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Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae

by Michael E. Veal
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut, 2007
350 pp., illus. b/w, Trade, $75.00; paper, $27.95
ISBN: 0-8195-6571-7; ISBN: 0-8195-6572-5.

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent


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 you’re a diehard reggae and dub lover, a historian of music engineering and producing or someone with an encyclopaedic memory. There’s 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 orchestra’s 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 one’s 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: "…a 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).



Updated 1st August 2007

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