Writing from the echo chamber
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.