linkthink re: hip-hop, reggae, the US, jamaica, and anything else wayne wants to wax on


rockin' your prada or a mesh marina?

saw yet another kingston sunrise this morning, but this time from the other side. [note--i began this blog on sunday.] marvin knocked on my door at 5:30am with my requested wake-up call. outside it was cool and quiet. the sun was just coming up. the clouds had turned pink over the blue mountains, and the sky was gradually brightening all around. we were due in church at 6:30--my first anglican mass. it was marvin's grandparents' church and we both went along to show our support, as they were celebrating their 61st anniversary. i didn't find much that differed from the weekly catholic masses i attended for most of my young life. many of the prayers and creeds were the same. people stood up and sat down (several times), shook hands in the middle of the service to wish each other peace, and ate a waferish representation--i'm sorry, transubstantiation--of the body of christ towards the end. (i abstained, being at this point a rather strict, if open minded, sexy jesuit.)

on our way home from the church, we passed a guy wearing a mesh marina--the see-through (and more importantly, breathe through), netted tank-tops that are fairly popular among male jamaicans. well, male jamaicans of a certain class, to be precise. when i spotted the man, i mentioned to marvin that the mesh marina seems like a kind of national uniform--the quintessential undershirt of jamaica--and that i rarely saw one anywhere else. the latter point seemed odd to marvin, as he didn't think the marinas were produced in jamaica and so would be surprised if they were limited to the island. we then had a humorous exchange about where they might come from, with each of us making exaggerated claims. "nothing is produced in jamaica." "everything is produced in china." (of course, i can't recall seeing many chinese men rocking mesh marinas in my lifetime.) marvin also contested my first point--that the mesh marina is jamaica's national garment. he used himself as an example. he couldn't wear one, he said, without someone thinking he was "trying to identify" with jamaican ghetto people. when he mentioned that, i realized that i had never seen anyone rocking a mesh marina uptown, nor had i seen any "brownings" sporting the look. no, the mesh marina was a black thing, for sure. hence, the ghetto association, rooted in jamaica's correlation of race (or more properly, shade) and class.

i was struck by the terms that marvin had used to explain to me the significations of the mesh marina in jamaica. people would think he was "trying to identify" with a group to which he did not belong. for a while now, i have been much more enamored of the term "identification" than "identity." whereas "identification" seems to signify an ongoing and active (if at times subconscious) process, "identity" rings too much of stability, of essence, of a determined and irreversible march toward one's "natural" station. people too often mistake the sense of wholeness and unity that identity represents for some kind of kernal of character that is more innate and determined from without than contingent, malleable, and significantly self-determined. identity is achieved; it is not inborn. in step with the shifting contexts of one's life, it is imagined and re-imagined, negotiated and re-negotiated. if one is so fortunate as to achieve a sense of identity--i.e., uniting all of one's various selves/subjectivities, social and psychological--in these days of double consciousness, alienation, demographically-targeted and mass-media-projected marketing campaigns, and all sorts of competing influences and interests, it should be viewed as an accomplishment. it should also be viewed as ephemeral. shit happens, people change, alliances shift, and identifications with them. for these reasons, i prefer to think in terms of "identification" these days.

the title of this post comes from a song i wrote called boston jerk--a cheeky if rigorous demonstration of my engagement with jamaican language, music, food, people, and places. the line about mesh marinas refers to certain lines of identification in jamaica. allow me to place it in context: "mek me do a likkle something for the truth and the youth dem [note--"dem" is appended after nouns in jamaican english to signify the plural], my whole crew dem, but not the blue suit dem [i.e., the police] / then again it doesn't matter if you're either an otaheite apple or an etioti eater [i.e., two different ways of pronouncing the name of a common jamaican fruit and one that is, significantly, looked down upon as declasse, which is, incidentally, a word i learned from a good uptown/browning girl a couple years ago], red label wine or an 'ot guinness drinker [note--drinks served at room temperature in jamaica are called "hot" or "ot" as local pronunciation dictates], rockin' your prada or a mesh marina, / the primary aim is to reach ya." [read the rest here.] some of these binaries are not actually oppositions in any significant way. i chose them all for their local resonance in jamaica. as with the "otaheite/etioti" line, sometimes i choose rhymes because they sound good, so long as they still work in the context of the larger composition. i don't think there are significant camps on either side of that issue. nor on the red label wine vs. guinness dispute (though the former enjoys a more specialized [i.e., low-income] audience thanks to its low-price--back home, it would be called "bum juice"). the prada vs. mesh marina line, however, puts its finger on a substantial social gulf in jamaica: that between the haves, with their access to foreign (designer) goods and foreign places, and the have nots, who don mesh marinas in order to make the sweltering working and living conditions more bearable.

these days in jamaica, thanks in part to the advent and growing ubiquity of cable TV, many of the have-nots seem to have bought into the (bourgeois) (north) american myth of social status via conspicuous consumption. this is not to say that global exchange is having the homogenizing effect that people seem wary of. on the contrary, jamaican style asserts itself through a particular approach to the particular set of accessible resources available locally. that's what jamaican music has done all along, too. and jamaica takes an extrememly ecumenical approach to music. turn on the radio and you are as apt to hear reggae as rock, gospel, new age, hip-hop, oldies, obscure 80s-pop, soca, etc. similarly, jamaican tastes for clothing sway back and forth between the staunchly local (i.e., mesh marinas and batty riders) and foreign designer (i.e., diesel jeans and throwback jerseys). and even in an outfit seemingly identical to the dress of a boston teenager, the slant of a hat, the cuff of the pants, or even the movement beneath it evokes similarity with a signal difference. there usually remains an accent. which is why i found it terribly striking when i first came here and found jamaican kids rapping like brooklynites. and then chatting in patois. and despite the correlation between jamaican middle-class aspirations and the adoption of hip-hop style in kingston, there are many within this group who remain utterly devoted to reggae, and other things jamaican. they simply adopt a certain international (and yes, aspirational) style, aligning themselves with--indentifying with--african-americans who have transcended racially-based economic oppression and are free to move and enjoy the good life. (of course, i think perhaps jay-z's--and say, elephant man's--definition of the good life differs strongly from curtis mayfield's or bob marley's. the contemporary definition of the good life, at least for mainstream america [and thus the world], has become so tied to material wealth and so divorced from mental, spiritual, emotional, physical, and social health--similar to the way "development" today seems only to refer to bigger buildings, guns, and computers rather than, say, human development.) chanting down babylon can be done from behind the tinted windows in a beamer now, you-see-me?

can you identify with that?


another kingston sunrise

watching the sun rise over kingston has become almost routine these days. it is an amazing time to see the city. it is amazing, too, how many see it at this time. at 5am, the street in front of quad was bustling with activity as a substantial number of late club-goers emptied out into new kingston. taximen shouted at crackheads who shouted at other crackheads who shouted at us. one older guy, who seemed to be offering the vague assistance that streetpeople often offer you, swore to me that he was "lubba lubba"--the dancer for whom a dance of the same name was crowned. who knows. a half-hour later, the city had grown much more quiet, peaceful--though stirrings of the new day had already begun. as marvin and i drove through the gradually brightening streets, we passed several corners where hard-working higglers had already put their fruits and wares on display. we also passed marvin's mother on the road--on her way to the market at papine, where presumably the early bird catches the freshest fruit. i was struck by how early some were starting the day and how late we had extended the previous one. jamaica's hours still perplex me. i don't know how so many seem able to simultaneously rise early and stay up late. fortunately for me, red bull has finally become a staple at jamaican clubs, dancehalls, and roadside stalls.

