The Year in Caribbean Music

Dancehall, soca, and protests

Although no single dancehall artist or CD dominated 2004 as Sean Paul did 2003, the music remained a presence on the crossover charts. Beenie Man's "Dude" and Baby Cham's "Vitamin S" (recorded on Dave Kelly's joyous Fiesta riddim) spent several weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 while producer Scatta Burell's Coolie Dance riddim was at the core of an unprecedented three simultaneous Hot 100 charting singles (Pit Bull/Lil Jon's "Culo," Elephant Man/Twista's "Jook Gal," and Nina Sky's "Move Ya Body"). However, British gay rights group Outrage's protests against some dancehall deejays' homophobic lyrics clouded Jamaica's musical sunshine. Beenie Man's high profile and the July 2004 release of "King of The Dancehall" (Virgin) made some of his earlier singles primary targets for Outrage's vitriol. Sizzla, Capleton, Elephant Man, Bounty Killer, Buju Banton, and Vybz Kartel also felt Outrage's wrath through cancelled tours and revoked endorsements.

soca asserted itself in the mainstream with St. Vincent's Kevin Lyttle and Barbados's Rupee garnering steady crossover airplay. there was an abundant crop of Caribbean music that lacked record label money or machinery to reach a wider audience; here are ten selections.

1. Tanya Stephens,Gangsta Blues (VP Records). Tanya establishes herself as one of dancehall/reggae's most versatile singer/songwriters: tough yet tender, poetic and sometimes profane.

2. Interpretations and Improvisations,A Tribute to Jackie Mittoo (VP Records). A stellar lineup of musicians, including Monty Alexander and Sly and Robbie, collaborated on this exquisite, entirely instrumental set honoring Mittoo, the Jamaican keyboardist who was a principal architect of reggae.

3. Beres Hammond,Love Has No Boundaries (VP Records). Despite the fact he's never had an American crossover hit (or maybe because of it), Beres is still at the pinnacle of his near 30-year career. Accompanied by lushly orchestrated grooves, he sings straight-from-the-heart lyrics.

4. Richie Spice,Spice in Your Life (5th Element Records). Spice's sing-jay style possesses falsetto sweetness framed with robustness, but it's his emotive expression, poignant observations, and consistently well-written songs that distinguish this release.

5. Bushman,Signs (VP Records). Bushman's rich, rolling baritone evokes reggae legend Peter Tosh. The Rastafari anthem "Lighthouse" and clever imagery on "Creatures of the Night" present a songwriting sophistication barely hinted at on Bushman's previous works.

6. Machel Montano and the Xtatik Road Marching Band, The Xtatik Parade (JW Records). Machel's "No War" makes war protests as intrinsic to Carnival as wining and waving while the raucous "Craziness" should include a disclaimer: "not responsible for the actions of otherwise mild-mannered folk when they hear this song!"

7. Garnet Silk,Music Is The Rod (VP Records). Any artist who could chant biblical verse over a riddim and rule the dancehall with it, at the height of early Nineties slackness, must have been very special. The late Garnet Silk was.

8. Various Artists,The Best of 3 Canal thus Far 1997-2004 (3 Canal Revolution Records). Just as Jamaican dub poets fashioned their lyrical pacing to reggae riddims, Trinidad's Rapso artists deliver rhymes in a calypso/soca cadence. The harmonies and spoken chants of 3 Canal (Stanton Kewley, Wendell Manwarren, and Roger Robert) merge foundation Rapso's politically sharp edge with irresistible upbeat soca.

9. Toots and The Maytals,True Love,V2 Records. Guest stars including Bonnie Raitt, Gwen Stefani, and The Roots duet with Toots on several of his greatest hits, each subordinating to his revivalist preacher-tinged vocals.

10. Various Artists,The Channel One Story, VP Records. The recording studio/label Channel One reigned supreme in the late Seventies due primarily to Sly Dunbar's signature "rockers" drumming style. While this substantial collection defines a bygone era, the music of the Mighty Diamonds, John Holt, The Tamlins and others still hits all the right notes.

 
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