we arrive at this mix, at least conceptually. The technical aspects are another concern entirely. I’ll offer some discussion of those dimensions below for anyone who’d care to read further.

Technical Notes and General Poetics

I’ve sought to bring these two bodies of work — Gottschalk and dembow — together on each other’s terms as much as possible, honoring at once (while also inevitably violating) the aesthetic priorities of programmatic classical and reggae/ton.

Let’s talk about the violations first: in order to match up Gottschalk’s music with dembow loops, I have had to remove nearly all of the rubato elements — i.e., expressive tempo dynamics — from the performances of his work. I suppose I could have attempted to impose rubato effects on the drum loops, but I actually believe that the grooves that inspired Gottschalk were unlikely to feature as many timing variations as he builds into his compositions and his modern interpreters bring to bear on them — correctly so, given that many of these pieces invite such a capriccio treatment, leaving timing decisions to the whims of the performer. So I decided to “flatten” out this aspect of Gottschalk’s music, turning elastic tempos into entraining, locked-in dance grooves. (I also shifted the various tempi of his compositions so they all roll along at a rather reggaetony 100bpm.) This, of course, required meticulous, Ableton-abetted “warping” at the level of nearly every measure (and sometimes every beat), and it probably took up the largest chunk of time of any of the procedures involved in the production of this mix.

I have also, rather than honoring the full integrity of his composition, employed selective fragments of Gottschalk’s works — namely, the parts of his compositions that feature tresillo-style figures. This “sampling” strategy seems, to me, consistent both with reggae/ton practice and with Gottschalk’s own tendency toward a certain level of pastiche, quotation, and recontextualization.

Moreover, the drums here — that is, the dembow loops (including two of the most common “Dem Bow” pistas and a handful of Sly & Robbie loops, many titled “DembowLoop5,” etc.) — are as important and as prominent in the mix as the piano. This is a duet of sorts, and so I am necessarily bringing a strong reggae/ton presence to the proceedings, including the use of airhorns, sirens, winking samples, and other classic mixtape / DJ drops, as well as drums that punch aggressively through the texture.

On the other hand, I have attempted to honor and employ some of the affordances of classical music in the mix, and this includes manipulations of the dembow drum loops. For one, I have attempted to be mirror some of the intensity dynamics in Gottschalk’s music by lowering and raising the volume of the drums at appropriate times. More radically, I have chopped, layered, and rearranged the various drum loops to the point where they closely match and complement the rhythms of Gottschalk’s pieces. The drums in this mix sometimes sound less like loops than through-composed elements. In this sense, I am frequently following Gottschalk’s lead, even as I submit his music to a somewhat quantized groove.

While Gottschalk’s rhythmic vitality is what I’m mainly looking to harness and highlight here, the degree of melodic variation and harmonic transformation in his music offers a refreshing contrast to the more repetitive melodies and reduced harmonic structures of reggae and reggaeton. Notably, and usefully, Gottschalk often builds these variations in a manner that mirrors the additive and subtractive layering in a reggaeton track. This provides an opportunity to underscore, beyond their Afro-duple rhythms, other things these genres have in common despite the fair distance between them in terms of time and aesthetics.

Gottschalk’s works and reggaeton productions both tend toward clear demarcations of regular, sectional development. In reggaeton, this has tended to be marked with shifting snare samples, reflecting an earlier practice of swapping out favorite loops during maratón rap sessions. In the classical forms Gottschalk was working in — if often such permissive / vague forms as fantasie or caprice — we hear this approach more in terms of sectional melodic variation and harmonic development. Together in the mix, these parallels work strikingly well — as well, I think (and hope), as the fundamental rhythmic overlap that inspired this entire exercise.

Implications and Reflections

Formally speaking, Gottschalk favored fantasies and caprices, especially for his lively piano pieces, and I myself have made some capricious choices that I hope are in the spirit (both of Gottschalk and of reggae/ton). One of these involves bringing in an excerpt of Willie Colon’s and Hector Lavoe’s “Panameña” toward the end of the mix — a decision that posed substantial technical / aesthetic difficulties. (Because each piece takes a slightly different approach to re-harmonizing the song, I’ve settled on a slightly sour, “woozy chipmunk” attempt to make them mostly line up.)

