Re-membering Our Caribbean Through a Dub Aesthetic

February 2016

With explicit and poetic references to an African home, a tortuous Middle Passage, and a weary entry into the New World, Burning Spear’s “Slavery Days”—a 1975 reggae classic record(ing)—is undoubtedly a record(ing) of memory and countermemory. The song opens with a question posed by lead singer Winston Rodney: “Do you remember the days of slavery?” His haunting and interrogative lyrics exist in the space between the past progressive and the simple present as they bring forward relics of an African past into newly independent Jamaica. The word remember indicates the recollection of a past experience in the present but attached to a contemporary “you,” “remember” transcends its commonly defined parameters, as no contemporary listener can personally remember the capture, the journey, or the labor of slavery. In his signature gravelly voice, Spear shifts into a pattern of call and response as he moans the song’s first verse, “And they beat us . . .” and the choral vocalists reply with their solemn refrain, “Do you remember the days of slavery?”1 As lovers of conscious reggae music we respond to the rhythm with our bodies. As critics we consciously detect echoes of Kamau Brathwaite and the “survivals of African languages” in Spear’s lyrics.2 The collision of standardized English language rules with the Niger-Congo cultural sources that inform Jamaican nation language (or patwa) is present and heard powerfully against the static history and contemporary reality extant in the country. As a result of these collisions, the critic is rendered unable to definitively say if the absent past-tense indicator “-ed” at the end of subsequent lyrics like “work,” “use,” and “refuse” is meant to evidence a metaphoric slavery in the present or if it is instead evidence of an unyielding cultural memory that is passed down generationally like DNA. As lovers and critics of this music, we nod along to the layered messages, perhaps understanding them in historical context as well as with reference to contemporary situations.

In the space of roughly three and a half minutes, “Slavery Days” takes a linguistic leap away from the abstract and time-static slavery of history books by remembering the centuries of human bondage as a lived experience that continues to haunt the cultural memory of the New World’s African descendants. This remembering, therefore, recognizes the cultural memory or communal archiving of the past that survives in the Caribbean, one that is layered, redefined, renegotiated, and sustained from generation to generation, from colony to postcolony. This is the archive of memory that is the foundation of reggae music, and it is this archive that dub music opens up for critical exploration.

 Before moving into an analysis of Burning Spear’s “Slavery Days” dub, let me take a moment to briefly discuss the origins and definitions of dub music. Music writer John Corbett has noted the semantic link between the word duband the Jamaican word for ghost (duppy), but the term also readily calls forth ethnomusicologist Michael E. Veal’s definition of dub as an emphasis on the sound engineer’s technical doubling of a record into a deconstructed and reconstructed new recording.3 As a musical genre, dub is born from reggae as the altered rerecordings of familiar reggae. This powerfully dynamic music that echoes the past, reflects the present, and anticipates the future in its very production, developed out of the distinct sociopolitical climate of 1960s newly independent Jamaica as a music juxtaposing Kingston’s street violence with new nation optimism, a phenomenon at the time important to the entire anglophone Caribbean emerging out of colonial overlordship to a consideration of different arrangements. Dub’s originators, producers Osbourne “King Tubby” Ruddock and Lee “Scratch” Perry, used the crude secondhand equipment available to them and innovatively deconstructed then reconstructed popular A-side recordings into B-side dubs that offered a unique listening experience never before heard in any studio or dancehall in Jamaica or elsewhere. In more literary terms, one could say that the B-side dub is derivative, a reconstruction of the deconstructed A-side recording that adds to and emphasizes some production elements and mutes others.

