Jamaica

Downtown Kingston – 4 Not So-Straightforward Global Influences

Downtown Kingston has to be the most influential piece of musical real estate in the world.

Please note I said Kingston and not Jamaica because the majority of music which exploded globally came from inner city Kingston and not the country at large. In fact, all Jamaican music you can think of, with the possible exception of mento, has its roots firmly planted Downtown.

The impact of their artists, Rastafarianism and weed use are well-known. However, I want to look at other things.

So here are 4 not so-straightforward ways Downtown Kingston has influenced the world.

1. Showing Communities you can do it too – Reggae en Español

Many dancehall and dub producers were NEVER professionally trained and  by demonstrating that technical expertise does not limit expression, Kingstonians opened the door for all with tape recorders to immortalize themselves and their neighbourhoods.

Here is a typical lo-fi example:

Reggae en Espanol from Panama*.

 

2. Giving people not considered singers chances to perform.

Kingston’s music gave those without access to music education a chance to participate by opening up the aesthetics of music. By using devices such as speech rhythm, it allowed many people to perform who might have never had the chance to because they thought they couldn’t sing.

Here is Rankin Taxi from Japan who clearly shows what I am talking about.

 

3. You could look like anything once you are unique

Reggae and dancehall have all types performing within it. Unlike other popular music, you don’t have to have a look, you just need a UNIQUE voice. To show you what I mean take a look at some big Kingston stars below.

King Stitt

King Stitt

Yellowman 2

Yellowman

 

4. Soundsystem

The biggest piece of technology that Kingston has given to the world is the soundsystem. This record player hooked up to speakers created a sense of belonging for so many neighbourhoods across the world and created billions. Here is an example of one in the Philippines which obviously took the soundsystem culture and ran with it.

 

The 4 influences here show how much of a sledgehammer Downtown Kingston music has been on world culture.

Thank you Kingston

Can you think of anymore?

  • *The influence of Jamaican genres has been particularly strong  in areas with similar ethnic or economic circumstances to Downtown Kingston. So far example in the barrios of Panama, where there are large Afro communities, reggae music has a strong following. See the story of reggae-en-espanol.

Top 10 Jamaican Dancehall Voices of All Time

Jamaican Dancehall music has always maintained the Afro-Diasporic aesthetic of having a distinctive voice.  This voice does not merely relate to content but the sound of the voice. 

Here is a Top 10 of the most distinctive voices in Jamaican Dancehall.

JAMAICAN FLAG

10.  Tiger

Tiger was one of the mid 80s Dancehall dons. Tiger’s unique self call-and-response, where he goes between a broad pronunciations and a deeper clipped tone, is not only humorous but terribly unique.  He also possesses one of the most elaborate speaking/chanting styles you will ever hear on a stage. If that was not enough, he also uses his call phrase, “see!” copiously.

 

9.  Shabba Ranks

In the early 90s Shabba Ranks was possibly the biggest name in Jamaican Dancehall.  Shabba gained cross-over success with his Mr. Lover track which replaced the Dancehall reggae beat with a generic back beat.  However, I have chosen the seminal “Dem Bow” tune which started a whole genre to showcase his unique vocal. Shabba brings a deep baritone and an aggressive attack to his chanting. He also has surprisingly clear diction especially when compared to other Dancehall artists.

 

8. Vybz Kartel

From the modern brigade we have Vybz Kartel who has a school of Dancehall performers who implement his template of low chanting and contrasting higher pitches between sections. This style makes Vybz Kartel distinctive and a solid member of this list.

 

7.  Sizzla

Sizzla brought a distinctive lyrical voice to Dancehall in mid-90s. As a Rastafari from the Bobo Ashanti mansion, Sizzla set about inserting his ideology which at the time was largely relegated to Reggae. Sizzla also brought a new approach with a singing chant style that used double-time rhythm and falsetto singing. As time went on, Sizzla utilised more of the falsetto and remains one of the most recognizable voices in Dancehall.

 

6. Eek-a-Mouse

Eek-a-Mouse was one the early 80s Dancehall performers and a contemporary of the more famous Yellowman. With his nonsense syllables and a nasal voice, Eek-A-Mouse set himself apart in terms of sound.

 

5. Snagga Puss

Although not original in terms of sound, the idea of chanting like Snagga Puss the cartoon character, is a stroke of genius. With a speedy vibrato like the character and a quick rise and descent pitch at the end of each word, Snagga Puss scored some moderate Dancehall success in the late 80s and early 90s. Needless to say, his lyrical content was mostly far from serious.

 

4. Mavado

Here is another of the post 2000 Dancehall artist. Mavado and his call, “baby” are as well-known as his singing come chanting style. Unlike Sizzla, he does not use the falsetto, instead Mavado engages in what can only be described as a whine where he constantly slides into notes like if his fingers are caught in a door. His success shows this style pays off however.

 

3.  Lady Saw

In a space dominated by men, a female voice would of course stand out. Lady Saw is easily the premier female voice in Dancehall and has been for quite for a while.  She also is very rhythmically secure with an attack and ride of riddim that is as good as any.

