<%@ LANGUAGE = VBScript %> <% sPageID = 208 %> <%= sHeadSpace %> <%= sMetaString %> wayne's blog (06-18-03) - paradise regained?

paradise regained?

becca and i fly back to boston on friday. and although i was more than ready to leave a month ago, i have to admit i feel a bit sorry to go at this point. jamaica has become a very familiar place to me. it has become a second home (maybe third--sorry, madison). there is no other place like it, and i will surely miss it when i go. somehow--perhaps aided by the consolation that i would return to the states on june 20--i have gotten over the maddening effects of everyday fuckery here. jamaican friends tell me that it goes in cycles: for months they will go through life unhindered by the nastiness, and then suddenly they'll erupt and find themselves all in a huff, cursing at strangers and mad at the world. at any rate, i'm glad to experience some downtime, if that's all this is. i think it's more than that, though: i think that i have come out on the other side of an existential crisis. before coming here i thought that i had figured out how to be in the world, how to relate to other human beings, and how to make the world a better place little by little, generous interaction by generous interaction. i realize now that it takes more vigilance, and more strength than i had, to go thusly through the world. i also realize that one must accept as fundamental the immense challenge of such an approach.

perhaps i knew this all along and repressed it, hoping that i could manifest paradise--good, easy living--by accepting no alternative. to be honest, i didn't really think of my life as a quest for paradise. betterment perhaps. but not paradise. i had long ago rejected such fantasies, such christian/manichean extremes. heaven and hell hold no interest for me. they're not useful categories, as far as i'm concerned. i was surprised when a friend wrote to me and suggested that, in the midst of my struggle with fuckery, the zen monk who rejects the old heaven-hell dichotomy must seem a bit silly. i did not think so really, since i find zen-buddhist philosophy more compelling than judeo-christian dictates (though i find their common ground quite interesting). what i found silly was the monkish idea of withdrawing from the world, which seems like a dead end to me, despite the benefits of solitude. what struck me, however, was my friend's implication that i was seeking paradise. i didn't see it this way, but i appreciated his reading. it made me think about what my goals and ideals really are, and whether they are tenable. most importantly, he reminded me that life never feels complete without challenges to keep it interesting. tr-true-true.

so i am trying to face the challenges with more grace these days. because i'm still a bit worn down by the whole experience, it's difficult. i'm definitely looking forward to being back in cambridge, where i feel more free. i hope to heal my wounds and hit the streets again with a renewed vigor. i want to float through life once more, unburdened by the inevitable stress and conflict one encounters. i want to do my best to avoid perpetuating these things and to reduce their effect on others. but i am not waiting for cambridge to do so. i am striving to start now--and generally succeeding. when i walk down the street here, i no longer feel so many eyes on me or hear so many epithets (or grant the ones i hear too much importance). i try to have a sense of humor (and sympathy) about the joyless clerks making me wait. i turn a deaf ear to guys on motorcycles calling me "red pussy face!" (it was hot. ok?) i avoid dealing with people who are too self-serving, paranoid, or bitter. and i take time to appreciate the wonderful relationships i have here, the incredibly strange and funny scenes i witness, and the rich experience i have had since january.

when i reflect back on the last five months, i have mixed feelings. i am disappointed in myself for letting shit get to me, and i am disappointed in the system that wore me down and the large number of people who sustain it. bun bad mind, as baby cham says. of all my endeavors here, i am most disappointed by the digital music project, which seemed to hold so much promise in the early stages. at one time, becca and i were visiting several different schools on a weekly basis, all of which had a handful of excited students producing tuff riddims. there was promise of an island- and caribbean-wide effort to use digital music to draw young people into technology, and i was simply waiting for critical mass to develop before connecting young jamaican music-makers with their counterparts up north. but, as i see it, institutional problems got the best of us. generally, we had little support within the schools we visited. i am grateful to howard campbell, marvin hall, lorna rowe, and edward seaga for connecting us to st. andrews, camperdown, innswood, and tivoli gardens in the first place. too often, however, becca and i have had to confront complete apathy on the part of school staff, if not outright resistance. with no teachers interested in continuing the program after we leave, it has little hope of survival--at least in the schools themselves. on the bright side, a number of student participants in the program (perhaps a dozen) now consider themselves producers, understand music as a craft, and see computers as powerful, and usable, tools. many of them have computers at home or access to one at a friend's house, and i am confident that the beat-making will continue after my departure. several students have told me they intend to stay in contact with me via the internet, sharing the new riddims they come up with. i still have hopes of connecting them to their peers in boston, some of whom are coming up on a year of digital music-making. i am looking forward to reconnecting with some of my old students, showing newcomers the ropes, and having access to the relatively resource-rich computer centers up north. (although we tried our best to make use of pre-existing resources here, and had some success, the difference that having new, powerful equipment makes is undeniable.)

