Dubbing is a must

In recent years, the Jamaican music scene has been gripped by a “Reggae Revival,” and the movement’s ground zero is a weekly gathering of musicians and fans high in the hills above Kingston. David Katz treks up to the Kingston Dub Club and meets founder DJ Gabre Selassie

Kingston Dub Club founder Gabre Selassie. Photograph by Matthew HenryPhotograph by Matthew HenryPhotograph by Matthew HenryPhotograph by Matthew HenryLooking down at the sprawling lights of Kingston from the Dub Club hilltop headquarters. Photograph by Matthew HenryDJ Gabre Selassie, founder of Kingston Dub Club. Photograph by Matthew Henry

If you don’t have your own car, getting to the weekly Kingston Dub Club requires a significant commitment, since there is no public transport to its location up in the hills above Jamaica’s capital. An hour-long walk up a very steep hill from Papine Square or a pricey cab fare are the only options, if you can’t catch a ride with a friend. Once you get to the end of Skyline Drive  — where it might be cool and foggy, depending on which way the wind is blowing — cellphones switch to torch mode, as you walk along a dirt track, heading over a small rise in the direction of the music.

Steep concrete steps that wind down the hillside soon bringing you to the Dub Club itself, in the yard around founder Gabre Selassie’s home. Turn left to find your place on the heaving dance floor, where massive columns of speakers blast roots reggae at top volume. On the rear deck, at the other side of the DJ’s sound station, there is a large wooden bar with homemade moringa tonics and ganja wine on offer, along with more standard beverages.

The deck is a real chill-out zone, where you can hear the music clearly, but still carry on a conversation, and in its far corner you may find Rastafari veterans sharing a communal water-pipe. Hot ital food is served, courtesy of Veggie Meals on Wheels, and books on black history are often sold near the entrance.

A mere two years ago, the Kingston Dub Club was an insiders’ affair, an underground destination populated by a few local regulars and the occasional overseas visitor. But these days the place is the talk of the town: a hip spot packed to the rafters, despite its remote location. Usain Bolt has been spotted there, and many reggae luminaries form a regular presence — such as dub poet Oku Onuora and singer Kiddus-I, who both worked with Bob Marley during the 1970s. Most significantly, the space is currently home to the vanguard of the “Reggae Revival,” a coterie of close-knit musicians, filmmakers, and visual artists active in different sectors of the city, who have collectively risen to prominence in tandem with the club, bringing the focus of Jamaican popular music back to its roots.

In addition to providing a space in which artists like Protoje and Chronixx have been able to air new material, the Dub Club has also acted as a general catalyst to the movement, with Selassie’s Rasta-oriented playlist of forgotten reggae classics, hard-hitting dub music, and contemporary roots recordings leading this new avant garde to take leaps of sonic faith — driving Jamaican music into new areas in the process.

“I really got introduced to dub through Gabre Selassie,” says Jah9, the young female vocalist, social activist, and yoga teacher whose inspired hybrid of jazz and dub has led some to name her as the future of reggae. “I went to a session at Gabre’s house where he played strictly dub through some huge speaker boxes in his front yard, and I was just freestyling and flowing — because of the spaces, words were just pouring out. It provided me with exactly what I needed.”

 

Face to face, the enigmatic Selassie is an intense character, obviously strongly committed to his goals — which include a longstanding commitment to revitalising Kingston’s roots reggae scene. In heavily accentuated speech that references his Rastafari worldview, Selassie notes that the Dub Club has always gone against the grain, ignoring the ubiquitous hardcore dancehall that has long captured the imagination of the Jamaican public, instead featuring styles venerated by overseas roots reggae fans, which were rarely heard on the island itself.

“The Kingston Dub Club been going for about twelve years now,” Selassie says, “but with very little success at first. It was inspired by the original Dub Club in London, which I first visited in 2000, and my intention first and foremost was to provide a different option where music was concerned. It was for the people to get a fair chance to enjoy them own heritage and culture,” he explains, “and to receive the blessing of reggae music that makes one know themselves and know history, look inna themselves and know Jah.”

He started off at various venues around Kingston, like Harry’s Bar, “where some likkle roots youth were promoting poetry and live music nights,” and Shaggy’s Backyard Club. “But because it was new and ground-breaking, a lot of the club owners weren’t with that kind of vision,” Selassie says. “Every time that I planted a seed at those venues, the seed bust, and the sucker look healthy, but people don’t really have the time to water it, so I knew that it just needed somewhere to be undisturbed and grow.” Hence the move to the Dub Club’s present location, in the sprawling yard of Selassie’s home in Jack’s Hill, one of uptown Kingston’s most exclusive and inaccessible locales.

Although the club’s location means that its patrons will inevitably have an uptown majority, it has never been exclusively so. For instance, when King Jammy recently did a live mixing session at the space with his son, Jam 2, there was a large contingent of followers from Waterhouse, the west Kingston ghetto Jammy hails from, and other club regulars often make the journey from less privileged areas. And if large swathes of the capital are still demarcated by political allegiance, the Dub Club feels distinctly non-partisan. It is a generally inclusive space, though with a clear Rastafari orientation.

