Carolyn Cooper | Time for Dancehall Sumfest
Last Sunday morning, at about 8:30, I had a revelation at Reggae Sumfest. I had suffered two consecutive nights of sleep deprivation. That was probably what inspired the vision. It came to me in a flash that it was time to rebrand the festival as Dancehall Sumfest. After 25 years, dancehall has clearly surpassed reggae as the drawing card for the festival.
Friday night's dancehall show ended at about 7:30 on Saturday morning. The Catherine Hall venue was still ram-packed at that hour. MoBay homeboy Tommy Lee Sparta kept fans energised up to the last second. On Sunday morning, at that same hour, the venue was half-empty or half-full, depending on your point of view. By 8:30 or so when Sizzla closed the reggae show after a brilliant performance, the audience had shrunk even smaller. There was a definite sense of anticlimax.
Before Reggae Sumfest, there was Reggae Sunsplash which started in 1978. Almost 40 years ago. Hard-core reggae fans in the 1970s would have been in their teens, 20s, 30s and up. They are now in their 50s, 60s, 70S and up and up. Reggae fans are definitely an ageing demographic. We cannot bleach all night.
Most dancehall fans were not even born in 1978. For them, reggae is the music of their parents. It's almost as alien as mento, the music of their grandparents. One generation's popular music becomes the next generation's outdated beats. Music promoters just have to face the facts.
There was a time when mento was up-to-the-minute, popular dance music. Now it's old-fashioned. One of my friends who is a music teacher tried to encourage some of his male students to perform mento music. He got a very frank response: "Mento, sir? Yu no see dem man no have no teeth"!
The Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) had a skybox at Reggae Sumfest. On the ground floor there was a small exhibition on Jamaican music. I was alarmed to see mento described as music for tourists. As far as the JTB is concerned, mento is no longer music for Jamaicans. It's just part of the entertainment package at all-exclusive hotels. Mento is old-time Jamaican 'culture', put away in the cabinet and only taken out on special occasions. When guests come! And that's about it.
Mento is now the musical equivalent of the bandanna festival costume.
Khadine 'Miss Kitty' Hylton, one of the emcees for dancehall night, fashionably illustrated the sharp contrast between tradition and modernity. In her first appearance on stage, she wore an elegant floor-length bandanna dress, with a plunging neckline.
All that was missing was the head tie. I don't think Miss Kitty was ready to go there. Tie head and slippery 'tall hair' don't go so well together. It's a kind of culture clash. Nevertheless, in all her bandanna glory, Miss Kitty certainly paid tribute to tradition and, especially, Miss Lou.
In her second appearance, Miss Kitty reverted to form. She really couldn't have kept up the bandanna performance all night. It would have wrecked her brand as the 'fluffy diva'. She wore a typically tight costume that hugged and revealed every single curve. Mento and reggae had yielded to dancehall.
One of the ironies of life is that the more things change, the more they remain the same. In spite of the differences of tone and tempo between dancehall and mento, one thing they do have in common is sex. True, dancehall is more common than mento. Sex in dancehall just 'skin out'. In mento, it's covered under nuff raw cloth.
Take, for instance, the lyrics of one of my favourite mento tunes. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to track down the writer of the lyrics.
Gyal, how yu baggy wet
An no rain a fall
An no breeze a blow?
Mi turn off di pipe last night
An screw di cock on tight.
Can you imagine the dancehall version? No plumbing metaphors! I won't say it would be pure raw sewage. I'll leave that judgement to the dancehall detractors. All the same, the djs could take lessons in slackness from mento artists.
Mento songs, like calypsoes, thrive on innuendo. You know Lovindeer's song about the man on the bus who remembers his own shortcomings every time the conductor shouts out "Shortwood"? That is 'liriks'. By contrast, the djs just haven't mastered the art of double speak.
At Reggae Sumfest, one of the female TV presenters, Nicole 'Nikki Z' Duhaney wore a fabulous bandanna ensemble. It was designed by Hope Wade who was born in Jamaica and now lives in New York. The creation beautifully revealed the mating of mento and dancehall: shorts made from burlap, over which a floor-length bandanna coat flowed. The coat was open from the waist, with nuff leg and cleavage on display.
This was bandanna perfectly at home in the dancehall. Unlike Miss Kitty, Nikki Z didn't need to change out of her bandanna costume to prove her dancehall credentials - though she did change outfits over the course of the night. Hope Wade's design was pure hotness.
Ultimately, fashion is not just about the fabric. The inventiveness of the designer makes all the difference. Like dress, musical styles go in and out of fashion. Perhaps, one of these days we'll go way back before Reggae Sumfest and Reggae Sunsplash to the original Mento Festival.