quad was fun, if generally unremarkable. been there, done that, i suppose. it wasn't a specialized night, as other nights are, so the music ranged over mainstream club fare: hip-hop, dancehall, and techno. when we walked in--at around 1:30, which was about the time most people seemed to be showing up--fat joe's jamaicafied "lean back" was rumbling through the system and people were doing the rockaway. the contemp hip-hop continued for maybe a half-hour before the DJ/selector segued into a dancehall set which had people dancing and shouting and throwing imaginary guns in the air. (it's noteworthy that the DJs/selectors at quad, unlike at many other clubs and dancehalls in jamaica, stay out of sight and rarely talk over the music.) after a mash-up of vybz kartel's "tek buddy gal" and daft punk's "one more time" (which worked surprisingly well), the DJ/selector transitioned to a trance set, which seemed to put a significant damper in the dancing, though some folks seemed to enjoy it and most did their best to work with it. eventually, the selections returned to and settled on the dancehall/hip-hop matrix (including a repeat spin of "lean back" for the late crowd), and it struck me once again that hip-hop and reggae increasingly, if for some time, occupy the same spaces. almost any dance or club that i go to in kingston plays them side by side. similarly, back in boston, one would be hardpressed to hear a night of hip-hop that did not include some reggae records. i'm still pondering the significance of sharing similar soundscapes across vast distances. if such sounds contribute to one's sense of place in a profound and feelingful manner, as i believe they do, how does this sense differ in different places, despite shared musical referents. in other words, what do hip-hop and reggae mean to kingstonians or bostonians? how do the sounds/images/themes/practices of reggae and hip-hop inform as they reflect local processes of identification? what story does the music tell about the people, and how does this compare to the story the people tell about the music (and therefore themselves)?

the other late night this week was wednesday night--thursday morning, technically--when i finally got a chance to check out TG's "passa passa." although a somewhat passe term for drama or trouble--the kids these days prefer "mix up"--"passa passa" is far from a passe event. it remains a vibrant party. and one that starts and ends late. (i've read some acounts of people going home at 8am after dancing through two hours of broad daylight.) we left a bit on the early side--it wasn't quite 5am--though we got there at a reasonable time: quarter to 2. ironically, ben and i had to assert our desire to go straight to passa passa. our companions, dami d, raw-raw, and a video-producer named allen (who just put together an impressive clip for richie spice) first wanted to stop by "weddy wednesdays" at stone love. (btw, elepant man's refrain of "weddy weddy weddy weddy weddy weddy weddy" has become truly ubiquitous. since he says it in all of his recent recordings, it is nearly impossible to avoid. i hear it around, and say it myself, as often as bounty killa's equally popular, "cross...angry...miser-rebel.") ben and i were feeling like we wanted to take in as much passa passa as we could, so, since we were paying for the cab and all, we went straight to tivoli gardens.

straight to TG indeed. after slipping new kingston's light late night traffic, we sped downtown--or "dungtun," as some pronounce it--past deserted block after deserted block. i asked my friends if there was a curfew in this neighborhood or something. no, they said: gang warfare had made the area a no-man's land. it looked and felt like a ghost town. we drove through every stoplight we came to--a common practice in kingston, especially late at night, and especially downtown. that tivoli gardens--one of the poorest, toughest garrisons in kingston--has been able to overcome intergang strife and put on such a consistent, successful party is no small feat. as we approached TG, signs of life finally appeared again: bright lights, loud music, plenty people.

when we arrived close to 2am, the party had only just begun to get going. stalls selling jerk-chicken, sweets, and drinks were doing a brisk business, and people had started lining up on either side of the street, bouncing nonchalantly to the music. (passa passa takes place literally in the middle of the street, and the occasional car--not many pass through this area at this hour--has to dodge dancers to get through.) a few folks--some brave, some free, some mad--were dancing away in the street, encouraging onlookers to move a bit more. a few cliques of girls paraded through the crowd in some of the shortest shorts and skirts still able to be considered articles of clothing. their dancing played to the strengths of their outfits: suggestive, sexy, and proud (in spite of the inherent objectification and submissive-sexuality of female dancehall expression/experience). young men and old women walked around selling lighters, rizzla (rolling papers), and long sticks, or small bags, of ganja. well into the wee hours, street urchins of no more than 10 walked around collecting bottles, while adolescents danced and wrestled in the street. and, of course, the soundsystem--comprising several large stacks of speakers--was absoutely blaring. my ears were ringing the next morning--and that's just the effect of the treble: to feel the bass at a jamaican dance is to bear full-bodied witness to music's most essential medium--vibration.

the music playing when we arrived was a bit less recent than the dancehall i am accustomed to hearing out these days. much of it was drawn from the late-90s/early-00s, over riddims such as the "bada bada." at such an intense decibel level, i was reminded how avant-garde dancehall music can be: it was at once aggressive and enveloping, out-there and in-the-pocket--an undeniably powerful and innovative sound. before long we were treated to more contemporary dancehall selections (on riddims such as the "thriller," "blackout," and "scoobay"), followed by about 20 minutes of contemp r&b/hip-hop (with major "forwards"--i.e., crowd response--for tupac and biggie and with some perfunctory pull-ups of usher's "yeah"). then the selecta turned back to reggae--first with a focus on sizzla: a 20 minute set or so that had the people shooting nuff imaginary bullets into the night sky. (notably, i heard a similar short sizzla set at quad last night, and every song they played by him--including at other points in the evening--elicited loud cheers and "guns" in the air.) sizzla clearly still reigns as hometown favorite, despite inroads by kartel and capleton's comeback. by the time we left, the selections had turned more toward contemporary roots reggae: richie spice and jah cure and so forth.

passa passa had a really vibrant feel. a good vibe, fi true. people were clearly enjoying themselves. as things got going, the street filled with dancers--some in groups, some in pairs, some alone. there was little intimidation to be seen or felt. ben told me he narrowly avoided a man trying to elbow him, but that was the extent of any discomfort. (personally, i have never been assaulted or even threatened at a dance in kingston. my bredren andrew swore someone threw a rock at him when i carried him to the cassia park dance last year, but he was wearing a baseball cap, so he was kind of asking for it. nothing of the sort happened to me any of the various times i was in attendance.) one got the sense at passa passa that everyone was welcome to join the party, especially (but not at all limited to) people with a little money to spend. it was a diverse crowd, to be sure: uptown/downtown (or, light/dark, rich/poor), multi-generational, etc. i wish i knew how many attendees were TG residents. occasionally i looked around at the government housing and wondered whether people were sleeping through this, as they do every wednesday night, or whether most residents take part. i think the community probably appreciates at any rate the honor of hosting what has become kingston's premiere party. it is really an amazing accomplishment for the people of tivoli gardens considering all that must be overcome for passa passa to be a success. of course, similar dances take place all the time in all corners of jamaica. passa passa is exceptional, however, in its ability to transcend its locale's reputation for danger--try taking a taxi to TG at any time other than wednesday night--in order to create a safe, fun space where all sorts of people can find some much-needed weekly diversion.

