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Dubwise: Reasoning From the Reggae Underground

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Klive Walker
Dubwise: Reasoning From the Reggae Underground
Insomniac Press
ISBN 1894663969
Paperback; 292 pages
2005

This is a Trojan horse book, ostensibly about various facets of reggae music under-represented in reggae journalism, but on a certain level really a book about Jamaican jazz. As such, the information in Walker's book is nothing sure of invaluable, particularly about the unjustly obscure saxophonist Joe Harriot and the ska-jazz trombonist Don Drummond. In fact, Walker offers a daring revisionist history of reggae music that more heavily emphasizes the jazz contributions of Drummond than previous reggae histories (which have tended to highlight the American R&B influence).

Another value of Walker's revisionist reggae history is a devout essay on the centrality of women vocalists, the impact of poets ranging from the folksy Louise Bennett to the hip dub poet Lillian Allen, and a decent coverage of reggae in Walker's Canadian homeland.

These praises given, it is this reviewer's obligation to note the unpleasant facts. Walker's book is illogically organized, with a chapter on the Jamaican vocalist Dennis Brown detached from five opening chapters on Jamaican artists, and preceded by chapters on reggae in Canada and elsewhere. Worse, Walker's prose often totters on the bombastic excesses of tabloid journalism. Here are some phrases from the opening of chapter one: "Fat imposing sounds of reggae bass thunder out of the large compound at 56 Hope Road... "The sun's probing rays beam sizzling heat that seems to focus special attention on the ground of the compound." This penchant for melodrama could be forgiven if Walker didn't have the hubris in his final chapter to critique the books of other reggae authors.

This love of bombast also interferes with solid musical analysis. Nearly every Jamaican jazz musician of note in this book ends up being described as the equal to a major US jazz artist, thus negating the radical individuality of these Jamaican figures who deserve analysis on their own terms.

This book solely needed a smart editor instead of a publisher who apparently assembled lively pieces of reggae journalism, laced with jazz insight, into a seemingly capricious order between covers. The publisher is Insomniac Press in Toronto, and a US edition will be soon forthcoming. Any future edition should include an annotated discography, given the rarity of the recordings mentioned. As someone who has championed Jamaican jazz for years, and written about it in my book, A Night in Tunisia: Imaginings of Africa in Jazz, I'm often asked as to where recordings can be obtained. Damned if I know where you can buy Joe Harriott recordings in the US, but if you find any, I bet he'll sound the equal in depth of original expression to Ornette Coleman. So maybe Walker should include sources for disks too.

Nevertheless, this is a welcome, if flawed, addition to histories of Jamaican popular music. If it helps bring back into circulation crucial recordings by Joe Harriott, Cedric Im Brooks, Dizzy Reece, Tommy McCook, Count Ossie, and Don Drummond, it will have performed a glorious service.

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