Book Review: Reggae Explosion: The Story Of Jamaican Music

Raggae Explosion: The Story Of Jamaican Music, by Chris Salewicz & Adrian Boot

The fascinating aspect of this book, which is glossy and full of big photographs and meant seemingly as a rasta coffee table offering for would-be hipsters, is the way it deals with the subject of cultural appropriation. All throughout this book we see cultural appropriation in one way or another. Jamaica becomes seen as a place for calypso music even if its own native tradition is different, and even if that indigenous tradition appropriates both African and European elements. Early Jamaican musicians in ska and rock steady and reggae openly appropriate the musical styles that come from American pop and R&B, and the resulting blends are then appropriated by English ska artists of the second wave, American ska artists who are inspired by that, and acts like the Police, to say nothing of the rap styles that come from the toasting made popular in Jamaica. Who owns any of this? It is hard to say. Different artists appropriate the sound of others while seeking to develop their own sound and everyone is blending traditions that come from all over the world and the book just chooses to celebrate Jamaica’s role in popularizing and developing certain aspects of music, some of which have been popular only on the island and some of which have become celebrated throughout the world.

This book is a bit more than 200 pages and it begins with a short but laudatory introduction by noted label owner Chris Blackwell. After that the book is divided into seven chapters that explore the various genres and streams within the larger body of Jamaican music. We begin with a discussion of the way in which Jamaica’s native Mento music became Ska over the course of the middle of the 20th century (1). After that there is a discussion of the birth of reggae and how it developed out of the sound and technology of Kingston (2). This leads to a chapter on deejays and & dubmasters and the various conflicts that they had in seeking to ensure their dominance in a competitive scene (3). This leads to a discussion of roots rock reggae which sought to tie the music to the experience of the common person (4) with a political and/or religious bent. An entire chapter tackles the complicated legacy of Bob Marley as both a local Jamaican musician, a superstar who brought Jamaican music to the world, and a figure who everyone wanted on their side (5). After this there is a discussion of the harder dancehall scene and its artists, who seem to be as inspired by cocaine as reggae has been associated with marijuana (6). Finally, the book ends with a discussion of the international flavor of Reggae as it moved from Jamaica to The United Kingdom and the United States and became massively influential around the world in places as diverse as Brazil and Nigeria (7).

Overall, this book is a story of Jamaican music, but a highly disjointed one. It is as if the authors’ desire to celebrate all the complicated and contradictory aspects of Jamaican music leave them unable to be critical in any way about that tradition or the way that Jamaican music has often been connected with violence between rival neighborhoods or rival musical groups or rival political parties as well as violence against those who for one reason or another do not fit in with the hyper-masculine musical culture of Jamaica, based on exaggerated braggadocio about sexual prowess and sometimes graphic portrayals of the suffering faced by poor Jamaicans, as well as various religious influences from Christianity, heathen local faiths, and Rastafarianism. The authors find themselves praising people, and then praising other people who were violently hostile to the people they were previously praising. Certain aspects of Jamaican musical culture, such as the threat of AIDS as well as the sexual exploitation of women and what contemporary readers would think of as grossly homophobic lyrics, are glossed over. Even those thought of as culture vultures like the Police and UB40 are praised for their enjoyment and appreciation of elements of Jamaican music that they have adopted for local audiences. How it is that No Doubt isn’t similarly praised is puzzling considering their deliberate efforts to celebrate the Rock Steady genre during the early 2000’s, but perhaps there are reasons for the authors’ strange focus on certain acts and certain aspects of Jamaica’s popular music.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Music History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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