15 years writing entertainment (pt 2)
Just in case anyone who read last week's column on my writing about entertainment in Jamaica for 15 years thought it was a brag or statement of outstanding achievement, I consider myself a mere lad, a stripling, a babe in swaddling clothes, in the big scheme of things. This makes me very aware of how much I do not know, not only about what I have not seen, but also the sheer volume of content in my decade and a half makes it impossible to keep up with everything.
For not only am I very young in the business of Jamaican popular music (which has been my major focus), but the time period I have fallen into working at The Gleaner has not seen a significant shift in the dominant popular music form. If I had started out in the mid-1950s, I would have seen the earlier sound systems, among them Tom the Great Sebastian, Jack Taylor's sound system, Clement 'Sir Coxson' Dodd's Downbeat, Prince Buster's Voice of the People, Duke Reid's Trojan, and King Edwards the Giant.
Not only would I have seen the shift from R&B to the earliest Jamaican popular music recordings, but I would have seen ska become the sound of the nation in 1962, then witnessed the dominant sound change to rocksteady and reggae within five or six years. Stretching the time period a bit, I would have written about the soundtrack of The Harder They Come and The Wailers' Catch a Fire in 1972.
Then, if I had started out in the late 1970s, I would have written about the death of Bob Marley in 1981, the shift to digital dancehall with the Sleng Teng riddim in 1985, Peter Tosh's murder in 1987, Shabba's transition to international stardom and the coming of the definitive set of early 1990s deejays (Beenie, Bounty, Capleton, Spragga, Cobra, Lady Saw, Buju, Terror Fabulous et al) and a distinctive sound which is the focus of throwback parties like Yesterday and Mello Vibes and FAME's Wednesday retro-themed days. I would have also written about the transition to Rastafari of persons such as Buju Banton and Capleton, making for something of a resurgence along with Tony Rebel, Anthony B, Luciano and Sizzla, among others.
Not much changed
Instead of these transitions in form and substance, over the last 15 years, I have written about much of the same. There was a time in the last third of the last decade when there was a move away from that stock dancehall sound, but it did not last long. There has been an infusion of roots music with people like Chronixx and Protoje, called the Reggae Revival. Having seen Buju and Luciano, along with Capleton, on rockers rhythms for songs like Prophecy, followed by Sizzla's Black Woman and Child and Praise Ye Jah albums in the 1990s, then Tarrus Riley breaking big with She's Royal, nearly a decade ago, all joining the consistency of Beres Hammond and Bushman who did tough albums like Nyah Man Chant, I feel as if I have seen this revival thing before. Without a name.
Still, there are a couple of major changes of real significance. The primary one is corporate sponsorship involvement in Jamaican popular music, specifically the dancehall space and genre. Before I started writing about entertainment officially at Sumfest 2000, I did write about the last dance at House of Leo on Cargill Avenue, a surprisingly low-key affair with Metromedia sound system. (Me and a bredren named Richard walked from Cargill Avenue to Peppers on Waterloo Road that night.)
There were no banners or illuminated signs with the names of various products and companies at House of Leo. The only brands in sight were the ones on the bottles and the records spinning on the turntables. Maybe there were a couple on the shirts - it was about that time when Tommy Hilfiger was huge. But that would have been it. Within about 10 years, corporate branding of entertainment events was on in full effect and now, hardly a major (or minor) entertainment event takes place without some indication of a sponsor's presence. For the major ones, it gets cloying, overwhelming, frankly way too much.
There is a whole other story about how the relationship between corporate sponsorship and Jamaican popular music has developed over the time I have been writing about entertainment, which I explore a bit of in another format of engagement with popular culture. But it does influence media content, as there is an intersection between that sponsorship and mainstream media, where the narrative preceding, during and after a particular event is skewed towards the sponsorship arrangement and not a critique of the performance. It is promotion, not an assessment of value.
In the first place, the media sponsorship arrangement determines the level of media involvement. So heavily sponsored events such as Jazz and Blues and Sumfest enjoy a level of newspaper, TV and radio saturation, along with their associated Internet presence, that someone who is putting on a party or dance without that sponsorship does not. One can argue that it is because these events are already huge - but does it also not mean that the small events will not get big?
But I jump ahead of myself, because next week I am going to talk about reading entertainment media in these saturated times.
Rise of small shows
Another change I have seen is the decline in large live shows and the rise (return, maybe?) of small ones. From East Fest to Champions in Action, Follow The Arrow to World Clash, the number of live large events (and World Clash counts, because the selectors make it a live performance) has fallen dramatically. However, I am happy to see that the number of smaller concerts, such as the on and off Behind the Screen series at Tracks & Records, the almost weekly events at Redbones, the MVP events at Pulse's New Kingston headquarters, Chronixx's tour of Jamaica, JAVAA's live shows and the once-popular shows in Wickie Wackie and Jamnesia have had all their day.
Do it small, do it close and build the brand, with or without corporate branding.
I am also very happy that, through contact with outfits like Fab Five Band and Merritone (the sound system which is celebrating 65 continuous years in 2015), watching Ken Boothe and Mutabaruka perform, listening to Michael Barnett and Ken Williams on radio, seeing Kingsley 'King Omar' Goodison's commitment in staging Tribute to the Greats, among other exposure and interaction, I am able to connect in a small way with what took place long before I started writing entertainment 15 short years ago.
There is an era I am so sorry I missed, which faded just before I started going to dances in the early 1990s, when the sound systems had live crews. I mentioned a few last week and The Gleaner's Arthur Hall reminded me of one I committed musical sacrilege by leaving out - Jah Love with Briggy, Josey and Charlie Chaplin, who also did nuff work on Jack Ruby's sound and U-Roy's Stur-Gav. (It is good to be guided by one's elders, even if Mr Hall does support Chelsea, as does PAW. But they are otherwise good people, so we will overlook this fundamental flaw.)
Related to that is another change I have seen on the entertainment beat, as what constitutes a sound system has changed from a self-contained entity with its own equipment to also include people who have music and skills, but no amplifiers and speakers and the other physical equipment required to play at a dance. These individuals are not sound systems, though they play on sound systems. When ownership of the tools of the trade is gone, what next? I am happy that I was able to see a few of the best, including Squingy from Bass Odyssey and David Rodigan from the UK, in full flight.
Yeah, I have also written in the time when dancehall gospel became well established.
I hope that, by the time I am done with this phase of writing life (which I hope is not for some time to come), I will have left a note or two for a future generation to pick up on. By that time, a few of those persons I wrote about as youngsters would have become bona fide veterans - just like how the second Beyond The Hype column I wrote in The STAR in the 1990s was about the importance of Sizzla and, a few weeks ago, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by The STAR.
Who knows, maybe someone who is not yet born will say in 2050 that I did even a little bit of justice to my time.
That would be satisfying.