so, to balance out my disappointment, i am glad to report some sense of closure and continued promise for our digital music project in jamaica. i just returned from a video shoot over at camperdown, where RETV was filming a segment on digital music there. (RETV stands for "reggae television"--a popular local cable station similar to MTV but with a jamaican focus.) it appears that camperdown has a rich musical history. its alumni include djs spragga benz and assassin and producer dave kelly. as the segment will argue, the digital music program there, and the talents it has tapped into, represents another chapter in the story. the shoot was a real reward for the regulars at camperdown who, through their enthusiasm and dedication, have made the project ultimately rewarding for me. when the camera and crew came into the lab, the students were visibly excited--and a bit nervous. they warmed up quickly, though, and before long they were comfortably walking the interviewer through their riddims, explaining about sound and form and giving me plenty of "big ups." the room turned into a little studio session, with students singing and dj'ing over the beats. at one point i joined in the fun and offered up a freestyle, whose references to camperdown, spragga benz, and several students in the room had the crowd "licking shots" in support (bomp! bomp!). there was a lot of positive energy in the room. the students were dancing and laughing and so was the RETV crew. it made for a great vibe and i think the video will translate into a nice little piece. for some of these kids, this could be huge, thrusting them into the spotlight. if nothing else, it's a hell of a confidence builder. it also has the potential to give the digital music project more life in jamaica. it's a great bit of exposure, and not just for our project, which, come friday, is over. it's good exposure for the concept of digital music, and digital media production, in general. plenty of people remain unaware about what one can do with a simple pc. perhaps higher demand will ensue and some people will take it on themselves to start their own programs. there are a number of fledgling community computer centers and techno-schools in jamaica poised to offer such workshops, and perhaps this little segment will provide a boost of interest in their efforts.

in other good project-related news, the computer lab at south camp is finally complete. we went in last week to see the progress and were greeted by the sounds of hammers and drills. when we returned this week, the work was finished. now a dozen computers line the walls of the room, each equipped for riddim-building. we held a session to review some of the basics, answer any questions that had come up (a few of the guys have been making beats in the library, teaching each other and the wardens how to use the software), and leave them with my lessons, an instruction manual, and some other useful media-creation software. becca also left them with a copy of lemmings, a problem solving game which has been a recent addiction for her. the men, inmates and warders both, were very appreciative and worked away, studiously as ever. it's nice to leave knowing that we were part of the push to get the lab done and get some activity happening there. we are excited about the possibilities. i'm can't wait to hear what they've come up with next time i'm in town.

when i reflect on my other endeavors here--specifically, making music and studying it--i am pretty satisfied with what i have accomplished. in the last few weeks the producer in me has been in high-gear. i've recorded close to ten new songs since the beginning of the month, and i will have plenty to take home and work on. the next wayne&wax album, which i'm calling boston jerk, is shaping up nicely as a sonic expression of my time here. the way i currently envision it is a series of songs (some collaborations with jamaican artists, some songs of my own inspired by jamaica) thematically interwoven by interview segments and sample-based pieces (e.g., crickets and waterfalls, taximen, radio emissions). all of the songs i've produced lately are works in progress, rough mixes, but i'd like to share a few right now to give a sense of what i've been up to. first, we have a it dat (which could translate to mean, "that's it" or "that's a hit"), featuring dami d and wasp over a bouyant dancehall riddim i produced a couple months ago. i came up with the idea of having each of us write our own choruses over the basic "a it dat" structure, and i think it works well.

