Mon | Jul 6, 2020

Age-old musical divisions (pt 2)

Published:Wednesday | November 16, 2016 | 1:36 PMMel Cooke
Beres Hammond

There seems to be some consensus about the time periods of the various genres of Jamaican popular music's emergence and their dominance. Texts which give a chronology of Jamaican popular music such as The Rough Guide to Reggae, third edition (Barrow & Dalton, 2004) and Reggae Routes (Chang & Chen, 1998) place generally ska from 1962 to 1967, rocksteady at 1967 to 1968, reggae from 1968 to 1983 and dancehall from then until now, with dub in the mix. This is despite dancehall drifting into a near hip-hop mix in about the middle of the last decade, a list which has been generally corrected, including lyrics and riddims which have borrowed liberally from the early 1990s and, to a lesser extent, 1980s dancehall output.

Of course, in charting the development of Jamaican popular music precision matters, those with a deep interest and expertise in such matters will nail down the shifts in sound to specific recordings and release dates. However, as I continue to mull divisions by age in Jamaican popular music (last week's part one started with a young man commenting that he did not know elders sang those songs when I was attempting to sing Alkaline's Champion Boy), there is a categorisation which bemuses me.

For while I can identify ska through to dancehall, there are terms like vintage, foundation, retro and throwback which I can't quite nail down. And I believe they are important categorisations, as they cut across the various genres.

So I listen to the Retro Wednesdays programming on FAME FM a lot, not least of all because there is a heavy focus on early 1990s dancehall, which was a peak period in my session-going days (and no, this is not a plug for the RJR Group. I was a FAME Wednesday fan long before the merger). There are other names for the programming of music from earlier times in Jamaican popular music on other stations (which shall remain nameless), among them, throwback.

10 year rule

But what exactly is retro (or throwback) Jamaican popular music? I did not think about it much before I heard a selector/announcer on one station say that he could play a song on retro day as it was 10 years old. A decade? Like two years before Obama was president of the USA? That is all it takes for a song to qualify for retro/throwback airplay? So you are telling me I am going to be hearing Vybz Kartel in retro music now? And Assassin/Agent Sasco? Who made that 10-year rule? Since Tarrus Riley's She's Royal was released in 2006, will I be hearing it on retro music programmes soon? This is mind-boggling - or maybe I am just old.

The retro music sessions tend to make the distinctions clearer, as they identify particular decades. For example Yesterday is sub-themed 'Best of the '90s' so those who go know they will be hearing tons of Buju, Bounty, Beenie, Spragga, Lady Saw etc., especially when it is early morning rub up time.

Vintage is easier to identify, as there are examples through the Startime line-up, for example, as well as Jamaica Association of Vintage Artistes and Affiliates (JAVAA), an organisation for which I have enormous respect. But still, what makes one artiste vintage and another who has a history going back to the same time period not? I am aware that there are those performers who resist the vintage label regularly, but how comes the late John Holt fit easily into vintage on Startime, while Freddie McGregor (who has also been on Startime) can go to Rebel Salute 2015 and take the house down without the 'vintage' sticker being attached? How comes songs by Bob Marley and the Wailers, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer are rarities in vintage programming, I have heard on radio (unless it is the earliest cuts by The Wailers), while the late Joseph 'Culture' Hill is a vintage music fixture?

Beres Hammond and Marcia Griffiths (who has done Startime) never come up in vintage conversations, although they certainly qualify. Chances are, their early 1990s connection with dancehall through their Penthouse recordings make a big difference, but still I wonder, what makes one artiste vintage and another not? Is it a matter of having an enduring presence on stage and in recordings through different eras?

foundation songs

Then there is Ken Boothe, a vintage show fixture who easily goes to concerts without that tag and twists and turns through Puppet On a String and other songs as expected to tremendous effect. What makes someone like him so different?

Finally, what makes someone foundation? This may be the most mystifying categorisation of all, but be sure that in a clash involving sound systems with pedigree, specialised recordings (dubplates) by 'foundation' artistes will be played. Some of them are dead - which increases the dubplate's value. But check this - the two albums which made Sizzla, Praise Ye Jah and Black Woman and Child, will be 20 years old next year. Does that qualify a man who is a guaranteed draw and satisfying draw at a stage show as foundation?

I am already used to hearing songs from those albums in retro music programming.

Afterthought: By the way, am I the only person who considers it ludicrous when a press release appears about someone releasing a new hit song? Damn, it is already a hit before listeners even heard of it. A brand new hit song? The persons who write those grand predictions should be sure shots for the Super Lotto. But I don't notice anyone winning with any regularity. And I don't notice any of those brand new hit songs gaining any traction. Brand new hit song indeed. Damn rubbish.