Bug in the Bass Bin

Poverty, dancehall, and sound systems in modern-day Jamaica

"The transistor radio marked a turning point for us in Jamaica," says Neville Garrick, who accompanies me through the exhibition. He pauses in front of a replica of a 1970s street-corner bar, complete with vintage bottles of Red Stripe. "Before, we only had one station; you could only turn it up or down. With the transistor, we could pick up stations from New Orleans. In trying to copy the Americans, we ended up developing our own laid-back beat. Everyone did covers; Bob Marley did too." Garrick, a Kingston native, attended UCLA, where he joined the Black Panther Party. Back in Jamaica in the mid-1970s, he embraced Rastafarian beliefs and became Marley's art director and a member of his touring entourage. There's a photo of Garrick in the exhibition, standing in the ocean with waist-length dreads and a boombox to his ear, and another of him playing soccer with Marley's band, the Wailers, in a match against Island Records employees.

Garrick pauses by a wall full of 1940s party invitations printed on 4x5 cards. "The groups didn't have access to radio stations, so to get their music out there, the promoters would give dances on weekends," he says. "The term 'dance hall,' of course, originally referred to the place."

He strolls to a display that charts the sound system's history back to the 1940s. A black-and-white photo shows a smiling selector in plaid flares and a camouflage cap at a sidewalk sound system, mike in one hand, manning the stereo's control knobs with the other while a DJ puts on an LP. "The sound system is the heartbeat of Jamaican music," Garrick says. "It just took over after Bob Marley's death, and it's ruled ever since."

Jamaicans celebrate Valentine's Day with a raucous dancehall soundclash fueled by spliffs, Guinness, and gunshots
David Navans
Jamaicans celebrate Valentine's Day with a raucous dancehall soundclash fueled by spliffs, Guinness, and gunshots

A section on DJs explains how selector Count Machuki is credited with starting what would become the signature of the dancehall sound, talking over records. He just improvised one day, legend has it, copying the fast vocal stylings of American DJs he heard on the radio. Today his innovation lives on in the ragged dancehall beat coming out of the huge speakers set up on street corners and leaking from passing cars. The mix of slackness and social consciousness and the spiritual sentiments of roots reggae commingling with the thug attitude of hard-core hip-hop seem logical given the constant recycling and reinvention inherent throughout modern Jamaican music. "That's how rap music started in Jamaica," Garrick points out, "on a street corner in Kingston."

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