Wednesday, June 24, 2009

music = eat a food

It's cosmic. Or rather, it's timing - lots of people are apparently coming across Bruno Natal's lovely documentary Dub Echoes. (I think the first half is as close to perfect as I could imagine). And Rupture (from Word the Cat) reminded me today of a clip I had forgotten.

This is very similar to what many musicians I have spoken to here in Jamaica have said. Including the mention of church, often (though not always).

It may seem far-fetched to some, but when we are talking about places of extreme poverty.. when music's power to heal and feed is ONLY understood in terms of royalties, or even in terms of its money-generating ability more broadly.. we lose something important about its power, its meaning, and its value for the people who make it. If music is medicine or food, then what rights do we have to access it? This conversation can be depressing in the privatized US, but in places where rights to access medicine and food have been more supported by governments, maybe we can take this discussion a bit further?

Also, placing music in the church context makes me think about musical connections to larger concerns of the soul, and visions of music as not the product of individuals alone. Old territory for some (concerned with the political implications of "scenius" vs. "genius") - it's true that focusing on group creativity can serve to disempower individuals in the system. But I don't want to concede all to a system that focuses on individuals alone, this in itself destroys something valuable (if risky) about communities, movements, scenes, subcultures.. Especially when the people involved in music-making, members of these scenes, use this language I don't want to kick it aside.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Are we down with the underground? Major Lazer in context

As much as Jamaican music is beloved by underground party people around the world, I don’t see Jamaican dancehall fans seeing themselves as underground party people or counterculture in the way those terms signify in the US. I have seen the term “underground” used here, but I’m not sure what it is used to mean, but it usually doesn’t seem to mean “not striving for top-40 success, material accumulation and wealth.”

Not to say that dancehall doesn’t overlap with ghetto-based, poor-people-based authenticity –uptown is definitely considered ‘less dancehall’ even by uptown people. Uptown meaning wealthy (there really is almost no middle income here, you are either poor or quite rich, although in a place where at least outside the city food falls off trees, poor doesn’t mean exactly what I’m used to it meaning).

Anyway, my experience has been that most folks in music here see mainstream success as the goal, and many respect pop stars and pop music on the basis of its commercial success. Not that they don’t talk about musical quality – but something being “commercial” is a compliment in itself.*

This means that everything that is not dancehall, reggae, and R&B, is super niche audience, and most people don’t much dance or respond to it (this includes dub, sadly). But niche doesn’t mean underground like I’m used to the term being used in the US and Europe. Most folks I know outside Jamaica use underground in the sense of resisting mainstream culture, and often with an anti-capitalist or anti-commercial attitude. There’s something going on here that relates to Birdseed’s mention of counterpublic vs. counterculture, maybe? But in a weird way… Niche non-dancehall tends to correlate with uptown, and with “cosmopolitan (but well-off).”

I don’t know for sure how the Major Lazer scene is framing themselves, but it seems like there is a sort of counter-culture vibe going. Maybe I’m wrong, and “we want to be top-40 mall music” is part of the plan? It doesn’t seem like it exactly. I get the sense that they want at least enough ties to resistance or underground scenes to stay “cool” in the eyes of tastemakers.. which again in the US is quite a different thing than in Jamaica. There’s definitely a ghetto-authenticity-“street-cred”-seeking vibe too, which I’ll address more below.

Anyway, as my own djing crosses more over into Major Lazer/Diplo style these days (although from the even less commercial side, from breakcore, jungle, dubstep, glitch, and dub). From the first time I played in JA I thought that big crowds, or especially street dances and audiences in JA would not be likely to get it – or if audiences did get into what I was doing, it would be in a different way than it was intended.

This has been true for me = I have dj’d here in Kingston, but for audiences and crowds quite different than those I play for in San Francisco, in the US generally or in Europe. Anything not reggae, or not seen as Jamaican, and not pop, is understood as “alternative” and becomes at least partlyt a marker of uptown, cosmopolitan people. A simple visual – the parking lot outside the club I play here are dominated by shiny Range Rovers, Prados, and even Escalades (and in Jamaica, a third-world country, there’s a 100% tax on cars.. so they are twice what they cost in the US which sets the owners even farther away from the poor majority and any concept of ‘middle class”). Compared to where I play elsewhere where it’s bikes, old Japanese imports, a veggie bus or two, 2 and 4-door sedans, and the occasional Scion.