i'd also like to share a couple of tunes i produced for raw raw, another young dj here. raw raw has a great "flip-tongue" style. i love the way the syllables spill out of his mouth. from all the riddims i played him, he selected two hip-hop-style beats but then set dancehall-style songs to them. the combination works. check out ready for the road for a bouncy badman tune. and it only seemed fitting for the "anthropologist of the streets" (as raw raw calls himself) and this musical anthropologist to collaborate on a song where the gaze is on society--babylon to be exact. anthropology takes the police, or the "blue-suit bwoy dem," as its subject. check out the nice little website becca developed for raw raw. between his ambitious and quirky ideas and her design skills, they came up with something pretty cool. i especially like the into screen, which features a double-r, surrounded by the star of david, and flying on green bentley wings.

another recording i have had the pleasure of being involved with is judgment day--a pet project of dami, wasp, and raw raw. the song is a dark and cartoonish look at the violence that pervades jamaican society today. i didn't build the riddim or engineer this one, though i have been a close consultant during the recording process at a couple kingston studios (great places to be more than a fly-on-the-wall). my musical contribution here is a tad unusual: the guys asked me to record and intro for the tune and slap on a whole heap of gunshots. for the intro, they had some fairly specific ideas (thunder followed by some ominous dialogue over scary organ music and gregorian chant) and three main requirements: they wanted the voice to sound ancient, scary, and white (which is to say, different, as far as dancehall is concerned). they selected a passage from revelations for me to recite and i located the proper samples. i did my best children of the corn/lord of the rings impersonation, and they all loved it. i've seen a number of different people react to it now, and the response is always positive. the intro has the striking-effect they were looking for.

the gunshots were a different story entirely. dami and wasp came over while i searched for samples on the internet (where you can find sound files of all kinds). i quickly found a "military sounds" page that had dozens of recordings of actual guns firing. it turned into a surreal scene in my apartment as the "real" gunfire coming from my computer was consistently followed by a barrage of vocalized gunshots. BAM! BAM! BOMP! BOMP! GLU-GLA! GLU-GLA! each time a new gun went off, dami and wasp celebrated the power of the sound, jumping out of their chairs, calling for pull-ups like it was a hot track, and imagining the effect of such sounds in their song. i've got their reactions on tape, but haven't digitized it yet (sorry--perhaps soon). there's something morbid and disturbing about this fascination with guns and violence, but i didn't think it was my place to preach. i decided instead to do my best to help these guys realize their vision. i can analyze it all i want later. to be honest, i actually had a lot of fun placing the samples in the song (so much fun in fact that days later the guys asked me to remove some of the shots--i've left them in on this mp3). perhaps i am able to absolve my conscience because the song seems so cartoonish as to subvert its own endorsement of violence. it's got a real kitchy quality, though i don't think the guys hear it this way. part of me was also excited, however, about creating a rather intense sort of musique concrete--a trail blazed, of course, by gangsta rap, which rivals (and looks to) hollywood in its pioneering use of sound effects. not only did i use several different gun sounds (often to match the same guns named in the song), i experimented by overlaying different guns on top of each other, adding grenades for extra oomph, morphing a gun shot into thunder at the end of raw raw's verse, and choreographing with the sound the evocative descriptions in the song, complete with "re-load" sounds before another blast (beginning of second verse).

as you can see, my musical activities blend into my research rather seamlessly. they are as informed by my scholarship as my research is informed by my musical activities here. every time i collaborate with an artist here i get a sense of the way that they hear and think about music. and every time i am at a dance or listening to the radio or walking through half-way tree, i further enrich my sense of the soundscape of jamaica, how it extends outward and how it is influenced by the outside. i now feel a lot more comfortable about trying to say something new, something critical about music in jamaica and its relationship to jamaica's cultural flows and social networks. i have a better sense of who identifies with certain genres here (reggae, dancehall, hip-hop, r&b, techno) and why, and i have some theories about what such choices might mean, might suggest, might portend. in terms of the story of hip-hop and jamaica, i have revised my thesis fairly strongly since i arrived in january. i am still concerned with international flows, origins and returns, and the stories people tell about hip-hop and reggae. but i now have a more nuanced, more textured story to tell. at this point i see hip-hop and dancehall as two sides of the same coin. they are closer bedfellows than many people will admit. (i have amassed a good amount of evidence to show a nearly constant dialogue between the two.) perhaps more important, and more strange, each seems to represent the pinnacle of the real for the other. in several cases, reggae-inflected hip-hop albums and tracks have attained foundational status (e.g., bdp's criminal minded, blackstar's debut, slick rick, run dmc). this may seem an ironic outcome, but when seen as a pattern it is clear that something more is going on here. for all of hip-hop's and dancehall's sameness, their mutual attractiveness often hinges on the perceivable differences (especially musical and linguistic) between them and the way that such difference accrues authenticity.

