Dancehall by Stuart Baker & Beth Lesser

[14 July 2009]

By Andrew Zender

This is the story of Jamaican neighborhood block parties and the music geeks who crafted the soundtracks to the daily struggles and lives of the people therein. Between Stuart Baker’s deftly detailed accounts of dancehall’s biggest stars, promoters and labels, and Beth Lesser’s fascinating photographs, Dancehall is an intriguing portrait of a rapidly budding form of music and the communities that thrived on it.

This could have been published solely as a work of photojournalism. Lesser’s images are as haunting and provoking as they are inspiring and breathtaking—showcasing communities and a country full of parties and poverty, music and militants, passion and politics, bosses and bling. 

Some of her subjects are plainly pleased at her presence, while others are clearly cautious of this outsider who has ventured onto their turf. Spliffs and suds share space with speakers and selectors, the individuals responsible for sifting through crates of records to pick the tunes for an evening’s affairs. 

DJs and promoters strike playful poses for the shots, displaying their unmatched taste for gold chains, Kangol caps and argyle sweaters, a fashion statement reflecting a style of music less political and religious—and more apt to incorporate digital sounds and instrumentation than their counterparts in reggae. It’s often difficult to discern whether life is imitating the art or vice versa, but one thing is clear: the subjects here are living a life delicately balanced between force and fragility, and poring over these images draws the reader into a world where they can almost share the moment with the photographer.

Stuart Baker’s narrative provides a slightly more challenging lens through which to peer into the intricate details of dancehall’s development. Much of it is an entangled web of DJs, promoters, selectors and other individuals who played key roles in the formation of the genre, as well as distribution and live performances. Focused bios on the most influential artists are peppered throughout the book and provide additional insights into the careers, artistic development and sound of each.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the story is the importance of “dance-halls” and “soundsystems”, a.k.a. backyards, alleyways and P.A. systems—and their functions as outlets for the people of small, impoverished towns in Jamaica. All gathered here, most any night of the week, to hear fresh sounds, beats, DJs, vocalists and other ‘personalities’. 

Music was at the core of the communities, a binding agent that brought folks out of their homes, into the heat, and back into the darkness, where rhythm was the only thing you needed to move through the densely packed crowds. Dancehall sessions were held in the dark, where only a tiny lamp shone at the soundsystem, enough to cast a shred of light onto the faces of the selectors & DJs so they could keep the music spinning. 

But Baker’s story can often be a tough one to navigate through, when the stories are frequently cut up by several pages of photos and mini-bios—but this is only a minor flaw of the book. Dancehall should be packaged with the CD version, where one can hear two discs worth of classic cuts from Tenor Saw, Yellow Man, General Echo, Barrington Levy, Sister Nancy, Eek-a-Mouse and other defining artists of the genre. Fans of Sublime will hear the roots of some of its most memorable tunes in Tenor Saw’s “Pumpkin Belly” and General Echo’s “Arleen”, among countless other beats, samples and riffs heard throughout hip-hop, soul, reggae and rock.

Although Dancehall isn’t about hearing the music firsthand, reading about it will likely spur an aural investigation by readers. Put on some headphones, study the images, and listen to them come to life.

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