Dancehall with a Different Accent
Dancehall with a Different Accent
By: Kelefa Sanneh
Date: March 8, 2006
Source: Sanneh, Kelefa. "Dancehall with a Different Accent." The New York Times. (March 8, 2006).
About the Author: Kelefa Sanneh writes about pop music for The New York Times, and also serves as deputy editor for Transition Magazine. His main focus is the transition of hip-hop into the mainstream, and how this compares to the development of rap music.
American popular music has evolved over the past century and a half, changing and morphing based on various influences, both cultural and political. The increased rate of immigration to the United States starting in the mid-nineteenth century resulted in a wealth of new ethnic types of music, primarily European, getting absorbed into the American culture, and when those ethnic groups mingled, their music affected that of other groups. In addition, following the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves in the late 1860s, African Americans migrated in large numbers, seeking out employment opportunities in major cities. Their musical styles and preferences went with them and began to influence the rhythms and sounds of the music in the areas where they settled. In the decades that followed, American music continued to develop with input from different cultures, altering with each change in the patterns of immigration to the United States, and based on which cultures dominated society.
On Monday night, America's most popular reggae singer took the stage wearing a black hat and a long black coat, but it wasn't a costume. The singer is Matisyahu, a former hippie from White Plains. Once he followed Phish. Now he follows the teachings of Hasidic Judaism. And tons of fans follow him.
Monday's concert was the first of two sold-out shows at the Hammerstein Ballroom. And yesterday he released his major-label debut album, "Youth" (JDub/Or/Epic), which is all but certain to enter the pop charts near the top. The record is dull, and the concert was often worse.
Still, once you hear Matisyahu's music, you may wonder why someone didn't think of this sooner. The plaintive, minor-key melodies of reggae aren't so far removed from the melodies Matisyahu would have heard, and sung, when he attended the Carlebach Shul, on the Upper West Side. And the imagery of Rastafarianism borrows heavily from Jewish tradition: Matisyahu is by no means the first reggae star to sing of Mount Zion, although he might be the first one who has had a chance to go there.
Matisyahu's black hat also helps obscure something that might otherwise be more obvious: his race. He is a student of the Chabad-Lubavitch philosophy, but he is also a white reggae singer with an all-white band, playing (on Monday night, anyway) to an almost all-white crowd. Yet he has mainly avoided thorny questions about cultural appropriation. He looks like an anomaly, but if you think of him as a white pop star drawing from a black musical tradition, then he may seem like a more familiar figure.
His sound owes a lot to early dancehall reggae stars like Barrington Levy and Eek-a-Mouse, who delivered half-sung lyrics over bass-heavy grooves. On "Youth," which was mainly produced by Bill Laswell, he is sometimes accompanied by electronics and backup vocals. The Hammerstein concert was sparser: a three-man band played the music while Matisyahu sang and twisted and hopped.
His heavy-handed lyrics (like "Fan the fire for the flame of the youth"), delivered in a slightly Jamaican-inflected accent, don't benefit from the stripped-down arrangements. And while he worked hard to entertain—rapping in double-time, beat-boxing, showing off some exuberant, high-stepping dance moves—he rarely sounded like the musical conqueror he wants to be.
Perhaps Matisyahu's fans aren't familiar with a little-known group of performers who still make great reggae records: Jamaicans. Maybe they are waiting for a shopping list of the best recent reggae CD's from Jamaica. So here's a start: Richie Spice, "Spice in Your Life" (Fifth Element); Luciano, "Lessons of Life" (Shanachie); Sizzla, "Da Real Thing" (VP).
Matisyahu has built a following by bypassing reggae fanatics (many of his fans come from the jam-band world). That explains why he outsells and outdraws his Jamaican counterparts. And it may also explain why some listeners find his music so exciting. Certainly no one seemed disappointed after Monday's concert. And as the crowd filed out, a wry young black woman working the door could be overheard singing to herself. It was a line from an older reggae song: "Could You Be Loved," by Bob Marley. "Don't let them fool you," she sang.
The earliest musical influences in America were religious hymns or spirituals, folk music, and work songs sung primarily by slaves as they labored on plantations. The songs were strong in their narrative aspects and passed along stories of the development of the nation and the suffering of the people living there. Folk music traveled westward with the pioneers, and with the building of the railroads. Once slavery ended, African Americans congregated in cities such as New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago, and New York, working their way north in search of job opportunities. The rhythms of their music began to spread as they traveled and settled in different parts of the country, developing into ragtime, formalized blues music, and eventually jazz. For individuals without a great deal of money for things such as instruments, the steady beats and low tones of blues and jazz could be produced by homemade string instruments and drums, and augmented by vocals. Ragtime in particular spread throughout dance halls, adding an additional level of entertainment. Immigrants from Europe brought the sounds of their individual countries—Irish jigs, Polish polkas, Russian mazurkas—which began to blend as they populated both the cities and the frontier.
In the mid-twentieth century, rock and roll sprouted from the rhythms of African American music, and its birth is often attributed to singer Chuck Berry, whose steady beats and catchy tunes were first heard in the mid-1950s. Although Berry was black, his music had wide appeal, and white teenagers were as anxious to dance to his songs as black teens were. Segregation was still in full force in the United States, but the music industry ignored social prejudices in favor of making money, and record labels began to actively search out other performers who could provide more music in a similar vein. White musicians began to emulate the rock-and-roll style, with performers such as Elvis Presley shooting to popularity. Country and folk music blended with the work of the softer rock singers, resulting in a quieter sound and harmonizing. By the 1960s, music was being imported from Great Britain in the so-called "British Invasion," as groups such as The Beatles grew in notoriety, further developing the sound.
By the close of the twentieth century, rock and roll music had subdivided into a variety of sounds, each the result of its own external influence. A shift in the immigrant population resulted in yet another series of musical influences. Urban music morphed into rap, which combined politics, poetry, and steady rhythms that resembled chanting. Caribbean music, with its lyrical rhythms and reggae sounds began to affect the sounds of modern American music. Hip-hop also developed from urban, African American and Latin rhythms, and was heavily influenced by the dance scene. But even as these musical influences changed the sounds of different popular music genres, the question of authenticity began to arise. Many of these musical types are based in the experiences and history of the culture from which they stem, and in some cases those individuals resent other cultures appropriating their music. While rap began as a predominantly African American form of expression, white and Hispanic musicians have adopted the format, as well as the lifestyle that many perceive to accompany that music. Is this simply a case of others enjoying and appreciating an art form, or is the life experience that generated that music truly necessary in order to justify participation? As music continues to evolve, and society struggles to determine whether cultures should blend or remain separate and distinct, the question as to whether Americans should maintain their original heritage over a unified identity will affect not only the numerous subgenres of popular music, but all aspects of culture in the United States.
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