Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Dub Poetry Exploration

Christian Habekost, who wrote the book "Verbal Riddim: The Politics And Aesthetics Of Dub Poetry," described dub poetry as a distinctive form of "Black Power rhetoric, Old-Testament Rasta imagery, and ghetto talk, forged into word chains with furious rhymes and fired by exploding reggae rhythms." His succinct definition goes a long way in describing this sub-genre to those who are unfamiliar but to be honest, as we look back on dub poetry some 30 years since it first raised its powerful voice, one key component of the description should be amended.

For me, the "Black Power" reference really dismisses a lot of the varied topics explored in this art form and in fact does little but categorize dub poetry as being one dimensional. I know that the original "Black Power" movement emphasized racial pride as well as promoted the advancement of black values and black collective interests and I for one have no problem with that and applaud the movement and what it accomplished. But unfortunately for some the use of the term Black Power in 2007 tends to have a negative connotation. I believe that a large segment of the population, who doesn't share the African complexion, hears the expression and immediately begins thinking of violent racial separatists whose racist ideologies mirror that of the subhuman Ku Klux Klan. Now I don’t proclaim to be an authority or even an expert on the subject but the vast majority of what I’ve heard is definitely not expressing the modern-day perceived definition of "Black Power." To clarify Dub Poets tend to present messages that are essentially calls for black equality, expressions of black self-pride, appeals for black cultural and historical awareness and often times the need for defiance or revolt in response to racist laws or political policies that segregate, denigrate or persecute...essentially... Black Power. But to me dub poetry definitely relates to the old definition before it was clouded and bastardized. I personally have never heard or even perceived that any dub poet’s message was racist or separatist - for the most part Dub Poets are too intelligent to be categorized with those who subscribe to a racist and flawed thought pattern. As for amending Habekost's definition, I'd use a term such as Black Consciousness Rhetoric instead. But enough about that... we're here to talk music not taboo topics on race that in this day and age some might feel uncomfortable discussing.

A little of my background... I first heard dub poetry about 20 years ago when I was first trying the waters of reggae music and happened across the Island/Mango compilation LP called Reggae Greats – Linton Kwesi Johnson at a used record store in Baltimore. I of course was unaware of what I was in for when I plopped down my $3.00 and brought it home. Being a new reggae listener I was really only familiar with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh and any records I scored from any artists besides the ones I was already listening to were true adventures. I couldn’t wait to get home and give my new records a spin and so was the case with LKJ. I read the back of the sleeve which had a pretty decent write-up and needless to say my curiosity was piqued. LKJ said...
"I coined the phrase 'dub poetry' years ago in talking about reggae DJs because I was trying to argue in some article that what the DJs in Jamaica were actually doing is poetry, is improvised, spontaneous, oral poetry and I called it 'dub poetry'. But since then Oku Onoura and others have developed this idea of 'dub poetry' as a description of what he and Michael Smith and Muta and myself and other people do. But I think I'll be quite happy to just call it poetry."
As soon as I dropped the needle I was almost immediately blown away! The rhythms were rootsier and smoother than any of the music I already knew and LKJ’s laid back delivery, engaging story telling skills and vivid alliterations made this record an absolutely compelling piece of art! Initially I have to admit that I had a difficult time understanding some of the patois but nonetheless I listened to side A three times before I even bothered to give the B side a spin.

But that's enough of my reminiscing… let’s get to what you’re going to hear. I did this mix in a different style and I hope you enjoy the results.

First, we start with Linton Kwesi Johnson and his poem "Reggae Sounds" from his 1980 Island Records release Bass Culture. Now instead of just cramming the song in its entirety in the mix, I chopped it into sections and provided spoken stanzas from Johnson’s 1998 album LKJ A Cappella Live, available on LKJ Records. During the instrumental bridge in Johnson’s track you’ve got Mutabaruka providing the second poem., "Sit Dung Pon De Wall" from his 1983 album Check It on Alligator Records!

The third track is courtesy of Jean "Binta" Breeze and its taken from the 1983 Heartbeat various dub poet release Word Soun’ ‘Ave Power and her poem called "Aid Travel With A Bomb." Breeze was born in 1957 in Jamaica and while studying at the Jamaican School Of Drama alongside Michael Smith and Oku Onoura she began writing poetry. Eventually she started recording in the late 70’s early 80’s and is still actively writing today.

Oku Onoura, who is credited as the Father Of Jamaican Dub Poetry gives us the next piece. It's a short but powerful poem from his 1984 release called "Last Night" off the album Pressure Drop.

