[Post #3 in my reggae blogging week]
Most dancehall fans will know and remember the song ‘Stamina Daddy’. Not everyone will remember it is Buju Banton singing. The recording is before Buju decided to adopt his signature gruff voice so there is much of his teenager self still in it. There lies the interesting incongruity – the voice of a boy singing earnestly that he is the ‘daddy’ for the girls, the one with stamina, one who will last and last in bed. This hyper-masculine boasting is part and parcel of dancehall. Even on his amazing breakthrough ‘conscious’ album years later, ‘Til Shiloh’ Buju was still performing this ‘stamina daddy’ character. The most romantic sounding song on the album seems at first to be a sweet apology to a lover. But listen closely and you realize that what he is actually sorry about is that his manhood is so very big that it had hurt her in bed. The song is not so much apologizing as it is boasting.
Hush baby hush
Gyal I never know
it woulda hurt you so much!
Of course that word ‘hush’ can be read either as an attempt to pacify, or a harsh command to be silent!
I don’t mean to be prudish (Lord knows I’m not!) but this sort of boasting can become a little disturbing in artists like Vybz Kartel. Kartel sings about the ‘two drops of blood’ he leaves on one girl’s frock after sex, and he warns another that having sex with him will cause her such agony that she will run half a mile in only half a dress.
Not surprisingly, my parents’ generation mostly despair at this new music. They think we have lost something. Beres Hammond tapped into this sense of loss when he sang, ‘Remember the songs that used to make us rock away. Oh those were the days, when love used to reign.’ And you know what — sometimes when you’ve heard too much about stamina daddies and blood on frocks, you understand this longing for a simpler time.
You might dismiss it as just nostalgia, but I have begun to wonder. Did Jamaican music really have something, once upon a time, that we have since lost?
More and more, I think yes. Most definitely.
Now look – that doesn’t mean that today’s music is inferior or rubbish, or even that we haven’t gained. Things are never so easily divided. But just for a moment, without either being too nostalgic for the past, or being too much of an apologist for the present, I want to consider what we may have indeed lost.
I came across a recording of an old ska tune about two years ago, and have since listened to it over and over. The song is called ‘Night Food’ and I found in it something I have never heard in contemporary dancehall or reggae. My apologies – I was trying to upload the version I have, but it never work out.
It is on a CD called ‘Jamaica Mento: Authentic Recording.’ (The editor in me itches to add an ‘n’ on Jamaica and an ‘s’ on Recording! Grrrrr). I bought this CD in a little record shop in North Side Plaza, Liguanea. A more unhelpful album you could not find! It collects some great recordings but never deigns to tell us who exactly is singing, or what year each song was recorded, or any of the usual discographic information you would expect. Perhaps that’s another thing that was lost! I have since discovered that Night Food has been recorded a few times – by Lord Tanamo, by Des All Stars, by Nora Dean, and by several mento bands. I’m not even sure whose song it is originally, and I know that these are not the versions I have.
But anyhow – the story of the song is this: a man has been invited in by a woman to get what she is euphemistically calling ‘Night Food’. What she really wants is sex. The man she has invited in (the singer of the song) is no ‘stamina daddy’ however, nor is he the kind of man who would leave two drops of blood on her frock. Poor thing – he has no idea what she means by ‘Night Food’ and comes in expecting supper. The interaction is hilariously buffoonish. The woman drops hint after hint, but the man just does not get it. Eventually the woman is so frustrated that she runs him away, shocked that there exists a man who does not know what a woman means by ‘Night Food’.
But imagine that – a song sung by a man about his blundering in the bedroom. The singer/narrator makes delightful fun of himself for his virtual incompetence. Could you ever imagine a dancehall song today doing that? A song about our fumblings? A song that admits to the fact that we make mistakes? A song about the fact that we are human? Where does it come from – this need to always over-perform an excessively strong self? Is it to compensate for years of being oppressed? Perhaps. I don’t know.
I once did an interview with a not-very bright scholar from an African journal. In the end it was never published – I got her too upset. She did not like my second collection of poems as she thought it celebrated ‘brokenness’ too much. She said this was not a very ‘black’ thing to do. Here I was thinking that our brokenness was what made us most human, and most lovely.
And perhaps this is what Jamaican music has lost – the permission to be vulnerable, or to just laugh at ourselves. And you know what? If we have really lost this – bwoy o bwoy, that is a seriously impoverishing thing fi real.