Stone Love Stands Tall at 40!

Big tings a gwaan and its the fact that Stone Love stands tall! As the mighty, big, bad, Stone Love Movement known for invocations of immortality celebrates its fortieth year in Jamaica’s fiftieth year of independence, it would be remiss of me not to honour them in the celebration of the life and times of a formidable sound system. I do this through reflections based on interviews, observation and participation as I psychologically and physically prepare to attend the anniversary dance scheduled for December 29, 2012 at the Red Stripe Complex. I share with you an excerpt from my latest book DanceHall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto.

“Stone Love spans the development of some critical aspects of dancehall: the centrality of downtown venues; the re-emergence of street venues in uptown Kingston; the movement of the DJ from dance halls to recording studios, television shows and music videos, and thus the international arena; and the shift from street dances to “big dances” with corporate sponsorship and commercial success surpassed only by that of large stage shows such as Reggae Sumfest. Stone Love began as a small-scale sound system playing at parties and had to ground itself within the downtown space in order to attract a large following, although Winston Powell always had ambitions for making it big. Jones Town was where they made their breakthrough from being branded as centred on American R&B to being known as a community-centred sound system. Improved technology, the skill of a new selector, and the groundings at Joyce’s Hot Spot and Cherry’s Bar, near and within Jones Town respectively, were important factors in this breakthrough. Jones Town is demographically illustrative of an inner-city community, a space in which the trappings of a metropolitan musical sense had to be shed for the sound system to gain local and later wider international appeal.

Once Powell’s sound system had acquired a following, new opportunities materialized at playout venues with increased demand for the sound. As their popularity grew, however, so did police intervention, because dance events spilled onto the street, inviting attention and complaints. Moving through venues from Jones Town to Cross Roads, New Kingston and Halfway Tree, Stone Love climbed to “champion sound” status when it settled into a longstanding Thursday night playout at House of Leo in the Halfway Tree area in the mid-1980s. With a weekly local calendar, Stone Love was in demand. With more staff, kilowattage of sound, boxes, a playing style that was different from other sound systems, and links uptown and downtown, Stone Love changed the face of dancehall, simply by capitalizing on the ghetto and technology as vehicles to propel its capacity beyond that of other systems by the early 1990s. Eventually its sound capacity called one and all to join its dancehall calendar and be baptized into the fullness of its love. This baptismal resonance is confirmed by the late dancer Bogle, for whom church and school were replaced by dancehall: “He had to go every day to mark present” (Reyes 1993, 71).

It was in 1988 that Stone Love earned a commitment to play in Canada, on the first of its many forays outside Jamaica. Since then Stone Love has advanced the image and popularity of dancehall internationally, moving it outside the local realm to an international and trans- national one. As Louis Chude-Sokei (1997) suggests, dancehall has negotiated a trans-Atlantic Diasporic space in which the celebration of the local has surpassed, if only superficially, the appeal of an Afri- can past and present reified in the culture-centred music of Rastafari and Rastafari-influenced reggae artists. The movement of Stone Love’s equipment, audio and (eventually video) recordings, fans, specials and dub plates, and personnel from uptown to downtown, then out of town and internationally, has solidified its high levels of appeal.

Stone Love’s space in the dancehall is also a political one, in the sense that they operate within and across certain borders that have to be carefully negotiated because they can mean life or death for a sound system. In the early 1990s Stone Love took the decision not to play tunes that incited gang feuds or “matie fights” (fights between women over men) or promoted gun talk. In addition, Stone Love has helped to maintain the standards set by the Sound System Association of Jamaica for democratizing the business. This has resulted in appearances at venues stipulated by the Association to break the monopoly of some systems over particular venues, in some instances within volatile areas.

One of the crucial lessons Winston Powell learned early within the sound system business was about the need to keep one’s past firmly in the conscious present. This necessitates the capacity to accept invitations to play for and to promoters and fans who were there at Stone Love’s inception. They cannot be left behind, because they were crucial to the establishment of the sound system from the start. Stone Love therefore acquired and established a new oldies sound system to navigate old and new spaces at the same time. This has a bearing on the partisan political trends in the business as well, since running different units under the name Stone Love has allowed the sound system to play at different venues in one night, sometimes for warring factions.
Stone Love’s basic development reveals the depth and breadth of dancehall space, in addition to the ways in which dancehall perpetuators continuously negotiate and navigate a variety of spaces, policed and contested, old and new, local and transnational. Theirs is a significant achievement, which helps to solidify the sound system’s honorary title, “The Immortal Stone Love.” This “immortality” is inextricably linked to dancehall’s identity and its rubric of multiple spatialities.”

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