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.