Despite, or perhaps because of, its glossy finish, Do Good succeeds in delivering a worldly brand of modern roots reggae to an international audience. This is Turbulence’s second album with Minor7Flat5, a label that professes its home to be the world. Indeed, the company shuns any pretensions to cultural or national purity, with its main office in Spain and its recording and administrative facilities in Jamaica and Germany respectively. The signing of Sheldon Campbell, aka Turbulence, first, for his 2003 album Different Thing, and now, for the current release, only lends credence to Minor7Flat5’s determination to break new ground in what otherwise might be a tired genre.
Of course, there are always those who will turn their ears with disdain from any product that strays too far from reggae’s roots, as if their outward mobilization represents some kind of cultural contamination. But the selection from, and reinvention of, received cultural forms, an innovative process Cuban sociologist Fernando Ortiz dubbed “transculturation” in the 1940s, is a fundamental trait of all societies. The difference lies in the HOW of the borrowing. While artists in the United States frequently shy away from truly transculturated mixes by integrating perceivably foreign rhythms in a way that leaves the dominant musical structure intact, Jamaica-based artists tend to celebrate the inherently reciprocal nature of transculturation. When, for instance, Turbulence fuses hip hop and R&B with reggae, all three genres are irreparably altered. Not only does this strategy point to the significance of cross-cultural compromise, but it also performs the uneven relations of power that haunt the reception of world music.
Do Good‘s ninth track, entitled “Move On”, is notable in this context. Though Turbulence maintains as much control over this song as he does his voice throughout the album, he collaborates with Higher Trod Family to create a cacophony that effectively stages and subsequently responds to the West’s co-optation of voices from the periphery. The song’s opening is telling: a symphonic phrase reminiscent of European, classical music symbolically wrests the singjay’s riddims away from Jamaica and toward a world industry that values accessibility. The idea is that the exotic should be punctuated with familiarity or, at the very least, some assurances that music has a universal, and thus a readily understandable, character. Neither Turbulence nor his label disappoints. At the same time, the introduction of dissonance into an album otherwise steeped in memorable beats and riffs speaks volumes about Turbulence’s refusal to be incarcerated by orthodox conceptions of music. The highly regulated and ordered phrases of the classical represents but one option for the artist, especially if he hails from a place called “Hungry Town”.
“Hungry Town” is the poverty-stricken area of St. Andrew, a parish located in Kingston, Jamaica; and, as the press release for Turbulence’s new album indicates, the young artist’s origins are not irrelevant to his music. While it may be true that, borrowing the words of rapper Rakim, “it ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at”, one’s origins are undeniably important. For Turbulence, whose roots are situated firmly in the Rastafarian-reggae tradition, origins are everything. The music may sound modern, but the lyrics reproduce typical Rastafarian themes. In addition to praising Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, Turbulence stresses the importance of positive thinking in the face of oppression and suggests that either a literal or symbolic return to Africa will allow for an escape from the tumultuous circumstances of Hungry Towns everywhere.
It is not that Turbulence does anything new; it is that he does it well. Do Good stands out from its modern-roots-reggae peers. It is, perhaps tragically (in view of its commercial sound quality) too worldly. On the other hand, its very worldliness makes good on the harmonious living to which Turbulence aspires in almost every song. Alternatively retreating from and highlighting the hypnotic reggae beat that provides the foundation for his music, Turbulence also produces enough texture and variety to persuade listeners that change might actually be possible. Campbell’s stage name is doubtless well-earned: his is a mobile, insubordinate response to political and cultural oppression. His best tracks, moreover, are the ones that allow for harmony and discord to occupy the same, riotous space. This is a freedom train you definitely want to board.
// Notes from the Road
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