Selassie’s own biography is a tale of boundary-crossing. Born Carlisle Lee in 1969, the son of a prominent contractor, he took the name Gabre Selassie, denoting him a servant of the Almighty, upon his baptism into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church some twenty years ago. “Originally, my people are shop-owners downtown,” he says, referring to his Chinese-Jamaican heritage, “and I grew up all over Jamaica, because my father was in construction, working in different areas.”

Bitten by the music bug early, he became a sound system DJ during his teens, but concentrated on dancehall party tunes in an uptown setting, prior to his Rastafari conversion. Coming into the orbit of visionary musician Augustus Pablo, Selassie subsequently revitalised the Rockers International sound system, and worked closely with Pablo on some of his last-ever recordings, including the Valley of Jehoshaphat album. Then, after the melodica master’s tragic death in 1999, Selassie kept playing out under the Rockers Sound Station banner, before launching the Dub Club to fill a perceived gap at home.

“Travelling the world, I realised that reggae music and roots music was non-existent in Jamaica,” he says, with obvious displeasure. “With radio or sound systems, nobody was playing it in Jamaica, yet the whole world was playing it, seen?” Thus was born the Kingston Dub Club, in an effort to redress the balance.

On any given Sunday night, when the Dub Club is in session, you are likely to find rising stars such as Exile Di Brave, Micah Shemaiah, and Infinite, reasoning with each other, hanging out with fans on the terrace, or taking turns on the microphone. Augustus Pablo’s son Addis is another regular fixture, along with his Trinidadian sparring partner, Ras Jammy, with whom he works collectively under the moniker Sons of Dub. Yaadcore, a Protoje acolyte and one of Kingston’s most stylistically superior DJs, might be a guest selector, or it could be someone from as far afield as Europe, Japan, or the United States. At another session staged last February at a friend’s waterside club in Negril, Selassie supported reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry for another night of improvised dub wizardry.

For Selassie, the various strands explored at the Dub Club are all part of spreading roots reggae’s liberating messages, and keeping the Kingston Dub Club true to its principles. “Consistency is the key to growth,” he says. “I’m hoping and praying that we’ll have a long-lasting vibration, like the weekly dance held in Rae Town, which has been going for thirty years now. And actually I would love to see an equal and opposite situation to what’s happening now: you have ten thousand dancehall DJs, but I want to have ten thousand roots DJs too, with sound man, people that play it on the radio, and people who are producing — the whole spectrum.

“The movement is definitely growing right now,” he continues. “On Monday nights you have Inner City Dub in Tivoli Gardens, started by I-Nation. Wednesday night is Yaadcore’s night at Tiki Huts on Hope Road. There is also Vinyl Thursdays, and my brethren Supernova start a thing called Dub School Fridays in Vineyard Town. So we love what ah gwaan with the youths and the resurgence with the energy. Inna this recent couple of years, it has just been a togetherness.”

 

The enigma of revival

During recent years, a new artistic movement has taken hold in Jamaica, with graphic artists, filmmakers, and musicians using their art to enact social change, all working from a Rastafari perspective. Practitioners associated with the movement include the youth arts group Manifesto Jamaica, the transformative mural project Paint Jamaica, filmmakers such as Storm Saulter and Kush-I, the travelling bookseller I-Nation, and more recently Occupy Pinnacle, whose members seeks to reclaim the land of Jamaica’s most prominent Rastafari commune. Early musical fuel for the movement came through sessions happening at venues like the Kingston Dub Club and Jamnesia, the fortnightly event held by surf champion and noted singer-songwriter Billy Mystic in Bull Bay. The controversial term “Reggae Revival” was coined by social commentator Dutty Bookman in late 2011 to reflect the “spirit of the times”; Bookman later said he feels the Revival has parallels with the Harlem Renaissance, and many artists associated with it have emphasised a spirit of unity, a very uncommon element in the Jamaican music scene, which is often cutthroat by its very nature.

Chronixx is probably the most prominent vocalist associated with the Reggae Revival. His appearance on the Major Lazer mixtape Start a Fire brought initial recognition, but his 2013 single “Here Comes Trouble” provided his major breakthrough, especially after he gave a dynamic performance of the song with his Zincfence Redemption band on US TV’s Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

Protoje is another sing-jay who has been a significant force for the Revival. His debut album Seven Year Itch was released to widespread acclaim in 2011, and in late 2012 his commentary on the saga of gang leader Christopher “Dudus” Coke, “Kingston Be Wise,” made clear he’s a major talent. Protoje’s latest album, Ancient Future, has been one of 2015’s most greatly anticipated.

Female vocalist Jah9 created a new genre, “Jazz on Dub,” by melding Jamaican dub with the spirits of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. Her 2013 debut album, New Name, produced by Rory Stone Love, and her ecstatic and individual stage shows, have made her one of contemporary reggae’s most popular performers.

Kabaka Pyramid, Micah Shemiaih and Infinite, Sons of Dub, Dre Island, and Exile Di Brave are other invigorating, upcoming talents also associated with the movement.