Dancehall Essays

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For Harrison, burying the dead gives us a place to stand—we stand on those who came before.

But, according to Miller, an old Jamaican saying suggests that it’s more than the past influencing the present: “Respect the dead, because it is by their leave that we walk.” The dead need no permission. As the Jamaican novelist Marlon James has said: “ don’t need you to believe in them to exist.” This assertion of the dead into the sphere of the living is evident throughout the island, but there’s a particular element of Jamaican culture that demonstrates it most powerfully, and that is the foundation of Jamaican music: the soundsystem.

But the emphasis has always been on having music that can score a fatal blow, and it is the crowd that decides who’s left standing.

Today, rival sounds will use the same system when they compete, but they bring their musical libraries and the ever important “dub box,” full of a soundsystem’s prized “dubplates.” Because, although soundsystems can get a crowd on their side by “juggling”—that is, playing singles—the dubplate is the most important tool in a clash.

At that time, soundclash meant that soundsystems would quite literally be killed—their speakers blown, amps shot, vocalists unable to continue.

Dancehall Essays

As clash has developed, performances have become less important and pre-recorded music has increasingly dominated, from 45s to CDs to other portable and digital formats.When I was living in Kingston, Jamaica, a few years ago, the caretaker of our building died. A was a helpful older man who was always willing to help fix whatever was broken.For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to call him Mr. In fact, again for the purposes of this essay, the word fix isn’t quite right. You never knew which things he’d be able to resurrect, though, until he was halfway through—when it became clear his powers would either prevail or had failed him.Taken into the making of dubplates and so on.” The “setup” or “nine night,” which takes place for nine days after a death, culminating the night before the burial, is a kind of wake.Storytelling, singing, and dancing celebrate and memorialize the dead.In the beginning, soundsystems played American R&B and calypso, just with the bass amped up as high as possible.From the 1950s to today, the sound from these systems has created the dancehall space, as well as the genre of music and influential culture of the same name.* Writing about music for the last two decades, I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking about how the soundsystem is the basis upon which Jamaican music has developed (and I’ve argued that it’s the best way to listen to music, period).It’s the dissemination of music on mobile discotheques: stacks of (preferably) custom-built speakers that can be loaded onto a truck and strung up anywhere to create a dancehall session.It is also on a dubplate that we move beyond discourse and metaphor, toward actual traces of the past, voices from beyond the grave.* A dubplate is a special, personalized recording of a usually pre-existing track that acts as a kind of praise song.


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