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Wake the Town and Tell the People
Bob Timm

Wake the Town book cover

Dancehall Culture in Jamaica

by Norman C. Stolzoff (Duke University Press)
paper $19.95, cloth $59.95

This new study of Jamaican music by Norman Stolzoff arrives at an opportune time, when there is a new resurgence in young fans eager for deeper knowledge of ska and reggae history.

That is indeed what makes Wake The Town and Tell the People stand out from the more commercial publications on reggae music. It is at heart an academic research study, by definition characterized by a central thesis or argument. In brief, Stolzoff's central point here is that we can understand Jamaican music more intensely through a revisioning of the term "dancehall." Most casual observers will associate dancehall culture with modern Jamaican DJs and dance music, but Stolzoff asserts that the essential elements of dancehall culture are not new. Dancehall is a specific kind of meeting place and site for cultural formation that has always been a part of Jamaican culture, even pre-dating modern popular music. The "dancehall" is a musical meeting place, which can be traced back to slavery era and which has characteristics which are evident in every phase of Jamaican music.

Jamaican music is a matter of living peformance, where the recorded music is simply one part of a larger equation which also includes the dancehall leader (the DJ or Selector), and the audience, whose participation in dancehall interactions becomes the entry point for the formation of national and personal identity.

Sound like heavy reading? Well, certainly, it is at points. This is definitely not a book to just skim for cool photos or quick factoids. This is a thought-provoking read for serious students of Jamaican musical history, who wish not just to know facts so they can sling them in trivia contests, but also to understand the development of Jamaican music and culture in proper context. It is a decidely necessary book, if only to provoke deeper analysis, discussions or arguments.

Still, this is a decidely colorful and fun book to read as well, with many first-hand accounts and lively stories from various participants in reggae history. By the courtesy of the author, we are able to present some of the many more compelling and interesting passages of this study. I guarantee it will only make you want to read more.

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