zondag 3 april 2016

Defining dancehall

This is in essence a post about definition. Specifically in reggae music. Jamaica’s reggae music originated in Jamaica around 1968, developed from earlier Jamaican genres Ska and Rocksteady. Such a complicated genealogy covering only one decade (Ska arose around 1959, Rocksteady around 1965, Reggae around 1968) points at the vibrancy of Jamaica’s music industry. This is especially the case considering Jamaica is a small island with then maybe about 2,4 million inhabitants.

Yet many things began to happen in Kingston and Jamaica in the 1960s and after. Many people invested in the music industry as a way out of poverty and ghetto living, investing either with saved money, or – when without money - with effort and/or talent. Considering the island’s size, remarkably many recording studios arose in Jamaica, with the emphasis on the capital Kingston. Over a 100, increasing (with also home studios by those having funds for it), so I heard, up to around 200 “recording studios” as such in the present.


This very vibrancy depended on recording possibilities, but just as well on the phenomena of “sound systems” – simply put: mobile discotheques – and “dance halls”. What Jamaicans call(ed) Dancehalls were in fact outside, open-air patio-like squares surrounded by walls and buildings, so were not “halls” in the very literal sense. Sound systems played at dance halls, being thus the place where local music was first tested with a local audience. Organically and from the ground up, the way I think it should be. Quite different (and better, I opine) from what in time developed in Western (US, Europe) pop music cultures: big companies manipulating tastes and publicity to get certain promoted musical acts sold, for more profit. Local audience’s tastes or input are in this latter system virtually ignored and gagged. The good thing about the Jamaican Dancehall tradition in turn is that it procures an authentic connection to local tastes. Record spinners (selectors) of Sound Systems adapted to the audience’s response at dancehalls, eventually.

This is where there also may be the only down side, I think. There is music, are songs that are inherently of high quality, in my opinion. Those songs may at the time not fit that particular audience’s mood or expectation, but with a different mind-set, the song can become enjoyable. The selector spins for the audience and patrons, that is true, but the audience must cooperate a little bit as well. This being said, I overall can understand that over time selectors at dancehalls adapted in the music they play to what the audience seemed to want. That in itself is okay and democratic, preventing too much elitarianism in tastes.


So, the Dancehall is an important “place”, a locale in Jamaican music. Later it became applied to a separate genre within Reggae or, as some put it, a separate Jamaican genre derived from Reggae. I noted in Jamaica (where I went in 2006 and 2008) that public media discussed regularly songs in the Reggae Chart (songs deemed most popular at the time), while there was another Dancehall Chart. Thus, these were treated as clearly separate genres. It seems, therefore that in Jamaican culture – among many people, at least – the distinction between Reggae on the one hand, and Dancehall on the other, as separate genres was well-defined and clear-cut, by 2008.

Of course, Dancehall as separate genre (or subgenre, or however defined) developed earlier. Important, informative reference books about Reggae and Jamaican music (I can mention the comprehensive guide ‘The rough guide to reggae’ – 2001 - by Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton) describe the history of it tracing it partly back to the course of the 1980s. Different works mostly trace it to the 1980s at least, sharing often the mentioning of Wayne Smith’s then innovative digital, Casio-based ‘Under Me Sleng Teng’ (1984) song as starting point of Digital Reggae or Dancehall.

Yet, not so much of Dancehall as genre. That is where the definition turns out to be not so clear-cut as thought. The mentioned ‘Rough Guide To Reggae’ has separate chapters on Roots Reggae, Dub, and on Dancehall (non-digital Dancehall) and also Ragga (the digital phase). Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton associate the Dancehall genre’s development as such as Dee Jays (not record spinners, but rather rhythmic talking/"Toasting" vocalists), putting their improv vocals on existing instrumental versions at Dancehalls, as part of Sound Systems. This went on already in the 1970s, with U Roy being the first to actually record such Toasting on existing music on in the early 1970s, but preceded by many Toasters at Sound Systems and Dancehalls, even already in the 1960s. This had become common by the 1970s, when what became known as Roots Reggae - often with singing and Rastafari-inspired- or “cultural” - held sway and was popular in Jamaica, even at the same venues. Roots Reggae was then played and appreciated at the Dancehall, making terming the subgenre after a place all the more problematic. Or problematic.. maybe it’s better to say “confusing” or, more positively, “flexible”, as Selectors and Dee jay’s had to be flexible to please the audiences. Dancehall is, after all, a “place” more than a musical genre with specific musical characteristics.