Even though “Panameña” is in a different key than Gottschalk’s Souvenir de Porto Rico, I couldn’t resist putting them together as both cite the same Puerto Rican folk song, an aguinaldo often sung as “Si Me Dan Pasteles.” The reference appears in the montuno section of “Panameña” where it serves as a potent invocation of Puerto Rican identity amidst a broader message of pan-Latinidad. As Lavoe sings,

yo canto guajira
yo canto danzón

le canto un bolero
canto un guaguancó

pero no me olvido
del aguinaldo
pero nunca olvido
el aguinaldo

The sonero’s sentiments are affirmed as the chorus responds with a distinctively Boricua refrain, “lo le lo lay” — honoring Puerto Rican musical forms alongside the Cuban and pan-Latin forms that Lavoe cites.

One thing that I hope my mix does, which is one thing that I believe Gottschalk’s music does, is to extend this idea of the deep, audible, palpable connectedness of the Caribbean and Latin America — of the diaspora and the creolized New World — so that it also includes the United States, not as an outlier or an exception but as one node among many in a network, at once a source and a destination, a distinctive set of social and cultural contexts which are, nonetheless, enmeshed in hemispheric and trans-Atlantic connections.

Among other things, this mix is, then, a proposal that we hear the US’s own Afrodiasporic heritage as alongside and inextricable rather than exceptional — and inextricable because of the echoing legacies that are a consequence of slavery and the creole societies that follow in the wake.

This is, finally, simply, a souvenir, of Moreau and dembow both — for me and for anyone else with whom it resonates as something to think, sing, or even dance along with.

Add comment January 11th, 2018

Arcademish Ish

Last year I published a couple reviews that land somewhere between the realm of ethno/musicology and music criticism — a netherworld I obviously like to explore. One piece engages with the multimedia work of Arca; the other with a cheeky French rap video. One appeared in an academic journal devoted to Latin American art and literature; the other in a museum in Europe alongside an installation of the video and other critical commentary (and then, in an actual book). See below for links and excerpts.

Marshall, Wayne. 2015. “Contortions to Match Your Confusion: Digital Disfigurement and the Music of Arca.” Literature and Arts of the Americas 48(1): 118-22. (PDF)

“Día de los Muertos,” a mix released in late October 2014 by Houston’s Svntv Mverte (aka Santa Muerte), a DJ duo with a name invoking “Mexico’s cult of Holy Death, a reference to the worship of an underground goddess of death and the dead,” opens with an ominous, arresting take on reggaeton. A moody, flickering bed of synths struggles to spring into action before the snap of slow, syncopated snares whips up a perreo-worthy dembow over a bassline so deep that its pitch seems negligible, indeterminate, a force more palpable than audible. As the low-end nearly collapses under its own weight, an upper register synth slices through the atmosphere, soaring and faltering, more Icarus than Superman. The haunting but hopeful lead flutters across a foreboding sonic landscape, ghostly trails of reverb in its wake. A bittersweet tune, it could be cloying but for its warbling, almost pathetic qualities. Instead, a poignant frailty undercuts the digital promise of perfection. The baleful melody traverses a shifting ground of textural breaks and freaky filters, shimmering as it shape-shifts. Remarkably through-composed for loop-centered music, Arca’s “Thievery” seems as committed to repetition and rhythm as variation and development. As such, it is an excellent opening for a set, and a fine introduction to the distinctive sound of Arca, aka Alejandro Ghersi. …

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Marshall, Wayne. “Who Deserves It?” Seismographic Sounds: Visions of a New World, Theresa Beyer, Thomas Burkhalter, Hannes Liechti (eds.), 54-5. Bern: Norient Books, 2015. (HTML)

… Low-fi but slick, Charni employs repetition, rhythm, and simple but delirious digital effects to furnish Banane, Waltaa, and friends with Tumblr-esque cascades of free-floating objects of desire: cash, weed, sportswear, nostalgic devices like skypagers and flip phones. Also, French fries and kebab. And faces – many faces, often close up, showcasing a crew as motley as proletarian Paris. They are so fresh that their fashion and facial gestures, in the hip register of the day, appear as flat in affect as their vintage clothes are crisp. Less like they’re looking into a camera than a mirror, or a smartphone. …

2 comments January 6th, 2016

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Wayne&Wax

I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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