boston, jamaica USA
the first few days after returning to boston all i could think was, i've never seen so many white people in my life. i relished the wonderful--and instant--anonymity. driving around cambridge, i was struck by the tidiness of the place and, fortunately, not struck by any cars on the wrong side of the road. (i continue to perplex pedestrians with my left-leaning walk.) so many fewer potholes, burning piles of trash, and--alas--shapely asses. and not a goat to be found. still, for all the differences i feel between here and jamaica, i have been equally struck by the way jamaica has followed me home, or, perhaps, the way it has come out of hiding, having been here all along.
the windows of our new apartment in harvard square face out to mass ave, letting in maybe more traffic sound than we heard on hope road. i've already grown adept at blocking out the roars of trucks and tour-buses, though i am frequently grabbed by a loud car stereo.
(view from window: enough harvard for ya?)
several times already, dancehall's distinctive 3+3+2 has been the bass that caught my ear. sometimes the beat is submerged enough that it is impossible to discern whether it is bounty killer or simply r kelly's "snake" (which features a straight dancehall riddim and was already rather popular in jamaica by early june). the diwali riddim seems to be taking on viral qualities, ubiquitous not just in sean paul's and wayne wonder's hits but now spawning US versions of songs on the riddim. i've heard a couple different american female voices on it, and people tell me that old dirty bastard has a song on it too. the diwali's bouncy, half-house, half-dancehall, quasi-bhangra beat is unmistakable, even from several cars away, muffled by trunks and windows. moving around the city and encountering dancehall around every turn, i know that the reggae in my head is no illusion. dancehall strong in boston. and nuff of it in spanish. dominicanos y puertoriquenos been representin'. so the riddims come at you from all sides around here, especially if you've got your ears open.
even though i somewhat suspected, and secretly hoped, that such was the case, i have to admit that i am still pleasantly surprised by the jamaican presence in these parts. i had been meaning to make it over to blue hill ave in dorchester where, i have been told, there is a significant caribbean community. mostly, i've been hoping to find a local source for the jamaican cuisine that i already miss. i've also heard that three c's--the caribbean cultural center--is the place to find reggae music round these parts. i happened to be in the neighborhood one morning last week. i was downtown doing a digital music demonstration at the washington heights community computer center in roxbury (where i will begin regular workshops next week). during my lunch hour i decided to cruise down blue hill ave and see what i could find. the first thing i noticed was an SUV pumping beenie man's "row like a boat." this sighting was followed by several other vehicles bouncing along to the sounds of jamaica. i kept my eyes peeled for restaurants amid the beauty shops and record and clothing boutiques. finally i passed a place called the pepper pot (381 blue hill ave), and i knew i had struck gold. i walked in to find two large glass cases: one containing patties and loaves, the next displaying escoveitch fish, oxtail, ackee and saltfish, callalloo, and other trad dishes. i only had a buck and some change on me (money done! good thing i'm starting to work again), which was enough for a patty. the young man working the counter said he had grown up in jungle/arnett gardens (a rough part of kingston) and that he had come north because there was no $ in JA. he also told me that there is no way to get fresh ackees in the united states, which is a big disappointment (i still have hopes for miami). canned ackees will have to do, though they are hard to come by this far north. while i was at the pepper pot, i picked up some fliers for upcoming reggae events in the area. there seem to be quite a few, including one event promising a dance-off between junko, the 2002 dancehall queen of jamaica (and the first japanese gal to be so crowned, which caused quite an uproar last summer), and dancehall stacy, representing kingston.
another remarkable thing about driving down blue hill ave is the way the shops begin to shift from jamaican to latino, as the full range of the caribbean offers its familiar wares to diasporans (even if in canned form). there's never a clear cut separation, though. it's all mixed up. while attending a digital music workshop that byron was conducting at camfield, i appreciated the complete lack of irony on a latino teen's face when he said that his favorite music was reggae, citing beenie man and sean paul as two artists he liked in particular. though of salvadorean descent and well-versed in salsa and merengue (he told me he plays bass, timbales, and congas with friends and family), he spent his time working on a dancehall riddim that was plainly in the jamaican tradition. another young man participating in the workshop told me he played bomba (a puerto rican drumming tradition) with his father and brother, but he spent his time working on a hip-hop and a techno track. he told me about his current favorite artist, tego calderon, a puerto rican rapper who draws equally on hip-hop and reggae and throws plenty of bomba and salsa in the mix, too. he ran home and grabbed tego's latest cd to play me some tracks. sure enough, the songs almost seemed to alternate between rap and reggae in equal parts. great stuff. clearly, the spanish caribbean is yet another fascinating vantage point for a convergence of musical styles. it is not surprising that hip-hop and dancehall are the predominant influences. i find more and more that the two styles travel together, sometimes appearing as a hybrid, sometimes retaining their distinctive sonic markers (and thematic predilections).
one song on tego's cd that really caught my ear was "bonsai," which features the same sample of michigan and smiley's "diseases" riddim that was sampled by both BDP and black star (not to mention an odd reference to the original song's lyrics by nas--"the most dangerous diseases" becomes "the most dangerous MCs is...coming out of queensbridge"). i've been chasing this sample around for a while. it's striking the way it keeps turning up in different guises. despite the way it gets dressed up in the latest (hip-hop) production style, its use always seems to signify a real engagement with classic dancehall reggae. at some point, i plan to write an essay devoted entirely to the movement of this guitar riff, and i was delighted to find yet another example coming from such an interesting source. it is clear that a generation of people who grew up with rap and reggae (and MTV and BET) are finding rich ways to express themselves through such styles. some see the death of salsa in spanish rap, but the final track on tego's album--a full salsa, featuring an intrepid rap toward the end (it's quite a difficult tempo for rap)--would seem to assuage any such fears.
