“Jamaica Nice To Raatid!”

said my fren Marvy Marv as we cruised down a dark Kingston slope, post Port Royal escoveitch fishfry (what a welcome!), him commenting on a ‘Chinese’ couple who stunned onlookers recently by getting down onstage at Bembeh only to stun right again by showing up later that night at Asylum, in new outfits. I’m assuming it’s these folks, but I’m not sure —

But Marvin’s point that dancehall culture is alive and well and seemingly rolling on in its local resonance, international reach, and call to mimesis — as demo’d by the courageous couple from farin doing the dancehall thing — seems pretty well supported by what I saw last week.

Indeed, as Ripley ripely recounts, Bembeh didn’t disappoint last Thursday. Place was ram. Fullup. And though the dancing was generally cool, loose, and subdued (save for on the stage [more on that in a sec]), the selections were hot, tight, and hype: nuff now ting, w/ a whole heap a riddims on a upbeat crunkhall vibe, a la Drumline. Downsouth rumbabumba meets redbull & guinness bidness. Bomb a drop.

Top a top? Mavado, seen. Man’s robo-voice sure moved the crowd most (and got a lotta walls slapped and gunfingers inna the air). Especially this yah one —

Pullup! Every time.

Between Mavado’s ubiquity, and the increasingly prominent vocodo-voice of Munga Honourable — a hip-hop gen dancehall DJ par excellenceLarisa, Christina, and I started speculating that, having perfected the robo-rapper prototype with the popular T-Pain model, some shady US-based entity was now getting its export on.

On the really, tho, Munga’s “Bad From Me Born” (from 1:55) was propelling the place in its own right —

As Bembeh began win(d)ing up, so did the dancers on stage. Around 2:15 or so, after Tony Matterhorn had been screaming his bloodclaat mouth off for a good while, centerstage became the site of a practically burlesque dance scene that alternated between the most explicit gestures of simulated sex and the most absurd exaggerations of the same. It was buckwild. And hilarious. The (thinning) crowd seemed to eat it up —

my crappy cellphone pic of centerstage

It was food for thought, too. I’ve been in several conversations lately about reggaeton’s perreo and whether or not it is misogynist / patriarchal / phallocentric. Obv there’s no easy answer to that big question. But it’s kinda yes and no, IMO. Seems fairly ambiguous at any rate. At the least, we could use some ethnography around perreo before we all try to speak for the girls doing the deed. To the whatever-wave feminists who worry that the whateverrr-wave feminists have left the cause behind, I’ve been trying to argue — alongside colleagues such as Raquel Rivera and Sonjah Stanley-Niaah — that there’s a whole lotta play going on in this. Dance a dance. Sex is something else. Drrty dancing’s nothing new & does not necessarily lead to the nasty.

To wit: just prior to these full out antics — which included a group of men tossing a woman back and forth between them IN THE AIR AT WAIST LEVEL (until someone missed and tossed her to the floor); a lot of energetic humping in couples; and a routine in which four men swung a woman by her arms and legs, spread eagle, while a fifth jumped into her torso in various and increasingly ridiculous thrusting positions — just prior to all of that, a few women held the spotlight on their own, dancehall queen style. Which is to say, they gyrated every which way one could imagine — and left little to the imagination at that: several times, one or the other did a headstand, her skirt falling over her upper torso while she shook her stuff at the crowd. It was quite a show. At any rate, Tony Matterhorn made a rather revealing comment during the segment. To paraphrase: why is it, he asked, that girls who dance like this so rarely do such outlandish, acrobatic things in the bedroom?

You see me?

Of course there’s a lot more to say about this. But this post is not the place (if I’m ever gonna finish it). So I’ll point you to this discussion at reggaetonica for starters, for example. & I’ll wager this: witnessing a sexual pantomime performance in a Jamaican dancehall context would make many detractors of the perreo reconsider their positions. In a certain sense, win(d)ing and grinding in a dancehall stylee — which, notably, doesn’t even have an explicit tag like the perreo — would seem to offer a pretty good limit case for our abstract debates about gender and power and public performance.

My primary reason for traveling to Jamaica was to offer audio and music production workshops in three Kingston-area prisons: Tower Street (aka GP), South Camp (formerly Gun Court), and Fort Augusta (the women’s prison). It was prison rehab that first brought me to Jamaica back in 2001. Indeed, the first place in Jamaica, aside from the airport, that I ever set foot was the prison yard at Tower Street. Later, when Becca and I were living in Kingston during the first half of 2003, we were able to get into South Camp to help set up a computer lab, where I spent a few sessions showing some inmates the basics of making beats / building riddims with Fruity Loops. I had also visited Fort Augusta a couple times for similar workshops. But I hadn’t been to any of these institutions in a few years.

