Sept/Oct/Nov 2007

Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae

Andy Battaglia


As befits a music invested in wiping itself away, the story of dub has been chronicled in an erratic fashion. Often cited as a precursor to just about everything musical since the 1970s, dub nonetheless subsists officially in the form of footnotes: as an adjunct to reggae, as a foundation for techno and house, as the fundament of a remix culture so pervasive as to go almost unnoticed in the present day.

In Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae, Michael E. Veal, an associate professor of music at Yale University, offers a corrective that focuses on dub as a distinct musical style, as well as a repository for extramusical ideas that incubate within its suggestive aural spaces. The first part of the book places the genre within the complex timeline of Jamaican music. As a product and a process, dub developed during the ’70s and acquired a mystique when it began deconstructing reggae, both as a musical form and as a source of social significance. With the birth of dub, producers and engineers began crafting alternate versions of popular reggae songs, remixing familiar riffs into decaying references and reducing melodic vocal lines to abstract dashes of echo and noise.

These producers and engineers are the stars of Veal’s book. He charts the evolution of dub through different recording studios, where the likes of Sylvan Morris, Osbourne “King Tubby” Ruddock, and Lee “Scratch” Perry manufactured equipment that allowed for the creation of increasingly ineffable sounds. King Tubby, in particular, was a hands-on engineer who wound his own electric coils to expand the bass and the depth of recordings he prized as sounding “jus’ like a volcano in yuh head.” Differentiating between producers’ sounds is not the author’s strength, however, and Veal’s dutiful tracking of names and working methods grows tedious as his limitations at evoking dub’s aural thrills become evident.

Veal’s study proves more valuable when he turns to ideas grown out of dub. From the beginning, the book takes care to survey the genre as a contemporaneous corollary to reggae. At a time when the spectacular rise of Bob Marley made reggae an international phenomenon, dub remained a purely functional music, crafted for sound systems that traveled between dance parties in Jamaican ghettos, apart from the industry and from listeners outside the homeland. As such, dub functions, according to Veal, as the real working sound of a postcolonial culture disposed toward the “diasporic tropes of exile and nostalgia shared to varying degrees by people of African descent in the New World.” He writes compellingly about the “dissolution and distillation of meaning achieved through [the] subtractive textual strategy” of dub and offers a rich survey of the ways in which its ghostly echoes evoke a wordless sense of longing and displacement. He goes on to proffer the music as a sort of aural/oral record of an alternate history, one grounded in unconventional uses of technology and passed down by radical means of remixing.

Veal’s talk of technology places his account within the realm of Afro-futurist studies, but there’s little futurism in his notion of dub as a store of obfuscatory gestures and evolving “versions” of material that undermine traditional practices of historical cataloguing. Veal makes a strong case for dub as an epochal music of rupture and diffusion (“Dub,” he writes, “is gradually evolving into the kind of broadly applied metaphor for early twenty-firstcentury culture that jazz was for the late twentieth”), and his constructive book calls out for old sounds to be heard anew.

Advertisement