So a few months ago I heard from a friend that Diplo wanted to play in Jamaica and wanted to get onto the decks at a real street dance. I wouldn’t have advised that. Necessarily. Unless they are super thick-skinned and don’t mind pissing off a crowd. Perhaps if they could bring their own dancers and hype crew and MCs, people who will raise the energy level (and be part of the audience), that could attract interest.

But I think the crowds here are mostly not interested in pushing boundaries musically – at least not without serious attention to the local conventions of dancehall djing – people want specific tunes, in a specific order – for example, a big R&B/hiphop tune from the US, followed by the Jamaican versions over the same riddim, peaking with the biggest Jamaican version. This was one of the things that got a wheel-up at the Major Lazer show. But it’s not anything you don’t get from any decent dancehall soundsystem any night of the week.

Still, it’s a nice moment in any Jamaican dancehall party I’ve been to. I think it’s a rush of local pride –taking the riddim/instrumental of a big tune from foreign and doing Jamaican vocals on it. I think people are excited to hear their language –patois- and their issues/experiences associated with a globally famous instrumental. The instrumental definitely matters – as far as I can tell it has to be one that’s already big on the pop charts – but it’s not just vocalists riding on the coat-tails of Americans. For one thing, many of those Americans are doing the same thing but more covertly, or without expecting American audiences to recognize their sources. For another, I do think there’s an element of “answering” or taking over the pop tune and making it Jamaican. Something people get a rush out of.

However, as a DJ concern, again, it’s not new music per se that makes an audience here happy –dancehall audiences appear to happily listen to, and demand, the same songs every week, even the same song several times in a night. The songs change, but pretty slowly by my estimation – Mr. Vegas’ “I am Blessed” has been big here since I came in January, as has Mavado’s “So Special” and of course the almighty “Ramping Shop” and a slew of other daggering tunes (RDX’s “Bend Over” etc), and lots of Elephant Man’s dancing tunes, especially “Sweep.”

The point being, if you don’t include that stuff, people don’t get into it much at most mainstream events. Even at the uptown “alternative” events, most people don’t really dance except to dancehall. They dance a lot less than at downtown events anyway. But overall, even when I’ve gotten nods and smiles and compliments on my djing, it never translates into dancing except for a very few people (some of whom are gay --but also uptown and cosmopolitan-- speaking of subcultures or counterpublics). So I’m not surprised at the reception of the show last week. And I’m not now, given what I have learned, surprised that the place that has been most welcoming to me musically has been the artsy, uptown, alternative crowd.

For whom, by the way, I am djing, as well as everyone else who can afford the cover, tomorrow night at club FICTION, in Marketplace, Kingston Jamaica. And Thursday I will accompany an art opening at Olympia Arts Center, in front of U-Tech on Hope Road…

* People do criticize lyrical content, and commercialism gets mixed up in that sometimes. People imply or say outright that bad content is done for the money, where real art is done for the message. But this is all mixed up with commercialism of distribution – Payola is apparently a huge problem, so radio djs and other promoters of the music get paid to play music. So this means people talk more about how if only we could get the bad content out of the way (that is being put forward by people for some bad reason like being paid for it), then the good stuff would have commercial success ‘naturally’ because it is better.

Monday, June 22, 2009

more street fashion (at the mall too)

Ran into this couple as I came through the mall at Sovereign Center for iced coffee and internet.


I asked if he was a dancer. He said he was a dancer and a singer too. And then...


and some time earlier I interviewed this artist/DJ: Iyara, part of the Alliance crew, at Payday music

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Nobility, bloodlines, identity in Jamaica

I just read the most amazing piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has been doing a mind-blowing series of pieces on the Civil War. they are all amazing, but this one is simply the best thing I have read in years.

one particular passage, however, hit me hard for another reason - it sparked a set of thoughts I have been kicking around while trying to understand what it means to be in a country where race relations are shaped by colonialism rather than by slavery (setting aside the colonization that destroyed so much of Native American culture, which was a different kind that I'm even LESS equipped to think about, unfortunately). Anyway I had been thinking about how racism, colorism, and class work here -it's so, so, so, so different than I see it in the US, many of my missteps with people have arisen from my misreading of these things. But I also had a growing discomfort with the way many black Jamaicans frame their resistance to it.