Thanks to the efforts of Kevin Wallen, a radio host, motivational speaker, and aspiring Mr.Universe with whom Charlie has been working closely, all three institutions now have computer labs for participants in the SET program that Kevin has been helming for several years. Tower Street even has its own low-level radio transmitter, and inmates are broadcasting 4 hours a day of news, sports, talk, and music programs for their fellow inmates (as well as, I’m told, a few neighbors and drivers-by). The hope is to eventually establish radio stations at South Camp and Fort Augusta too, and perhaps before then to have inmates from those institutions produce segments to be aired at Tower Street. At some point, though security concerns make this a bit delicate, the goal is to share this audio with the world via the internet, perhaps rebroadcasting on terrestrial radio stations as well. (Christina, a member of the Antenna Alliance, is there to push toward this goal; Larisa is there to discuss the possibilities, potentials, and restrictions that copyright and copyleft offer.)

For all the slow and steady progress, however, dealing with the Department of Correctional Services is never an easy road, and we encountered a fair amount of bureaucratic fuckery while attempting to navigate our way through the system. Rather than dwell on Kafka-esque waiting sessions and tortuous conversations (none of which were as bad as this), I’d rather spend this time&space recounting my experiences at the three sites we visited.

Fort Augusta was our first stop. It’s just on the outskirts of the city, located in an old fort that once guarded Kingston harbor —

rusty cannon outside Fort Augusta

We arrived on Thursday afternoon to find the SET students gathered in the computer lab. The women at Fort Augusta are often there for shorter sentences, many of them hapless drug mules, a good number foreigners duped into doing a favor for a romantic interest. The students / inmates I have encountered there are always eager to learn, quite polite, and good humored. On this visit, the aim was to demonstrate the possibilities of Audacity for recording and editing audio, again toward the goal of producing radio segments (drama, storytelling, etc.) to be aired at Tower Street and eventually on Fort Augusta radio as well.

I gave an overview to the group and then spent some time reviewing the basic steps again (and in more detail) for three inmates who volunteered to teach the others. Two were Jamaican, the other was a young woman from Lithuania who spoke in an odd (but not uncharming) amalgam of Eastern European and Jamaican accents. They all seemed enthused. We concluded the workshop with a brief Fruity Loops demo, which included creating and exporting a quick reggae loop so an inmate could DJ over it in Audacity; she rocked the mic with a likkle freestyle, and the exercise no doubt served to pique their curiosity further. This week Christina and Larisa already returned to follow-up, demonstrating further dimensions of the software and delivering some tutorial materials. I can’t wait to hear what comes out.

leaving Fort Augusta

The next morning we went to Tower Street. I hadn’t been there in some time, and it was a trip to return, sights and smells and sounds reminding me of previous visits. After checking in with the guards, we walked toward the building now housing the computer lab, recording studio, and radio booth. As we passed through the main yard, we walked by a soccer match taking place on a concrete patio. One of the players turned to us, beaming: it was none other than Jah Cure, set to be released at the end of this month; he waved hello to Kevin and the rest of us, and later sat in the back of the room as I demo’d Fruity Loops and Audacity for the SET group there.

The Tower Street lab was indeed impressive, in part b/c it was clearly buzzing with activity. Inmates (and a couple guards) sat at the computers, learning how to type, among other things. Several gathered at the center table, assembling cuttings from the day’s newspaper for their news broadcast. A band rehearsed in the adjacent studio room / chapel. Several inmates, including a few of the musicians, seemed very interested in the potential of the software for building their own riddims (in part by versioning / sampling other music) and for augmenting / mixing their live recordings — not to mention create jingles and theme music for the radio shows. I look fwd to hearing what comes of that.

Tower Street / GP

South Camp was probably the most delightful visit, largely because I got to reconnect with a handful of inmates with whom I had worked several years ago. I was particularly thrilled to learn (and hear!) that one former student, a rhythm guitarist named Orlando, had been steadily producing tracks in FL since I installed it on the computers back in 03. During that initial session way back when, Orlando proved to be one of the more promising students, whipping up the following hip-hop-ish sketch —

After I showed some new tricks in FL and answered some longstanding questions people had about particular functions, Orlando played me several cuts from an “album” that he has put together over the last couple years. They were all solid, digital roots riddims, with a fair amount of variation in the arrangements. (Sorry that I don’t have any to share here — we were not allowed to record, etc.) The guy’s definitely got a future in the music biz when he gets out next year. I just hope he continues to share his skills with his fellow inmates in the meantime; Kevin tells me he’s been a fine video instructor to date, so I trust he will.

In the last day or so, I’ve heard some slightly disturbing news about Kevin’s ability to continue building the programs he has worked so hard to cultivate. As Tower Street Radio appears to be an emerging success story, many parties are eager to grab a piece. I’ve been working, alongside Charlie, off-and-on with prison rehab programs in Jamaica for many years now, and I can say without a doubt that no one else has been able to make the steady and solid progress that Kevin has. Eager as some may be to grab credit, I doubt that others will match his dedication and sacrifice. It will be a tragedy if the program is wrested from his guiding hands only to fall into neglect.

But this all remains to be seen.

So, to be continued then: here, here, and here, for starters.