Writ­ing from the echo cham­ber

Jamaica Gleaner - - NEWS -

LEE ‘SCRATCH’ Perry’, the orig­i­nal up­set­ter, has writ­ten a clas­sic pref­ace to Dr Den­nis Howard’s new book, The Creative Echo Cham­ber: Con­tem­po­rary Mu­sic Pro­duc­tion in Kingston, Ja­maica. ‘Scratch’ beau­ti­fully de­fines the essence of the writer’s ac­com­plish­ment: “It is a very good idea for you to search in the dark and find the truth, and when you find the truth in the dark, you bring the truth into the light and ex­pose it to the peo­ple.”

Perry’s vivid im­age – search­ing in the dark for truth – per­cep­tively de­scribes the com­plex process of aca­demic re­search. Feel­ing around for truth can often be very frus­trat­ing. Hit or miss. But it’s a chal­lenge ev­ery scholar must ac­cept. And when you see the light, it’s a mo­ment of pure plea­sure. Eureka! ‘Scratch’ also re­minds us that when we find the truth, we must “ex­pose it to the peo­ple”. And that’s ex­actly what Dr Howard has done in this il­lu­mi­nat­ing book. It re­ver­ber­ates with the sounds of his in­sights.


Perry’s clever use of the sym­bols of light and dark­ness re­minds me of Plato’s al­le­gory of the cave. The Greek philoso­pher tells a scary story. Pris­on­ers in a cave believe that the shad­ows they see are real­ity. If one of them is taken out­side, she would, at first, be blinded by the painful light of day. She would not believe that the ob­jects she will even­tu­ally see are real. Based on her ex­pe­ri­ence in the cave, she will in­sist that only the shad­ows are real.

Once her eyes get ac­cus­tomed to the light, she will start to see the real­ity of her cir­cum­stances. But, here’s the irony: When she re­turns to the cave, she will again be blinded by the dark­ness. And the peo­ple she left there will as­sume that it was the light out­side the cave that blinded her. So they will re­sist all ef­forts to get them to step out­side.

Plato’s al­le­gory is a pow­er­ful warn­ing about how knowl­edge is often re­jected by those of us who don’t want to leave the safety of the cave. What Howard of­fers us in this book is an op­por­tu­nity to ex­am­ine the mu­sic in­dus­try in Ja­maica and to aban­don some of our com­fort­ing il­lu­sions about how it func­tions. Or not.


Howard de­scribes his re­search tech­nique as auto-ethnog­ra­phy. That’s just a fancy term for writ­ing about one’s own cul­ture. All of the el­e­ments of this word come from Greek: Auto means self; eth­nos means a group of peo­ple with a shared iden­tity; and graph means writ­ing.

Mu­si­cians re­ally are a spe­cial breed – a kind of ethnic group. They sleep in the day and work at night. Like bats! But it’s not only up­side down sleep­ing pat­terns that mu­si­cians share. It’s a whole cul­ture of cre­ativ­ity. They of­fer new per­spec­tives on real­ity out­side the cave.

Howard de­fines him­self as a par­tic­i­pant observer in the mu­sic in­dus­try. And he lays out his cre­den­tials. Not his PhD in cul­tural stud­ies from the Univer­sity of the West Indies, Mona. It’s his long ap­pren­tice­ship with his fa­ther, James ‘Jimmy Solo’ Howard, that schooled Den­nis in the fun­da­men­tals of the mu­sic busi­ness.

First, he be­came a se­lec­tor with his fa­ther’s Shang­hai Solophonic sound sys­tem. This pre­pared him to be­come one of the res­i­dent se­lec­tors at the Jazz Hut. Then Den­nis moved into ra­dio, work­ing as a tech­ni­cal op­er­a­tor at the Ja­maica Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion (JBC). So you know how long ago that was. Next, he went into the new area of public­ity.

Then, in 1990, he was ap­pointed pro­gramme man­ager at IRIE FM. At the same time, Den­nis be­came a pro­ducer. Later, he es­tab­lished him­self as an en­ter­tain­ment an­a­lyst on ra­dio, TV and in print. All of this cul­mi­nated in the es­tab­lish­ment of his In­sti­tute of Cul­tural Pol­icy & In­no­va­tion.


Dr Howard is not one of those aca­demics who breathe the rare­fied air of pure the­ory. He has lived in the field of his re­search. His schol­ar­ship is grounded in three decades of ac­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Ja­maican mu­sic in­dus­try. His book will ap­peal to both in­dus­try in­sid­ers and to those of us on the out­side who want to un­der­stand the mu­sic busi­ness in Ja­maica. When you en­ter the creative echo cham­ber, Den­nis Howard has con­structed, you will be en­light­ened and richly re­warded.

The lan­guage of the book is witty, as il­lus­trated in the ti­tle of chap­ter 6: ‘Tek-no-li-gy pro­cess­ing’. Howard de­fines dub tek-no-li-gy as a process of ‘tek­ing’ noth­ing from noth­ing and truth­fully cre­at­ing some­thing new: “It is the only form of mu­sic ex­pres­sion that bor­rowed noth­ing from an­other genre of mu­sic, in terms of method­olo­gies and tech­niques.” And that’s no lie! Just ask Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.

Howard has re­cently been ap­pointed as gen­eral man­ager, Ra­dio Ser­vices at Ra­dio Ja­maica Lim­ited (RJR). In a sense, he has come full cir­cle back to JBC. Of course, JBC no longer ex­ists and RJR isn’t a pub­lic com­pany. We’re in a whole new me­dia land­scape where print, ra­dio, TV and the In­ter­net are polyg­a­mously mar­ried. Some­times quite un­easily. In this kind of en­vi­ron­ment, we need more vi­sion­ar­ies like Den­nis Howard, whose knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence can help take us out of Plato’s cave.

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