Here's the exceprt from Coates (which I take off from.. the rest of it is focused somewhat elsewhere, and is, again, amazing, as are the comments):

When I was young I believed, like a lot of us at that time, that my people had been kidnapped out of Africa by malicious racist whites. Said whites then turned and subjugated and colonized the cradle of all men. It was a comforting thought which placed me and mine at the center of a grand heroic odyssey. We were deposed kings and queens robbed of our rightful throne by acquisitive merchants of human flesh. By that measures we were not victims, but deposed nobles--in fact and in spirit.

I don't propose that blacks are alone in our myth-making, or in our desire to ennoble ourselves. But given the power dynamics of this society, we're the ones who can afford the comforts of myth the least. This is doubly true for those of us who are curious about the broader world. By the time I came to Howard University, I was beginning the painful process of breaking away from the "oppression as nobility" formula. But the clincher was sitting in my Black Diaspora I class and learning that the theory of white kidnappers was not merely myth--but, on the whole, impossible because disease (Tse-Tse fly maybe?) kept most whites from penetrating beyond the coasts until the 19th century.

A few years later I read (like many of you, no doubt) Guns, Germs and Steel and was, again, heartbroken. Here was a book with no use for nobility, but concerned with two categories--winners and losers. And I was the progeny of the losing team. I was not cheated of anything. I had simply lost.

This was heart-breaking, in the existential sense. What was I, if not noble? What was the cosmic justice at work that put me here, that made me second? Slowly, by that line of questioning, I came to understand that there really was no cosmic justice, that I should just be happy to be alive. Moreover the truth--Harriet Tubman and Ida Wells--was sustenance enough.

I'm especially thinking about Coates' discussion of the need to, and problem with, focusing on being descended from "Kings, Queens, and Nobles" as one reclaims a certain kind of black identity.

I'm pretty much anti-hereditary nobility and monarchy and against that kind of social hierarchy, and have spent much of my life studying people who have never had access to (through marriage, birth, or membership) that kind of power. I am also the granddaughter of farmers or peasants, on both sides (immigrant jews on one side, poor Texan dairy farmers for a coupla hundred years and Europe before that), as well as having been raised by working-class radical academics.

Wherever my worldview comes from, I have often been a bit weirded out by the royalist language many use in Jamaica, including but not limited to Rastafarians. I spoke with a descendant of the Maroons, who (as did others I spoke with) emphasized his connections with royal families in Ghana and elsewhere. Rastas call each other King and Queen, and Empress and My Lord. In one way it's impressive, it's grand, it feels dignified and powerful. I understand that people who were systematically denied dignity, and still are, in terms of social power in Jamaica today, want to claim markers of dignity.

But seriously, the focus on royalty and nobility makes me cranky. What's so bad about being descended from a farmer? It seems like rather than taking the King=dignity, not-king=worthless framework as a given, and just reversing who is the king, is missing the point.

does this have any connection to music and music-making? Well, in some ways..
I see a lot of Rastas, for example, who are perfectly happy with the government ban on dirty dancehall music on the radio, while they had in the past decried government bans on reggae. They are happy to support the power of the government to dictate acceptable music, so long as acceptability fits their definition. There is an authoritarian strain here that I can't fully get on board with. Some people I have talked to say this is a newer development in Rasta politics, and I'd like to know more..

I'm not sure but it's possible that the dancehall culture is not as caught up in this.. I don't find it mapping so well onto this quest for royalty/nobility. It seems more a scramble for capitalist-style success, in which the concept of dignity is a bit hard for me to spot. Not sure what to make of that either..

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Major Lazer in Kingston

On Friday, I was sitting outside on campus where I can get some free wireless, and I checked my Facebook page, which is how I keep up with my friends at home. But this time I saw something happening here in Kingston, that I hadn’t heard about. One of my Facebook friends (check how these connections work) the wife of a guy I had been introduced to (via email) by an entertainment lawyer friend of mine in SF –she runs a website about events in Jamaica, and she posted the following information:
Major Lazer was launching their tour right here at Quad, the biggest club in Kingston, tonight!

I called the guy, hoping he and his wife and some other people were going, and he said yes.. and offered to pick me up on the way to the club. Woo! He came by at midnight or so and off we went.