Or it was in the past, at least. In the later 1980s one can say, but still with nuances, a distinctive style, musically had developed, independent of where played: instruments used, rhythmically, melodically, lyrically, studio aspects, etcetera etcetera. This became known as Dancehall music.

However, even then – and up to now – it is not such a clear-cut definition . In the remainder of this post I focus on how Dancehall as Jamaican genre (or subgenre) is defined in some major works and by main reggae scholars (these actually exist). I try to answer the question that consciously or subconsciously lives in the minds of many reggae fans, I imagine: the difference between Roots Reggae and Dancehall. Some reggae fans think they know (at a rational level) the difference between these types of Reggae/Jamaican music, others more or less, vaguely “sense” or “feel” that difference. Still noting that difference and preferring the one over the other, always or during some moods or life stages.


In fact, the distinction is not that clear. One development instrumental in Dancehall as genre, most writers agree on this, is that already existing music, from songs recorded in the past being reused/recycled – read: sung over – again, inaugurated a new period in Jamaican music. This became more and common, relating as much to creativity as to economics, since it was cheaper. Studio musicians remained active in the 1980s – the Roots Radics became influential for instance – but often repeated or reworked existing rhythms, or were at least influenced by new technologies. Sugar Minott was around 1980 one of the first to do a “do-over” album, singing new songs on already existing music/riddims, from Studio One in this case. Other artists followed: some more singing, some more rhythmically Toasting: Yellowman, Barrington Levy, Eek-A-Mouse and others, all coming up in the 1980s.

Interestingly, in the article/chapter on Jamaican music, ‘The loudest island in the world’, by Gregory Salter, part of the 2000 collective volume ‘World Music : the rough guide’ (with chapters on different countries/areas world wide and their popular music), on Jamaican music, Salter points at the crucial role in this development of producer Henry “Junjo” Lawes, who worked with Yellowman, Sugar Minott and others, though he produced some great Roots Reggae records in the 1980s as well.

In the already mentioned work ‘The rough guide to reggae’ by Steve Barrow and Peter Dalton the importance of Lawes as well as others is mentioned as well. Also, Barrow and Dalton describe how “deejaying” or singing over often existing riddims (Lawes also helped develop “new”, or original riddims/instrumental music, must be said) led the way to what would become the genre Dancehall. They point out that this was not that new, as reuse of riddims occurred also in the 1970s in Jamaica. In general, though, they indicate that from the 1980s the “riddim” (reused) and the producer became more important, whereas the 1970s Roots Reggae era in Jamaica was relatively more “artist-centered”. Several works point out that the Dancehall phase in Jamaica was also a focus away from the more internationally oriented Roots Reggae era of the 1970s (with Bob Marley and others of course having reached international fame), toward the local, Jamaican dancehalls.

As much is described in the very readable book ‘Reggae and Caribbean music’ (2001), by Dave Thompson. This book devotes a “genre profile” to Dancehall, explaining in it how lyrical changes toward less-than-conscious or –spiritual themes, were in time balanced by a “return” to Rastafari-inspired and “conscious” lyrics. These are broad lines and not incorrect per se, but it must be pointed out that some artist kept their lyrics “conscious” throughout, at times adapting in a musical sense to Dancehall or Ragga.

“Relatively” is an important term here. Over time other changes took place, reflecting inevitably social and political changes within Jamaica. “Slackness” lyrics, about boasting, sex, or (gun) violence - though often more humorous than cynical – became common among many artists, including Yellowman, Shabba Ranks, and General Echo. Many criticized this as a moral downturn, away from Rastafari inspiration and “roots and culture”.

