Fri | Oct 20, 2017

Sacred space between the speaker columns

Published:Sunday | September 20, 2015 | 12:00 AMMel Cooke
Tarrus Riley (right) and his father Jimmy Riley in performance.

There is no shortage of biblical references in Jamaican popular music, where the sacred and the secular are cheek and jowl, most times comfortably. Toots and the Maytals list from Genesis to Ruth in Six and Seven Books of Moses, The Melodians use Psalm 137 as the basis for By the Rivers of Babylon, and Sizzla adapts Psalm 125, verse 2, for the chorus of Like Mountains.

Tosh pulls from different sections of the Bible to make Creation, of course adjusting God as required to say Jah. Among them are John chapter one, verse one, supplying "in the beginning was the word..."; Genesis chapter one, verse one contributing "in the beginning God created the heaven and earth" and Psalm 27, verse one, "the Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear..." woven into the song's text.

Also in the sacred/secular mix is Garnet Silk's Mystic Chant on the rhythm to Bob Marley's Natural Mystic, in which he draws on Psalms 46 and 68. And in the chant which opens her Montego Bay album, Queen Ifrica recites extensively from Psalm 19.

There are practically innumerable other biblical references by performers who are not outright Christians, supporting a perception of the dancehall space within which Jamaican popular music is played as one with a sacred element. And two songs state outright that the dancehall space is a church, a sacred space among the speaker boxes.

One is Tarrus and Jimmy Riley's Pull Up Selector and the other Colourman's Kick Up Rumpus.

The former is of more recent vintage, the father-and-son duo issuing the invitation to "bring yu queen and lock yu machine", before describing a happy dancehall setting of peaceful enjoyment with, "I love the vibes and how the riddim a drop/But me nah come inna de dancehall strap".

It is followed by the statement of ownership, "music's all we got, now we must defend it".

And in the chorus, after they sing together "dancehall no need no war", the father and son make the outright statement of dancehall's sanctity, singing, "dancehall, the people's church/Yes it's where everyone's gathering/Need no bothering/A just love".

There is room for interpretation when Tarrus Riley sings "the music sound sweet but check the message after that", as that message could just be the words of the person in charge of a space of worship.

Holy session

There is no ambiguity in the 1980's deejay track, Kick Up Rumpus by Colourman. After Jackie Knock Shot's introduction, placing Colourman on the international news highlights, presented by Colourman in association with CNN, the deejay places the dance even in the context of the Judgement, as he is "keeping a session before God come".

In the second verse, he makes the connection between the session's timing and the end of days by spelling out "R-e-v-e-l-a-t-i-o-n" and deejaying, "inna dis ya time man a Armageddon/Say who get the vision nuh di man name John".

The alignment of church and dancehall is stated outright after that:

"So listen Colourman a go start him sermon

Crowd a people in the dance is the congregation

Money whe yu pay is yu collection

Juice whe yu drink is yu communion

Selector an' operator mi call him deacon".

One of the few things that is left is the baptism - and there is a gospel album named Dancehall Baptism Chapter One.