Kingston – The Sacred (Dancehall) View

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There are some moments of impact which are priceless. This week I was reminded of what I consider to be one of my most important reasons for being in this world at this time. It started with a telephone call from a friend who wanted to talk about the redevelopment of Downtown Kingston. The details of the call led me to a vision of Kingston which came rolling back to the forefront of the memory, indeed, the one I had written some years ago. Here is what I said about Kingston and my understanding of its place as a sacred space, a sacred space for rhythm, life and style.

While the history of popular music and dance culture in Jamaica, particularly the emergence of mento, ska, rocksteady and reggae, has to acknowledge the role of rural-based traditional music and dance forms, a cartographic representation of reggae and its contemporary expression, dancehall, would locate its central nervous system within the city of Kingston. Most of the musicians, sound systems, recording studios, DJs, dance venues and patrons, were and still are located in the urban complex known as the Kingston Metropolitan Area (KMA), which includes the parishes of Kingston and St Andrew. The citizens who have inspired, performed and consumed dancehall lifestyle include dancers, such as the late Gerald “Bogle” Levy, a foremost dance master, or Denise “Stacey” Cumberland, Dancehall Queen 1999; the early DJs U Roy, Tappa Zukie, Brigadier Jerry, Tenor Saw and Yellow Man; and today’s DJs such as Elephant Man, Bounti Killa and Capleton, [Lady Saw, Cham, and Konshens] whose practice reveals strong ties to what is loosely known as inner-city Kingston.

The inner-city communities are mostly located around Kingston Harbour and along the gullies entering it. The Harbour operates as an aquatic drum on which the sounds from the inner city are amplified and sent out to the world. While this is a figurative rendering of how reggae music and later dancehall spread globally, it is also a visual representation of the sacred drum, the echo chamber that Kingston Harbour has become for Kingston’s sound systems. Kingston, with its backdrop of mountains overlooking the natural harbour, is both physically and metaphorically the amphitheatre in which daily life is performed for both the self and the world as its spectator. I argue that performance is the lifeworld of actors: they are not merely subjects in a postcolonial script but agents in the creation and recreation of their own urban life stories.

When Elephant Man proclaimed “Me an’ my crew got di whole city lock,” he was referring to the fact that, from high to low, from uptown to downtown, in clubs and streets, and on radio and television, dancehall has the attention of the entire city. Kingston is one of the spaces where New World Africans settled their minds on the task of performance, enacting their being in that space between violation, ruptured roots and self-(re)construction….

Kingston—King’s Town, “Jah Jah City”, amphitheatre and once auction block—is where the drum and later the drum machine beat one of the world’s most popular musics, to which bodies the world over move, a signal of something new and ancient. It is the city that Jah made, that garden with the Hope River running through, where rhythm signals the pulse of life in the redefinition of violated selves that are renewed in the complex process of re-enacting memories from a ruptured past. The development of the parish and city of Kingston was a consequence of the destruction of Port Royal by earthquake in 1692, and the move on the part of colonialists to capitalize on the trade made possible and strategic by the world’s seventh largest natural harbour, Kingston Harbour. The city, modelled on English-style residential squares, grew slowly, with the population being concentrated in the southern sections from its inception.

From the days of Captain Morgan and other pirates in Port Royal, life and style in Jamaica attracted world attention even before the development of Kingston, mostly for the negatives of corruption, piracy and violence. The “high life” of Port Royal, Jamaica’s first metropolis, attracted so many explorers and exploiters that it soon became the den of iniquity that history recalls it to have been. In some ways, the disasters that plagued Port Royal and southern Kingston were the only solutions to a history gone bad. The harbour between Port Royal and Kingston today stands as a kind of spirit glass or mirror in which memories lie, as it is simultaneously a drum’s echo chamber. The harbour could also be seen as a goblet or cup, from which the somewhat bitter-sweet wine of celebration is drunk, especially by those closest to the rim. Indeed, dance venues at the edge of the harbour, such as Jamaica Gates (now defunct) or the New Little Copa Club, have functioned in this way for countless celebrants. Today life and style in the KMA are reminiscent of Port Royal: politicians exploit the poor, violence is the Achilles heel, and agents come as explorers wanting to find the latest pulse of the reggae beat. The DJ Capleton (a.k.a. Clifton Bailey) says this of “King’s-to(w)n” in his song “Jah Jah City” (2000): “Jah Jah city, Jah Jah city, dem a tu’n it inna dead man town.” The Rastafari rendering of Jamaica is “Jah mek ya” (“God made here”), which is consistent with notions of sacred space heralded by DJs such as Capleton.

Excerpt from DanceHall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto, pp. 39-41.

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