Dancehall article: NY Times
KINGSTON, Jamaica --
Every musical style to NEW SOUNDS: Tony Rebel,
emerge from Jamaica over the left, one of the first on
last 35 years has eventually the dancehall scene to
achieved international return to the Rastafarian
popularity. Reggae is part tradition, emphasizing
of the vocabulary of every social criticism in
working pop musician. The biblical language.
disk jockeys known as Anthony B., right, a
toasters are now 22-year-old whose song
acknowledged as the earliest "Fire 'Pon Rome," an
progenitors of rap, and ska attack on wealth and
has lately become the privilege, was banned
favorite of skateboarders from radio because it was
and punk bands the world deemed seditious. (David
But the story has been
different with the homegrown style called dancehall.
While dominating Jamaican popular music for most of the
last decade, dancehall has remained on the fringes of
pop consciousness, even though its driving electronic
beat and sex- and violence-soaked lyrics would seem to
make it a prime candidate for crossover in an era in
which the lowest common denominator reigns supreme.
Now, however, an emerging generation of young Jamaican
artists is subverting the dancehall scene and improving
its prospects for international acceptance by taking
the music back to its roots in reggae and Rastafarian
utopianism. Instead of celebrating girls and guns, the
new breed, led by singers and songwriters like Luciano,
Anthony B., Sizzla, Beenie Man and Tony Rebel, urge
Jamaicans to sav their country and their souls.
The proper function of the Jamaican artist is to be
"missionary, visionary and messenger," said Luciano,
the sweet-voiced, intensely spiritual vocalist whose
stirring songs of redemption and uplift have become
virtual anthems here in recent years. "Yes, there are
still people around who are singing slack lyrics about
the silly things in life, like what they going to do to
their woman. But the pendulum is swinging back the
----------------------------- If so, worsening
In Jamaica, new singers are political and economic
cleaning up the dancehall conditions in Jamaica
sound and may, as a result, may be hastening the
make it easier to export. shift. Growth has ground
to a halt, and in 1997
----------------------------- more than 1,000 people
were killed here, a murder rate more than three times
that of New York City. In such an environment,
Jamaicans seem more inclined to reflect than to party,
and musicians willing to assume the prophetic role once
played by Bob Marley have enhanced their credibility
"We Jamaicans see ourselves as a powerful world
cultural force, and we can't understand why as a people
we can't get the economics right, why the social and
political conditions can't be better," explained Carl
Bradshaw, the veteran actor and screenwriter who is now
director of operations for Island Entertainment
Jamaica, the country's leading record label for the
last 40 years. "That's why you're seeing this switch
back to protest music."
Tony Rebel and Garnet Silk, who died in a fire in 1994,
were among the first on the dancehall scene to lead the
way back toward the Rastafarian tradition, with its
emphasis on social criticism in biblical language.
But a major turning point was the success of Anthony
B.'s "Fire 'Pon Rome," an incendiary attack on wealth
and political privilege released in 1996. Quickly
banned from the airwaves not because of lewdness but
because it was deemed seditious and libelous, the song
found a home in the dance halls, pushing aside more
frivolous fare and making hits of both "So Many
Things," the 22-year-old singer's debut album, and
"Universal Struggle," his recent follow-up.
"Even before the song came out, we all knew it was
going to be banned, because we named specific people"
as responsible for the nation's problems, Anthony B.,
whose real name is Keith Anthony Blair, said in an
interview here. "But an artist's role should be to take
leadership for his people, to be at the front of his
generation and his race, even if authority and the
people promoting the music don't think so."
Sizzla, an even more recent and increasingly
influential arrival, has tried to take a middle
position, striking a balance between Luciano's
spirituality and Anthony B.'s rebelliousness.
Beenie Man, who started as rapid-fire and lewd as any
rapper and still likes to sing in a heavy patois so as
to maintain his roots credentials, specializes in
humorous, cutting social commentary.
