and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae
by Michael E. Veal
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown,
350 pp., illus. b/w, Trade, $75.00; paper,
ISBN: 0-8195-6571-7; ISBN: 0-8195-6572-5.
Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Dub is the lesser-known brother of ska,
reggae and ragga, the highly recognisable
export products of that Caribbean musical
hotbed Jamaica. Probably every music-lover
over twenty knows reggae star Bob Marley,
and names like Peter Tosh and Black Uhuru
might even ring a distant bell, but the
grandmasters of Dub are hardly known.
If you recognise names like Lee Perry,
King Tubby, Scientist or Coxsone Dodd,
either youre a diehard reggae and
dub lover, a historian of music engineering
and producing or someone with an encyclopaedic
memory. Theres no shame in that.
Dub artists have never been in the spotlights
in the way their reggae brethren were.
Their biotope is or rather was
the recording studio control room
and the mixing boards. So, what is dub?
Michael Veal takes us on a trip
pun intended through the Jamaican
music scene from the late fifties till
the mid seventies to explain how this
extraordinary style evolved serendipitously
from the earliest roots of reggae as an
amalgamation of Latin-American, Western
and African influences. When the live
orchestras that animated public
dances became economically insupportable,
they were replaced by mobile sound
systems operated by small entrepreneurs.
A small number of engineers/producers
provided what one could call the rhythmic
and harmonic scaffolding soundmixes for
the toasting by deejays that
rode these sound systems. (Toasting being
the vernacular term for commenting on
the music, introducing the songs, announcing
upcoming events and egging on the dancers).
The mixes basically consisted of a recognisable
drum and bass line with only sparse if
any instrumental harmonic and vocal additions.
In fact, adding is precisely the opposite
of what the dub producers actually did,
because they stripped pre-existing songs
of their riffs, lyrics and melodic lines
rather than building up a mix from scratch.
At least, that is how it all started.
Over the years, the dub masters became
very prolific in using reverb, echo and
all kinds of sound effects to mix unique
versions because of the necessity
to provide several competing sound systems
with different mixes of a single recognisable
riddim. Gradually, the producer/engineer
overtook the musicians and vocalists in
musical creativity and ingenuity, working
their own magic to create an almost entirely
autonomous subgenre of reggae. One should
read the insightful analysises Michael
Veal makes of some fifty dub versions
of reggae songs to get an idea of the
range of imaginative techniques that were
developped and used by the most important
artists and of course one should listen
carefully to some of the dub compilation
albums that are still on the market
preferably on vinyl and with ones
private sound system in overdrive.
Fortunately, Dub is much more than
a list of names and a history of a music
genre. The author situates the lives of
the main artists and their music against
the cultural and political backdrop of
Jamaican history and analyses the dialectics
of music and technology. In an extremely
interesting epilogue, he explores the
surprisingly wide and ongoing influence
of dub on American and European popular
and art music. To sum it up, dub is: "
system of atmospheric remixing techniques
that emphasized timbre, spatiality, and
textures as primary musical values"
(p. 61). And "
to measure dub
in terms of the criteria of market popularity
misses the point. It is more appropriate
to speak of dub as a body of production
techniques that, like any innovation,
is gradually subsumed into the common
practice of a given tradition" (p.189).