Michael Veal - Dub:

Michael Veal - Dub: Soundscapes & Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae (Wesleyan University Press, 2007)

Dub music is a subgenre of reggae that has often been immersed in mystery. Many of the dub albums that began emerging in the 1970s had little in the way of liner notes and sometimes appeared without jackets or even track listings. The mystery was compounded as many of these records had small runs. Enthusiasts tended to purchase what was available to them, since seeking specific recordings often proved difficult or impossible. Every collector of dub seemed to have one or two albums that no one else had. Some of the confusion began to be cleared up when labels like Blood & Fire began to reissue dub albums on CD in the mid-1990s. However, reissues could also add to the vagueness of dub as albums were grouped together, given different names, or were sometimes issued with new artwork. Even in terms of music writing, it has been very difficult to find information on dub other than sporadic magazine articles (a few exceptions being the Small Axe/More Axe series, Luke Ehrlich’s groundbreaking chapter in Reggae International and, more recently, a very helpful section in the Rough Guide to Reggae). Fans of dub music will be thrilled to learn that there is finally a book dedicated to the genre. Michael Veal’s Dub: Soundscapes & Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae goes a long way in tracing the trajectory of dub music from the early 1970s to the present. The book looks at many of the key dub engineers and considers how both technology and the political economy of the Jamaican music industry shaped dub.

Veal does a particularly good job in noting the connections between dub and sound systems in Jamaica. He observes that the original intention was either to extend songs or to provide the space over which deejays could chat or rap. In other words, compiling albums of dub music for overseas consumption was only one part of its many functions. There is also an examination of the whole idea of recycling rhythms and the notion of revisiting classic rhythms time and again. This is tied to both the particulars of aesthetics and to economics. Of particular interest is the way in which Veal looks at the evolution of sound equipment in recording studios – how the smaller studios purchased the old gear of larger studios when they upgraded and how engineers would find ways to modify, enhance and generally exceed the limits of their equipment. Veal is particularly engaging when he repeatedly makes comparisons between dub engineers and painters. Unlike musicians, dub mixers are making art from pre-exiting materials – a form of creation that is linked to improvisation and collage. Veal offers such vivid descriptions as, “Operating upon a continuously unfolding ‘canvas’ of drum & bass, the engineer throws up a brief snatch of piano, a few seconds of organ, a bit of guitar, and a dash of singing, modulating and blending the ‘colors’ (frequencies) through the use of reverb, equalization, and other sound processing.” As descriptive as some of Veal’s passages are, the book is made stronger by the fact that he doesn’t get overly bogged down in the biographical details of the remix engineers he describes. If there are biographical works already available – for instance, Dave Katz’s book on Lee Perry or Beth Lesser’s work on King Jammy – Veal sites them and quickly moves on.

One of the most engaging aspects of this work is Veal’s sections on the social, historical and theoretical aspects of dub. There are a number of interesting links drawn between the sounds of dub and the African Diaspora and, more specifically, postcolonial (or arguably neo-colonial) Jamaica. Veal makes links between the Rastafarian-associated notion of ‘back to Africa’ and the idea of echo, reverb and audio fragmentation. The contention is that Africa is a living memory – even if that memory is disjointed or full of absences. According to this train of thought, dub is in part a reconstruction or perhaps a re-imagining of Africa. Veal also takes this idea forward in time in a section on ‘Afro-futurism’ which draws comparisons between dub artists and performers such as Parliament and Sun Ra. Clearly, this idea of an anticipated and africanized space age future – where one can escape both body and planet - can be heard in the sound effects and iconography associated with dub. In other words, dub could at times present an alternative conception of space – a dream of both the past and the future. Veal also successfully picks up on how many neo-dub artists such as Rhythm & Sound have continued in this vein of dub. There is also an interesting parallel drawn between dub and magical realism. To his credit, Veal doesn’t overstate his more theoretical claims – being content to introduce links and associations as hypotheses rather than absolute conclusions.

As engaging a read as this book is, it is not without its frustrating moments. For instance, the section on the connections between reggae and punk contains errors (chronology of recordings and dates of releases) that could easily have been avoided. The same section would have benefited from looking at some of the post-punk groups who didn’t play reggae but who clearly adopted musical ideas from dub – the hugely influential band Gang of Four being a good example. As well, although Veal alludes to dub lp cover art on a couple of occasions, he never fully analyzes it. This is a shortcoming especially as he could have backed up many of his points about the content of dub by considering lp jackets. Perhaps the least developed area of the book concerns the shift from dub being a localized style designed for Jamaican dancehalls to being a commodity sold outside of the island. Although Veal makes links to psychedelic music and punk aesthetics, it is never clear exactly what forces are at work during this transition – it just seems to be taking place in the background. And if, by the late 1970's, dub is primarily being made for external markets, I’m not sure what this says about Veal’s social and historical theories. One is also left wondering about figures such as Keith Hudson, Peter Chemist and Soljie Hamilton – who are they and how do they fit into this story? There are also a couple of terms that are confusing – in particular the idea of ‘showcase’ albums – a term which Veal seems to associate with any album that has both vocal and dub cuts (I always assumed the word referred to lps that had the dub cuts immediately following the vocal tracks). Perhaps the most puzzling absence of all – especially as Veal continuously considers the technology associated with dub production – is the lack of any mention of the role played by 12” singles. How did these longer playing and better sounding discs (which arrived during the peak of the initial dub era in mid-1970s) change the way dub was recorded, distributed and marketed?

In spite of these few reservations, Dub: Soundscapes & Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae is a significant work. Like dub itself, both its content and absences provoke additional thought. While it would have been impossible to cover all aspects of dub, Veal does a fantastic job of opening a vigorous dialog on the subject. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in either the genre or its many offshoots. Veal’s accomplishments are especially significant given the difficulty associated with writing the first book on a complex and sparsely covered topic. In an area of music that has had relatively little print coverage (and what little there is in the way of album liner notes has been notoriously inaccurate) any author who takes on the difficult task of making distinctions between specific engineers and studios is to be commended. This achievement is compounded as Veal manages not only to describe the music but also to insert it into a number of shifting contexts. To the author’s great credit, the book works as either an introduction to dub or as a valuable source of information and analysis for the genre’s seasoned fans.

Jim Dooley