i've also had the opportunity to revisit--post-jamaica--the phoenix landing, a pub in central square in cambridge, which features reggae and hip-hop every monday night. i was excited to return to the club where i spent a number of evenings last year trying to soak up as much reggae as i could, pre-jamaica, and get a sense of the way that hip-hop and reggae mix together here up north. i was also excited to have my friend marvin hall, who was visiting us for about 10 days, along with me on one night. i was curious about how marvin, as a native jamaican, would find the performance. his main response was positive: he was glad to find a place so far from home where he could hear such familiar sounds, and it was clear to him that the selectors had done their homework. i had always found the night a little amusing, as jamaican-style selecting departs so starkly from american-style DJing. perhaps the most striking difference is the way that a selector will talk-over the records more frequently, exhorting the crowd and providing information about the tune, often interrupting the flow of the music at odd times. the practice of pull-ups and quick, choppy song transitions also sets reggae spinning apart from, say, hip-hop spinning, where the focus is more on creating a nearly seamless, smooth mix between songs (which includes carefully matching tempos, bringing in the records on the right beat [the one], and rarely playing the same thing twice in a row or interrupting the flow of the song with a comment). it is always interesting to watch the selectors at the phoenix--who both happen to be white--perplex the crowd with their shrill-sounding (the result of a louder mic-to-music ratio than US patrons are used to), patois-inspired talkover, complete with denunciations of batty bwoys, which seem out of place in cambridge, even if the majority of the crowd never seems to understand.
marvin's perspective on the evening was illuminating. the first thing he pointed out was that, in comparison to a jamaican dance, the drinks were different (not enough red stripe and guinness), people were not as dressed-up as they usually are, and, though the dancing picked up as the night wore on, there were not quite enough people on the floor, nor were they responding in the same way as jamaicans do (e.g., no one was doing the "log-on" dance when elephant man's song came on). at times, marvin's gun-shot fingers-in-the-air were all alone, save for those of the selectors and a few jamaicans and reggae enthusiasts in the crowd. in terms of song selection, marvin pointed out that the selectors did several things that set them apart from their jamaican counterparts. for one thing, they juxtaposed songs and artists from different eras (e.g., shabba ranks and elephant man), which is unheard of in JA. this seemed to be the greatest difference: the cambridge selectors did not fulfill what marvin described as jamaican expectations for tracks that follow tracks. often particular songs by particular artists are always followed by other particular songs by particular artists. marvin called this a depth problem, assuming that the guys simply did not have enough records to bring in songs from particular eras (an era could be as short a period as three months, it seems) that support other songs and thus create anticipation and "build the vibe." according to marvin, a big selector in JA would play "small" songs on a particular riddim before getting to the "big" ones, and they would simply never play certain songs on certain riddims. when they played beenie man's song on the liquid riddim, for instance, marvin noted that that track gets no play in JA. in a related point, he also said that, although the guys clearly had "newer stuff" and were up-to-date with which artists were hot (ele, beenie, spragga, sizzla), they did not seem in tune with which particular tracks were popular and would excite a jamaican audience. they know sizzla's big, so they play sizzla, but not the same tracks you would hear in jamaica this month. (in their defense, they opened last monday's midnight set with "just one of those days," noting, correctly, that the song is mashing up the place in jamaica right now. of course, this was more the case six-weeks ago, but it didn't matter: i seemed to be the only one with my fingers in the air anyway.) marvin continually reiterated, however, that he fully approved of and enjoyed what he heard and saw. the phoenix guys clearly demonstrate a love for and deep engagement with jamaican music, and that comes through regardless of these interesting stylistic differences.
a lot of these differences can be explained, i think, as the result of a connoisseur approach to the music that almost necessarily arises from this distant vantage point. these boston-based selectors have to get a lot of their music and information second-hand, and it takes on a different quality so removed from its original context. heavily influenced by soundclash culture (available through tapes, CDs, and videos), they prize b-sides and other rarities, as opposed to the latest radio hits (which aren't radio hits here at any rate). last monday, i spoke to one of the selectors, voyager one, who told me that he gleaned most of his jamaican-style spinning from soundclash tapes and that he had learned how to spin records from a hip-hop DJ, which accounts for the relative smoothness of the mix. it also explains the selectors' willingness to draw from various eras at once and to link songs together thematically or musically (e.g., shabba and ele), instead of according to established convention. voyager one added that the stylistic differences stem also from the difference in audience. because the audience rarely calls for pull-ups, for example, there are many fewer pull-ups than you'd find at a jamaican dance. in addition, there is more expectation of a smooth mix. voyager one seemed pretty content with the night and not terribly bothered by the "inauthentic" ramifications of such stylistic departures. as he ended our conversation to return to the DJ-stand, he went to give me a pound on the fist--jamaican-style. having already slipped back into boston-style pounds, though, i extended an open-hand. at the last moment, i realized that he was coming with a fist, so i made one. at the same time, he opened his hand up to accommodate mine. it all ended in a slightly embarrassing finger-mush. "oops," i said, "i forgot." "it always happens," he said. "it always happens." somehow, our stumbling toward a jamaican-american handshake nicely symbolized the difficulties of maintaining a close, embodied connection to such a far away place. fortunately, there are nuff reminders around here. seen?