We got there around 12:45 or so. I was on the guest list, which eases my passage past the security guards who gave me shit about wearing sneakers last time. Heading through the entryway, a jazz club called “Christopher’s” is on the ground floor, to our left. The crowd here is older and/or wealthier/more conservative looking than elsewhere in the club. The main stairway leads up past the jazz bar to the main floor. This floor takes up the entire building, but is broken up by the shaft of the central staircase (which is enclosed, and the kind of staircase where the stairs go around a central square opening that is open all the way down). This means that althogh the space has a big capacity, it's impossible to see more than about 1/3 of the room at any one time and thats when you stand in a corner, the space is broken up by the central staircase. There are bars around the outside walls, the DJ booth is at on end on the outside wall, and there’s a dancefloor in front. The ceiling is oddly low, every area is irregular-shaped, with islands breaking up the dancefloor into a smaller space, and a serious air-conditioner blasted chill air onto us from above. The sound system is pretty huge, and pretty clean. I’d looooove to play on it sometime. I’ve been through here a few times before. I’ve always been impressed with their weekend DJs, although the crowd is nowhere near as lively as Boassi, the guests have never blown my mind. And these guests?

The Major Lazer crew I recognized as they trickled in. Diplo and Switch and Terry Lynn showed up in the DJ booth, I saw them through the glass, her big sunglasses reflecting back the light. A bit later a couple of other people I assumer were MCs collected back there as well and I hoped they would all get on the mic at some point. Diplo came on the decks maybe an hour or more later.

The order of his sets gets a bit mixed up in my mind. But I think he started by playing a mix of familiar (from the Jamaican scene) stuff, i.e. dancehall and hip-hop/R&B. It wasn’t too adventurous, but certainly no worse than what I’ve heard elsewhere.

Then there was a moment where he had an MC come up. This was where the crowd livened up the most. The MC was dressed in “african” style clothes, colorful Batik-patterned long tunic and trousers and a tall cap, and wraparound shades. His rapping had a distinct accented-english style. It was Prince Zimboo, whose way of rapping the Gleaner helpfully calls a "deep African accent" (!), and he made some funny dirty jokes and the crowd responded well, with cheers and gunhands and such. He is already known in Jamaica especially for his presence on the famous Black Chiney mixtapes (hah more racialized performance - they're out of Miami but they are Jamaicans of partly chinese descent popular in Jamaica). His second big cheer came from a phrase off of one of those mixtapes - he calls himself the "Punanny Macguyver." (hee)

The fact that he is not actually African but is a sort of “African-face” performer weirds me out and is worth a post in itself – anyone else want to take a crack at that? Looks like the backstory is even less cool, but not so unusual. Lots of people really get into stereotypes here (of everyone including Jamaicans – the most popular comedienne right now wears blackface and plays a ‘low-class’ Jamaican who mispronounces words and is loud and dresses inappropriately –this SLAYS’EM in the aisles). And Jamaicans are perfectly capable of saying horrifically racist things about Africans. But I digress.

I recall a set of clubbier remix tunes, Baltimore club and house music, mixed in with Kid Cudi’s “day n night” (which is pop/r&b’s sonic excursion into club sounds)—this is something I might have done, trying to get the crowd into the clubby vibe and getting them to realize it’s not so different from music they already like. Except I kinda hate that song so it would have been hard for me to play it even for such a sensible purpose.

Next he played a set of dubplates by big names in dancehall. This seems like going for something familiar to dancehall fans, after the unfamiliar music played before. However, my companion, a longtime Jamaican music industry guy said they weren’t even the hottest dubplates, either not the biggest artists or not the biggest songs. I can’t say I know enough to judge that, I only remember one by Konshens, who is pretty big, but no Vybez Kartel I think. But the crowd didn’t really seem that into it. I thought it might be that dubplates in themselves aren't that big for this kind of crowd. My impression is that dubplates (special versions of a tune re-sung by the artist who is known for singing it ---or by someone who SOUNDS like that artist—but dropping the name of the DJ in the song) are more important in soundclash competitions between rival djs/sound systems, or in the street dances where artists really get street cred. Then again, several scholars of dubplates I know suggest that dubplates are losing importance more generally in JA. Whatever the cause, nobody seemed that impressed here.