As a result of the change in mood here, the twin
pillars of dancehall music -- Yellowman, who led the
initial shift to lascivious lyrics, and Shabba Ranks,
who became the movement's boastful hypermacho
ambassador thanks to songs like "Wicked Inna Bed" --
are now clearly in eclipse. Other dancehall stars, like
Buju Banton, whose anti-homosexual rant "Boom Bye Bye"
became the genre's signature tune, have undergone a
change of heart and style and are now embracing
Rastafarian principles that regard dancehall's emphasis
on sex and materialism as part of the "Babylon system."
To Dermot Hussey, one of Jamaica's most respected
musicologists, dancehall has always been an aberration,
a manifestation of yuppie self-indulgence akin to the
disco craze in the United States. "The thing has its
own esthetic, its own body language and dress, but it
has not been creative," he said. "It's like a theater
of the absurd, with a lot of fat women in expensive
costumes baring all that skin, like Madame Pompadour."
The peculiar flavor of the dancehall scene was captured
in "Dancehall Queen," a feature film about a humble
Kingston street vendor who, like Cinderella, becomes
the mysterious queen of the ball. The movie, recently
released direct to video in the United States, is now
the biggest box office attraction in Jamaican history.
But a strong selling point for the film has been
performance scenes featuring Anthony B. and Beenie Man,
who have criticized dancehall's excesses and
[T] he effort to transform and reinvigorate dancehall,
however, focuses as much on melody and harmony as
on lyrics and fashion. Musicians and listeners alike
appear to have grown tired of the genre's increasingly
stripped-down and minimalist sound, a product of
dancehall's fascination with American hip-hop, which
itself derives from the Jamaican tradition of disk
jockeys declaiming over instrumental "dub" tracks.
"I was listening to something the other day, and I only
heard a drum machine and a voice, so I said to myself,
What is happening here?" complained Ernest Ranglin, the
guitarist and arranger who is the founding father of
modern Jamaican music. "It's a good beat, but that's
all there is to it. It's like the dancehall artists
don't want to make changes in the tune. It's all one
chord, because they have cut out the piano and
The new breed, on the other hand, seeks a richer,
fuller sound and is openly contemptuous of the
limitations that commercial dancehall music imposes.
Though just as fascinated with rhythm, they prefer the
purer, more African sound of traditional Rastafarian
nyabinghi drumming to the monotonous beat of drum
machines, and they are not averse to adding orchestral
ornamentation to a strong rhythmic foundation.
"Drums and bass are really only for dancing, for just
playing with surface feelings and emotions," explained
Anthony B. "I want to take you deeper into the music
than just dancing, and I can only get at those deeper
feelings through horns and strings and keyboards."
Lowell (Sly) Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, the drummer
and bass player who have been Jamaica's premier rhythm
section over the last 25 years, argue that the
sparseness of the dancehall sound may ultimately prove
its salvation and the only way to attract the American
and British audiences that have embraced other types of
Jamaican music. At the Mixing Lab, the studio that
serves as their home base here, Mr. Dunbar and Mr.
Shakespeare have lately been augmenting dancehall
tracks with salsa touches; their latest record,
"Friends," even includes a Latin-tinged dancehall
interpretation of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction"
with their old buddy Keith Richards on guitar .
"There's no set pattern to dancehall, except for the
drum, and because it is so free-form, that allows you
to go places," Mr. Dunbar said during a break from a
studio session here. "This is a new music that just
needs to develop, and as soon as a few more colors come
in, there will be a new surge to the next stage."
By then, of course, dancehall may have a new name to go
with the new image and social consciousness that the
new wave seeks to cultivate. Just as mento gave way to
ska, which evolved into rock steady, which became
reggae, which gave birth to dancehall, there is a sense
in Jamaica that something fresh and vital is once again
taking root. That is the case even though American
record companies have been slower to exploit the new
sound than they were with reggae.
"Jamaican music is like a tree, and some branches are
more fruitful than others," Luciano said. "Dancehall
has to clean up and become more positive if we are
going to be able to inspire and ignite people again and
recapture that Bob Marley vibe. The sheep must return
to the fold."
Posted: Thu - February 6, 2003 at 06:03 PM