freestyle friday, thursday too

i spent thursday evening hanging with makonnen and multicast for a while, freestyling over homemade riddims. it was makonnen's birthday--his eighteenth. i spent a month during august and september of last year living with mak and his mother, barbara blake-hannah. during that time i became immersed in multicast's almost daily performing and recording sessions. if we weren't building rhythms, we were rapping or DJing over them. it was quite a prolific period for me and a wonderful introduction to the kingston hip-hop scene, for lack of a better term. for an eighteen-year-old, makonnen is quite accomplished already: hailed as a home-schooled wunderkind, mak was named youth advisor to the minister of technology at 13 because of his early facility with computers. since then, mak has devoted himself almost entirely to making music on computers, working in a musical style somewhere between dancehall and hip-hop, and using much of the same software as i. the two of us hit it off when we got a chance to hang out last summer. we learned a lot from each other by creating music together, sharing tricks and aesethetic preferences.

it appears that multicast's frenetic creative pace has not abated since i was last here. makonnen had plenty of new rhythms to play me, not to mention some new songs, several featuring well-known names in jamaican music. multicast's roster also seems to have expanded in their favor. in addition to the original group--mak, dami d, scrum dilly, plumzel, c-pro--one now finds raw-raw, brooklyn, and a number of other talented performers, from singers to dub poets, getting in on the action. it's an exciting scene: almost nightly one finds several of the crew hanging out, freestyling and rehearsing songs over riddims blasting out of mak's souped-up computer. "yard hip-hop" they call it, quite consciously--hip-hop with a jamaican accent (in both speech and music), or dancehall with an american accent.

when i returned home from makonnen's, i called howard campbell, the IT director at st. andrews high school for girls, who i had the pleasure to meet at the harvard-jamaica dinner, to find out when becca and i could come and offer a demo and perhaps a workshop. howard had been busy all week with debating what seems to be an imminent teachers' strike in jamaica--taking "industrial action," they call it. it appears that there will probably be no school on monday and tuesday next week. jamaican teachers have the same problem as teachers in the states: they are terribly undervalued; here, it is to the point where their salary increase is nowhere near the cost of inflation. apparently, the teachers now feel that they must make a stronger statement than their negotiators could. despite these travails, however, howard invited us to come in the next morning to give a demo as well as a workshop.

howard picked us up at about quarter to eight friday morning, and the three of us drove down hope road toward half-way tree. we arrived at st. andrews via the hope road entrance, which is the back entrance but close to the vocational and performing arts facilities. on the third floor of the vocational building, howard runs a couple of computer labs. we used the larger one to do a demonstration of digital music making, eliciting unique sounds to use in our first st. andrew's riddim. the girls were clearly drawn in by the ability to see and hear a few sounds coalesce into familiar genres and rhythms. in the next hour, howard chose about twelve students ("self-selected," he said, by their participation in the first part) to join becca and me in the smaller computer lab for a hands-on workshop.

the workshop proved to be quite productive, if a little cacophonous at times. (half a dozen computers blasting beats together in a small room can create quite a sound clash, to use the local term; headphones are helpful). through their own predilections, and the contingent curve-balls of the creative process, the girls came up with some diverse stylings. "catherine's rock rhythm" (as she titled it), probably takes its name from the "dirty-guitar" sample that, unfortunately, is missing here since i seem to be missing it in my own sound bank (i am converting it to mp3 on my laptop today, away from the school). nevertheless, it puts a strong foot forward with its bouncy bed of techno--not the most popular genre here but one in which a couple of girls decided to create. sydoney and zelieka collaborated to create a rhythm that, while borrowing from the neptune's ubiquitous grindin' beat (in the third and fourth bars of each six-bar, AABBAA phrase), almost defies category with its future-funk, electro-slanted hip-hop. and "shanika's hip-hop beat" is, quite honestly, one of the illest things i have heard in a while. not bad for a first try, at any rate. it was a promising initial workshop, the fruits of which we will soon appear as well on the new st. andrews high school web-page, built on skyBuilders technology so that howard, or better, interested students, can manage it themselves quite easily. i am excited by the new palpability of the digital music project in kingston. we've already got some music, which means young kingstonians can already begin sharing their efforts with their peers in boston and vice versa.

