Caribbean Bookshelf (May/June 2007)

Reggae explored in Dubwise: Reasoning From the Reggae Underground and What the Deejay Said: A Critique from The Street

bookshelf-85-4_1DJ-cum-sociologist Lez Henry on reggae’s development in the UK. Photograph courtesy Dr William ‘Lez’ Henry/Creative InsightsJane Bryce. Photograph courtesy Macmillan CaribbeanKlive Walker explores hidden complexities of race, culture and class in Jamaica`s hierarchical social strata. Photograph courtesy Insomniac Press

Dubwise: Reasoning From the Reggae Underground
by Klive Walker (Insomniac Press)

An engaging collection of essays by Toronto-based writer Klive Walker, Dubwise is a welcome addition to the growing body of reggae literature. Exploring aspects of the music as a member of the Jamaican diaspora, Walker seeks to expose hidden complexities of race, culture and class in Jamaica’s hierarchical social strata, while querying the pervasive view of reggae culture as written by non-Jamaicans. He largely succeeds, despite what may be deemed problematic elements inherent in the work.

One of the most important yet potentially contentious aspects of the book is that Walker positions himself as writing from an “insider” perspective, a supposedly privileged location affording greater understanding than that of the “outsiders” who have written prominent reggae books. Walker fears that acceptance of their “distorted” views will result in the erasure of important contributions by neglected figures such as trombonist Don Drummond and folklorist Miss Lou, who brought Jamaican English social acceptance. Such misrepresentation often surfaces in anthropological studies, and the issues Walker raises point largely to the colonial mindset of Jamaica’s post-colonial present, where reggae is still largely undervalued. Dubwise continues the important work stimulated by Kwame Dawes and other prominent thinkers of the Jamaican diaspora, who seek to illuminate the significances of reggae culture firsthand. However, a major stumbling block is the book’s extreme subjectivity; indeed, as Walker says in the introduction, Dubwise is “simply my version of reggae’s history as someone who is a UK-born, middle-aged, Jamaican yout living in Toronto.”

Nevertheless, there is much that is thought-provoking in this well-measured text, which explores the artistic evolution of Bob Marley and Dennis Brown, important female voices in reggae, the reggae scene in Canada and reggae’s relation to rap, as well as a few foreign-based reggae stars who have had an impact on the British and American pop scenes.

David Katz

 

What The Deejay Said: A Critique From The Street
by Dr William “Lez“ Henry (Nu-Beyond/Learning By Choice)

Before obtaining formal qualifications in sociology, Henry made a name for himself on the burgeoning 1980s reggae scene as the DJ Lezlee Lyrics, one of the stars of south London’s Ghettotone sound system. Intimate firsthand knowledge of DJ artistry and concrete involvement in the development of UK reggae, as a British-born son of the Jamaican diaspora, make Henry perfectly placed to comment on the complexities of the content and form of British toasting, as well as reggae’s broader social relevance. The book thus fills a gap in reggae literature, being the first work on the subject written by an actual artist.

Because Henry writes from experience, wisely bolstering his assertions with testimony from peers such as Tippa Irie, Macka B and Sister Audrey, the book has the kind of credibility that has often been lacking in explorations of reggae, which are typically based on second or third-hand accounts by writers far removed from the lived experience of those who created the music.

Framing the work as a literary equivalent of a record, Henry devotes the “A-side” of the text to challenging “the manner in which black experiences of racial exclusion/oppression have been documented in social theory“, to “open a space“ in which to posit his ideas, while the “B-side“ focuses directly on the music “as a vehicle for resisting and transcending racial oppression/exclusion.” As noted by Paul Gilroy in the preface, Henry’s approach is “vindicationist and resolutely Africentric”, rendering his account resolutely politicised, while in the best DJ tradition, the narrative is also highly boastful, meaning that Henry is often unapologetically dismissive of much other reggae literature.

Getting right down to the nitty-gritty, this hard-hitting book reminds us of the ever-present racism that shaped reggae in Britain, in terms of the music itself, as well as public perceptions of it.

DK

 

Caribbean Dispatches: Beyond the Tourist Dream
Ed. Jane Bryce (Macmillan Caribbean)

We all know what the “tourist dream” is, as far as the Caribbean is concerned. It’s hot sun on your back, beaches to roast on, clear water to cool off in. Plus side orders according to taste: adventure, hiking, history, music, carnivals, whatever. It’s a fact of life in the Caribbean, but it can seem like the Garden of Eden when you’re caught in a snowstorm in Montreal or Berlin.

Jane Bryce, who is a British-born university teacher working in Barbados, has rounded up 28 people of various backgrounds and outlooks to send “dispatches” from this unknown territory “beyond the tourist dream”. They are almost all writers, editors, journalists, or teachers.

Many are Caribbean-born, while others are arrivals from “foreign”, finding a niche for themselves as latecomers in the long queue of immigrants. Some content themselves with conventional travel pieces or pleasant anecdotes about Caribbean life, Caribbean characters, or Caribbean memories; others struggle to put into words things seen and unseen, the genius of the place.

Anyone new to the Caribbean will find useful information and insight in this collection—far from exhaustive (or exhausting), but often vivid. For Caribbean people too, the collection might well supply interesting material, as neighbours share what they think and feel about the place where they are living their lives.

If the collection tends a little towards blandness, a few pieces do leap out at the reader for their radicalism or depth. Olive Senior, for example, in a biting poem called “Rejected Text for a Tourist Brochure”, records the way “paradise” destroys itself from within:

Truckers steal sand from beaches,
from riverbeds, to build another ganja palace,
another shopping centre, another hotel
(My shares in cement are soaring) . . .
Come for the Final
Closing Down Sale. Take for a song
the Last Black Coral; the Last Green Turtle . . .
Oh, them gone already? No Problem, Mon . . .

From Guyana, on the other hand, Ian McDonald manages to conjure up the life-enhancing serenity of a few days spent by the huge Essequibo river. Watching the night sky in wonder, he notes: “Gradually, a feeling of exultation and an expansion of the mind takes hold which is hard to explain.” It’s such moments, far removed literally from all aspects of the “tourist dream”, that make the book rewarding.

Andrew Morgan