bottom line: passa passa is the most accessible the "real thing" gets. as someone who has spent close to a year living in kingston and attending dances all over the island, i can assure you that this is the one to which i would carry my friends, without any deep anxiety about their safety. (but no baseball caps! or shorts, for that matter.) i won't use the 't' word here, but if you are a person who wants to visit jamaica and who's idea of a night out dancing means more than joining a hotel conga-line, passa passa is the real all-inclusive.



i'm not sure, to be honest. i might call it "oranging," or something more true to hue. i didn't even get to "brown up" this past weekend--as parties until daybreak resulted in little time spent in the hottest sun and no trips to the beach. still, i get plenty of UV during the rest of the day. and the occasional spot caught on the road during the midday swelter is enough to singe my melanin-lacking skin. so, i guess i probably still am "browning up," as they like to say here--and, i imagine, as they like to say especially to folks who look like me.

i had to wonder for a minute the other day, though, when while walking around a halfway tree stripmall i heard to my left: "brown man! brown man! taxi!?" i turned, and looking directly into the taximan's eyes, immediately put up a waving hand that said "no, mon" as articulately as i could ever hope to pronounce it.  (actually, the whole "mon" thing is way overblown. although some people clearly pronounce "mun." others definitely say "man." but most use a [short] vowel sound that's a cross between an 'a' and an 'o'--and leaning toward the former.)

in the past, i have definitely been "white man" here. now, i'm "brown man." but i think it has to do with much more than my complexion. for one, i have by this point done a fair job of adopting my body language and clothing so that it is, more or less, indistinguishable from an "uptown" jamaican style, albeit much less designer than a number of chaps i've seen around town. moreover, uptown can refer to a wide swath of middle and upper-middle class folk.  a couple nights ago, i asked my friend and collaborator, dami d, and his mainstay, angie, what they thought of the taximan's perception? "was he just trying to get on my good side?" i guessed, wondering whether jamaicans too knew to pander/market to the cross-racial fantasies of many white americans. "no," they said. "you're dressed like the typical black man," dami said. "uptown black man," he added. my steve maddens definitely didn't give me away: i had passed a large display of the fashionable sneakers in a window just before being offered a ride. my jeans helped, too: shorts would give me away immediately as american. the simple, ungaudy polo shirt (e.g., no tropical prints or bob marley insignias) kept up the mirage. of course, this is how i dress back in cambridge. the "uptown" label--and access to the same commodities--confirms the cosmopolitan links between the two societies, in particular between those who are free to move and buy the same stuff.

one other important difference in my appearance, which dami noted, is my haircut, which is a jamaican haircut. marvin carried me to his barber the other day. before he made an appointment for me, i asked "can he cut my kind of hair?" "what kind of hair is that?" said marvin. "i dunno," i replied, stalling, "italian?" although i've had my hair cut in black barbershops in the united states many times, and a couple times in jamaica, i know that in the united states, barber shops remain rather segregated spots. some cut "black people's hair" and some cut "white people's hair" (though it is more about the clientele than the technique). growing up in a middle/working class community, where the stress of hand-to-mouth living and bourgeois accumulation could heighten older generations' ethnic competitivism, separate barbershops just made sense within the naturalized world of racial difference, a world that was paradoxically reified by multiculturalism's well-meaning attempt toward inclusion. (and trust me, during the 80s and 90s, going to public school in cambridge--the working laboratory for harvard ed.--meant a whole lotta multiculti curricula.) blacks and whites did seem to have different kinds of hair, after all. this is nonsense, of course. a professional barber can cut anyone's hair. still, something inside me made me want to ask, as if to try to finger marvin's race-reflex and sound him out on the issue.

in the end, marvin made an appointment for his friend with the italian hair, and the guy actually thought i was italian for several minutes before he asked me and i told him the truth: that i was part italian, but from the states. i added that i wanted to make sure he could cut my type of hair because back home the barber shops are "specialized." "no, man. i can cut any hair," he said.

he proceeded to give me a black haircut.

here's the pic again, but with a little colorizing for fun, and to highlight the hairline/skyline:

let me explain what i mean by black haircut (and know that i use such a phrase provocatively, not intending to stereotype but to subvert). for one, it's a tight fade, and though that's not necessarily a black thing, it's a very common black cut. (a spanish-kid--read, from PR, DR, etc.--who used to give me fades back in highschool once pointed out that, as witnessed in a history textbook, "hitler had a fade," which seems to add further resonance to paul gilroy's similar observation: hitler wore khakis.) perhaps most importantly: my "natural" hairline does not look as it does in this photo. after trimming the sides and fading them up, he took a further step that white-barbershop barbers never take: he took a small pair of clippers and "straightened out" the hairline, making the edges extra sharp. (of course, after a day or so, this starts to look less sharp than weird, but hey, i let him do it.) he also sharpened the goatee that i had started wearing (on the road back to beard--i like to start over now and again). all that said, i like the look. i think i look kinda sharp. maybe even "wicked shahp," as they say back home. still, i'll probably let it grow-out some again. and i think i'll lose the goatee. a goatee is kinda like the term "jiggy": it can work in jamaica, but it's kinda played up north. (no offense to goateers, including some dear friends of mine, who can pull it off. shit, plenty of people pull off moustaches every day, which astounds me.)

so, all things considered, maybe i am browning up. but i know i'll never pass as a true browning--i.e., a jamaican of (light) brown complexion, demonstrating an ancestry that is in some part white. (brownings can range in color from the very fair to the fairly dark. [isn't it amazing how such conversations make even terms like "fair" and "dark" seem sordid, corrupted?]) the label "browning" in jamaica, and the use of terms like "browning up" instead of "tanning," shed light on some subtle yet significant differences between american and jamaican racial realities and ideologies (the two are, of course, inextricable). as intertwined as they are--rex nettleford, in mirror mirror, refers to black power as a "re-export" (1998:vii)--the ideologies that underlie racial distinction in the US and jamaica do differ, in particular, i think, when informing perceptions of self and other.

in the united states, for all our immense cross-racial experience and cross-racial "breeding" (to use the jamaican term--as in, "him breed another girl"--which is used so commonly here that it seems often to escape, through such naturalization, the resonances of slavery that it evokes elsewhere), we still uphold a set of american myths about division, about black and white difference, about one-drop rules (i.e., either/or definitions). and we give credence to a host of stereotypes that fall along these lines. in jamaica, on the other hand, the vast majority of the population is black, which affects the dominant perception. this is not to say that concepts like "good-hair" and products like "skin-bleach" aren't popular on the island, or that lighter skin does not tend to correlate--almost perfectly--to greater wealth. still, most jamaicans have embraced their cross-racial heritage at this point, and enshrined it in their own national myth ("out of many people, one"), so that even jamaicans who look rather "caucasian" (though i have always thought that to be a terribly misleading term) are called brownings. in the end--save for the bleach and ting--jamaica may have healthier attitudes about body and beauty and a more entrenched system of race and class. while the US, with its large black middle class and increasing ranks of wealthy african-americans, may have more entrenched, and socially harmful, notions of racial character as something that determines one's self and defines one's community. clearly, both places have serious problems on both sides of the fence. and although it might sound crazy, i often think that if enough people gained experience in both places, it would change their minds about race, class, and identity/community--and probably in a productive way. at the least, such experiences should de-naturalize or demystify certain ideas about race and class and self and other that tend to become all too commonsensical if one never has the chance to confront different realities.

