Why Jamaica is the source of all the music we love today

Why Jamaica is the source of all the music we love today

At the Philharmonie in Paris, the exhibition Jamaïca Jamaïca! From Marley to the Deejays traces the evolution of musical genres born on the island – from reggae to dub to dancehall.

From burru to dancehall to rock steady to dub, Jamaica has given birth to an infinite number of genres, making it one of the world’s greatest musical laboratories. And yet, of this small Caribbean island, we often remember only the reggae culture, embodied by a deified Bob Marley. The journalist and exhibition curator Sebastien Crayol has set himself the task of (re)discovering all the movements born in the sunny streets of Kingston with the exhibition Jamaïca Jamaïca! From Marley to the Deejays, at the Philharmonie de Paris. It tells the evolution of Jamaican musical genres, diffused in local soundsystems which all, in a way, have been able to prove a force of protest against foreign occupation and plunder. Expiatory, rebellious or mystical, Jamaican music has always been a way for the local population to heal the open wound left by slavery and colonization. It has also been a way to create and preserve an identity, a sense of self and a sense of belonging. Beyond musical production, it is a whole culture and its influence that Sebastien Caryol wishes to celebrate – the one that is today the matrix of everything we love, from hip-hop to grime to jungle. By bringing together a multitude of mediums, the exhibition Jamaïca Jamaïca! is meant to be immersive. The exhibition includes pictures of the famous photographer Beth Lesser, reconstructions of the biggest studios in Kingston, documentary archives, and soundsystems. A radio was even created for the occasion. i-D met Sebastien Carayol to talk about his love for the island, history and cultural reappropriation.


When did you first fall in love with Jamaican music?

I was introduced to Jamaican music and reggae through soundsystems. Before that I listened to a lot of punk and rap music. I liked music with a certain heaviness. In the reggae that my friends listened to I didn’t find that, it was rather light, but one day an English soundsystem moved to Montpellier where I lived. The guys were doing sound tests at the Grammont skatepark, north of the city, and as we were all skateboarders we discovered Jamaican music with them. I started to really learn about the songs, the singers, the producers and how music was made in Jamaica. I was fascinated by the competition between soundsystems that create emulation and the way music is made. The more I discovered this, the more I realized that in France very few people know the true history of Jamaican music beyond reggae and Bob Marley. I started by writing for specialized magazines in France and in the United States, then I became an exhibition curator. That’s how I did my first exhibition on soundsystems at the Gaïté Lyrique in 2013.

So this exhibition is to show what’s beyond Bob Marley?

Once I did the exhibition at the Gaïté, people from the Philharmonie came to me and said: “We’ve been wanting to do something about reggae for years but we can’t find a curator who would satisfy us, could you write a project for us?” Which I did, but I told them that if they wanted to do a “mainstream” show just on Bob Marley I wasn’t the right curator. I come from the soundsystem and I wanted to tell that story. Bob Marley is a bit like the tree that hides the forest and I wanted to talk about the forest rather than the tree. They adhered to this project. Bob Marley is very important in the history of Jamaican music because without him nobody would have ever listened to reggae in France and in Europe, but I am not a Marley specialist, I like everything around, what created Marley.

How do you explain that in the collective imagination Bob Marley prevails over the whole history of Jamaican music?

Because he was signed to Island Records, which was owned by Chris Blackwell, a marketing genius who sold it very well abroad. Marley was the perfect candidate for this music to have a chance to work in Europe because he is mixed race – not too black and threatening to a white audience – he lived in the US so he can speak English without a heavy Jamaican accent, and he has great charisma. In short, he had all the ingredients. Once he broke through everyone wanted to know about the superstar. We won’t complain about it, but as a result he tended to take over the rest of Jamaican music.

Was Jamaican music scary at that time?

It wasn’t scary but it was too raw for western ears. When you hear the first mixes of Marley’s albums it’s special, I think you need to have an educated ear for reggae to understand them. That’s why Danny Holloway, an American hired by Blackwell, added arrangements on the first albums that were released by Island Records. Violins, synths, guitar solos to smooth it out and make it a little bit more rocky actually, he wanted to make it a little bit more familiar. It’s a step that scandalizes us today but you have to recontextualize, it’s both criticizable and legitimate, he wanted to sell records in Europe so he did what he had to do to get there.

I have the impression that there is a kind of linear evolution of Jamaican music that seems to transform and mutate over time…

It mutates and that’s why I think that the soundsystem is the instrument of Jamaican music. Like the guitar for rock, the sound system allows Jamaican music to mutate. There is a competition between all the soundsystems which try to diffuse a unique sound. This creates an emulation and an incredible feeling of competition: everyone fights to play the record that no one else has, and for this the best way is to produce and reinvent constantly. That’s how Jamaican music evolves. Mento, which existed before ska, was not really played in soundsystems. The first soundsystems actually played a lot of American R&B, jazz and so on. Then from ska – the first Jamaican musical genre to emerge – the evolution was constant. Ska became rocksteady, which became reggae, then dub, then rub-a-dub, then dancehall etc. The soundsystem is the engine of these evolutions, you always have to have something new, that nobody has ever done. A funny example is that in 1985 – when electronic instruments started to be used, electronic drums, keyboards and so on – a Jamaican producer called “I’ve never seen anything like this before”. – A Jamaican producer by the name of Prince Jammy had the idea of using a small, commercially available keyboard, the Casio MT-40, and using its rock presets to play all-electronic instrumentals and have Jamaicans perform on them. That instrumental was the first mega hit, some people still play it today. It was a revolution, which shows the Jamaican inventiveness, with nothing at all you can make hits.