The late Michael Smith is next from his only album, the masterful Mi Cyann Believe It from 1982 and the poem/song called "It A Come." Again I use the instrumental version at the end of Smith's track for another Mutabaruka spoken piece called, "Prisoner" from his 1984 album Outcry.

Back we go to Linton Kwesi Johnson and the eulogistic poem to Blair Peach, a New Zealand born teacher who was killed by members of the London Metropolitan Police's Special Patrol Group on April 23, 1979 while he attended an anti-Nazi demonstration. This one is called "Reggae Fi Peach" also coming from the Bass Culture album and it ranks right up there as one of my all-time favorite reggae tracks ever. The poem is so defiant and rightfully outraged while the rhythm, driven by a fantastic horn riff, flows along in agreement. To me it is a textbook example of the powerful spoken word and hardcore roots reggae that makes dub poetry so compelling. I mixed this up with "Peach Dub" from the 1980 companion album LKJ In Dub and toward the end I throw in another Oku Onoura spoken word poem. This one is "We'll Keep On Struggling" from his CD called Dubbin' Away.

Up next is a poet named Glenville Bryan, who I can't find any background on, and a piece called "Blood Shout" from the Heartbeat Word Soun' 'Ave Power album.

Benjamin Zephaniah is next with the poem called "13 Dead" from his 1983 album Rasta which was originally released by a label called Workers Playtime. The drumming and sparse instrumentation definitely bring to mind the revolutionary and Black Nationalist sounds of the late 60's era group the Last Poets. Rasta is one of those albums that I've been dying to hear for years and thanks to the miracle of the modern Internet I was finally able to track it down in time for this mix. There are conflicting sources on whether Zephaniah was born in England on April 15, 1958 and spent part of his childhood in Jamaica or if he was born in Black River Jamaica and emigrated to England when he was a child - being that he's still around and active you'd think someone would be able to find out from him which is accurate. I would tend to go with the born in England theory considering his exact date of birth is known and in Jamaica in those days birth records tended to be a little sketchy especially if he was from a rural region and born at home, as was customary. Zephaniah first published his work in a book called Pen Rhythm in 1980 and went on to record Rasta in '83. An interesting note, in 2003 Zephaniah was offered the honor of Officer Of The Order Of British Empire which he declined by saying that it reminded him of generations of oppression and he rather impolitely responded by telling, "Mr. Blair and Mrs. Queen" to stick it! You've got to admire his uncompromising principles!

Next up is another LKJ accapella and original version "mash-up" if you will. This is called "Sonny's Lettah" from the LKJ A Cappella CD and the track from his 1979 Island/Mango album Forces Of Victory. Again we let Dennis Bovell provide the rhythm for Mutabaruka and his thoroughly compelling piece called "Dis Poem" from his 1986 Shanachie album The Mystery Unfolds.

Finally we let Mutabaruka have a track all his own, sorry Muta for taking so long, and its a good one called "Rememberance" from the Outcry album. Much has been written about Mutabaruka and if you want to read more you can check him out at his website by clicking here. On a personal note, I got the chance to see Mutabaruka perform in Baltimore about 100 years ago, I'm exaggerating a little it's easier then trying to narrow down the exact year, and he was the nicest guy. Before the show he was sitting outside the nightclub without his shirt or shoes, which I believe he never wears, and he talked with my friend Nick and I for a good 15 minutes. He is a true reggae legend and we were honored he would spend time with a couple of fans without being forced into it by an oppressive record label or a manager. Let's see a non-reggae artist like Bono do that!

Michael Smith is up next with his poem "Black And White" and it segues nicely into an Oku Onoura track called "Decolonization" from his Pressure Drop album which also has a Last Poets feel.

Oliver Smith, another relatively unknown dub poet from the Word Soun' 'Ave Power album is up next with his piece called "Sign Of The Times."

Benjamin Zephaniah is next in the mix with a surprisingly catchy track called "Dis Policeman Keeps Kicking Me To Death" from the Rasta album. I defy you to listen to this one and not find yourself bobbing along to Zephaniah's sing-songy delivery. I almost felt guilty because the subject matter is definitely not danceable.

Linton Kwesi Johnson gives us "Five Nights Of Bleeding (For Leroy Harris)" from the 1978 Virgin album originally credited to Poet And The Roots which is called Dread Beat An' Blood. Another powerful piece - the vivid lyrics and amazingly paced delivery make this another textbook example of dub poetry. I highly recommend seeking out the accapella version because it allows you to fully understand and appreciate the skill involved in crafting this poem.

Oku Onoura gives us another spoken piece. This one is called "Tears" and comes from the Rohit Records Dubbin' Away CD.