to get back to my point, though, i don't think i'll ever really pass as brown. in fact, just yesterday as dami and i took a cab through halfway tree, i was interpellated as a "whiteman" by none other than a "madman." ["madman" is the general name here for the deranged, homeless characters wandering the streets--yes, they empty their mental hospitals here too!] as we sat in heavy traffic, the man walked past our cab and started ranting about white men. he was the second to do so in two days.

could you blame him?


rubbing elbows with elephants

jamaica is a small world unto itself. i have been told that there are fewer than six degrees of separation between everyone on the island, and i believe it to be true. often it seems as if two degrees are enough to make a connection. i see the same people at parties, at the beach, and driving around town. jamaica's star musicians are no different, and i seem to see or bump into one or another of the greats every other day or so (though, ironically, i still haven't met the other wayne marshall). just last week, while driving past don corleone's studio in mona (which we pass twice daily traveling to and from UWI), i caught a glimpse of sizzla kalonji, his vividly colored head-wrap announcing his presence. unfortunately, i didn't notice him in time to yell, "ha! got ya!" or "yo! crush dem!" or one of his other lines at him. i would have liked to see his reaction to my best imitation of his gruff tones. (click here for a recent interview.)

on saturday night, at a party held at devon house's grog shoppe, i watched elephant man, harry toddler, and a group of young artists get "jiggy" (a term that has enjoyed a much longer life in jamaica than up north) on the dancefloor. ever the icon, ele was decked out in a pink stetson hat with an outfit to match. renaissance provided the sounds for the evening, which were a combination of contemporary hip-hop and dancehall: the standard soundtrack for a party here--though the ratio of hip-hop to dancehall seems to increase the further one ventures uptown. (of course, there are also more specialized sessions around town, offering up oldies [i.e., classic reggae], r&b and soul, and even "rock and rave" [thursday nights at quad].) the place was packed, and the dancefloor was hot, so i spent most of my time outside, enjoying the "inclusive" appleton drinks and the company. marvin can play quite the socialite at times, so i've made a heap of new friends in just the last couple of weeks. it's nice to find familiar faces at events, and i am charmed every time someone grabs my wrist in that jamaican-sort-of-way to get my attention and tell me something. it delights me that men as well as women will grab your wrist or hand to show affection: such displays of interpersonal, intra-gender warmth seems to counteract some of the homophobic barking that so permeates the public discourse here. sometimes the situation strikes me as the opposite of what goes on in the states, where people seemingly have more enlightened attitudes toward sexuality but are afraid to touch each other at all. there must be a middle ground somewhere. maybe cuba. we'll see if i ever get there. (my brother was supposed to spend the spring semester of next year in havana, incidentally, but that program was cancelled a month ago when the president stiffened the already ridiculous cuba policy, ostensibly to win votes in florida. just a few days ago, a friend told me of the latest election-swindling conspiracy theory: an invasion of cuba this fall. that's almost better than "pulling out osama" [from whatever the hole the CIA is keeping him in] or "pulling out cheney" [out of the race, that is]. here's another one.)

on friday night, marvin carried me, as well as my friend ben walker (who's visiting kingston in order to produce some prison-related radio), to a rather lavish party up in the hills called "special delivery." the subtitle was "high society" and the event's organizers, who put on such a party annually, did their best to present an atmosphere that lived up to the decadence that such a phrase conjures. (of course, no card-carrying member of "high society" would attend a party featuring banners proclaiming the fact.) the party was billed as an "ultra all-inclusive" (a term and approach borrowed from the tourist industry), and featured a number of open bars and a great variety of snacks: from oysters to sushi, bbq chicken to salted pork, crackers and cheese to curry goat. people dressed to the nines, and the number of dimes (aka, perfect tens) in attendence was consistent with jamaica's extraordinarily high ratio of beautiful people. once again renaissance provided the soundtrack. they began with an eclectic mix of 80s american electro and pop and moved into contemp hip-hop and finally to the latest, greatest dancehall hits. (elephant man's "too bad mind"--a rousing soca-gospel number--got the biggest forward, and was pulled up several times.) when we arrived at around 1:30, people were just arriving. things got heated up by around two-thirty and continued apace until the sun began coming up just after five. at around 4 i noticed sean paul off to the side of the stage, taking in the scene and dancing along with everyone else. i walked up, gave him a pound, and told him to keep up the good work. he was down to earth, and surprisingly unaccompanied by body guards or any visible entourage. i'm told that sean doesn't roll that way, and that, in fact, few jamaican stars do. it's just not necessary. meantime, 50 cent, who has shared many a stage with sean paul, doesn't leave the house without his kevlar. thug life, eh? sounds dreary to me. i'd rather be out dancing with people and getting love from my community, as sean was clearly doing.

of course, this is not to say that there is no danger in jamaica, and kingston especially can be a perilous place. still, it's about knowing where to go and where not to go and, in particular, where one should not go alone. for instance, one should not walk through a crack alley in new kingston at night alone. on thursday night, my friend ben, who has been to jamaica several times and stayed in new kingston and thus developed a sense of security about the place, made the mistake of drawing funds from an ATM, buying some chicken and ting (a tasty grapefruit-flavored softdrink), and walking through an alley known for its crackheads on the way back to his hotel. ben didn't know about the crackheads and he didn't know that new kingston is crawling with desperate predators looking for unsuspecting, ignorant tourists. i got a call from ben while i was at dinner on thursday night. actually, i got several. i ignored the first few since i was eating dinner and my eagerness to answer my cellphone at all moments is, shall we say, less than lebanese. "i just got mugged, and stabbed," said ben, and i immediately felt my stomach sink. fortunately, by the grace of good cowhide and bad mugsmanship, ben was only stabbed in his belt and emerged unscathed but for a slashed shirt and JA$5000 missing from his pockets. apparently, he struck one of the men--there were two--with his ting bottle and thus saved his minidisc recorder from being "tiefed," as they say here. i soon joined him at his hotel, where he was filling out a police report. the next day he moved to a hotel that offers better access to knutsford blvd, through less darkened streets, and i doubt he will be cutting through any alleyways, or even venturing out alone at night, anytime soon. marvin and i were happy to carry him out to some fun parties this weekend, and i think he has recovered his appreciation for kingston's positive aspects as well as his respect for the desperation on the streets here. all of the jamaicans to whom i mentioned the incident were ashamed and angered by it. they don't like feeling unsafe in their own country or hearing that visitors are welcomed so rudely. of course, they also drop JA$2500 for an "ultra all-inclusive" party with the knowledge that others could eat for weeks on such a sum.

still, it seems to be common across all classes of jamaicans to accept the status quo. if everyone could participate in the "high society" of ultra all-inclusives, many more would. as would they drive SUVs. i was in a little quandry recently, as one of my collaborators--a young man of lower middle-class standing--wanted to do a song with me about rolling around in SUVs and so forth. i finally told him that i don't rate that kind of lifestyle, nor the glamourizing of it. i don't advertise for capitalism, i said, and i equate bling-bling with babylon. he sympathized and relented, though he remains convinced that an artist, especially an aspiring artist, should speak in terms that his audience will understand. although he has greater artistic ambitions, he is determined to "bust" and he has decided that the way to do so is to make what he calls "bubblegum": songs about cars and girls and gangstas. after he succeeds with this popular fare, he argues, it's time for the "next project," which presumably would be less determined by cliches. i have to say that i find such an approach somewhat hollow, lacking in integrity, and ultimately unfulfilling. to glamourize wealth--the term glamour, by the way, etymologically-tied to the discourse of witchcraft, seems an appropriate descriptor for the baubles that magically maintain consensus--is to endorse a system that denies the vast majority the resources that they need to maintain health and dignity. and that's a system with which i can not be complicit.

