Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Dancehall and church hall

Robert Beckford's 'Jesus Dub: theology, music and social change' (London: Routledge, 2006) offers a 'dialogue between the cultural production of dancehall and theology of the church hall', drawing on his own experiences in African Caribbean Christianity and of sound system culture.

In respect of the latter, Beckford recalls his first encounter with dub courtesy of Coventry's Conquering Lion sound system in the 1970s:

'What immediately struck me when I entered the converted class-room masquerading as an urban dance floor was the sheer intensity of the event. It was corked full of young people and the events were conducted in pitch dark. It was also boiling hot due in part to the reggae dance floor chic of wearing winter coats with matching headwear. However, overpowering all of my senses was what Julian Henriques terms sonic dominance of the sound system. There was a throbbing, pulsing bass line ricocheting through the bricks, mortar, flesh and bones. The sonic power was tamed in part by the DJ's improvised poetic narration or 'toasting' over the dub track. Playing on the turntable was a dub version of MPLA by a reggae artist called 'Tappa Zukie' (David Sinclair). As the DJ 'toasted', the silhouetted bodies moved in unison to the bass line: the heat, darkness and body sweat adding to the sheer pleasure of this Black teen spirit... These rituals of orality, physicality and communality were also acts of pleasure and healing'.

Beckford is also good on the sound systems as means of cultural production: 'Sound systems consist of far more than just turntables and speakers. Such is their size and complexity that they require a crew of people to run them' (operators, selectors, DJs, drivers etc), and 'this is an important point of departure from the current trend in mainstream popular DJ culture where DJs travel with records and play on sets already pre-prepared and with which they have no relationship... As well as being a community, the sound sysyem's division of labour provides an opportunity for artistic development'.

If the theological aspects of the book sound like a turn-off I recommend sticking with it. Beckford attempts the ambitious task of 'dubbing' pentecostalist Christianity with a bit of help from 'Black liberation theologies of the Black Atlantic' (James H Cone, Gutierrez etc.) as well as Paul Gilroy, Deleuze and Guattari.

If you think it's stretching it a bit to describe Jesus as 'a dubbist involved in taking apart and reconstructing. human life and transforming unjust social structures and practices', you should at least be open to having some of your prejudices challenged. It certainly gave me pause for thought and made me a bit more sceptical of the assumption that proliferating black churches are simply a sign of political quietism if not reaction, even more so of the assumption that the leisure choices of white middle class urbanites (arthouse cinemas, restaurants) should always be given precedence*.

(*Obviously I'm referring here to the typical local liberal campaign that goes 'omg that long derelict building is being turned into an African church we must start a campaign to turn it into something we like instead'. I don't dispute that some churches are money making rackets with dubious practices in relation to child 'possession' etc. but that's hardly the whole story!)

1 comment:

Genius Loci said...

A superb post. They all are!