Like all classic dub music of the 1960s and 1970s, Burning Spear’s “I and I Survive” (1976) is an active and critical engagement of memory, since it reflects a respectful attentiveness to the past and a keen consciousness for the present. In the case of Burning Spear, each of the tracks on the band’s Marcus Garvey album was dubbed and released four months later on the aptly titled dub album Garvey’s Ghost, a title that, notably, calls forth the haunting experience of encountering what was once familiar in an unfamiliar or unexpected form.4 “I and I Survive” opens with a triumphant abeng-like call of memory. The opening brassy sound is familiar but arresting. It is the same series of notes heard in “Slavery Days,” but it is out of place in our memory. Unsure of what to expect next from the dub recording, the listener’s mind intuitively searches for any familiar footing. The producer has added sonic delays and reverberation, there is a heavier, deeper tone to the kick drum and the bass guitar. The listener continues to search the dub for traces of the original, but the only lyrics that exist in the dub process are “Some of us survive / Showing them that we are still alive.” These two lines—just eleven words—are all that “survive” the dub process, but they show that the original message is “still alive.” Not audible until minute two of the four-minute recording, the brief lyrics are followed by a few seconds of the original instrumentals, then an abrupt shift is heard in the recording, and for a moment the drum and bass are all that one can hear. This aural shift is quick and jarring; it gives the listener the impression that a production error has caused the song to start over from the beginning. Before long the other instruments are brought back into the listening space. Guitars, horns, and tambourines all return, and the keyboard carries the familiar melody of “Slavery Days.” The song comes to a close by way of volume fade-out, leaving the listener with the presumption that the song continues, albeit just out of earshot. In many ways this fade-out echoes the openness of memory that Latin Americanist Juan Flores suggested when he said that “the process of memory is open, without closure or conclusion: the struggle to (re)establish continuities and to tell the ‘whole’ story only uncovers new breaks and new exclusions.”5

“I and I Survive,” as a dub, extends the limits of memory by inducing the more active process of remembering. Put another way, the dub record(ing) transforms the passive listener into an active critic tasked with two difficult jobs: the first is to recollect the silenced words, the rearranged notes, and the deconstructed chords from memory; the second is to respond psychologically, emotionally, and physically to the disorientation of the experience. Therefore, through the dub experience the connections between memory, community, and criticism are not only linked, they are amplified. The deconstruction and reconstruction of “Slavery Days” into “I and I Survive” demonstrates the power of a dub to extract and (re)produce new meaning from the old record. The figurative A-side “Slavery Days” inspires the figurative B-side “I and I Survive,” while the B-side clarifies and makes new the un- and underexplored elements of the A-side. This is how dub music provides what we Jamaicans calloverstanding. And this overstanding is why I propose an aesthetically dub methodology to open up the vast possibilities of memory and countermemory that are archived in Caribbean literature. So beg you likkle space now to show off how my “dub aesthetic” works to identify and analyze intertextual occurrences and disruptions in the familiar yet unfamiliar spaces of more contemporary Caribbean fiction.

The stories captured in Haitian American Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak!resuscitate the heartbeat rhythm of cultural memory and demand re-membering as settings, characters, and themes are hauntingly dubbed throughout the short-story cycle.6 In its title alone, the first of the nine stories, “The Children of the Sea,” remembers Edouard Glissant’s “womb abyss.” And as a Middle Passage dub, of sorts, this epistle recalls both a Walcottian sea vault and a Glissantesque “Open Boat” as it tells the story of Haitian lovers separated and exiled by the terrifying Duvalier dictatorship.7 In fact, if the reader is thinking in terms of a “dub aesthetic,” there is a clear comparison suggested between the title “Children of the Sea,” the slave ship experience, and Burning Spear’s haunting refrain “Do you remember the days of slavery?” With her title, Danticat asks the question in a contemporary situation. But this kind of looking to the past or looking outward to other artists and thinkers is not all that the dub aesthetic encourages. The dub aesthetic also urges critics to explore the internal structures of a text. Krik? Krak!’s final installation, “Caroline’s Wedding,” offers answers to each of the core dub aesthetic components: What is being reverberated? What is being mixed? Whose voice is providing the talk-over? And whose voice is being muted or amplified?

