Some Words on the Roots of Dub
At the news of the death of two eminent exponents of Dub, Jean"Binta" Breeze and Lee "Scratch" Perry, my mind turned to my own graduate student days and Kamau Brathwaite's counsel on "nation language," his framing of the language of the Caribbean in terms of its Africanity. He was particularly taken with "Miss Queenie," a priestess and practitioner of Kumina, an African Jamaican religion. Brathwaite had consulted with the late Kia-Bunseki FuKiau, leading scholar of Bantu-Kongo civilization, practitioner and teacher, who identified Miss Queenie's liturgical language as KiKongo, language of enslaved Africans and indentured laborers brought into colonial Jamaica from what is now loosely called "the Congo" in West Central Africa. That discovery was one of the important prompts in Brathwaite's efforts to replicate/insert what he called "nation language" into his own work. Here, "nation" in the African context is not what the West thinks of as the nation state, but a people: baKongo, Yoruba, Fon, etc. What Brathwaite was striving for was to free his work from the impositions of a colonial language system—in his case English—which nation language superficially resembled, and to acknowledge, indeed privilege, the subversion, the Africanization of that colonial language by enslaved and, later, indentured Africans. To call the speech rendered as "dialect," he believed, was pejorative.
Kumina is also a drumming style, emerging from those same spiritual ceremonies in Jamaica, and has had a great influence upon Rastafari music—esp. Nyabinghi drumming—ska, and, as they emerged, dub and reggae. But I am talking about dub, not, bless his memory, the poetry of Kamau Brathwaite; and I make this point about language to link music and word as both are characterized in dub. So what is "dub"? It's difficult to pin down. Musically speaking, it evolved out of manipulations of electronic music—recordings, amps, etc.—often omitting voice and featuring drumming. As Kamau would have said, a certain riddum. But with ancestry in Central African spiritual practices. In poetry, it is oral performance, with or without the music, and somewhat unfortunately described as "chanting" by some critics (is this the colonial mind intruding once more?)
Of course, the influence of what the studiously monotheistic West would call "polytheistic" African religions was never as monolithic as the proselytizing of the West. Certain practices, beliefs, spirits or loa (it is not accurate to always refer to such as "gods," again in the Western sense)*—certain practices have influenced and interpenetrated one another. Syncretism is a bit simplistic of a term. Rather, certain elements of a practice make sense and become useful to persons of other practices: for example, Brazilian Candomblé is generally associated with the Yoruba of West Africa; however, Bantu Candomblé implies baKongo practice. Myal, Convince, Kumina in the former British colonies in the Caribbean all incorporate baKongo beliefs, but are also a pragmatic blend of what works for its practitioners.
In short, one cannot talk first of all about Kumina as a musical practice linked to dub without giving credit where credit is due—to the varied spiritual practices which birthed, influenced and nurtured it. Secondly, the fact that the traditions do not spring from a single root is both typical of African cultures and leaves room for change. Thus, while I do not mean to imply a forced and determinedly linear route, such openness to change helps explain the malleability of the form, it's openness to transform itself or remain the same, or both, and the ska to dub to reggae permutations in the "nation music," if I may coin a phrase, of Jamaica.
- Bronwyn Mills
* I say this, also, having been initiated into a vodoun (we do NOT say "voo-doo" as the term is corrupt and considered pejorative)—into an anti-witchcraft vodoun practice which reveres Tron, and traces its origins back to Ghana.
Jean "Binta" Breeze (11 March 1956 – 4 August 2021)
A loss not only to the genre, but also to women in the genre, was Jean Binta Breeze. Mid-August, Breeze died in the UK of chronic pulmonary obstructive disease. Cruel irony that it should be a disease which complicates the breath and thence, the functioning of the heart. Breeze weathered the patriarchal storm to perform dub poetry based on the black woman's experience.
de simple tings of life, mi dear
de simple tings of life
she rocked the rhythms in her chair
brushed a hand across her hair
miles of travel in her stare
de simple tings of life
ah hoe mi corn
and de backache gone
ah plant mi peas
de simple tings of life
Lee "Scratch" Perry (20 March 1936 – 29 August 2021)
At the end of the same month, August 29, Lee "Scratch" Perry, a promoter of Dub and mentor (though by no means the only one) of Bob Marley during the latter's beginnings, died in Jamaica at 85 years of age. Described as a pioneer of Dub music, he was widely known for his influence on reggae. An innovative and notably eccentric producer, under his label, Upsetter Records, he produced, among other songs, Small Axe and Duppy Conqueror by the Wailers. While often confused with the DJ habit of moving a record so it produced a scratching sound (oh the days when there was vinyl!), he apparently got his nickname from an early song he recorded, "Chicken Scratch."
The recording here was made at a festival in Cologne, Germany
I also refer the reader to a superlative series on Dub, "The Strangeness of Dub," presented by the eminently knowledgeable Edward George on Radio Morely, out of the UK. I suggest beginning with Episode 1.