whether i can convince my jamaican friends to record the kinds of songs that i want to record is another question. last year, in the making of boston jerk, i embraced a more impartial, "ethnographic" approach to production, allowing the interests and song-writing proclivities of my collaborators to drive the creative-process, with the underlying knowledge that i would bring my own aesthetics to the table as well. overall, i think it worked, and i like the way that i was able--often through simple song-sequence or subtle sonic cues--to articulate my own position alongside theirs. this year i don't think i could make the same album. that would feel too static. so, i'm going to push toward what i'm feeling, and we'll see what happens. the funny thing is, i know that my friends here share many of my political and philosophical views. why they so rarely put them explicitly into song, i don't know. i suspect that hip-hop's hegemony has convinced them that the market is seeking more middle-of-the-road fare. they seem to forget that reggae's appeal outside of jamaica has a great deal to do with its alignment against corruption, capitalism, imperialism, injustice, etc. of course, it's easy to be distracted these days: between the shiny foreign things and the threat of muggings and worse [incidentally, while we were building our non-SUV-concerned song last night, my bredren got a call telling him that his 24-year-old cousin had been shot dead], the appeal of a successful music career is the end that justifies uninspiring content. i feel like this situation is itself plenty of grist for the mill. still, imaginary riches remain king.

i'd rather write rhymes about the food i've been eating, much of which, by the way, has plenty of interesting background. curry, for example, which has become such an integral part of jamaican cooking, is the contribution of the south asian workers who came to the west indies in droves after slavery was abolished. ("off-shore" labor is right.) moreover, a good deal of the strange meat i've been consuming represents, like much american soulfood, the legacy of making due with very little, with the parts of the animal that the masters didn't want. recently, i added a couple more curious dishes to the list: turkey-neck and pig-tail. not surprisingly, i preferred the turkey-neck.


what a meal

i just had what might have been the best ackee in my life. marvin's friend arianne experimented with recipes when she went vegetarian several years ago, and she came up with a curry ackee that is out of this world. (her discovery reminds me of my and becca's favorite invented jamaican dish: jerk sweet potatoes.) she seemed to use a sparing amount of curry, which was just right to give it a flavor like no other ackee dish i've ever had. (and i had a good vegetarian ackee [i.e., without saltfish] just the other day at marvin's.) arianne complemented the dish with some fine roasted breadfruit and fried plantains. the red stripe rounded out the meal nicely.

i'd have to say that arianne's curry ackee even beat the curry shrimp i had at lime cay the other day. (for some pictures of lime cay from last year, see here.) marvin carried me to the beach on both saturday and sunday this weekend, in order to "brown me up," as they say here. if we can get through the easily burned, inclined-to-freckle irish/scottish skin than i think we'll be able to brown up the italian/portuguese stuff. we'll see.

at any rate, the beach was great. the water was gorgeous as usual, as were the day, the sky, the people. the food was killer. curry shrimp on saturday, and fry fish on sunday. and both times with festival like i've never had in my life. in addition to the usual mix of flour, cornmeal, and sugar, the festival--in essence a kind of donut--tasted also of vanilla or some such sweet spice. once again, red stripe completed the package. one people, one beer. rastafari.

saturday was a near perfect day. after a week of rising before 6:30 and working for a full day, i slept until nearly 8 (quite a feat here). we had a fine breakfast of ackee, saltfish, callaloo, fried and boiled dumpling, boiled banana, fried plantain, and what marvin's family called "gully beans"--a slightly bitter, pea-green bean that went well with saltfish. sometime after breakfast we headed out to lime cay, down the palisadoes once again, and past the airport to port royal. at the y-knot, a nice little bar located conveniently by a dock, we grabbed a boatride--courtesy of john, a friend whom sarah hsia introduced me to--who has piloted boats out to lime cay for years now. (someone else captained the actual vessel we took.) we got out to the beach and spent the day languidly, chatting, reading, sleeping, swimming.

that night marvin and i attended "b's explosion," a concert in kingston featuring a number of big reggae artists with 'b' in their name. we missed baby cham, unfortunately, though we caught bounty killa, buju banton, and beenie man. (apparently, beres hammond was told not to play by the reggae sumfest people lest he dissuade kingstonites from going out to mo'bay for the big concert next week. that was the rumor, at least.) the concert was one of the better that i've been to. marvin and i took the "vip" option, which was an "all-inclusive"--the sponsored drink was guinness, sorry skim--admission bracelet that let one get right up to the stage. as a result, i got to see all of the performers at a rather close range. (occasionally, i'd slip around to the main area, where my man, dami d, was suavely dealing with the guinness.)

bounty killer turned in one of the more mature performances i've seen. (at least two other people described it as "mature.") not only did he demonstrate his deep talents for rapid-fire rhyming and inhuman range-leaps, he seemed to offer a substantive context for his songs: that of an artist embracing growth, desiring to represent something other than the violent cliches he has helped to popularize. he implored the crowd not to encourage his violent side, claiming to want to sing songs about happiness, but then used this as an effective prelude to one of his badman tunes, which, nonetheless, somehow failed to undermine all that he just said. one felt that he meant it. he cracked up the audience when he bigged up ninja man, with whom he has been feuding on account of vybz kartel, only to add, "probably off somewhere smoking a coke-pipe." (incidentally, a boston reggae-record-store owner told me that kartel's album, which had been moving units only sporadically, flew out of the store after he quarrelled with ninja man at sting.) and when he called up wayne marshall and a stylin', baseball-capless kartel, the place lost it. the sequence of bounty's performance was impeccable, and i was impressed by how tightly the band (which backed up every act on the night) was able to follow his lead. (i was impressed too by the keyboardist's ability to recreate and/or trigger samples for any of the big, recent riddims.)

buju rode the wave with a series of hits, sometimes giving them a roots-ish twist. his version of "untold stories" had the people singing along and holding lighters aloft and had me leaving a sappy message on becca's voicemail. (til shiloh is on permanent rotation in the car back home.) beenie man did his thing, too, rousing the crowd with a bunch of big tunes and more personality than you could shoot a pretend gun at. the casual, perfunctory homophobia was unsettling as usual. it just seems so beside the point these days. (ahem, mr.bush.) i still stand behind the sentiments of soggae, and i have given out boston jerk without hesitation to jamaicans of all stripes. interestingly, some bring it up immediately and laugh with me, others simply never mention it, which is probably better than fighting me over it. relativism, schmelativism. i have to share this world with everyone, and i'd like people of all sorts to behave better.

