Dennis Johnson of Melville House Books, who sees himself as an outsider, is critical of the mainstream of American publishing. I've heard him talk about publishing a couple of times, now, both times thanks to the Literary Press Group of Canada, of which LLP is a member. He's one of the more original voices in contemporary publishing.
Riding da Riddim: The Culcha Dancehall Clash, II, by Maurie Alioff
Beenieman at the Montreal Reggae Fest
Lately, Culcha has been reasserting itself with a musical and spiritual “Reggae Revival,” led by young performers like Protoje, Hempress Sativa, and 20-year-old Chronixx. The latter, a skilled producer since his teens, fronts a live band as opposed to dancehall deejaying over digitally created “riddims.” Despite Chronixx’s huge popularity, and nostalgia for the old days, dancehall and American music continue to rule.
Rising dancehall queen TIFA, who spoke to me from Kingston, elaborates: “The deejay is a rapper with Jamaican patois. Dancehall evolved from downtown [or underdog] music. “You know if I was to simplify for Canadians to understand, it is basically rapping.” TIFA adds that American rap basically “evolved from dancehall." TIFA is referring to the influence of early Jamaican sound systems on American music.
Rising dancehall queen Tifa
In JA and the diaspora, detractors of dancehall condemn what they call its “slackness,” the wildly sexualized, fashion-obsessed youth culture they believe the music promotes. A guy I discussed it with in Negril with shook his fist at the mere thought of star “artistes” like Vybz Kartel, Mavado, Lady Saw, Spice, Macka Diamond, Tommy Lee, and Bounty Killer. By the way, Kartel, widely seen as a brilliant contemporary songwriter, was recently sentenced to life in prison for murder. But that’s another story.
For traditionalists, music must be mind-opening and enlightening. Dancehall, on the other hand, is seen as a wicked siren call often glorifying badman lifestyle, stereotyping women, and directing outbursts of fire and brimstone at gays, a tendency that provoked the cancellation of overseas gigs by certain artistes. “Man on man, woman on woman not good, scorn them,” Vybz Kartel and Spice dueted in Coming Up the Rompin’ Shop, an enduring classic about the joy of heterosexual orgasm.
Roots singer Luciano (legendary as “The Messenger”) told me that as far as he’s concerned, dancehall is a sign of Babylon’s final days. He and other true believers acknowledge that Kartel (loved and defended by many Jamaicans despite the murder conviction) is brilliant, and the riddims of dancehall are “innocent.” But overall they think of the music as a shallow party vibe that back in the eighties got launched with drug money.
Traditionalists despise the clattering bang boom-boom beats of dancehall, its ultra-raunchy lyrics and crazy sexy dress codes. All those “gyals” in their hair extensions and skimpy poum poum shorts, shimmering down to a crouch, bouncing, vibrating their uplifted battys (sometimes in two directions at the same time), “whining” pon the “bwoys” pressed against their behinds, looking nonchalant.
Miley Cyrus’s eyebrow-raising “twerking” is a bland white-bread facsimile of what happens all over Jamaica, every night, when the selectors program hot songs the deejays rap, and partiers dance until dawn, their moves as stylized as flamenco, not to mention crossing over into acrobatics and contortionism.
A seasoned professional, Luciano understands that the female performers “need to make their money and keep their popularity up, but some of them are really going off track and losing their integrity. I don't think it's right for a woman to be doing all these derogatory things in exposing their body. When you got a good shape, and you dress nice, you don't need to sell your soul. What you want is to keep culture alive, you gotta keep the people on a culture level.” Or as Queen Ifrica, who blends culcha and dancehall, puts it, “Black woman haul up you baggie (panties). Dat deh someting nuh fi sell.”
For TIFA, solid and soulful at last summer’s Montreal Reggae Fest, the dress codes, the riddims, and the dance styles unite people in a volatile country ripped apart by animosities. And of course, plenty of Jamaicans love both dancehall and culcha. Even at yard parties and beach bacchanals with theme names like “Pretty in Pink” and “Half Naked,” the selectors mix Taurus Riley, Jimmy Cliff, and No Woman No Cry into their sound gumbo. The bottom-line, says TIFA: “If there was no need for dancehall music, people wouldn't go to dances, wouldn't go to stage shows, or buy the records.”
Backstage at the Reggae Festival, featured dancehall star Mr. Vegas thinks of his music as “just another branch on the tree from reggae music. It’s just a branch, man.” As for those lyrics, which at their rawest would make Chaucer blush, and at their most contentious get nastily gangsta and anti-gay, “The youths are growing up and seeing different things on TV. They see different stuff on the Internet, and they write about it"
"The roots artists back in their day wrote about what they saw,” continues Vegas, who gave a tight, R & B inflected show at the fest. “Even if it's violent, they're writing about what they’re living. I don't criticize. Am I going to come down on the next genre of music? No. I support every music."
Janice Dayle, who handles media for the Reggae fest says that it doesn’t “book artists who promote anything negative in their lyrics. People think of dancehall as being very raw, but there are the more discrete acts whose songs are quite conscious. We have been avoiding people who have homophobic lyrics. It's kind of sad because some of the really good artists have these very raw lyrics."
At Jamaican parties, says Dayle, “people will get down and dirty to the raw, nasty stuff. But I think they take it as a joke, what the guys are saying, and then at the very same party, you're going to find roots reggae, even people playing gospel.”
Dancehall itself is varied. Last summer’s Saturday night Reggae Fest lineup displayed a range from albino (and mutilated by facial surgery) Yellowman’s irresistible 1980s style dancehall to Kes and the Band’s soca inflected music to Shaggy’s catchy r & b influenced songs to Beenieman’s high energy growl.
For sure, when outdoor yard parties or dancehall nightclubs are cooking, they take off into charmed zones. For University of the West Indies professors Carolyn Cooper – who thinks that Vybz Kartel’s songs should be on every school curriculum – and Sonjah Stanley-Niaah – who wrote Dancehall: From Slaveship to Ghetto, the dance is a transformative, maybe even sacred space, its riddims and body moves springing from African DNA. No one objects to pelvic thrusts and vibrating battys when seen onstage in a sanitized folklore show or music festival.
It’s mostly the women who physically transform, “lookin’ pretty,” as they say, in their clinging dresses, mind-boggling poum-poum shorts, and talon heels, the outfits completed by hoop earrings, bracelets, and belly rings. Pat Dillon, long-time hostess at JA events and a personality on Montreal radio station CKUT, compares The Dance to sixteenth century French masked balls. One rule: for several months, you can’t wear the same outfit twice in the same place. One problem: sometimes, the image parade takes over, and everybody spends more time checking out outfits and attitudes than they do dancing.
With missionary zeal, the British imposed all the trappings of Empire on Jamaica from strictly regimented schools to gin and tonics on manicured lawns. Jamaican and West Indian history were ignored in schools. The influence cut so deep, some elderly Jamaicans are still nostalgic about that crazy fantasy of a tropical England, where Errol Flynn, Noel Coward, and Ian Fleming (who wrote all of the Bond novels on the island) frolicked in the sun.
Reggae was an affront to all that, and so is dancehall. The flamboyance, the dance moves, the mainly patois lyrics, and even the social critiques in some songs totally reject whatever British influences persist. What could deviate more from Black Tie than a beach party called “Half Naked”?
This is the second of two parts; the first is here.
[Photos: Maurie Alioff]
© Maurie Alioff, 2014