Sunday, 10 August 2008

Epiphany June 2007 (web version part of the Wire internship)

Dub Drunk

Web only Epiphany by The Wire's intern Imogen Decordova

The Wire's 17 year old intern, Imogen Decordova, recalls the first time she got drunk on the intoxicating rhythms of Jamaican dub.

Once in a primary school music lesson we were asked to bring in music from different cultures. As my Dad is of Jamaican descent, I asked him for his help in picking out something "genuinely Caribbean". "Ghost Town" by The Specials was one of the first ska-influenced records I can remember hearing; that, and seeing the group perform "Message To You Rudy" on Top Of The Pops 2, was my first introduction to this 'exotic' pop music from across the Atlantic.

No offence to my Dad's undeniably impeccable taste in music, but his recommendation of UB40 wasn't quite the response I had been hoping for, and it wasn't until much later that I'd finally get to explore and learn more about the sounds that came out of the studios and dancehalls of 1970s Kingston, a lesson that began in the somewhat unlikely setting of a scruffy Brighton hostel full of wide-eyed adolescents.

Like most teenagers, the urge to seek independence and have what is commonly known as 'thee best summa eva' was strong. For myself and two friends, this quest began with an aborted plan to stay in the teen holiday Mecca of Newquay in Cornwall. Then, a few months later, during the middle of the summer holidays, the three of us were hit by a wave of spontaneity and decided to book, right there and then, a three night stay in a small hostel in Brighton which we had found via some completely unreliable route.

Sure enough, the hostel conformed exactly to the stereotype of most youth accommodation: communal showers, a communal kitchen (the sink of which one of my friends was to later throw up in), a communal living and dining area complete with the requisite 'ethnic' ornaments. And of course, there was a 'communal' acoustic guitar, on which any lone traveller could strum the blues and sing tales of gap year woe. But what really struck me on entering the living room was the sounds of reggae reverberating through the house. My taste in music had always been fairly diverse and non-specific; I was already partial to the kind of drones and downtuned instrumental riffs issued by the Southern Lord and Hydra Head labels, and my CD collection at the time consisted of groups such as Pelican, The Melvins, Earth and Jesu (more like that of a white, middle American, teenage boy than a mixed race, teenage girl from the South East of England). But back in the hostel, the slow, pulsating rhythms really encapsulated a mood that the house seemed to exude and the sounds subliminally struck a heavy chord with me.

The next day I went music shopping along the Lanes, the warren of tiny streets behind the Brighton seafront that are full of shops selling all manner of kitsch accessories to the town's wandering population of teens, hippies and Goths. Stumbling into a deserted record store, I was confronted by aisles of music just waiting to be consumed by my greedy ears. I'd entered the shop with a vague idea of what I was after (some Roky Erickson, The Ronettes, a surf music compilation), but now I found myself lost among the browser racks, overwhelmed by the choices on display.

As I flicked blindly threw the endless CD sleeves, I became aware of the music that was playing in the background, an insistent, hypnotic pulse that seemed to go on and on. I was desperate to find out what it was, but was too scared to go up to the counter without buying anything. So I grabbed a pitch black box set from the World Music section with the legend 'Trojan' branded across it; I didn't recognise any of the names credited on the back (King Tubby, The Upsetters, Augustus Pablo and Niney The Observer, among others), so I was going purely on gut instinct. After buying the CD I asked the Neil Young lookalike behind the counter what he was playing. In my head I was already thinking it could be the psychedelic, trippy score to Jodorowsky's "Holy Mountain", which had been recommended to me by a crazy Dutch acquaintance, but it turned out to be "a German band called Can".

That Trojan box was to be one of the best buys of my life so far, a generous selection of pioneering dub tracks crammed onto three CDs complete with a brief history of dub printed on the back of each sleeve. I was amused by the names of the tracks, as I'd never before come across a genre that referred to itself so often in the song titles: "Dubbin' & Wailin'", "Long Time Dub", "Freedom Dub", "A Gigantic Dub", and my personal favourite, "Dub On My Pillow". I played the album that evening as a soundtrack to the binge drinking session that inevitably marked our last night at the hostel. Everyone else was more interested in the cheap Croatian alcopop that my friend had stashed in her suitcase, but I was intoxicated by the music, letting it wash over me, and I drowned in the muffled echoes of the hi-hat, imagining each crash of the cymbals was the cold English Channel, interrupting the warm drone of the bass and the thick, foggy atmosphere that enveloped the sweet melodies and harmonies of the voices. The music effectively transported me to another place, and I fell into a conscious hypnotic slumber which, with some help from the alcohol, no doubt, resulted in a form of temporary amnesia regarding the rest of the evening's events.

I recently played some of the tunes to another party of drunk and stoned teenagers, most of them too out of it to care what they were listening to. Being something of a tyrannical control freak when it comes to music, I hogged the music player, selecting tracks by Venetian Snares and Iron Monkey. But it was the Trojan tunes that got the best reception. The sight of a room of pasty-faced, acne-encrusted youths gyrating their hips and bobbing up and down to the alien sounds of The Ethiopians' "Train To Skaville" was something else, and I felt a triumphant grin spread across my face. As I cued up more vintage dub and ska from the Trojan vaults, one party animal came up to me and announced, "It all sounds pretty much the same, I can't differentiate between one track and the next, but that's how I like it."

So if I am ever again called upon to debut some 'genuine Caribbean music' to a classroom of infants, I'll know to drop some Trojan dub and leave my Dad's copy of "Red Red Wine" at home.

By Imogen Decordova

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