joining us for curry ackee tonight was a woman named vanessa. her parents are jamaican and live here, though she has split her life between jamaica, canada, and the U.S. (and has spent time in france as well). most recently, she taught high-school english in bensonhurst, brooklyn. when i told her about my dissertation, she asked me what, if anything, of positive value could hip-hop offer to young people. i was hard pressed to find an answer on my tongue. (i had to listen to a student recite some lines from the clipse this afternoon, and i was nearly nauseated by the bullshit, tough-guy, i-deal-more-crack-and-bust-more-guns-than-you stance.) when i surveyed in my mind the landscape of contemporary hip-hop, at least as defined by the mainstream, the themes that came to mind were bling-bling conspic consumption, gangsta-ism (from straight up crack-dealing to pimpin' the system [give me a break y'all: a pimp is still an exploitative asshole]), and women objectified beyond any reasonable means (and trust me, i can go along with this one, albeit conflictedly, for a while). my kneejerk reaction was a compromise: well, i said, twenty-years ago the pop charts weren't dominated by young black men and women; at least the mass media now propogate some representations of success for young blacks (even if the success is deeply mitigated by a kind of faustian bargain with the system). but this line felt so bill cosby, i didn't even by it myself. i thought again. at one time, and still in some circles, hip-hop represented positivity, afro-centricity (in a recuperative, not dogmatic/asante sort of way), oppositional politics, etc. this made me ask the maddening chicken-and-egg question of rap once more: why do so many young white men support the efforts of young (but slightly older) black men to project a host of negative myths about themselves in order to fill the pockets of some old white men (and, sometimes, of their own designer pants)? i think it's because they're young and stupid and kinda racist. they certainly do little to tear down the old racialist america, despite their baggy pants and black accents and empathy with tupac's plight. it would seem a paradox to be both infatuated and acquainted with black life in america (or at least a certain representation of it) and still display such xenophobia, but--like the biggie-idolizing, rap-reciting schoolmate who mutters "fuckin niggas" as you drive by the bus-stop--a peculiar institution gives birth to peculiar institutions. and that's a killer demographic if i've ever heard of one.


nice views, hard work, and strange meat

i'm spending the month at my friend marvin's family's house on stony hill. (that's marvin up there, poolside.) the house lies a short, tortuous trip uphill from constant spring road in manor park. marvin knows the road like the back of his hand, and he whips around corners and maneuvers around passing cars effortlessly. i've enjoyed the ride at least once a day since i arrived, although sometimes with a foot on an imaginary brake. i still haven't learned the way exactly. i got a friend lost the other night as i tried to navigate the way home. of course, my memory is not aided by my regular nodding off on the way home--an inevitability given jamaica's late hours. on my first day here, after attending the smirnoff party, i didn't get home until 6am, a good twenty-six hours since i had slept last. if we go out, it is rare to leave before midnight and rare to come home before 3. as a result, i haven't had much of a chance to see marvin's house, but i have enjoyed the breathtaking view from the dining room every morning during breakfast...

and on many an evening as well, when kingston simply glows. (i'm sorry that the images here don't really capture the effect.)

as i have gained a different view of kingston in the last week, i have also gained a different feel for the city. having a car, or at least a friend who has a car, makes kingston vastly easier to navigate. the harassment which greeted me on every walk last year is palpably absent from my experience so far. few people who can afford to drive ever seem to walk around kingston at all. sometimes it seems as if all the motorists are so many jetsons, physically unable to walk from place to place lest they plummet to their deaths. of course, there are still squeegee-men to wrangle with. (i met a woman last year who carried a large kitchen knife around with her and would tap it menacingly, if nonchalantly, against the steering wheel at redlights in order to preempt any harassment from beggars or petty vendors. she also told me, "if you tun grass, cow a nyam yuh," which seems like a quintessential bit of jamaican survivalism. as bounty killer put it--over the mad mad riddim, i might add--"kill or be killed.")

driving around more means i also get to listen to the radio much more often, which is fun and interesting as ever. i've been digging some of the more popular contemporary dancehall riddims (and their associated songs), especially the "thriller" riddim (with great tracks by kartel ["more life"] and ele) and scatta's new joint, the "dancehall rock" (or at least that's what my current research tells me it is), which propels a hilarious dance tune by the energy god himself, elephant man, in which he instructs dancers, in dancehall-charades/line-dance fashion--e.g., signal the plane! fly the kite! parachute!--to pantomime the following: "over the wall! over the wall! put your AK over the wall!" when i heard the song played at smirnoff, a good number of audience members raised their hands above their heads and pushed them forward, as if to hide a large gun from the police. i find it pretty funny that elephant man has co-opted gun violence, and the rudeboy stance so celebrated by dancehall artists, and turned it into a cartoonish dance. on the one hand, it makes it abundantly clear that folks are not taking these metaphors too seriously. on the other, it implies--and elicits--a widely-shared social cohesion around lawlessness and dangerous behavior, a stance at least partly encouraged by the lawlessness and danger that seem to accompany the police wherever they go around here, but a troubling stance despite its oppositional character (which, given such a corrupt status quo, would generally seem like a good popular sentiment). of course, when they play "over the wall" on the radio here, it sounds more like, "put your ____ over the wall"--as if no one knows what ele's saying.

but the riddim wicked still. it's one of those machine-gun fast--over 120 bpm--riddims that have been proliferating of late (see also, the "coolie dance," "blackout," "chrome," etc.). i don't really know how to explain this sudden shift in tempo, but it seems consistent with the increase in dance-oriented songs, the popularity of the "hype" style, and the increasing (and perhaps cyclical) influence of soca/calypso/carnival in jamaica. a few recent dancehall riddims--the "tabernacle," for instance--sound like outright soca tracks. and it seems sometimes as if the two genres, and a few other caribbean forms, are simply converging at this point, thanks to a shared market, increased regional media consolidation and penetration, and some deep musical, cultural, and social ties. i'm wary about reading musical change directly as social homology: e.g., that faster tempos suggest "faster" times or some such simplistic metaphorical relationship. often the story of reggae describes ska slowing down into rocksteady in terms of a fading ebullience after it was clear that post-independence jamaica had not fulfilled, and might never fulfill, its promise of prosperity and equality. this is, of course, a point worth making and an important dimension of the music's social context, but the common narrative's wholesale embrace of the myth of national progress overstates the case, and in so doing overlooks an important transnational historical moment, not to mention some rather elementary historical points.

another way to account for the sound of the music changing is that the band broke up. when the skatalites--jamaica's premiere ska band--went their separate ways (some to coxsone dodd, others to duke reid), jamaican popular music became small-group music. further, the sound was clearly affected by changes in technology (e.g., the advent of the fender bass-guitar) and the growing popularity and stylistic influence of american soul ballads. moreover, the mode of interpretation that seeks to draw a homologous relationship between music and society too often restrict the range of meanings that music can present to a range of individuals, even within the same locale and moment in time. if we were to take the rocksteady:slow::inequality:reigns::people:sad line of argument into other historical moments, would we come up with such equations as dancehall:fast::equality:reigns::people:happy? would we think they were true? it seems to me that jamaica's fortunes (or the fortunes of the majority of jamaicans) have steadily slipped since at least independence (albeit with a couple spikes of success). could one make the argument that jamaican music has followed the same downward spiral as the sufferers? i think it would be stretch. nevertheless, music can still reveal a great deal about the way a society works.

speaking of work, i've been doing a lot of it. we just completed the first week-long session at the digischool, and i think it went pretty well. it was nice to have motivated and focused students (for the most part), who would work diligently on the exercises i proposed to them. using fruityloops, i taught them the basics of sequencing sounds, composing melodies and rhythmic patterns, creating within specific genres (dancehall, hip-hop, roots, techno), applying effects, and general mixing. using soundforge, i showed them how to sample CDs and mp3s and do some low-fi mastering of their riddims and tracks. finally, using acid i demonstrated the basics of recording and mixing on a multitrack board, including the use of various plug-in effects, the cut and paste features, and the tricks for capturing and properly EQing vocals.

