Drop Legs

The Dancehall Trickster

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Dancehall can be regarded as a space in which meaning is created and disseminated, and where symbols of the marginalized status of individuals in lower class communities are expressed (in this case, marginalized people make up the majority in Jamaica).  

Dancehall participants narrate their conceptions of self through dance as well as how others parody these performed images.  In this light, like caporeira, dancehall can be viewed as a highly kinetic drama, intertwined with role-play and verbal metaphor—all of which are performance elements dating back to the era of slavery (Alleyne 2006, 157).  Humor and cleverness are ubiquitous in the production of Jamaican dancehall culture, exemplifying the self-conscious nature of human mimicry.  I perceive dancehall practitioners, as modern trickster figures, circumventing dominant social structures through performance as well as mediating old and new forms of music. 

Jamaica, like many other Caribbean islands, continues to create hybridized cultural expressions by adopting and adapting foreign practices.  Sometimes accused of embracing and mimicking Eurocentric musical genres, and eroding ‘traditional’ music, Jamaican dancehall culture reveals that music, dance, speech, and style have evolved into something distinctly hybrid, combing old and new musical elements.  In this case, the trickster emerges as one who defies the laws of tradition, and hegemonic moral codes through the articulation of new styles and ways of being in society.  Specifically, the dancehall trickster reveals the conflicts between competing value systems in Jamaica, namely conflicts concerning gender and morality.  

I have chosen dancehall to illustrate the ways in which activities within the dancehall space have given way to controversies concerning morality.  Clashes of interpretation occur both at the local level as well as the global, although I do not wish to divert this discussion to encompass broader issues of cultural comodification and globalization.  Perhaps there is an intentional ambiguousness in dancehall, something that the dancehall trickster is well aware of.  As the West African god Eshu makes clear, attempts to decode meanings result in ambiguous and partial understandings.  Henry Louis Gates, Jr., whose Signifying Monkey uses Eshu to establish a model of African-American textual analysis, says that at the crossroads “there is no direct access, or contact, with truth or meaning, because Eshu governs understanding” (1989, 41).  In other words, the African aesthetic of double entendres can be found in the dancehall dancer’s tricks.  Like Eshu, the dancehall trickster mixes messages and is both a vehicle for interpretations as well as a source of proliferation of interpretation.

Eshu is about the very process that we go through in order to hear him: the process of communication.  Communication through dance was and remains effective as it keeps meaning hidden from those who do not know the language of the movement.  Street vernacular is embodied in dance expression, binding the dancehall community together with a common language.  While there may be a commonly shared narrative among dancehall practitioners, one which speaks of a history of enslavement, colonial oppression, and cultural collisions, dancehall is multilayered, and meanings continue to change as dancehall is re-interpreted over time and across borders.  It can be said that dancehall tricksters consciously engage in a re-interpreting their culture, cannibalizing cultural influences which are embodied in their dance.




Written by lnbraun

January 3, 2009 at 10:27 pm

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