Yet, in the same decade many Rastafari-inspired, “cultural” lyrics still were recorded in Jamaica: only, again, “relatively” less, and less popular among parts of the audience, more in search of either spectacle or fun. That many of those artists associated with Slackness still occasionally used Rastafari or “socially critical” terminology, was seen as inauthentic or fake by some, while others conclude that boundaries cannot be drawn that sharp in Jamaican culture, or perhaps in humans in general.

People, individuals change furthermore. Both Capleton and Buju Banton (and others) started out mainly with party or Slackness lyrics, before turning more to “conscious” Rastafari-inspired lyrics in later stages of their career. They were part of the New Roots movement lyrically, along with Sizzla and others.


Meanwhile, there has been further digital influences and other strictly musical changes within Jamaica, irrespective of lyrics. Purely technically and musically, a genre as Digital Dancehall had developed: this also became known as “Ragga”. In a work aimed at musicians (drummers) named ‘Jamaica: your pasport to a new world of music’ (2009) by Pete Sweeney and Nathaniel Gunod, the authors describe the basic drum and rhythm characteristics of both Dancehall and Ragga. Regarding the latter they point at the “syncopated” snare drum (with similarities to Soca and Calypso) as a characteristic of Ragga, which is furthermore, they say, exclusively electronic (Dancehall only partly). Live drummers playing Ragga therefore have to be “computer-like” tight and precise, they hereby stress.

More – too – simplified they in turn describe the preceding stage of Dancehall mainly on the basis of Wayne Smith’s ‘Under Me Sleng Teng’ (1984), I already mentioned. So, mainly electronic. They describe Dancehall as relatively more “dance-oriented”.

This again goes to show the difficulty in defining Dancehall. Early 1980s songs by Barrington Levy or Eek-a-Mouse were according to many Dancehall, or called “Rub-a-Dub”. They were, however, not that much more digital than what came before. Sly and Robbie with e.g. Black Uhuru and Ini Kamoze made some classic songs, with already some more digital influences.


More interesting, I think, is how the Rockers rhythm played by drummers - developed in the later 1970s - eventually helped shape early Rockers rhythms, giving a different rhythmic feel, that nonetheless still combined well with the Rastafari message and spirituality (notable in Black Uhuru’s lyrics, later Hugh Mundell lyrics, Mighty Diamonds a.o.).

The Rockers drum pattern basically adds a bass drum beat on the first count of a 4/4 beat, combining with a sharper snare drum beat on the Third count (already there in earlier “One Drop” reggae rhythms since the early 1970s). This gave the Rockers rhythm a more insistent, dynamic feel. Later in the 1980s some producers made the Rockers rhythm faster to increase this effect, with more beats-per-minute. Therefore some describe electronic Ragga as faster and digital, but rhythmically still Rockers Reggae-based. No matter how “digital” and computerized it sounds. One only has to count faster.. that’s the trick.

Before this, Rockers rhythms – inaugurated by musicians Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare – began around 1976, still with a Roots Reggae vibe. The Mighty Diamonds’ album ‘Right Time’ from 1976 is known as the first reggae album with a Rockers rhythm as drum pattern. Few would consider this a Dancehall-like album, and not just because the Mighty Diamonds sing with harmonies and don’t deejay, or because the riddims are original, but also because the “feel” or “vibe” is overall of Roots Reggae.

Changes in time, however, and experiments with the Rockers rhythm: - making the music “sparser”, more strongly focussed on drum and bass, Dub effects, more digital effects, making rhythms faster, more Deejaying than singing - eventually would give these Rockers Reggae-based rhythms a reworked place in what would be known as Rub-a-Dub reggae, Dancehall, but also Ragga (Digital Dancehall). I think this purely rhythmical approach in analyzing this change is interesting. Listening from this perspective, there is a musical connection (apart from vocal choices, lyrics or production aspects) between the songs ‘Right Time’ (1976) by the Mighty Diamonds (backed by Sly & Robbie), Yellowman or Eek-a-Mouse songs from the later 1980s, say Eek-A-Mouse’s ‘Wa Do Dem’, backed by the Roots Radics, and – with a leap in time – purely digital tunes from recent times: by the likes of Ward 21, e.g. Capleton’s ‘Who Dem/Slew Dem’ (on the 1999 Bellyas Riddim) and other songs. All are built around a Rockers Reggae base, with emphasis on beats 1 and 3 (of 4/4), with the bass drum on the first count.