Set in a Haitian diasporic community in Brooklyn, New York, “Caroline’s Wedding” re-members many of the distinct but inherently connected threads of the collection. The story teases the reader’s memory of the previous eight installations in an aesthetically dub way. For example, Caroline’s mother is more than disappointed in her daughter’s choice to marry a Bahamian, and as readers we are led to recall the rumor that a woman onboard the sinking boat in the story “The Children of the Sea” shared when she said, “They treat Haitians like dogs in the Bahamas. . . . To them, we are not human” (14). In another scene that takes place at bedtime, Caroline and her sister Gracina play a free-association game that reminds readers of the wordplay shared by the “daughters of the river” in the story “Nineteen Thirty Seven” (44). And in yet another scene, Gracina wakes from a dream and anxiously writes down everything that she can recall of her deceased father, and the ordeal leads the reader to remember the book’s third story, “A Wall of Fire Rising,” and the young boy who fears forgetting the words of revolutionary hero Dutty Boukman. This list and this analysis could go on and on, but I will stop here to repeat the words of Burning Spear: “Some of us survive.” In Danticat’s final installation, we as readers and critics discover that the written memories of this Haitian cultural memory, this powerful archive built by the author, survives in us because it is re-membered by us. Here the dub aesthetic allows critics to push analysis of this story beyond a question of how multinational citizenship and diaspora living impacts cultural identity to a sharpened focus on the critical role that storytelling, particularly those would-be muted oral histories, plays in maintaining an archive of cultural memory. This overstanding is gained through a conscious application of the dub aesthetic.

The beat of the drum and the pulse of the bass in dub music echo the heart’s rhythm. That dub sound is the womb sound and is the listener’s earliest unconscious memory. The dub sound is, therefore, that which is most familiar to everyone. The layering of the known with the unknown, the familiar with the unexpected, the present with the past creates a Caribbean literary dialogue of a different sort. Dub was born at a particular historical moment and is very much about how the Caribbean understands itself in the present. To analyze literature via the dub aesthetic is to adapt the dub sound engineer’s production techniques of reverberation, mixing, talk-over, and muting into literary tools capable of opening up the fictive-space in the same way that dub music opens up the soundscape. To analyze literature via the dub aesthetic is to read “reverberation” in how the past haunts memory and in the way intertextuality teases memory. It is to honor both the harmonious and discordant “mixing” of cultures, religions, races, and languages that shape Caribbean and diasporic identities. It is to hear “talk-over” in an author’s use of multivocality and the choice to privilege orality, voice, and perspective. It is to recognize the link between muting and mutation—what I term “mut(e)ation”—in the rising voices of previously silenced minority populations of white Jamaicans, queer Caribbeans, and Haitian refugees, to name but a few groups who have suffered under the figurative mute switch.

As I conclude, I cannot help but remember anthropologist and Small Axe editor and founder David Scott’s 1999 interview with Robert A. Hill, founder and editor-in-chief of the Marcus Garvey Universal Negro Improvement Aassociation Papers Project at UCLA. In the interview, Scott speaks to Hill about the important work of collecting and recollecting. “Remembering,” Scott explains, “is a form of putting back together (re-membering) aspects of our common life in ways that make visible what was once obscured, what has been forgotten, what has disappeared from view.” Scott later clarifies the role that criticism plays in these connections between community and memory, saying, “Criticism, you might say, seeks to make contact with forms of ourselves we no longer inhabit so that new ways of apprehending or redescribing the past might enable new ways of grasping or re-imagining the present.”And here, in the space of this discussion, I hope I have offered the dub aesthetic as another “new way,” so to speak, of linking memory, community, and criticism.


Isis Semaj-Hall is a Jamaican-born scholar of Caribbean and African diasporic literature and culture who has taught literature courses at both American University and University of Maryland. Using what she terms an aesthetically dub approach, her interdisciplinary research connects Caribbean literature, music, and culture. Presently, she is conducting research for her book project, “Troubling Harmony: A Dub Approach to Analyzing Contemporary Caribbean Literature.”


1 Burning Spear, “Slavery Days,” on Marcus Garvey, LP (Island Records, US, 1975).

2 Edward Kamau Brathwaite, “History of the Voice,” in Roots: Essays in Caribbean Literature (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), 260.

3 John Corbett, Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994) 129; Michael E. Veal,Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007).

4 Burning Spear, “I and I Survive,” on Garvey’s Ghost, LP (Island Records, UK, 1976).

5 Juan Flores, From Bomba to Hip Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 49.

6 Edwidge Danticat, Krik? Krak! (New York: Vintage, 1996); cited in the text.

7 See Derek Walcott, “The Sea is History,” in Collected Poems, 1948–1984(New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997); Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 9.

8 David Scott, “The Archaeology of Black Memory: An Interview with Robert A. Hill,” Small Axe, no. 5 (March 1999): 80, 80–81.


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