Wake the Town and Tell the People: Dancehall Culture in Jamaica
by Norman C. Stolzoff
(Duke University Press)
director's cut, Village Voice Literary Supplement, 2000
by Simon Reynolds
For a small island with a population barely more than two million, Jamaica has exerted a disproportionately vast influence on global pop. Beyond briefly touching upon his own conflicted passion for Rastafarian reggae as a white middle class teenager in California, though, Norman C. Stolzoff doesn't deal with the music's impact outside its Caribbean home. His real interest is probing dancehall's internal workings as a cultural economy, and examining why it is such a controversial and fiercely contested phenomenon within Jamaica itself.
What emerges in Wake the Town is a picture of Jamaican music as powerfully conditioned by economic forces, and of a native genius for transforming these constraints into creative opportunities. Sound systems, for instance, emerged in the 1950s when the tourist trade priced live bands out of the popular market. Thrift was partial inspiration for two crucial Jamaican innovations, the dub's studio-as-instrument trickery and the re-using of rhythm tracks for different songs and vocalists; producers realized they only had to pay the session band for a single performance if they put dub versions on the B-side of singles or released "one riddim" albums. Similar implacable financial logic led to today's digital dancehall music, where computers and drum machines enabled the downsizing of human instrumentalists altogether.
Stolzoff is not a flashy writer, and theoretically he offers few surprises, wielding the usual mish-mash of cult-studs faves: Pierre Bourdieu's analysis of taste in terms of class distinction, Dick Hebdige-style subcultural decoding, Paul Gilroy's work on hybridity. His conclusion is a tad inconclusive and sat-on-the-fence: there's good in dancehall (a vibrant vulgarity that resists the Eurocentric refinement of Jamaica's ruling class) and there's bad (virulent homophobia, misogyny, gun talk). Wake the Town's real strength is its field research, the vivid and precise details gleaned during the months the author spent observing the Killamanjaro sound system in action, and hanging out at the Dub Store recording studio. Because they engage in "soundclashes" with each other, sound systems need a constant turnover of fresh "dubplates" (exclusive pre-releases) to sway the crowd and slay their rivals. At the studios, there's a bustling trade in both killer and filler tunes, with established stars and hustling aspirants chanting patois-rich raps over whatever riddims are currently hot, and "champion sounds" paying anything from US $25 to $3000 for each addition to their arsenals.
The slanguage of the soundclash, with its "sound boy killers" and "burials," reflects not just the routine violence of Kingston where the homicide rate is three per day, but the dog-eat-dog struggle of capitalism's war of all against all--which is fiercer in this postcolonial corner of the globalized world than most elsewhere. But although dancehall can appear to merely mirror and perpetuate "reality," the culture still contains flickers of utopian hope for a better way. Sound systems can cut from a rude-boy toast about murderation to a Rasta song about roots 'n' redemption in the blink of a cross-fader. In the selector's mix, these contradictions--glamorizing Babylon's ways versus dreaming of Zion--achieve an uneasy co-existence.