Is Jamaican Dancehall Dead by Clyde McKenzie

I think we owe a debt of gratitude to Charles Campbell for continuing a discussion started on a blog post by Dennis Howard on the state of Dancehall. Howard in his thesis posits that modern Jamaican popular music has now entered the post Dancehall phase and that this is all for the good given the enormous baggage he believes Dancehall had been carrying over the years.

No doubt Howard will have considerable support for this position among local music aficionados who have grown tired of what they see as the adversarial and scatological nature of the genre. Yet for us to make a conclusive determination on the current state of Dancehall and whether it has been ‘happily’ consigned to the ash heap of history we need to ascertain exactly what are the structural components of this often maligned derivative of Reggae.

It is important for us to establish this definitional framework in order for us to have a basis on which to pass judgement on whether the currently prevailing Jamaican urban musical forms are indeed outside the ambit of Dancehall as Howard seems to suggest.

I am comfortable that the term Dancehall has multiple layers of meanings. I subscribe to Norman Stolzoff’s position (advanced in his book Wake The Town and Tell The People) that Dancehall is a social space within which the economically disadvantaged in Jamaica entertain themselves. Yet Stolzoff (though making frequent reference to it in his book) did not seek to define the acoustic phenomenon originating in the late seventies which has continued to dominate our musical and social discourse since its emergence from the shanties of Kingston.

There are some who conflate Dancehall with deejaying. Some would argue that while many of the current manifestations of that which is categorised as Dancehall is reflected in deejaying performances, it would be a stretch to say that they are the same thing. Howard and I tend to think that one of the distinguishing features of Dancehall is a pattern of vocalisation which seems to have a greater affinity to rhythm than to melody. This kind of vocal styling is evident in what some consider the seminal piece in the genre — Gi Dem Inna Dancehall Style — made popular by the legendary Lincoln ‘Sugar’ Minott. It is a feature clearly identified in most works representative of the Dancehall genre.

I suppose the same type of vocal styling is also characteristic of Rap and Hip Hop. Though the terms have been used interchangeably, a case could be made that Rap was around long before the Jamaican Clive Campbell (Khool Herc) introduced the Jamaican practice of toasting over instrumental breaks. My good friend, the maestro, Winston Blake points out that the fifties smash hit The Monkey Speaks His Mind (Dave Bartholomew) is an example of Rap, though by no stretch of the imagination could it be mistaken for Hip Hop.

There are some who will argue that Dancehall is able to accommodate a variety of strains and variants pointing out that Jazz has managed to encompass the Swing, Beebop, Cool and so many other offshoots which are all lumped under an all-embracing designation. Should the same apply to Dancehall? There are those on the other side of the dialogue — which includes Howard — who believe that Dancehall is so tarnished in its image that it is imperative that we minimise our association with it. In this view the brand needs refreshing or Jamaican music needs re-branding. This though is a marketing decision and not based on the fact that there is any substantial structural difference between what was considered Dancehall and the current musical manifestations operating under its name.

The truth is that our music has suffered as a result of improper classification.

This failure to classify and appropriate the fruits of our creative imagination has had an enormous negative impact on our economic development.

Howard does make a powerful point regarding the need to have proper systems of classification for our cultural products. However if Milton Wray’s posting on Facebook in response (Dancehall is alive and well) to Howard’s blog is indeed correct the report of the death of Dancehall might well be exaggerated to paraphrase a famous quote.

Source Jamaica Observer


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