Quad is considered a more uptown scene, it has an entrance fee of 800/1000 Jamaican (around 10-12 bucks), which is pretty high for Kingston and the inside is white and shiny and gleaming, at least the counters. The crowd is definitely more conservative or boringly dressed than at street dances, in a way that I have come to associate with an uptown crowd. People look pretty healthy – good skin, good teeth, physically pretty fit. Guys in polo shirts or t-shirts and short or shaved hair, girls in tight dresses with not a lot of jewelry and not-too-complicated hairstyles, or somewhat conservative jeans and tight tops. High heels popular (the club’s “no sneakers on women” rule is apparently followed, by most), but there are plenty of women in flip-flops too. Maybe I would call it at least partly a college crowd. More hard shoes on the men than a college crowd in Boston where I grew up, but Boston is a buncha schlubs basically.. “upscale and college” maybe?

People didn’t dance much to the housier/clubbier stuff (except for me and one guy in a white button-down shirt and a shaved head). When that stuff came up people calmed down into standing around and bouncing a bit and chatting. Except for my fellow dancer, who was black, the only people I actually saw cheering any of the clubbier tunes were white or very lightskinned (I was in front of the dj booth while these tracks were played, and I was dancing but most people just watched me or the other guy).

Overall, the crowd was not particularly enthused, at peak moments more folks busting out and dancing (maybe up to 50% of the crowd I could see, more of that on the central dancefloor), or ladies here and there bending over and rubbing their butts back against the groins of their male partners (this move is sort of catlike and questing in a way –sending the butt backwards against a guy and then making kind of a scrubbing motion- and it’s kind of funny because sometimes the men just stand there at get scrubbed). I saw a few guys who looked more like dancers but they never busted out any moves where I could see it. Things heated up a bit during the regular-dancehall set. Their biggest response of cheers and gun-hands-in-the-air, other than to Prince Zimboo, were when Diplo played the big tunes –tunes currently big in every club and dance in Jamaica – in the expected sequence: Big R&B track, then Big Jamaican vocal on the same riddim, for example.

They people actually started thinning out by 3 (which is by no means when things stop at Quad). The place had gotten pretty packed but after that initial peak nobody seemed to be really into it, although they didn’t seem exactly hostile.

My take on it? Well, I was surprised to hear about the gig in the first place. Definitely impressed that Quad took on an adventurous booking, and unimpressed by the lack of initiative, energy and responsiveness from Major Lazer/Diplo. The dancehall stuff I could have heard anywhere in Kingston, the dubplates were probably expensive but not really impressing the crowd, and the club stuff did not connect for most people there although they didn't run completely away. It was ok, but not earthshaking. I’ll fess up, we left before the end, but the crowd had left the dancefloor already and I couldn’t see anything dramatic on the horizon that would have changed the scene.

If I had been part of Major Lazer – here’s what I would have done: Since the crowd really responded to the MCs, whatever my initial plan had been, I would have asked the slew of interesting MCs behind me (like Terry Lynn!) to work with me to make a live show, freestyle, more high energy, even winging it a bit just to throw some energy back at the crowd. People would have at least respected and enjoyed them putting on a show and committing a lot of energy to it. I’ve noticed that over and over again at Jamaican shows – when someone really gives it 100%, even if the audience doesn’t really like the music, they usually respect someone for trying. But this performance was lackadaisical to watch, and not that thrilling to listen to on a number of fronts, so it felt pretty flat.

This is getting long, so I’ll save my big-picture comments for the next post.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

June has come, pleas and shouts go out

It's already been 5 months? wait, what?

Only one month to go here in Jamaica and (like every other researcher I know in their last leg of fieldwork) I feel like I have only done 1/3 of what I wanted to do.. At least it's been really interesting. Dealing with all my notes is gonna be the hard part. Scratch that, transcribing a ton of interviews that are mostly in patois is gonna be the hard part. But so interesting!

Not much else to report except I'm (mostly) looking forward to returning to the Bay Area. I hope to line up some gigs.. I really have missed djing, especially djing for crowds who know & love what I do.. On that note, I plan to play in New York, and London, and possibly Europe over the next few months -any interested bookers please shout me. Also, anyone in Toronto who wants to book me, get in touch...I only played there once and it was a long long time ago. I hope to come through before the winter since I've seriously lost my edge after 6 months in the tropics.

I've tried to stay on top of new music while being here.. Hard for several reasons, but I still find myself stumbling across new tunes and producers, or new stuff from producers I already love.. I think it's a good time for music right now, in a scattered, let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom kind of way. Feel free to send me stuff, anyone!