This may not be obvious to all. Yet, this Rockers base is what makes the Digital Dancehall rhythm distinctive from other Caribbean “digital” genres (Soca, Zouk), and connects it to earlier Reggae. This difference one also “feels” when dancing to it.


What I find most interesting about this is that it shows an underlying African aesthetic. This seems in line with the Rastafari movement, that arose in Jamaica (in the 1930s) to regain an African pride and connection, away from European enforced dominance. Despite some Slackness and non-Rasta lyrics, it is in another way a reconnection to African musical principles. Of course, also Rastafari lyrics are now sung/chatted on such digital Ragga/Dancehall riddims, but even if lyrics are not so conscious or socially critical, do not talk about Africa or Blackness, or are even negative and enunciating clear non-Rasta values (materialism, violence, crime), an African musical and cultural aesthetic is still there. Despite this, one might say. Not just the basic (rockers) rhythm, but also the syncopic elements and “counter-rhythms” have African origins.


Also the fact that music (Dancehall) is “dance-focussed” is African. Music and dancing are traditionally in sub-Saharan Africa intertwined. Music is meant mostly to dance to. The separation between listening to music on the one hand, and dancing to it on the other, stems from European, not African culture, anthropologists have explained again and again. Sure, African music has not just rhythm, but also roles for melodies and harmony, yet is normally strongly percussive/rhythmic and meant to dance to. This applies to the polyrhythms-based musical cultures of “forest Africa” where many slaves came from who were brought to the West/Caribbean (Ghana, South-Nigeria, Benin region, Congo region), but also more subtly to “Griot Africa” with more string instruments and (reworked) Islamic influences, i.e. the Mali, Guinee and Senegambia regions. I mentioned these differences in other blog posts of mine. Comparing traditional music from Islamic countries like, say, Iraq, Iran, or in North Africa to traditional Griot music by the Bambara people in the also mostly nominally Islamic South of Mali, one notes a few similarities, but even more differences, especially regarding rhythm and what can be called “percussiveness”, being more emphasized in the case of the African South Mali or Guinee regions. Common drum instruments like the Djembe or Dundun (a two-sided bass drum) in/from the Guinee region have also become internationally better known by now.

Roots Reggae came to include of course more types of musical instruments, more melody, and a European-derived chords/harmony-focus, yet also a maintained, crucial role for rhythm. The same applies to earlier Jamaican genres like Rocksteady. Many Rocksteady songs have good melodies and instrumentation, as does much 1970s Reggae, but at the same time the same “good melodic and harmonic songs” are rhythmically very good too, and certainly danceable (maybe slower, but danceable).

The distinction that some within the reggae world make between valuable, “spiritual” music on the one hand, and “music just to dance to” is problematic, I find. Such distinctions are made in other genres as well. Often is meant that the “rhythm” is better or more interesting than the lyrics or melody, which at times can be the case. I know examples of such songs too, with cliché or nonsensical lyrics, but with strong rhythms.

As a generalized statement, however, I think it is too simplified. Also when looking at present-day Dancehall and Ragga from Jamaica. Artists like Capleton, Sizzla, Lutan Fyah, Jah Mason (and others) have musically Digital Dancehall/Ragga songs, but with Rastafari and conscious lyrics. Certainly danceable, musically and vocally more rhythm-focussed, as well as the dynamic, faster tempo of the Digital Dancehall riddim, adding some “energy” to the lyrical message. Interestingly, this expresses an African retention returning, namely of the connection between dance (rhythm) and spirituality.

Such a connection is much less known in European/Western musical culture (certainly in this form), which also influenced Jamaican music a bit.