Lecturenote on Dancehall

Introduction: Origins and Historical Context

Dancehall, named after Jamaican dance halls where local sound systems played popular recordings, originated in the late 1940s. This genre began among the inner-city communities of Kingston, such as Trench Town, Rose Town, and Denham Town, providing an avenue for Jamaicans who could not access the dances held in the more affluent parts of town. As a precursor to Hip-Hop, Dancehall is deeply rooted in Jamaica’s social fabric and reflects the dynamic cultural exchanges within the island.

Political Influence on Lyricism

The evolution of Dancehall’s lyrical content is closely tied to Jamaica’s political landscape. In the late 1970s, the transition from Michael Manley’s socialist government (People’s Nationalist Party) to Edward Seaga’s more capitalist-oriented Jamaican Labour Party signaled a significant shift in musical themes. The earlier Roots Reggae, with its focus on social injustice, repatriation, and the Rastafari movement, gave way to lyrics centered on dancing, violence, and sexuality, aligning more with local tastes and live performances by sound systems.

Toasting: The Precursor to Rap

Toasting, a style of rhythmical talking or “rapping” over music, became a hallmark of Dancehall. DJs, or toasters, would engage audiences by talking over the breaks in songs or between tracks, a technique that has influenced many contemporary rap artists. Busta Rhymes, for instance, continues to employ this style, showcasing the enduring legacy of toasting.

Rise of the Deejay

From 1970 to 1981, deejay records began to overshadow those featuring traditional singers. This period saw the emergence of sound clash albums, where rival deejays or sound systems competed for the crowd’s favor, often with a backdrop of documented violence. Deejays like Yellowman and Eek-a-Mouse opted for humor over aggression, with Yellowman achieving significant popularity and becoming the first Jamaican deejay to sign with a major American record label.

Pioneers and Female Deejays

The early 1980s marked the rise of female deejays in Dancehall, with artists like Sister Charmaine, Lady G, Lady Junie, Junie Ranks, Lady Saw, Sister Nancy, Patra, and Shelly Thunder making significant contributions. These women broke gender barriers in a male-dominated industry, with Patra gaining international acclaim and influencing subsequent female artists with her distinct style and empowering persona.

Digitalization and Riddims

The advent of digital recording revolutionized Dancehall, with the “Sleng Teng” riddim becoming a seminal hit and being used in over 200 recordings. This shift towards synthesized music marked a departure from traditional Jamaican sounds, creating a new wave of deejay-led, electronic Dancehall music.

Dancehall Dance: Cultural Retentions and Innovations

Dancehall dance, a vibrant expression of Jamaican culture, combines African retention dances with contemporary influences. It has been a significant cultural export, restructuring to appeal to international markets. Dancehall remains a crucial industry in Jamaica, informing various other dance styles and predating Hip-Hop culture. The movements in Dancehall draw heavily from traditional Jamaican dances like Kumina, Nyabinghi, and Maroon roots, maintaining a reggae “feel” or “pulse.”

Traditional Dance Forms Influencing Dancehall

Dancehall draws from 16 rhythmic genres, many with African origins. These include:

  • Maroon (African/Koromanti)
  • Myal (healing dance/related to yanvalou)
  • Kumina (African)
  • Revival (African/Gospel)
  • Rastafari (African)
  • Junkanoo (African)
  • Hosay (Muslim…Hussein)
  • Bruckins (African)
  • Burru (African)
  • Dinki Mini (African)
  • Ettu (African)
  • Gerreh (African)
  • Gumbay (African)
  • Quadrille (European/African)
  • Tambu (African)
  • Zella (African)

These dances, often religious, have evolved over time, with some like Junkanoo retaining their original styles. Each genre offers a rich vocabulary of movements, influencing Dancehall’s dynamic and diverse expressions.

Detailed Descriptions of Key Traditional Dances

  • Bruckins: A creolized dance reflecting African and European influences, performed historically to celebrate Emancipation Day.
  • Burru: A fertility masquerade from Clarendon, characterized by hip rotations and intermittent jumps.
  • Dinki Mini: A celebratory dance from St. Mary, performed after deaths, featuring suggestive pelvic movements and high leaps.
  • Ettu: A social dance from Hanover, involving elbow and shoulder movements, with roots in Yoruba traditions.
  • Gerreh: Similar to Dinki Mini, this lively dance from the night after a death emphasizes hip movements.
  • Gumbay: A healing dance from St. Elizabeth, involving long steps, body vibrations, and acrobatic feats.
  • Jonkonnu: A mime and folk theater fusion with specific characters, each with unique choreographies.
  • Kumina: A religious dance from St. Thomas, significant for its African cultural retentions.
  • Myal: An old dance associated with religious observance, featuring extensive body movements and acrobatics.
  • Quadrille: A coupled dance with three styles, reflecting both European and African elements.
  • Tambu: An entertainment dance involving rotating hips and shuffling steps.
  • Zella: A rarely heard dance similar to Dinki Mini, part of death rituals in Portland.