 

2.  U Roy

In the earliest days of Dancehall this toaster was the man. With an elaborate speaking style that doesn’t always reflect a Jamaican accent, U Roy was a pioneer and is still distinctive some 40 years after his initial success.

 

1.  Tommy Lee

Tommy Lee is the youngest person on this list. Due to the fact he emerged so late in a genre of so many great and unique voices, he took it upon himself to be as extreme in terms of sound as is possible. From an extremely nasal voice, to a guttural sound and an elaborate style like Tiger, Lee does it all. The combination is  not to everyone’s taste, especially the older Dancehall heads. However, Lee has marked a space for himself and no one sounds like him.

 

Remember, can’t include all!! Who are some of yours?

Top 10 Caribbean Music Documentaries

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1. Marley

There are several Bob Marley documentaries out there. This one is the newest and unlike the others, seeks to present Marley as a complex character. However, I still recommend watching “Caribbean Nights,” which is one of the oldest, to get even more perspective on this Caribbean musical giant. However, you can’t go wrong with this one.

2. Sons of Benkos

I see the Caribbean as a cultural area and this documentary focusses on a music type, Champeta, that is not from the archipelago. Instead this popular music form is from Colombia and is a fascinating fusion of popular Western and Central African music and Colombian music. Although Champeta has changed, this documentary shows its roots as well as a fascinating examination of the Palenque region, which is seen as the heart of African culture in Colombia.

3. Made In Jamaica

Made In Jamaica is one of my favourite documentaries on Jamaican music. It does not only have the talking heads as in most documentaries but live performances as well. Each performer is backed by one of the premier rhythm sections in the genre, Sly and Robbie and the sound is fabulous. If you are one that likes more than just info and bios, this documentary is definitely one for you.

4. Routes to Rhythm

5. This PBS documentary from the 80s is one of the BEST on salsa.  Everyone is in here. Like Made in Jamaica, some killer live performances are also present. Watch all of it if you have any interest in Salsa music and Cuban music in particular, REQUIRED VIEWING!

5. La Musique Antillaise

This Banyan documentary looks at French Antillean music. Zouk is here as well as older traditional forms.  A short and good watch and for non-French speakers like myself, it is in English.

6. Soca Power

Soca Power is good, it could have been better, but it is good. The documentary follows monster soca artists Bunji Garlin, his spouse Fay-Ann, and Machel Montano at Carnival. While not being fly-on-the-wall, it still manages to capture some of the excitement behind Carnival performances. Worth a watch.

7.  Reggae inna Babylon

Reggae inna Babylon examines the music in the Caribbean diaspora as it focusses on the work of reggae artists in the nineteen seventies in the United Kingdom. The usual suspects Aswad and Third World are here, and though the documentary itself is not quite riveting, we get to see them in action at the time of their greatest popularity – for that alone it is worth a watch.

8.  Puerto Rican Bomba : A Search For Our Roots

This documentary, like Reggae inna Babylon, is partially based in the Diaspora, but then again so much of Puerto Rican culture straddles that divide between mainland and diaspora. It makes the Bomba, a traditional folk form its basis and for those interested in the sound of it, we get break downs of the indivudal parts. It is detailed and very enlightening.

9.   Straight Outta Puerto Rico: Reggaeton’s Rough Road to Glory

If you want an overview of Reggaeton, this is a good place to start. Despite the gawdy ads that seem to suggest a much less mentally stimulating offereing, this documentary manages to speak to the movers and shakers and highlight the events which were important to this genre as it emerged.  With plenty of loud music and imagery, this one would keep you watching for sure.

10. Calypso Dreams

 

Calypso Dreams is one of my favourites on this list. It has singing heads as opposed to talking heads, and manages to find many of the calypso artists in their natural environment. Due to this, we hear them without the trappings of arrangements and stage mics. They instead have guitar accompaniment most of the time. If that wasn’t enough, a history of calypso is also given. Every one is here, even Roaring Lion – this is a must see for anyone interested in Trinidadian calypso.

Vybz Kartel: Musical Genius! Dancehall Mi Seh I

Vybz Kartel happens to be one of my favourite Caribbean artists of vybz Kartel

all time.

Some might be shocked by this, but by growing up with the pounding modality of Dancehall, I was brainwashed into appreciating rhythm and a good hook.

What really gets me about Vybz is his creativity.

One must remember that Dancehall artists do not have the same musical vocabulary to rely on as other composers and improvisers in other types of genres. So one does not learn “Dancehall licks,” as in Jazz, where improvisers learn phrases they KNOW will work.

Dancehall is naked (pun intended). A dancehall performer has a ‘riddim’ (a beat with some chords at times) and they create entire songs using just that. The imagination and skills required to do this are therefore quite different than in other types of music (Rap of course being the exception). Some performers are rather good at creating songs from beats, others not so much. Vybz is a BOSS. Here is one of my favourites, “Realest Thing,” which testifies to this.

Of course that is not all; check this, one of his more famous works, “Clarks.”

