Nuns and sound systems: A voyage into Jamaica’s dancehall culture


[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Ben Etherington writes about the roots, influences and important figures in dancehall through the decades, beginning with the influence of Sister Ignatius Davies and Alpha Boys on rocksteady, ska, and reggae. He interviews performers, such as Yellowman, Shakespeare, and Beenie Man, and cultural commentators such as Sonja Niaah and Annie Paul. Below are just a few excerpts—I highly recommend the full article and listening to the full program.

“Every night of the week, multiple dancehall parties are held in Jamaica’s capital Kingston: starting at around midnight, peaking at 4:00am and disbanding at dawn. The scene not only empowers the people of the city’s poorest districts, it also creates a local economy,” writes Ben Etherington.

Picture a group of Jamaican teenage boys standing around a pair of speaker towers, taking turns DJ’ing and singing. Off to the side stands the person who supplied the decks—a diminutive woman in her 60s, wearing a nun’s habit. Sister Ignatius Davies was known as the Mother Teresa of reggae. For generations, she was the head of Alpha Boys, a school for boys at risk, established in central Kingston by the Catholic Church in the 19th century. Under her guidance, a stream of brilliant musicians emerged from the school, many of them becoming foundational figures in the distinctive genres that have made Jamaican culture famous—rocksteady, ska, reggae and contemporary dancehall. It’s a quintessential Jamaican story—poverty and virtuosity combining to produce idiosyncratic cultural icons and local legends.

[. . .] We learned about Sister Ignatius’s Saturday afternoon sound systems from Yellowman, who we interviewed at his house in the hills of Kingston. Between shooting hoops in his Lakers jersey and recording shout-outs, Yellowman described the thorough musical apprenticeship that Alpha Boys receive in the latest styles of Jamaica’s continually evolving music scene.

The genius of Sister Ignatius, who died in 2003, was to embrace rather than moralise about the culture of Jamaica’s streets. She validated the place that her boys came from and gave them real skills with which to earn a living.

These days it’s not so much about reggae, but dancehall, the music that plays day and night on the streets of Kingston. As well as empowering the people of the poorest districts, dancehall creates a local economy. Every night of the week, there are multiple dancehall parties around the city, starting at around midnight, peaking at 4:00am and disbanding at dawn. Thousands of Kingstonians make their living in this cultural ecosystem, and across the city the bass rumbles from dozens of speaker towers pulsing through the night. [. . .]

[. . .] Many parties take place in areas with high levels of violence, and yet the scene as a whole is relatively safe. Annie Paul, an influential commentator on Jamaican culture, told us how the drug lord Dudus Coke had been instrumental in setting up Passa Passa, the first downtown parties to draw patrons from the wealthier uptown because he guaranteed its security. [. . .] ‘This is a space where the people who are the bottom of society are totally comfortable,’ said Paul. ‘They’re in charge, they rule and there’s a certain sanctity, you know. It’s like a sanctuary for them.’

[. . .] Beenie Man, one of the genre’s greatest lyricists, explains the importance of dancehall in the development of new music. ‘That is what dancehall is still today. It’s the only platform for the music. Notice you have inside the party, they have segments that they play new songs. All those songs are unmixed or unmastered. They just get a little balance in the studio, and come to the dance. So it’s the first platform for new music.’ [. . .]

For full article, see

Also see “Roast or fry? Dancehall in the yards of Kingston” Matt Baker & Ben Etherington, RN/ABC (June 7, 2016):


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