music, as feelingfully-ingrained sound, gives shape and form to people's imaginations of life in the south bronx or downtown kingston. when this music becomes a complicated confluence of all types of influences, roots seem to give way to routes, and difference and identity emerge as relational products, bound up in the exchange-crazed world of advanced capitalism. now bollywood is chiming in with their own recombined hip-hop (if we see hip-hop as a musical approach, an "omnigenre" as dj shadow calls it), just in time to capitalize on the current interest in eastern and middle-eastern sounds. as punjabi mc meks you know, they're chasing the same rhythms over there too. the worldwide convergence of beats and production techniques and technologies, combined with the continued proliferation of difference (however superficial at times), is a fascinating, and somewhat paradoxical, development. technology is crucial here, propagating techniques and technics. i am tempted to talk about djs sans frontieres, but the rhetoric and affective force of nationalism remains prominent, especially if we're talking about jamaican music. and let's not get into race. perhaps the most powerful lesson i've learned is the way that, despite the provincialism of their strongest advocates, hip-hop and reggae music give the lie to too rigid an idea of roots. as paul gilroy proposed a decade ago, the real roots of black music are the routes of the black atlantic (and that gets us into modernity and colonialism and encounter and the enlightenment project and all kinds of complicated, messy shit). i am seeking to write what i am calling a "hidden history of hip-hop"--a history that focuses on hip-hop's relationship to reggae and which explores hip-hop's transnational character. it is striking to me how much my perspective on hip-hop has changed because of my investigation of its relationship to jamaica. at this point, i have many more questions to ask and avenues to explore, but not all of them in jamaica. next i turn my eyes and ears to the greater global picture (jamaica in italy, germany, japan; and india, egypt, and mexico in jamaica) and to a different local: jamaica's presence in the US--in particular, boston and new york over the last two decades. once i get through that leg of my journey, i may very well have to return to kingston for more. i think i will want to do so at any rate.

perhaps the best recent example of my research and musical interests overlapping and informing each other happened during an informal recording session in my apartment here a couple weeks ago. three bredren from the twelve tribes headquarters across the street--rashorne (pronounced "rasaan"), damian, and fiya rhed--came over to hear some riddims and check out my humble digital studio. despite the increasingly common use of digital audio workstations in jamaica--jeremy harding, producer of sean paul's recent hit record, comes to mind--people continue to express surprise at what i can do with a simple computer, as opposed to a huge, expensive studio. rashorne had wanted to voice something for me for a while now. the first time i heard him perform i liked his old-school style, which seems reminiscent of mid-80s-style djs with its slow staccato style and simple end rhymes. he's got a strong voice, and apparently inherited some skills from his mother, who is a dj herself. interestingly, rashorne always struck me as an american looking jamaican: his baseball caps, small afro, and light patois all suggested an up-north childhood to me. he looked like someone i might meet walking down the street back in cambridge. as it turns out, however, he was born and raised in jamaica. then again, looks don't deceive: i soon found out that rashorne has a strong hip-hop current running through him. our recording session was interesting in the way that it revolved around the musical tension between hip-hop and reggae, and the thematic tension between hip-hop and rastafari.

