Jamaican artist’s free-ranging vocals mixed with bottom-heavy rhythms signals a new trend in reggae.
In Steamers a Bubble, a song describing the vibe of a Jamaican recording studio yard, Jah9 (Janine Cunningham) lays out a vivid scene complete with coconut bongs, nonstop music and all-day camaraderie.
Based on the classic early 1980s Channel One Studio rhythm called "Apartment", there is a nostalgic familiarity to the languid pace, the chugging rhythm guitars and the deep, rolling bass line.
What makes the track modern, however, has nothing to do with production but everything to do with the artist's delivery. Although espousing the same philosophical concepts as her predecessors such as Burning Spear or Black Uhuru, her diction and phrasing suggests that Jah9, who will be performing this weekend at the Bassline as part of the Arts Alive festival, is taking her cues from more recent cultural phenomena.
All of Jah9's songs, including those found on her new album New Name (a collaboration with selector-turned-producer Rory Gilligan), are a revelation about how creatively the Rastafari lifestyle can be advocated, even within the usual tropes such as the questioning of organised religion, the celebration of ganja smoking and the love of self.
But as Jamaican music tends to evolve in cyclical waves, with one extreme giving way to another every few years, Jah9's art and that of her peers such as Chronixx, Kabaka Pyramid and Protoje can be read as a direct response to some aspects of dancehall culture –a culture that, in recent years, had become a vehicle for promoting social taboos such as skin bleaching.
"It's different now in terms of Rastafari," says Jah9, in a Skype call with Gilligan from Jamaica. "The youths have more in common now, whereas before some would say ‘Rasta' but were not promoting the livity [lifestyle]. Now in the language and how we communicate, I would say this is a more divine kind of wave. Which is not to say better, but in terms of the commitment we have to Rasta [it's stronger]."
Jah9 speaks of this current crop of artists, which includes others such as Pentateuch, Raging Fyah, Jesse Royal and Kelissa, as increasingly "moving as a collective" that is "owning our movement".
One of the more prominent among the group, 20-year-old Chronixx, was recently described by Jamaican journalist Winford Williams as having a fan base that appears to have no demographic or cultural boundary. Although having recently completed a self-funded European tour with his band, Chronixx's first hit, Behind Curtain, actually made waves in Kenya last year before being picked up in Jamaica.
Gilligan, who is Jah9's selector and producer, as well as a cornerstone of Jamaica's Stone Love sound system, says there's usually an eight-month delay between the release of a "conscious" song and its breakthrough in the dancehall, which he attributes to "selectors's fear", where radio DJs are "afraid of enhancing" the scope of their playlist and end up playing the same songs over and over again.
Gilligan, who began playing with the Stone Love sound system as ?a teenager in the early 1980s, is credited with patenting the prevalent style of dancehall selecting known as "juggling", which journalist and ?DJ Edwin Stats described as a schizophrenic aesthetic incorporating "the beat-matching of club and ?hip-hop DJs, [and] smooth radio jock patter instead of [the] more war-like yelling on the mic and dubplate specials", which excluded live artists.
Local reggae selector Admiral, who had the honour of playing at Stone Love's Weddy Weddy dance in Kingston, Jamaica, last year, says that when he started listening to Stone Love cassettes in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Stone Love started doing something he'd never heard before.
"At that time, dances were run in such a way that a DJ [a vocalist in dancehall culture] would introduce the music, then the selector would play the instrumental version and then the DJ would say some lyrics," says Admiral.
"What Rory and Wee Pow did was they would mix on the decks and play [mainly] dubplates, whereas other sound systems were still playing dubplates and commercial tunes. As soon as they did that, other sound systems had to change because the crowd went for that."
Admiral says that, in the 1990s, when hip-hop and classical hybrids were unheard of, Gilligan and his crew would throw on music by Russian classical composer Tchaikovsky in the middle of a dance, "just to be different … The juggling style, the way sounds are playing now, is a direct result of Stone Love."
The pairing of Jah9 with Gilligan suggests that, perhaps philosophically, the distance between roots music and dancehall is an imaginary one.
As Sizzla, one of Jah9's early influences, proved when he spearheaded a conscious dancehall movement in the mid-1990s, it's possible for the two styles to meld. But Jah9 calls the music she creates with Gilligan "jazz on dub", a reference to both her free-ranging vocal style and the bottom-heavy, enveloping rhythms orchestrated by Gilligan, who played at the African Storm bash at the Bassline in Jo'burg on Thursday night.
For local promoter Langa Mancunga of LMN Entertainment, who has been curating poetry events for Arts Alive since 2005, Jah9 is an important addition to this year's programme as he is always looking for interesting combinations of poetry and music. "I was looking for something fresh, as we had seen the likes of Mutabaruka a few times. I did a bit of research on her and it fit the poetry complement for Arts Alive when I found out that she started out as a poet, performing as a student in Kingston."
He believes that Arts Alive provides the perfect platform for Jah9 to interact with other young writers and for younger poets to see the possibilities of the art form. "Artists like Natalie Stewart [from former British R&B duo Floetry, who is a part of this year's line-up] have won Grammies, so it's important for them to see that it's happening," he says.
Mancunga says, although the poetry scene has always remained active, despite peaking 10 years ago, it would continue in an upward trajectory if young event programmers, managers and promoters could receive more support from local arts bodies to get a feel for what is happening internationally.
This year's Arts Alive Speak the Mind line-up for September 6 and 7 at the Bassline in Newtown, Johannesburg, also includes Jitsvinger, Ntuthu Ndlovu, Dejavu Tafari, Makhafula Vilakazi, The Monkey Nuts (Zimbabwe) and The Last Man (Swaziland). Jah9 performs solo on September 6 and with Gilligan on September 7. For more information please visit www.artsalive.co.za