Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Books about Dub and Reggae

A few books on my favourite subject and my impressions of them. Not reviews as I'm sure none of my comments would do justice to the many hours, months, years of research and toil that went into making them.
The Rough Guide to Reggae
Steve Barrow & Peter Dalton

I can succinctly describe this book as indispensable reading for anyone interested in any of the Jamaican musical styles. Steve Barrow is almost legendary to lovers of reggae as possessing encyclopaedic knowledge of his chosen subject and significantly for his work as one of the main protagonists at Blood & Fire records (finest reissue label ever. No contest). I am now on my third copy of this great book. I gave away the first two copies - one to a visiting German young man (who helped me out with vocals on an electronic track titled 'Fleischtraum') in the hope that it would encourage his fledgling interest in this kind of music - the other to an kindly Rastafarian gentleman named Isachar while on a visit to Kingston. Not having much to offer in the form of money to thank him for his generous guidance I thought it the least I could do. I had little else of value and I really hope he didn't think me a skinflint. I was in fact giving him something I valued highly.
Well, that was a few years ago and I recently got around to getting another copy. It really has been updated and contains heaps of new entries.
When this book is really complete (if such a thing is possible with a guide to reggae) then it must surely attain biblical size and length! I'm sure much has been left out to fit the Rough Guide format...

There is a subjectivity to Barrow and Dalton's writing, but I have found the recommendations to be almost unfailingly spot-on for my taste. Others may differ on this aspect...
If you have money to spend on some Ska, Reggae, Dub or whatever - buy this book so that you can buy wisely. You won't be disappointed.
Solid Foundation
An Oral History of Reggae
David Katz
I did not expect this to be anywhere near as good as it is. But is an excellent read, whether to read through or later dip in and out of as I tend to do. Now where is it again? Anyway, I'm made aware (by one of the subjects of this book) that Mr. Katz takes his London-based self-imposed Reggae chronicling duties very seriously indeed, sometimes apparently to the point of irritating his subjects...somehow his methods seem to pay off.
When reading the book however, he is evidently at his best when invisible, in the background, weaving the various oral histories into a chronological tapestry that holds together remarkably well.
Many well known names are included, offering their take on how things came about - reassuringly contradicting each other on occasion. But more importantly, when reading we hear the voices and opinions of many lesser known and often more interesting characters in the fascinating story of Jamaican music.
One baffling thing is that Prince Alla (ne Keith Blake) is purported to be nicknamed 'gentle giant' due to his stature. Having met the great Prince Alla (he's on a track on my first podcast) I can certify that he is shorter than me. That would make him about 5' 7" which is nothing to be ashamed of but certainly not the kind of height that would result in such a moniker. Unless we're talking about the sarcastic irony of 7 foot tall Rasta giants.
Either way, he is a gentle and lovely man and a giant in Reggae.

I must assume that this apparent anomaly in Mr. Katz's work is one of a kind but the thrust of this commentary - is let the people speak for themselves and do your work in the background, both of which he has done very well...

Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae
Michael E. Veal

OK, before I begin, I should say that I tried very hard to give this one a fair chance knowing that it would be very difficult for any mortal to 'get it right' as far as this Dub-obsessed personage is.
Some background: It was May 2007 and I was preparing for a rare bit of music related travel to Sweden for a music festival where I was to join a group of musicians/producers to collaborate on a Dub project for a week. This joint effort was to culminate in a live festival performance (of Dub? well weirdly yes...) which did indeed happen. So while happily wallowing in all things DUB at the best of times I thought 'you can never have enough' and found a book called 'Dub' - wow! I don't think there was one before this. I couldn't wait to read what kind of approach was taken, what kind of material explored.

I will not go into much detail. I've tried to forget as much as possible. This is the driest post-grad academic effort imaginable. So much of it is drawn from other popular texts on the subject (yes with attribution/credit, so what?) and when original it is merely a bone dry dissection of some great and some totally obscure dubs that in the reading give no hint whatsoever of their musicality. It is almost like he doesn't actually like the music but must study and understand it and write a dissertation - upon whose instructions? There is not much passion for the music here.
I have tried dipping back in. Still a sad experience. In fact this book was my main inspiration for getting another copy of the Rough Guide to Reggae (see above) to restore something that was lost in reading Mr. Veal's bookish treatise.

Perhaps it is best to not attempt to intellectualize any form of music as I have always maintained - except when the music purports to be a musically intellectual form - which last time I listened Dub does not do. Clever, but not bookish.

The difference between this Dub/Reggae book and others, is that I don't think Michael Veal spent very much time really listening to the music (and actually enjoying it!) and may be conflating the academic process of intellectualizing jazz and similar forms with the genuine need for attention to be duly paid to a genre that demands respect and book space. But surely not on the same terms, being so starkly different (and better!). Others have clearly devoted much of their lives to their subject. I respect that immensely in writers such as Steve Barrow, David Katz, Lloyd Bradley.
Michael Veal, better get back to the North American stuff.

Really, I don't mean to be unkind...

If anyone knows of any books I've missed, let me know in the comments.
And no, I have not forgotten Katz's 'People Funny Boy' but I just don't feel lunatic enough to comment on it...
Roger Steffens has a new one out, that might be my next read...

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