first, i played the guys some of my beats. rashorne was quiet, removed, perhaps even shy about the whole thing (or maybe just busy rolling a few spliffs). damian and fiya rhed, on the other hand, were vocal in their response to my music. they weren't into the hip-hop beats too much, and though they liked the dancehall riddims, they were clearly in search for more of a classic, roots, one-drop sound--a style in which i am not yet fluent. i played a couple attempts which received lukewarm reception. then i played them my remix of crickets and cicadas--real jamaican night noise. they were struck by the familiar sounds, which appealed to the rasta predilection for all things "natural," but it was still a little too hip-hop. we spent the next several minutes negotiating how to make the track into a reggae riddim. there were a few easy ways to do this, and i did my best to follow their specifications (and internalize which sonic signifiers they prized). first, we needed a guitar on the off-beats, preferably tracing out a simple chord progression, so i added a two-chord guitar vamp. then they called for a dubby bassline (i.e., lots of repeated notes), which i added. finally, they wanted a strong snare and kick combination on the one of the "one-drop" (which i actually hear as three, or two and four, depending on whether we're counting by eighth- or quarter-notes). in the end, we transformed the relatively minimal bug riddim into a nice little buggy reggae track. but it wasn't quite right for rashorne's song, so we started again from scratch.

i told rashorne to recite the song he wanted to record so that i could build something around it. first i figured out the tempo and set up a basic one-drop. as we added more and more layers, though, it tended toward dancehall, then hip-hop, then roots reggae, and back again. every time a new voice was added the character of the riddim would slightly, but profoundly, shift. the guys noticed every time. i would add a snare or a clave or some handclaps and before long someone would say, "it's gone too hip-hop again." they would suggest some modifications. then they'd listen for a minute and decide they liked it. to paraphrase damian, if this was to be a real collaboration it would have to be a fusion of different styles. so, after a short while of throwing stuff in and pulling stuff out, we finally settled on a basic loop, with the understanding that i would do more work on it later but that it was sufficient for rashorne to do some voicing. once rashorne began to dj (or was he rapping?), the tensions once again came to the forefront. for all of his bredren's protestation over hip-hop's musical style infecting the riddim, rashorne's lyrics were clearly, and rather ironically, indebted to contemporary hip-hop. the reference to "playa haters" being the dead give-away of them all. the song's title and chorus, in di dance, is itself an allusion to 50 cent's popular song, "in da club." the verses are all about flossing (e.g., being seen in expensive cars and clothes, consuming the best drinks, weed, etc.) and living it up at the dance. occasionally, rashorne would depart from his written text and the freestyled content would spiral out-of-control into the depths of bling-bling and expensive liquor--strangely material points of focus for a serious rasta. damian and fiya rhed appeared to grow disheartened every time this happened, looking sullenly toward the floor and sometimes softly shaking their heads. of course, people are pretty good at reconciling such contradictions, and rashorne explained his inspiration quite matter of factly when i asked him about it later (something about celebrating life, i believe, but i'll have to check the tape). none of the takes came out quite right, so i burned the riddim to cd for rashorne to practice with. he came back a week later and gave a much stronger performance, punctuated by all kinds of screams, nonsense syllables, and playful language--great sounds, a sense of humor, and very reggae in its way. it took me another day or so to mix the vocals (cutting and pasting, increasing and decreasing the volume on certain words, adding some reverb) and mix the riddim properly (with different layers coming in and out to mark the progression of the song and give it more form than a simple loop). in the end, i am rather happy with it, at least as a first mix. the riddim has a driving, electronic sound and the vocals are sharp and entertaining. check it out.

i'll cut it short here, but i want to thank you for reading. and not just this blog, but any of the blogs that you may have read. it has been a fun way for me to share my experiences with others, monitor the trajectory of my thought, and make myself write on a regular basis. although i would have been happy keeping this as a private log, it has added to the experience by knowing that there are people out there reading along. once i began to get feedback and noticed the number of hits we were getting, the blog really seemed to pick up steam (at least in my imagination). when i look back now, i see a funky little record of what i did here. it's yet another expression of what will be a dissertation, a book, and an album. i'm sure to get it right in one medium. anyway, thanks again.

i plan to continue blogging on a semi-regular basis once i return to cambridge. since all of my main projects--digital music, dissertation research, and music production--will remain in progress, i expect i will continue to have things to share. i am always up for a conversation, or an interesting perspective on things, or a good jam, so i'll keep throwing out the feelers.

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