By Tymon Smith
According to legend, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the drum and bass-heavy spin-off of reggae that we know as dub music. It was in 1968 in a studio in Kingston Jamaica that a happy accident created the first dub track and in the half a century since the genre has evolved to produce a universal, comforting sound that’s produced legends such as Lee “Scratch” Perry, King Tubby, Augustus Pablo and the psychedelic aural expanses of The Scientist and Prince Jammy to name but a few.
It also provided the basis for the hard-hitting political commentary of Linton Kwesi Johnson and, as demonstrated by the two groups who will perform at this year’s Bassline Fest, a bedrock for re-interpretation far beyond the Caribbean that incorporates brassy, bass-heavy riddims with traditional instruments and diverse languages that’s a fitting tribute to the inclusivity espoused by Nelson Mandela in the centenary of his birth.
Take Dub Inc., for example, a multi-member ensemble from Saint Étienne in France, formed in 1997. The group’s unique mix of reggae sounds and dancehall “toasting” together with elements of African music and the use of a combination of languages including Algeria’s Kabyle have earned them acclaim around the world and created a singular sound that blends a mainstream, pop sound with a vision to bring the voice of France’s post-war, multicultural underclasses to the fore. It’s an infectious mix that’s seen the group win three Victoires du Reggae awards, self-produce six albums and one that’s certain to put that unique smile that only reggae brings to the lips and hips of those who will be lucky enough to see them at this year’s Bassline Fest.
Hailing from the other side of the world, the Oki Dub Ainu Band provide another vision of the unifying power of dub reflected through the traditional sounds of Japan. Lead by the singularly talented and committed sixty-year-old musician and activist for the Ainu people (Japan’s original inhabitants, long marginalised by mainstream society), Oki Kano, the band creates their own distinctive version of the trance inducing rhythms of dub using the traditional Ainu stringed instrument of the Tonkori. To hear the driving build up of the recognisably but simultaneously strange wall of dub through uniquely Japanese instrumentation in a song like Suma Mukar is to recognise the mutability and versatility of the genre as a canvas for the expression of hopes and dreams of repressed peoples everywhere.
From the banlieues of France with their multicultural, multi-lingual, cosmopolitan reimaginings of the idea of what it is to be French to the Kangwa Prefecture of Japan, there’s a dub sound that manages to express both fidelity to the roots of the genre established on the streets of Kingston in 1968 while also finding space for unique re-interpretations and forms of self-expression.
Like its musical forefather, reggae, dub music is alive and well and still able to amaze with its versatility of interpretation and pure ability for unification through the power of the basics – bass, drums and rhythm. If you don’t believe that, come see for yourself and realise how hard it is not to move your hips to the very different but equally infectious sounds of Dub Inc. and the Oki Dub Ainu band on Saturday, May 26.
*The Bassline Fest takes place at Constitution Hill on May 26.