we went home to have lunch and do laundry. at two o'clock we headed back to the school to do another demo--this one for an afterschool music club, which seemed like an appropriate audience. (although i must admit i am aiming, generally, at kids not yet into music or technology, those already into one area make an easy catch.) howard told us on the way down hope road that a buzz was already passing through the school, accelerated in part by my famous name. we had some time to see the grounds before the music club meeting, so howard showed us around. most impressive was a front courtyward area where girls were hanging out and waiting to be picked up from school. the architecture was very open, and so were the attitudes of the girls, free of the self-consciousness that the presence of the opposite sex inevitably causes. one group of girls stood in a circle under a tree, coaxing a makeshift rhythm out of an empty-coke bottle and an igloo thermos. they were DJing, laughing, dancing and exhorting each other. it was an absolutely wonderful moment of improvisation and collective music- making. as howard (with his video camera), i (with mic and laptop), and becca (with her digital camera) moved in for some samples, it was clear that this cipher--hip-hop term for a freestyling group, usually in circlular form--was no rehearsal. these girls were not only creating extemporaneous raps in DJ-style, they were humorously riffing on the topic of the hour: the imminent teachers' strike and the small holiday the students would enjoy.

as the girls waited for the beat to begin again (having located another empty coke bottle), one called out for them to freestyle, dubbing the day "freestyle friday"--a reference to a popular segment during a music-video program on BET (black enterntainment television, the american cable channel that is a favorite here, along with MTV and CNN). the seamlessness of this reference in the context of the girls' play is another testament to the fluidity of cultural forms here: hip-hop and other american exports are absorbed and spun-back out, sometimes more and sometimes less like a copy. today was no copy. the girls may have assimilated the hip-hop term for in-the-moment rap, but their form was strictly danchehall. hear the distinctive 3+3+2 dancehall beat, the staccato, end-rhyme style of the vocals, the chorus of gun-shot-big-ups that follow the first good rhyme, the "booyaka" refrain--more onamatopoetic gunfire--that cracks everyone up. listen closer for the topicality of the text: "ting-a-ling-a-ling / school bell na ring / go and let the teacher buy the bling-bling." the call to give the teachers some money to buy jewelry and other nice things--here encapsulated in the (originally, southern hip-hop) term, "bling-bling" (onomatopoiea for the shining of diamonds and the like)--is at once a crack at those not providing for their teachers and a good-natured ribbing for the teachers themselves (who are either impoverished or greedy by implication). and lest one think these students are disappointed about school being cancelled, they dispel any such notions with a "no school" celebratory chant.

many of the students were worried about the strike, including a number of them pursuing a rumor that howard, a clear favorite at st. andrews, would be resigning. as various girls ran up to greet him after school, howard assuaged their fears and pointed out that, although he may be "on strike," as they could see, he was still at school, and well into afterschool hours. as we continued walking through the grounds, on our way back to the computer lab, we came across a girl practicing piano in a large performance hall that stands in the middle of the campus. i got a little of her rendition of beethoven's moonlight sonata on my laptop, a chord of which ended up in the song i created with music club, who decided to do their own little version of sean paul's terribly popular, "gimme the light."

kids often choose to perform vocal samples from popular songs when i elicit sounds from them in a demo. what's funny is how often the same snippets surface in kingston and boston. significantly, the practice holds true not just for catchy vocal phrases, but for rhythms, too. most young people can spot dancehall's distinctive rhtyhm if you bang it out for them. the most common rhythm i encounter, however, is by far the neptune's grindin' beat, to which i referred above and which i elaborate on in my song notes to "the grind," the opening track on "no substitute." the beat seems to have the same kind of catchiness that jazz's "hot rhythms" had in the 1920s, when racists and old fogeys worldwide proposed banning such "infectious" airs in order to protect the morals of the young. i rarely taught a class last fall that did not have a student banging it out on a desk, or recreating it with a virtuosic, step-show-style combination of feet, chest, and arms, or asking me to show how the drums could be sequenced on fruityloops. in my demos, i now routinely turn my basic hip-hop break into the grindin' beat before morphing it into dancehall, and it never fails to elicit sympathetic head-bopping and a little singing-along. sure enough, a st. andrew's girl stepped up to the mic during the afternoon session and banged out the grindin' beat on the desk at which i sat (as others clapped along).

after the demo, which was received positively, complete with (in true jamaican style) some fairly formal and very charming thanks from the music club's spokesperson, i went back to the smaller lab to collect the tracks that the students had created in the morning so that i could post them in my blog. at four o'clock on a friday afternoon, the lab was full of girls making music, most of them new. very promising indeed.

(see becca's blog for another account of the day and some more pictures.)