What I like about Vybz is his:

  • ability to create sections, where melody as well as rhythmic attacks change.
  • thorough understanding of time and rhythm.
  • talent at placing an accent.
  • melodic variations  in order to achieve sections. He does this so the riddim doesn’t get boring.

To end, it is obvious I am using mostly rhythmic criteria to judge Vybz. I feel fully justified in doing this because rhythm is one of the main things Dancehall is about. So it makes no sense judging Vybz Kartel by how many high notes he can sing or how many chords are in his songs.

It is all about the rhythm and Vybz is the drumming master!

* Yes, I just musically analysed Vybz.

** Yes, I did an article on Vybz unrelated to his murder conviction.

Tessanne Won, Great, Now What? – Musings on Tessanne Chin on The Voice

This article was published on http://www.cwn5.com in April.

 

 

 

tessane cartoon

 

“Tessanne won the Voice!” That was what my wife screamed to me as the results from Season 5 of the American reality show, The Voice were announced.  Tessanne Chin, the Jamaican reggae-rock fusion singer who produced the wonderful album In Between Worlds, had won. Wow! I thought to myself with an unmistakable uneasiness. Why worry? Well The Voice to me has proven to be, as we say in the Caribbean, a bit of a sweet talker and like most sweet talkers, their intentions are not always the best.

The Voice, for those (un) fortunate enough to avoid this particular reality offering,
is a televised, season-long music competition which involves singers blind auditioning for coaches. If the auditions go well then the contestants get to choose which of the coach’s teams they will join, in the hope of that coach helping them facilitate their dream of mesmerizing the viewing public and winning the competition.

The benefits of winning this competition are obvious and since conquering on Season 5, Tessanne’s public profile has exploded globally. She has performed at the White House, courtesy of an invitation from the Obamas no less, signed to talent firm ICM, which deals with artists as from Al Jarreau to Pamela Anderson, and headlined more Caribbean festivals in the past year since winning The Voice than Sizzla and Machel Montano combined. In addition, she has an album coming out on Universal Republic Records with contributions from hit writers Toby Gad and Dianne Warren.

Sounds good doesn’t it, especially for an artist who has been heavily involved in the pop music business for a number of years like Tessanne was. To me, not quite and while I am hopeful, being an early Tessanne fan, I am also very wary for the following reasons:

  1. The Voice does not have such a great track record

The past winners of The Voice, and they have been a few now, have not gone on to garner much mainstream success. Unlike, American Idol, no one from The Voice — winners or otherwise — has managed to crack the Billboard pop charts. As Dave Holmes, television host and reality-TV recapper told The Daily Beast, “It’s like people win The X Factor or The Voice and enter the Witness Relocation Program.” Funny and true and only the ardent pop culture buffs can actually name all the winners from The Voice.

  1. The Contract Sucks!!!

According to Helienne Lindvall, the Voice in its Scandavaian version, makes the contestants, not only the winners, sign contracts where the production team get 50% of all their earnings. This not only relates to future earnings but past earnings including royalties and publishing. It is a 360 deal worthy of the worst gangsters of the old music industry. According to Lindvall, this is not only on the Scandanavain show and various national versions, like the American one, make the contestants sign similar contracts.  What does this possibly mean for Tessanne? This means that The Voice production team will probably get:

  • future earnings every time Tessanne performs,
  • royalties and publishing from sales of her album “In Between Worlds,” which was recorded long before her appearing on the Voice.
  • a piece of all her non-musical earnings such as sponsorship deals and endorsements.

After reading this I hope that you understand my concern. Hopefully however, it will work out for her financially and artistically, especially given the fact that her sister, Tami Chin Mitchell, who apparently has experience with the label machinery is joint managing her. So as a fan from her In Between World days with its monster track Hideaway, I wish her all the best. I sincerely hope that on this new journey the industry pitfalls will not consume her and she can buck the trend and prove there is indeed a musical pot of gold at the end of the Voice rainbow.

 

This article was published on http://www.cwn5.com in April. Since then Tessanne has released her debut album on the Universal label to a very lukewarm reception. See link below.

http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/entertainment/Tough-love-for-Tessanne

This story continues to unfold.

Those who can’t, teach. Or should that be those who can, can’t teach?

The old anecdote, those who can’t, teach, has been bandied around in music for quite a bit. 

The question I have however is, “can’t do what?”

Teaching music requires a depth of knowledge.  Another crucial skill of any music teacher, especially those in emerging areas such as Caribbean music, is the ability to TRANSLATE musical language into spoken language.

This part is quite difficult.

To demonstrate this difficulty check this clip from Sly and Robbie as they attempt to explain what they do. 

What Sly and Robbie lack here is not intelligence but instead the ability to translate the language of sound into the language of language. So while they are brilliant musicians and obviously highly intelligent, the ability to put what they do into ways people can understand is not something that comes easy. *

So remember all and sundry that because a guy is a genius musician it does not make him a genius teacher. Also music teachers remember your task is a difficult one and never feel inferior because you never graced the big stage. We are all needed to keep #musicaLive.

*What could of happened instead is these guys communicating through playing and others trying to copy them; similar to how oral cultures pass on their knowledge orally/aurally.