Still active poet Malachi Smith gives us "Victim" from the aforementioned Heartbeat album. I can kick myself for not researching this post further in advance because Malachi has recorded and released a couple CDs of current dub poetry in the last few years, which after a bit of digging online was able to find available for purchase. Oh well, maybe we'll revisit Malachi Smith in the future. Smith has an interesting background, the son of a preacher and a retired detective corporal for the Jamaica Constabulary Force, and now a dub poet!

Mutabaruka is next with another track and this one is "De System" from the Check It album. I love the breakdown in the middle of the track where they go into an impromptu version of Bob Marley's "Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)" it's probably as close as you'll ever get to hearing Muta singing. I also remember a live version, that I have somewhere, when the band breaks off into an all-out disco beat instead of the Marley tune which makes for an awesome transition once the one drop kicks back in. But I digress.

Michael Smith is next with his poem which is also the title track from his Mi Cyann Believe It album.

Oku Onoura follows that up with a piece called "Wat A Situashan" from the 1993 CD release of material recorded in 1982 and called I A Tell... Dubwise & Otherwise on the ROIR label. This is one of my favorite Oku tracks and his "weeping" delivery makes you feel his pain and desperation and in turn allows this one to stand out as another prime example of good dub poetry.

Tomlin Ellis, another dub poet who I can't find any background on, from the Heartbeat Word Soun' 'Ave Power LP gives an anti-drug message called "Drop It."

Benjamin Zephaniah follows Ellis with the next spoken word piece and it's called "I Love My Mudder" again from his Rasta album. This track serves two purposes for me; it shows that dub poetry is capable of exploring subjects not limited to "Black Power" and it serves as a nice transition into a poem about giving birth, obviously from a female perspective.

Lillian Allen give us the next song and it is called appropriately "Birth Poem" from her 1986 album Revolutionary Tea Party. Allen uses repetition to emphasize how hard birthing labor can be and it actually works pretty well by making the listener feel a mother's struggle and agonizing desperation when bringing a life into the world. You can read more about Lillian Allen here.

Sticking with the female perspective we've got another piece from Jean "Binta" Breeze and again taken from the Word Soun' 'Ave Power LP, this one is called "To Plant."

The last instrumentally backed track in the mix comes from Linton Kwesi Johnson and also makes a strong point in emphasising the versatility of this sub genre. This one is called "More Time" and comes from the 1999 album of the same name released on the LKJ label. This one is more a poem lamenting the fact that all people, no matter race, color or creed need more time to enjoy their lives outside of work. A great upbeat song with a positive aspiration, and Steve Gregory's smooth flute solos throughout, make this a nice tune to wrap up the mix.

The final spoke word piece is from Oku Onoura and is called "Defiance" and was swiped from his album Bus Out which was originally released in 1984 and re-released on CD in 2003. It's a good summation of this dub poetry exploration and after writing all this I'm spent.

A Dub Poetry Exploration



Niiiiiiice! Mutabaruka is actually my favorite dub poet of them all, but this collection is a cool showcase. Good work!


FuseRed said...

Sounds like an awesome collection - already know LKJ, Onu and Mikey Smith so looking forward to the rest - thanks for the great post!

FuseRed said...

Sorry Oku not Onu...

Anonymous said...

is just need some time to listen to this one, its deserves some extensive listening. Maybe thats why theres a 'underwhelming response'.

u do some great work with these posts. thanks!

Charlie said...

I'm going to agree with the anonymous. Great mix, thanks for the post!


Rastafarian Mutabaruka who mention is an excellent source of reason for all people of spiritual interests

video Messian Dread Jamaica Rasta Mutabaruka


Anonymous said...

Great posting, I note this was done in 2007, What's up these days? Some of the poets you mentioned are still writing. We have a Poetry Society of Jamaica, celebrating Twenty years This month. I still write not much but hope to change that soon. There are some new voices making thier marks. Ever heard of Debbie Young out of Canada she is the daughter of one of the Poets In Unity Members. She is deep and deserves a listen.
Much Love and Guidance.
Tomlin Ellis (Drop it)

Reggaexx said...

Tomlin, great to hear from an artist actually featured in one of my mixes! Nuff respect! I haven't had the chance to hear or read much of the newer writings of the established poets nor those of the newer generation. Do you know any good sources of information on dub poetry online or elsewhere? Dub poetry is definitely one of my favorite sub-genres of reggae music and its a shame there isn't more readily available - great messages and the riddims make it nice everytime!

sarah said...

I've been looking for a nice, mixed range of dub poets to pass on to other reggae heads where i live in the UK and this is the best one yet in terms of selection/range. thanks alot, excellent blog now on my favourites so keep the goodies coming. lovely to read some info alongside the mix too :)

blessed love from Sarah in the UK