i have two assistants to aid me in the instruction, one of whom, jason, was a former student-producer from camperdown, where i held a series of music workshops last spring. (in fact, you can hear a couple of his first riddims here. you should hear the stuff he's making these days, though. soon come.) both are talented musicians and encouraging instructors. here's a pic of jason lending his ears to a student:

the students were all different of course, some creating as many as a half dozen riddims over the course of the week, some working carefully on only one or two. they were all enterprising producers and brought with them a varied levels of experience. i've put together two collage-style mp3s of some of the riddims produced this week. the first ends with a rather full techno track which i included in its entirety in order to demonstrate its detailed approach to form. the second begins with a roots-reggae riddim based on some chords that i had andrew record for me before i left cambridge. i think he'll be amused to hear them in use.

build yuh riddim 1
build yuh riddim 2

and, of course, in quintessential jamaican style, we had a ceremony at the end of the week, complete with certificates, hand-shakes, and smiles:

i'm looking forward to a week of new riddims, though i have to admit i am enjoying what really is my first day off in a long time. [note: i wrote this on saturday, though it took me a while to post it.] i've been pretty exhausted by the end of every day, more or less collapsing into bed each night only to wake up again the next morning around 6, rush out of the house, and drive through kingston traffic up to UWI-Mona, where we are offering the course. sometimes, if we go out, i'm lucky to get 3 hours of sleep before another 8 hour day. i have to admit it's been pretty grueling so far, but i've been enjoying teaching, making plenty of music, and even reading when i can sneak it in. (right now: a book on walter benjamin and clr james's brilliant beyond a boundary, an autobiographically-tinged book about west indian society via cricket.) of course, i've been trying to do a little writing as well.

fortunately, long days at work have not deprived me of good jamaican food, and i have already enjoyed a number of old favorites as well as some new dishes. i picked up some tasty curry goat on the way back from the airport; enjoyed a sunday breakfast of saltfish, calalloo, and dumplings; i've had patties nearly everyday for lunch (mostly chicken); i've eaten several vegetarian dishes (marvin is vegan); and thursday night i had the pleasure to drive out to gloria's in port royal for some "fry" fish, topped with escoveitch (i.e., onions and scotch-bonnet peppers picked in vinegar), and bammy. i've also had occasion to try some strange meat. on monday night marvin and i and a friend of his went out to dinner at the grog shoppe at devon house, which seems finally fully remodeled. at first, i wanted some fish, but it was too late to get any. having tried oxtail for the first time only a couple months ago at a jamaican restaurant in dorchester (roy's on blue hill ave), i decided to try the oxtail here. it was a good choice: the meat was succulent and well seasoned. a bit on the fatty side, yes, but not too grizzly at all, which can sometimes happen with oxtail, which is basically a cow's tail chopped-up and stewed. my response was so favorable that marvin was happy to offer me some cowfoot the next night. i was less enthused by the concept, but he assured me that it was rather similar to oxtail in taste and consistency. i am always up for new experiences, especially in the way of food, so i decided to bite. i put a single hoof on my plate and tried to cut into the tough, rubbery meat surrounding it. i was able to get some off, which i then chewed on for a couple of minutes. it was not an altogher unpleasant experience, but i can't say i enjoyed it very much. i definitely declined seconds. during dinner last night i was offered yet more strange cow parts to chew on: tripe and other intestinal parts, some stuffed and some simply sliced up. it was prepared in a tasty broad bean stew, but the meat itself was once again rather elastic. all in all, it was a slightly stomach-turning experience. but i'm glad i tried it. even so, i might simply stick to sampling marvin's vegan dishes from now on. of course, i had some curry shrimp and festival out at lime cay today, and it was absolutely to-die-for. but that's a story for another day.


things done changed, but everyting criss still

when i visited jamaica in the fall of 2001, i was struck by the strong presence of american music in kingston. hip-hop in particular seemed as ubiquitous as reggae. i went to a club and heard as much jay-z and nelly as beenie or ele, and the timbres and textures of dancehall sounded steeped in hip-hop.

now i find the ubiquity of american music in jamaica unremarkable. and maybe it is. it seems that american music has been a prominent feature of the jamaican soundscape at least since radio waves and recordings made them available. it is a well-rehearsed fact that ska--and its descendants, rocksteady and reggae--owe as much to american r&b as to calypso, mento, kumina, son, or any other jamaican or caribbean "folk" or "popular" source. and yet, despite jamaican music's close relationship to american pop, jamaica has produced--and continues to produce prodigiously--some of the most distinctive music the world has heard. (of course, so has the united states, but its political and economic influence often taint its cultural achievements, or at least call into question the reason for their international influence.)

meantime, dancehall reggae has become ubiquitous in the united states. before i left for my first extended stay in kingston--two years ago, at about this time of year--sean paul's "gimme the light" had only just begun getting radio play. in 2004, i routinely hear not only sean paul, but elephant man, beenie man, vybz kartel and other jamaican DJs on mainstream urban radio. frequently, the radio DJs "juggle" several dancehall tunes on the same riddim in a row, in the same fashion as jamaican radio and soundsystem selectors--for example, the "fiesta" riddim (of beenie man's "dude" fame) and the "coolie dance" (vegas's "pull-up," pitbull's "culo" [featuring lil jon and his 808], nina sky's "move your body," etc.). miami-based pitbull (who often raps in spanish) and nina sky (two 18-year-old girls from the bronx) are only the latest american artists to record directly over contemporary reggae riddims. last year, the precedent was set over the diwali riddim (after sean paul's and wayne wonder's simultaneous chart-hits on it) by lumidee, ol' dirty bastard, fabolous, busta rhymes, 50 cent, and several underground artists. (of course, boogie down productions was doing this in the late 80s. [see "live hardcore worldwide"], but BDP's ragga-inflected hip-hop wasn't exactly topping the charts back then.) taking the trend even further, nina sky's new album features tracks over several recent dancehall faves (and the remix of "move your body" features a verse full of recycled lyrics courtesy of vybz kartel [see his "picture this" on the "blackout" riddim for an earlier appearance of the same lines]). on tracks like the terror squad's current smash "lean back," which makes prominent reference to the "rockaway"--a jamaican dance from the last year--hip-hop artists seamlessly appropriate dancehall moves. that's just business as usual in the bronx. which is to say, it's not inconceivable for puerto ricans who rap like african-americans to reference jamaican dance-styles: that's how people dance in the boroughs, knamean? seen?

dancehall riddims have influenced american hip-hop, r&b, and pop at this point at least as much as vice versa: e.g., beyonce's "baby boy," r.kelly's "snake" and "toia toing," marques houston's "clubbin'," missy elliot's "get ur freak on" and "pass that dutch" (despite the bhangra borrowings of the former and the electro resonance of the latter), christina milian's "dip it low," etc. the latest britney spears album includes a track called "the hook-up" featuring a patois-inflected male vocalist and a beat that more closely resembles spanish reggae, or reggaeton--another ubiquitous caribbean style in american urban centers. in addition to blasting from many a car in any city with a significant hispanic population--i've heard it in miami, new york, boston, lowell, chelsea, cambridge, etc.--reggaeton seems to be making steady inroads into american popular music. tego calderon has recently made a number of appearances alongside more mainstream american acts, including terror squad, cypress hill ("latin thugs"), NORE and nina sky ("oye mi canto"). this level of international, cross-genre collaboration--and for such popular music--seems unprecedented in some ways, save perhaps for the regular latin-influenced cycles that have been infusing the mainstream at least as far back as the "latin tinge" that jelly roll morton heard in early jazz.

