Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender and the "Vulgar" Body of Jamaican Popular Culture

By Carolyn Cooper. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. 240 pp. $39.95; $15.95 paper.

      Today, the cultures of former colonies like Jamaica are fueling a "reverse colonization" of cultural power centers in Europe and North America, and of the borderless, media- and marketing-linked world of global pop consciousness. This is the thesis of Jamaica's Carolyn Cooper, a professor in the English department at the University of the West Indies, in Noises in the Blood. In these essays on Jamaican popular culture, she plays the "informer," an interlocutor who helps make the meanings and purposes of folk and street cultures accessible to a mainstream public.

      Cooper is a well-known Caribbean literature specialist and newspaper columnist. In Noises in the Blood, she recognizes that, just as cricket, fast food, and Hollywood action movies have become staples of Jamaica's pop landscape, so have expressions of homegrown Jamaican pop culture, especially its music, spread around the world. Mass media have aided this boom, allowing, for example, reggae's Bob Marley to become an international hero by the time of his death in 1981. Jamaican migration to England and, later, to the U.S. and Canada during the island's independence era in the early 1960s had also broadened popular knowledge of its people and their society.

      Cooper notes that their language, Jamaican English, is a fully evolved creole. Among its most important, if ephemeral texts, she examines the works of Louise Bennett ("Miss Lou"), the Burl Ives of Jamaica who has entertained her country's citizens for decades with humorous ditties that comment on local manners and mores. In Bennett's dialect songs, poems, and children's stories, Cooper identifies elements of the deeply expressive language she calls Jamaican that incorporates African-derived words and grammar and in which proverbs play a powerful, semantic role. For Cooper, Bennett's "performance poetry" represents one end of the spectrum of Jamaica's mostly unwritten "oral literature," whose listeners understand its rhymes and identify with its central themes. Among them: the struggle for survival in the face of economic hardship, the battle of the sexes, and the ongoing search for a national cultural identity.

      At the other end of this oral-literary spectrum, Cooper scrutinizes the lyrics of today's "dancehall" singer-DJs, purveyors of the thunderous, post-reggae music that has become the leading sound in Jamaican clubs and a major pop music export. Dancehall is marked by a beat as insistent as that of American gangsta rap; for the most part, it is similarly devoid of melody. "Indeed," Cooper writes, "music is far less important than lyrics in this genre" that attracts hordes of fans to all-night jams. But within the "space" of the dancehall concert, the boasting of charismatic singer-DJs like Shabba Ranks, Yellowman, or Josey Wales reigns supreme.

      Whereas reggae performers like Bob Marley or the late Peter Tosh often sang with idealism about political themes, dancehall DJs celebrate an unabashedly crude culture of "slackness." "Slackness is a metaphorical revolt against law and order, an undermining of consensual standards of decency," Cooper explains. "It is the antithesis of Culture." As dancehall aficionados know, this music provides an anything-goes forum for its mostly male stars to brag about their sexual prowess, denigrate women, revile homosexuals, and indulge in tedious macho posing.

      Acknowledging that "One culture's 'knowledge' is another's 'noise,'" Cooper explains the cultural-historical sources of the dancehall phenomenon (including its devotees' exposure to grade-B shoot-'em-ups that movie distributors routinely dump on "lesser" overseas markets like Jamaica's). But don't look to these essays to make critical (that is to say, moral) judgments about the dancehall's messages, or aesthetic (that is to say, evaluative) judgments about its quality as music. Instead, Cooper focuses on "deconstructing" her various subject "texts," not on assessing their artistic value.

      Noises in the Blood also looks at the dub poetry of such writer-performers as Jean Binta Breeze, Mikey Smith, and Mutabaruka. This "performance poetry," she says, "is a return to the roots of language in oracy" that falls flat on the printed page. Its full impact depends on the personal charisma and interpretive skills of its performers as they incorporate traditional lore from African and Jamaican sources, folk sayings, and proverbs into texts that address familiar, contemporary issues.

      With its history of slavery and colonial rule, its ethnic mix, and its fiercely independent spirit, Jamaica is a microcosm of the multicultural energies from which nation-states of the post-colonial Caribbean were born. And as Cooper notes, even as tiny, "marginal," post-independence Jamaica still strives to define its national identity, its culture's reach far beyond its island borders helps turn history "upside-down as the 'margins' move to the 'center' and irreparably dislocate that center."

      With Noises in the Blood and Cooper's ongoing analysis of indigenous Caribbean cultural forms, the work of artists like Bennett, Marley, the dub poets, and the dancehall DJs have found an intelligent, determined custodian. For Cooper rescues the heretofore neglected folklore, proverbs, music, poetry, and songs that have followed in colonization's wake. They are the vibrant, provocative products of a dynamic, new "New World" culture that is shaking up that of the "Old."

--Edward Gomez

Gomez '79, a New York-based arts journalist and editor, began his career as a cultural affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kingston, Jamaica. He is a member of Duke Magazine's editorial advisory board.

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