Guest Blogger, Marco Werman: Notes From a Sound System

I just came back from ten days in Kingston, Jamaica where I was collecting program material on the Alpha Boys School, an orphanage that was founded in the 19th century by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy (to be aired on Frontline/WORLD later this Spring). Hard to believe for me, but it was my first time on the island. I got an amazing overview of where Jamaican music is at in 2008.

But I write to share a sublime musical experience I had in the Kingston working-class neighborhood of Rae Town. As you may know, Sound System-style street parties (with massive banks of loudspeakers that are more comfortingly bassy than ear-splittingly treble) happen pretty much every night of the week around Kingston, starting with Uptown Mondays at a shopping plaza in New Kingston with current dancehall hits, and going right through the week.

The neighborhood of Rae Town has, for the past 20 plus years there, thrown a Sunday night dance and party. The local paper the Gleaner describes it as an oldies night, and the people reflect that, sort of. There are 70 year-olds, all the way down to much younger people. Classes mix: doctors and lawyers from uptown mingle with an array of characters out of Fellini. The crowd shows up around midnight. The people slowly line up along both sides of the main street running through Rae Town, almost like a dance showdown, and everyone begins a slow groove to the music. Grillers with jerk chicken, fish and pork are common, as are sellers of ganja who wander around with small bouquets of the herb still on the stem. As the crowd builds, so does the music.

It’s the music that really drew me in that night: mostly old school reggae and dub and anything ska: “Fiddler on the Roof” ska by the Soul Brothers, “Norwegian Wood” ska by Jackie Mittoo, you name it. There was also a seductive selection of oldies like Dionne Warwick’s “Wishin and Hopin,” Sam Cooke’s “Cupid” and “A Change Is Gonna Come” (a kind of plea to the hood that crime and poverty can be licked), Dionne Warwick’s et al “That’s What Friends Are For” (a neighborhood anthem, in which the DJ dropped the sound right before the chorus, leaving the entire block singing out loud), Maxine Brown’s “Oh No Not My Baby.” And the walls of speakers sent all this great music vibrating through my bones and making me feel inspired and happy, and isn’t that what music’s supposed to do? It was the best party I’ve ever been to. I find dancehall monotonous with a capital M. And maybe Rae Town put me in a time warp, a flashback to the great old days of this music that is disconnected in many ways to the fast and furious business of dancehall. But what a great scene and sound that was last Sunday in Rae Town. It’s wonderful to be reminded that the Loudest Island in the World isn’t just about the size of the sound system. It’s also about some of the coolest music ever made and the whole world of sound that boomeranged into it.

-Marco Werman, Music Editor, PRI’s The World

Editor’s note:  I’m a big fan of all things NPR- and for world news from your NPR affiliate, there’s none better than PRI’s The World.  It is an honor to include Marco’s piece (written a few months back) in our new Guest Blogger series.  Here’s an older post I did, linking you to several of the stories Marco did from the above mentioned trip to Jamaica. Ska Online: The World Loves JA Music

-JJ

1 Comment

  1. Tim Says:

    Thanks for the great wrap-up of your visit to Rae Town. Sounds like a perfect evening.

    Tim in DC



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