From Mento to Dancehall

Monday, April 27, 2009

Last Thursday, April 15, I attended the UWI Department of Government's symposium announcing the results of the committees work on producing a list of the 100 Best Jamaican Songs, from 1957-2007. The distinguished panel carefully explained their motive, structure, methodology and process; all of which, no doubt, lent objectivity and transparency to the project. I therefore wish to add my congratulations to them for creating an excellent point of reference in the nascent movement towards repatriating ownership of our cultural patrimony.

As the panellists correctly said, for far too long we have allowed foreigners, through their filters and blinkers, to be the sole interpreters and authors of our musical/cultural history and journey; because we do not ourselves - from our unique perspective - analyse, record, preserve and most importantly, publish the context, elements and original products of our artistes' creativity. This is not to say that we should not also welcome foreigners' literary contributions - after all, at minimum they reflect the profound impact of our cultural renditions, in influencing and cross - fertilising popular culture all over the world. As Dr Omar Davies said, "Jamaica is a Superpower in music and culture".

The main stated objective, was to initiate a public discussion, hopefully leading to a more diverse set of cataloguing and grading of those songs (and tunes) which constitute our musical heritage. This is more than laudable, it is indeed, a long overdue corrective action, and given the tremendous response it has already received, has certainly gone someway towards stimulating its accomplishment.

Having said all the above though, I was a bit put off by some emotional, cavalier responses, mainly by the panellists, to valid critiques which were made via the open mike, provided to attendees, supposedly for that purpose. Were we only expected to sing the usual perfunctory praises to the authors and their results? It seems like a little paternal chauvinism crept in at the session, which has left me grappling with a detected pseudo-intellectualism in that aspect of the exercise. Is it really valid to say (as Leahcim Samaj alluded), that until one has done something similar, we do not qualify to offer criticisms of various aspects of their findings, or what we perceive as shortcomings in their strategy and format?

I hold all the panellists, their sincerity, the rigour of their analytical process, and their intellectual capacity, in very high regard. I am also guilty of never having attempted any research of this magnitude or relevance. I hope therefore, that I will not earn their (or their collaborators') wrath, in now offering another possible approach to the rating of the impact of our musical works on the lives of Jamaicans in particular. This may even help to provide guidelines for a future project, that may someday join this one in advancing our common cause.

Jamaica has done what no other country in the world has achieved in the 20th century, by successfully promulgating on a sustainable international scale, all of six genres of music. These are commonly known as: Mento, Ska, Rocksteady, Reggae, Dub, and Dancehall. Each one, first chronologically, and now simultaneously, influences (and retain elements of) the others. In order to not short-change the evolutionary process of our popular music, all genres therefore, deserve to be contextualised and given appropriate prominence in any exercise, weighing their relative impact, as Jamaican music, on our lives.

Mento gained worldwide prominence in the 1940's and 50's through our emerging tourism industry complimented by Harry Belafonte's popular adaptations. Ska, which emerged in 1959, is still epitomised by the music of the Skatalites. It continues to be played (recreated and recorded by local musicians) all over Europe. That continent alone boasts of having over 500 Ska bands. Unfortunately, here at home, we seldom hear the new music being produced by them on public radio, and Jamaican Ska, in general, has been relegated to early 'jugglings' at dances, or midnight musical transitions at oldies sessions.

In 1968, the first Rocksteady songs were released. This genre produced some of our most beautiful ballads and love songs, holding sway for about two years, only to be eclipsed by Reggae. Thanks in no small part to enduring hits by Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown, Burning Spear, Toots Hibbert, Gregory Issacs, Beres Hammond, Freddie McGregor and so many others, this genre continues to overshadow the others which preceded it while holding its own in competition with other world genres.

Dub tunes came into their own, first in the early 70's, as the flip side to popular songs, then by 1974, as stand alone instrumentals, buttressed by accomplished musicians/arrangers like Augustus Pablo, Rico Rodriques, Aggravators, Revolutioners, Upsetters, and producers like Sly & Robbie, Karl Pitterson, King Tubby, Striker Lee, Mad Professor, Scientist and Lee 'Scratch' Perry (aka Pipecock Jaxxson).

The cultural practice of DJs riding well-known rhythms became so popular at the turn of the 80's that it eventually gave birth in 1984 to a new genre, classified internationally as Dancehall. Many of us (especially those born before 1970) reject some of its crude lyrical and decadent cultural manifestations. Regardless, we do the younger generation and ourselves a disservice in ignoring its inherent popularity, creativity and potency. Why should dancehall have to wait another 20 years to take its place in an exercise such as this, when, as indicated, the period under review, ended in 2007? Certainly Sleng Teng and others, creatively utilising modern technology, have already been around for more than 20 years. Dancehall has spun off derivatives such as Hip Hop, American Rap and Reggaeton, and has remained popular with the masses throughout all these years. Source

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