Friday, August 22, 2008

Michael Veal – Dub: Soundscapes & Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae (2007)

So you might think to yourself – I don’t like reggae (I’ll resist the urge to say, ‘I love it!’), what does a book about a subgenre of reggae have to interest me? In fact, ethnomusicologist Michael Veal’s carefully written book illuminates all kinds of aspects of popular music: not only reggae, Jamaican music, and Jamaican history, but also the history of recorded music and the nature of changing perceptions and uses of recording technology, and, specifically, the changing role of technology as an art form in itself rather than simply a medium in the musical context; the way in which economic and demographic necessities shape art forms; the interaction between recorded music and memory, as well as music, physicalities, and socialised geographies; the evolution of dance music and the remix; and the history of black music and art forms (in particular, afrofuturism) and diasporan music and culture.

Veal takes as his subject dub, that is, the deconstructed ‘versions’ of Jamaican reggae that began as vocal-less or instrumental b-sides, played at sound systems as a palette for DJs to 'toast' (rap) over the top of, a way to stretch source materials to their fullest extent in a context of limited economic resources (which also limited live music as viable public entertainment for any but the economic elite). To me, the best description of dub is ‘x-ray music’; it deconstructs the traditional unity of the various parts and puts them back together in mutated ways which can foreground the unexpected, withholding traditional musical resolution, and uniting a longing for wholeness (emerging from the ‘roots’ Rastafari discourse extolling naturalism and repatriation) with the pleasures of a technologically-mediated and decentred aesthetic.

In the first place, Veal’s book is an excellent history of dub for those who are interested in the genre as such, or in Jamaican music generally. He gives excellent potted histories, firstly, of the development of dub in Jamaica, both musical and in terms of culture, society and politics, and secondly, of the ‘post-history’ of dub, its fate in the context of the (in my opinion, lamentable) evolution of reggae into dancehall and ragga, and its interaction with non-Jamaican forms of music, particularly psychedelia, rap and dance music; the different experiences of ‘head’ music and ‘body’ music (to draw a crude differentiation) and the way these are combined in dub; and the way dub has become an influence in technological music of equal importance to European experimental art-music traditions. Particularly valuable are his histories of the most important Jamaican dub mixers and their studios: Sylvan Morris at Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One, King Tubbys (and Tubby’s associates and protégés Bunny Lee, ‘Prince’ Philip Smart, King Jammy, and Scientist); the Hoo-Kim brothers’ Channel One studio; Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s Black Ark; and Errol Thompson at Randy’s and Joe Gibbs’ studios.

Another important aspect of Veal’s work is that he combines the role of historian, cultural theorist, and musicologist. What this means in practice is that he carefully analyses individual dub tracks and the originals on which they are based from a musicological point of view, creating a vital bridge between the actual musical qualities of the works he examines and the context in which they are placed in terms of history and culture. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t come with a CD (the costs and effort of tracking down rights were apparently insuperable), although it does include a long list of recommended albums. Particularly insightful are Veal’s arguments regarding the role of echo and reverb, two defining techniques of dub, as related both to memory and to space, in the context of a diasporan people confronting the fact that an attempt has been made to erase their past through the process of colonisation and slavery, leaving a fractured relationship both to memory and to geography in which resistance attempts to re-imagine identity on the basis of unknown ideals (in particular, Africa as a Utopian historical homeland) as well as present lived reality.

The work is not entirely unproblematic; in the realms of cultural theory, Veal sometimes draws a long bow, particularly in his comparison of likeness between dub and literary magical realism (I’m not a fan of magical realism in any case, but from a cultural point of view it seems to me, to take one example of the problematics of this comparison, very much narrative-based rather than deconstructory).

There’s a tendency to accept the self-proclaimed ideology of rasta reggae and other diasporic black cultural forms which often manifests in an unproblematic acceptance of the fact that these forms are literally ‘African-derived,’ ‘African-influenced’ and so forth, rather than what I’d see as the reality, that links with anything which is ‘authentically African’ (whatever that might mean, either historically or culturally) are tenuous, whereas what’s being put into play tends to be very much an imagined and often idealised ‘Africa,’ or else traditions which do have ‘African roots,’ but which have transformed into something entirely different in a transplanted context (but which may nonetheless be contrasted with practices which are developed from distinctly European forms).
In a similar vein, we might also give more consideration to the cultural discourses of Christianity and the Bible, so vital to Rastafari, in dub.

Veal’s work sometimes has the typical problem of much work in the realm of postmodern subaltern or postcolonial studies in that it tends to lionise every and any activity as a form of resistance, without ever looking at the ways in which such resistance demands obedience to other exclusionary narratives. Here we might think firstly of the exclusion of women – and Veal also refers to dub as problematising gendered music with little exploration of this aspect of gender; secondly, we might also ask what the relationship of dub was to the violent macho braggadocio, and extreme homophobia and misogyny, which came to the fore in later Jamaican music in the digital era; and, finally, question how, in narratives of diaspora, we might consider the traditions of Chinese and Indian-subcontinent immigrants in Jamaica, as well as, in terms of cultural destruction, the place of the original Arawak and Taíno inhabitants of Jamaica, who are never mentioned in this work.

Overall, though, these are minor issues in a work which skilfully blends different disciplines to provide a deeply satisfying history of dub, its major players, and its often-unsung role in the development of Western musical trends; a fascinating close musicological reading; and a thought-provoking grounding of both in cultural and sociological theory which encompasses historical concerns as well as the reading of texts per se. King Tubby’s phrase characterising dub could be applied equally to Veal’s work on the subject: ‘jus like a volcano in yuh head!’

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