Erin MacLeod is the author of Visions of Zion: Ethiopians and Rastafari in the Search for the Promised Land. She writes about culture and music and teaches at Vanier College in Montreal. (May 2019)

NYR DAILY

Dancehall: Raising the Voices of the Dead

Chris Wayne performing with Sugar Minnott’s Youth Promotion soundsystem, Jamaica, 1985

In the 1970s in Jamaica, soundsystems would clash using vocalists performing over instrumental rhythms on systems built from the ground up, using an ingenious hodgepodge of materials put together by arguably some of the most innovative sound engineers in musical history. At that time, soundclash meant that soundsystems would quite literally be killed—their speakers blown, amps shot, vocalists unable to continue. As clash has developed, performances have become less important and pre-recorded music has increasingly dominated, from 45s to CDs to other portable and digital formats. But the emphasis has always been on having music that can score a fatal blow, and it is the crowd that decides who’s left standing. Today, rival sounds will use the same system when they compete, but they bring their musical libraries and the ever important “dub box,” full of a soundsystem’s prized “dubplates.” It is also on a dubplate that we move beyond discourse and metaphor, toward actual traces of the past, voices from beyond the grave.