The exhibition also talks a lot about street culture, right?

For me the soundsystem is the birth of street culture, DJ culture and even streetwear. In the 1960s, every ghetto had its own soundsystem and its own supporters, who hated the soundsystem in the next neighborhood, a bit like soccer clubs. So when you went to a party in front of your soundsystem you had to dress up, you always had to be on the cutting edge of the fashion of the time. This continued afterwards, in the United States for example, the Jamaicans of New York were the first to put on jogging suits without doing sports. In the 1980s there was the cult of Clarks, there is even a book that came out on this subject, Clarks in Jamaica. There was also the Kangol beret in the 1980s. The sound system is a kind of biotope where we listen to music, we show ourselves, we flirt etc. The other day we went to a concert with resident artist Danny Coxson – who will be painting here during the exhibition – he was outraged that I would go to a concert without going home to change. In Jamaica it’s unthinkable not to pay attention to your look at these parties. Even if you are poor and live in a ghetto, you have to be flashy and well dressed, it is very important.

In the exhibition we show some of the most mythical soundsystems, a lot of pictures of Beth Lesser, a Canadian photographer who worked a lot in the 80’s and who retranscribed the post Marley and the beginnings of dancehall, a little bit tropicalized side of the American streetwear of this period. But Danny Coxson’s paintings really capture the essence of the Jamaican street in my opinion. There is also a huge soundsystem in a room that the public can manipulate. Because I think that to understand this culture you have to put your hands in it. There is also the collection of Maxine Walters, who collects the wooden signs that announce dance hall parties. Sometimes they are seen as just flashy, funny signs, but in reality they also preserve the linguistic heritage of Jamaica because the Jamaican slang of the 1990s exists through these signs. Like the song Every Gyal Mi Want Mi Affi Get? which means “I can get any girl I want” and which gave its name to a party in the late 1990s. These things sound light and funny but they are actually very profound in what they say culturally.

How is the history of Jamaican music linked to the country’s colonial past?

Colonial history and the history of slavery are still very present in today’s music and in Jamaican society. This wound is not completely closed and artists constantly refer to it. Since the 17th century and the first religions associated with rituals, dances and music, this memory of slavery has been transmitted. The English colonizers put a system in place before leaving and letting it fall apart because they had grafted their system onto a tropical country that had not asked for anything. So Jamaican music and society constantly refers to that.

Has music been a way of challenging foreign occupation?

It always has been, yes. That’s also what we explain in the exhibition and that’s why we go back to the 17th century with the brown negroes, which are self-governing communities that were created when the slaves fled to the hills, when England took the island from Spain in 1655. These communities reached a peace agreement with the English in 1739, but this agreement was special because in exchange for their autonomy, they had to drive out other slaves for the English. These Maroon communities still exist and create their own music. They are in a tradition of opposition to all systems in place since the 17th century. Many of the melodies in Bob Marley’s songs were taken from the songs of the maroons or slaves. The same melody is passed on from generation to generation, from musical genre to musical genre.

Would you say that Jamaican music is a form of oral history?

Absolutely. It’s an oral history because when it was written down it was often done by people outside of Jamaica, some people were glorified and wrote their own legend, notably Chris Blackwell who did that very well. That’s probably why there is so much tension between some producers and singers. It’s an oral history so it’s one person’s word against the other’s. But that’s what captivates me too. Some things can never be untangled, whether by historians, curators or anyone else. There are not all truths, but there are truths. It’s very interesting to try to navigate that.

What about the spiritual and mystical dimension of Jamaican music?

Actually, concerning spirituality I think that street life is very important too, we don’t talk about it enough. There is a kind of dichotomy in Jamaican music which is at the same time very urban, very ghetto, but also very spiritual and mystical. All this coexists and creates this music. It’s very violent and very “peaceful” at the same time, since violence calls for an opposite reaction. The political violence is impressive in Jamaica, Kingston has the third highest rate of gun murders in the world. This violence coexists with Rastafarianism, which is a philosophy of appeasement. The country is a sum of completely opposite things that coexist and create a single music. For me the singer Gregory Isaacs is the perfect Jamaican, he is at the same time an incredible “rough boy”, who is a millionaire but loses all his money because he distributes it to his community, he is very spiritual, very generous but at the same time very hard in business, I don’t know how to explain it but it is a sum of opposites that complement each other. Jamaica is a deeply mystical and Christian country at the beginning. Rastas have a very pious philosophy of life but also very anarchistic, against the government and the Church too. A Rasta will never pray in a church, Rastas will tell you that we are each our own god, that’s why there is this notion of “I and I”, which means that each one chooses for himself, beyond the established dogmas. Jamaica is a very mystical country. The girls who dancehall in a sometimes quite provocative way are in reality very prudish, it is only an image.

Can you tell me what you would like people to remember about this exhibition?

I would like them to remember that Jamaica is not only Bob Marley. And that people realize the influence of this island on the world. Twerking is very popular today but dancehall queens have been doing it since the 90s. Miley Cyrus for example is doing all the poses that Jamaican women have been doing for over 25 years. A lot of people go to Jamaica and plunder the heritage a bit. Some pay homage but others just take from it.

Do you think there is a problem of cultural reappropriation? Absolutely. There is a problem of cultural reappropriation, that’s the reason why

we absolutely wanted to work with many Jamaican artists for this exhibition, so that they come themselves to tell us their own history.


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