on my first night back in kingston, i got to check my assumptions about jamaican audiences and tastes once again. i went to a dance out on the palisadoes, by the airport, at the go-cart track. it was dubbed a "smirnoff experience" and the $1500 cover charge (about $30) was good for drinks all night, which--curiously enough--featured plenty of non-smirnov. the line-up was kind of interesting: reggae selectors on one-side (the crowded side), and on the other, a female DJ from Ibiza, a hip-hop DJ from New York, and Rennaissance, one of the bigger reggae soundsystems in Jamaica. the range of performers reminded me once again of how cosmopolitan a place kingston is, especially for a certain social/class set. after a short and racy fashion show, the DJ from Ibiza played a set of what I took to be standard Ibiza fare. (Ibiza, pronounced Ibeetha by those in the know, is, for those not in the know, a high-end trance-themed dance-park Spanish-island.) the techno and house tracks, and even the reggae twists she threw in, were enough to get a couple jamaican ravers (complete with big pants and liquid hands) going pretty good. the rest just kind of looked on, or wandered to the dancehall side, or got a drink.

watching the hip-hop DJ perform was a more interesting, as he was working with a repertory more familiar to the audience. he played some crowd pleasers for sure (e.g, "tipsy," "yeah," "lean back" [but not the Tego remix]), which is easy given the love for hip-hop in jamaica. his occasional attempts to rouse the crowd and make them act jamaican, however, were pretty unsuccessful. "put your gun fingers in the air," he'd say, attempting to elicit a "forward," or show of affirmation, he had not yet earned, using a term--"gun fingers"--that no one ever uses. similarly, he would shout "pull-up" over a record, and then leave it spinning, thus failing to: 1) allow the crowd to determine the quality of the selection and themselves call for a "pull up"; and 2) confirm (and repeat) the effect of the selection by actually rewinding it and starting it again. of course, it was a good faith effort to connect with the crowd, but it was just a little too uninformed not to be insulting, or at least ineffective. at worst, it was an example of blatant stereotyping of jamaican behavior, made all too disturbing by its celebration of guns. (and i'm not sure we can argue that the signifier has been divorced from its referent in this case. i fear it still carries quite a trace of signification.) at any rate, it seemed that here was one occasion when hip-hop's foundational sample-based approach seemed to fail. the DJs attempt to meet the crowd on their own terms was way too facile.

i don't mean to be picky. then again, maybe i do. i am rather curious about the differences between audience behavior/reception in jamaica and the US, especially given such an example of shared repertory. of course, the repertory has been shared for a long time, especially in jamaica, which, i am reminded as i drive around kingston, has the most ecumenical radio spectrum i've ever heard. yesterday i heard drum'n'bass for an hour on the same station that spent the morning playing a solid set of contemporary hip-hop and then transitioned to soft alternative rock (a la rob thomas). it seems a more recent thing to find jamaican/caribbean music reverberating with such presence across the american soundscape. so i am interested in the ways that people in different places hear the same music: what meanings do they make of it? how do processes of (musically-mediated) identification happen, depending on one's background, social position, and current location? how does this differ from the US to Jamaica, as well as within the various locales themselves (e.g., boston, cambridge, kingston [uptown, downtown], etc.)? i've got some ideas, but i will save them for another blog. (i need to finish this one so i can finally get it posted. let's call it done. more soon come, and more frequently, i hope.)


back to jamaica, back to blog

yes blogosphere massive!

i've been meaning to get back on the blogwagon for a while. as i'm heading back to jamaica this saturday, it seems like an appropriate time to start anew. i'll be spending my days teaching digital music-making techniques to young people in kingston. (click here for more details. i'm really looking forward to this program as it is an ambitious one: my aim is to help motivated students become soup-to-nuts [or sampling-to-beatmaking-to-multitracking] producers over the course of one 30-hour week.) i'll be spending my nights recording new tracks with old friends, and hopefully some new ones too, and checking out some of kingston's finest dancehalls. i'm looking forward in particular to checking out TG's own passa passa, which is gaining international recognition (which is itself eliciting local criticism) as one helluva weekly party. (it hadn't really gotten going when i was there last year.) i definitely look to hit up the weekly dance and stageshow at cassia park on monday nights. nuff vibes, you see me?

as with last year's experiment in blogging, i'm hoping to share my thoughts--my dissertation as a work in progress--as i go. i plan to finish the thing by the end of the next academic year, and it is really starting to take shape. as i continue to work out my ideas on the relationship between the music of the US and Jamaica and what their intense interplay can tell us about the US and Jamaica, Americans and Jamaicans, and international relationships in a post-colonial, increasingly trans-national, and capital-dominated (and obsessed) world. (check here for papers i've already written and talks i've given.) i'm still "wrestling with words and ideas" (a la mos def), trying to tell a complicated story and to engage some complex ideas through plain language and compelling style. i appreciate having this blog as a way to simply get ideas out there in order to work through them, so i apologize in advance for a lack of order or economy here.

one of the big questions i'm trying to figure out right now is the relationship between domination and freedom, complicity and resistance. these are tricky, slippery, and loaded concepts, and i'm attempting to tell a story about hip-hop and reggae that sheds light on the way we think about domination, and enact it or comply with it, along the lines of various social categories. i guess, at bottom, music seems to occupy such a special, direct, widely-shared realm of experience that it often gives the lie to myths that seek to separate or dehumanize people, or justify injustice. which is to say: you can hear a different story if you listen more closely. in the intertwined musical histories of reggae and hip-hop, you can hear a story that goes beyond the hip-hop narrative's acknowledgment of kool herc as founder and reggae's recognition of its r&b roots. you can hear a story of people transcending national borders, class constraints, racism, and other forces of repression. of course, you can also hear people expressing some questionable opinions, reinforcing the same ol' ideologies that have kept people down for a long time, and advocating some bullshit.

today in jamaica, nearly all of r&b is categorized under the "soul" rubric (or, sometimes, "souls"). the story of my dissertation is turning into the story of how the US got JA, but reggae got soul (as the song goes). of course, it's a bit of an exaggeration to say that the US "got" Jamaica, but i think it's evocative and not at all an implausible argument, especially if we add the additional meaning that the US indeed "got" Jamaica in the sense of a significant diasporic population that maintains close-ties (and often citizenship, at least in the imaginary) to their homeland. (and, yes, jamaica and africa can co-exist in one's mind as homelands. some rastafarians believe that jamaica is zion; it's just in babylon's hands--still colonized, in real and mental terms.) of course, i'm also being playful when i say that "reggae got soul," recognizing the multiple meanings of that phrase as well. i do think there is something worth recuperating and celebrating about jamaican music's ability to celebrate life under rather adverse conditions. if i can do this while avoiding the romanticization that plagues much reggae-writing, and can put it in the context of US dominance, and can urge a reconsideration of hip-hop's well-rehearsed narrative in the process, and propose a new new-world musical aesthetics, and a bunch of other things, i'll consider my dissertation a success.

but i digress, which will probably be common in my entries. at any rate, i hope to have plenty of sights and sounds to share. meantime, there's plenty of stuff to nosh on here.

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