Book Review – DanceHall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto

About the Book:
DanceHall combines cultural geography, performance studies and cultural studies to examine performance culture across the Black Atlantic. Taking Jamaican dancehall music as its prime example, DanceHall  reveals a complex web of cultural practices, politics, rituals, philosophies, and survival strategies that link Caribbean, African and African diasporic performance.

Combining the rhythms of reggae, digital sounds and rapid-fire DJ lyrics, dancehall music was popularized in Jamaica during the later part of the last century by artists such as Shabba Ranks, Shaggy, Beenie Man and Buju Banton. Even as its popularity grows around the world, a detailed understanding of dancehall performance space, lifestyle and meanings is missing. Author Sonjah Stanley Niaah relates how dancehall emerged from the marginalized youth culture of Kingston’s ghettos and how it remains inextricably linked to the ghetto, giving its performance culture and spaces a distinct identity. She reveals how dancehall’s migratory networks, embodied practice, institutional frameworks, and ritual practices link it to other musical styles, such as American blues, South African kwaito, and Latin American reggaetòn. She shows that dancehall is part of a legacy that reaches from the dance shrubs of West Indian plantations and the early negro churches, to the taxi-dance halls of Chicago and the ballrooms of Manhattan. Indeed, DanceHall stretches across the whole of the Black Atlantic’s geography and history to produce its detailed portrait of dancehall in its local, regional, and transnational performance spaces.

Black musics and their corresponding practices have deeper continuities than movement, musical and celebratory patterns. Crucially, these continuities have not been explored by research conducted within such disciplines as ethno-musicology, geography or cultural studies. This paper expands data (gathered over twelve years’ participation in Jamaica’s Dancehall performance and over five years of research), and analyzes its applicability to other Black performance genres. Essentially, by analyzing Dancehall’s macro and micro-spatialities, spatial categories, philosophies and systems were revealed, thereby delineating what this author identifies as performance geography. It is the delineation of performance geography within black performance practices from the middle passage slave ship, as in Limbo, the slave ship dance, to urban ghettoes as in Kingston’s Dancehall and South Africa’s Kwaito that occupies this paper. It sees performance geography as an integral and unexplored dimension of cultural studies and cultural geography and expands the definitions of cultural geography and performance studies to include the way people living in particular locations give those locations identity through performance practices. More specifically, I see performance geography as a mapping of the locations used, types and systems of use, politics of their location in relation to other sites and other practices, the character of events / rituals in particular locations, and the manner in which different performances / performers relate to each other within and across different cultures.

Music is constantly changing and evolving through the years. “DanceHall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto” analyzes the development of DanceHall, which has both spawned a cultural movement as well as a new genre and effect on music. The styles it developed from range from American blues to reggae, and how it is linked strongly to the Jamaican ghettos of today. With connections to the growing black culture overall throughout the Americas, “DanceHall” is a fascinating and scholarly look at the music and its tie to Jamaican culture. – By  Midwest Book Review

“DanceHall is a fascinating and scholarly look at [dancehall] music and its tie to Jamaican culture.” – The Midwest Book Review “Stanley Niaah’s knowledge of the elements of dancehall over the last two decades… is firsthand and encyclopaedic. Much of the value of this book is to be found in the way it documents the details of a culture so swiftly moving that it can seem impossible to document at all.” — The Caribbean Review of Books

About the Author:
The inaugural Rhodes Trust Rex Nettleford Fellow in Cultural Studies (2005) and a Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of the West Indies (UWI) at Mona, Sonjah Stanley Niaah has been teaching and researching Black Atlantic performance geographies, ritual, dance, popular culture and the sacred, cultural studies theory and Caribbean cultural studies for many years. She is the author of Dancehall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto (2010, University of Ottawa Press), and editor of “I’m Broader than Broadway: Caribbean Perspectives on Producing Celebrity’ (Wadabagei, Vol. 12: 2, 2009). Stanley Niaah is a leading author on Jamaican popular culture, and Caribbean Cultural Studies more broadly, having published over twenty articles and book chapters in numerous journals and edited collections locally, regionally and internationally. Dr Stanley Niaah currently serves as Vice Chair of the international Association for Cultural Studies for which she coordinated the first conference held in the Southern Hemisphere at the UWI in 2008. A Jamaican nationalist and Caribbean regionalist at heart, she is involved in efforts to promote national and regional development through her work as Assistant Chief Examiner for the Caribbean Examination Council Advanced Proficiency Examination in Caribbean Studies, and her service on the board of the Museums Division of the Institute of Jamaica. She is the Editor of Proudflesh: Journal of Afrikan Politics and Culture, Associate Editor of Wadabagei: A Journal of the Caribbean and its Diasporas, and serves on the editorial boards of serveral others.

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