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'It's Just Commodified Sound' - Seretse Small on What Dancehall is Losing and Making Meaning With Music

Seretse Small talks 'Life and Music' at the Soul HQ in Stony Hill,

The cool night breeze settling over Stony Hill, Jamaica, carried with it word and music as guitarist, music entrepreneur and band manager Seretse Small riffed vocally and musically on life music and their intersections. The occasion was the July installation of the mind and music jam session staged by Sound Of Life (SO((u))L) at their Stony Hill headquarters and Small talked about Jazz, Reggae and Dancehall and music as an expression of life and the making of meaning.

When Susumba entered the venue, Small was in the midst of discussing how Jazz sound was fueled by and reflected the sounds of Black life in America in the early 20th century. He was accompanied by Othneil Lewis on keyboards and Dwayne Livingstone on bass. As he spoke he tapped out and/or strummed the beats on the guitar explaining how the sounds of people, trains, and the hollers fed into the rhythms and tempo that created Jazz. He also explained that the suits and ties  donned by musicians was no mere accident but an assertion of their humanity in the face of racial politics. 

"It was such a revolutionary statement," he said, "And it [Jazz] became one oSeretse Small takes a question from audience during Life and Musicf the greatest contributions to American culture and of America to the world,”

While marvelling that now many Jamaicans considered Jazz to be “white people music” he turned to our own sounds.

"I've always thought Dancehall was music," Small said, pointing to the mechanics of composition and rhythm that make it so. "The academic me would say, yes it’s music." However, in his own revolutionary statement, he then remarks that his experiences after three years of touring with Danchall superstar Sean Paul, he changed his position.

"It's just a commoditized sound," Seretse Small said. He went on to explain that there was some music going into what was being created in the studios and that there is a much "sound organization", however, Dancehall he said, but was beginning to lose the expression of life through the sound. "It's bereft of a certain artistic or cultural force," Small argued.

From this denouncement of contemporary dancehall Seretse Small segued to the King of Reggae with particular focus on 'Exodus', which he declared had nothing to do with Reggae.

"He [Marley] was going for a concept, and he used whatever sound vocabulary was a available to him," Small explained noting how different styles of music and even film filtered into Marley’s work. “He was not a genre man. He was into expressing an idea." The discussion was followed by a jazzy rendition of Exodus.

A comment from the audience, suggesting Jamaica’s music landscape could benefit from his ideas filtering into the industry moved the discussion to money versus value.  Small noted that what the country needs a space where artists can focus on art for art’s sake.
Othneil Lewis (left) and Elise Dash
"We’re not yet at the place where we can have that," he said "we keep telling ourselves that we need money. That Black people need money. I don't need money, I need value,” said. He explained that the drive for money without understanding a or valuing yourself and what you had to offer leads to the relentless pursuit of genre despite what you have to offer.

Small invited Elise Dash, a budding songwriter to join him. Dash delivered her contemplative ‘Too Late’ a song of life and death. The performance presented an added appreciation of how musicians worked together showing them building the sound as they played the unrehearsed piece.
Members of the audience sit and soak in Small's music and thoughts
As the night wound to a close, Small, regaling delightful anecdotes, talked about the ritualized elements of Reggae and Dancehall and his misunderstanding of that in his youth which caused him to be unable to play some of the basic sounds and rhythms.

"We have internalized ritual in music in a way that I can't say I've seen elsewhere," Small said, he showed how the distinctive ‘chengeh’ of Reggae connects the guitar to the grater. "My mistake was I thought of it like a guitar," he said, "But jamaican music is always a drum circle and if you don't get the drum circle right it doesn't work." "You have to feel the drum the drum in it."

He explained that Reggae appears deceptively simple but has a complexity that is connected to its ritualistic elements, which are wrapped up in the music’s umbilical chord to Jamaican traditional drumming and West African musical traditions.

"We have this hidden language that is embedded in the music. And it’s sad that we're losing that."

The night ended with an impromptu music composition as drawing on the emotive suggestions of the audience Small led Lewis and Livingston in a piece on love, injustice and rage ending an intriguing night on life and music.