Thursday, 27 January 2011

Soca Reggae Dancehall Junkie

I gather some people were having trouble downloading the mix of 2010, as Z-Share sucks more than a hungry mosquito that's got inside your bed net, so here is a new and friendlier download link.

(Tracklist is here)

Monday, 17 January 2011


Religion was one of my worries in coming to a developing country.  I was concerned that my position as a firm non-believer could lead to real difficulties in fitting in, and that the kind of awkward but well intentioned efforts at conversion that I have experienced from time to time in the past could be a regular occurrence.  In reality, it has not been a major problem.  It has felt a little awkward for me at times – there are prayers to begin almost every meeting or workshop, and attending a number of religious functions is necessary – but overall people are very tolerant of different beliefs, perhaps due to the melting pot of different sects and religions here.

I have had a few conversations with people who are astonished, appalled or baffled at my non-belief, but I have got much better at dealing with this than when I was an eighteen year old who saw the world much more in black and white.  I now go for an approach along the lines of ‘I believe that we don’t need God to be good to each other.  People are good because we like doing good, and I think that is a really great thing.  And the world is an amazing and beautiful place – we have nature, art, music, love and friendship. I don’t need to add anything else to that.’ The idea is to:
a)      show that atheism is possible and reasonable
b)      show that atheism is perfectly compatible with being good and
c)      convince them I am not Satan’s representative on earth.
If a), b) and c) don’t get me anywhere, then option d) - bore them enough to make them change the subject - normally does the trick.

Not being a churchgoer does close off one of the main avenues for becoming more integrated into the community. Church is the entirety of many people’s social life, and a real part of what ties communities together. Leisure options in this part of Guyana are almost entirely based around either Church or Drinking. Watching cricket or horse racing, dancing, liming come under Drinking; singing, sports clubs, praying are all done at church, or with a church group; and weddings and funerals are a bit of one and a lot of the other.

Living in a very religious culture for an extended period of time has given me a slightly different understanding of the effects of religion on individuals and societies.  For some people with desperate life situations, religion is the only thing left to hold on to.  And it is very easy here, especially for women, people with disabilities or those with little education, to find yourself with in a desperate life situation.  Religion can also bring focus and discipline in situations where turning to drink or drugs can be an easy option.  In some villages, women are very keen to recruit their husbands to the teetotal Bretheren church for this reason.  Some Churches also do excellent work for vulnerable people – for example, local orphanages in my town get a great deal of support from religious groups.  Finally, regular church going seems to do wonders for public speaking abilities.  It seems like everybody here can conjure up a rousing speech, with humour, intonation and heartfelt emotion, at the drop of a hat.

But there is definitely another side to the story.  Of course, in a mainly religious country, religious organisations are likely to be the main conduit for charity, but I suspect that secular Britain would match a similar but more religious country on charitable giving.  The Tea Party Republicans, for example, are by hardly a shining example of religious people filled with empathy and generosity.  And while churches bring the community of people who attend that church together, they can rip the wider fabric of a society apart. Racial divisions, which have plagued Guyanese politics ever since independence, are solidified by religious divides. This can be simply because of the social effects of people from the same ethnicity tending towards the same religions, but some groups (by no means all) actively preach intolerance for other sects or religions.

This happens even within very small towns. Evangelist Christian churches set up by American or European missionaries have taken over almost every Amerindian community in Guyana. I have heard a few times from Amerindian people in different areas of Guyana that these churches create serious divisions between people.  Some of the churches are open and inclusive, and regularly host larger meetings together with other groups, but others will preach hatred and intolerance towards other sects.  This can have terrible effects on small communities that were previously a single cohesive group.  There are villages of just fifty people where this kind of rivalry between churches has torn the society apart.

Closely related to this is the danger of intolerance of other lifestyles, whether that is women challenging gender roles by wearing trousers or of homosexuality. ‘Because god says so’ is arguably the last acceptable excuse for bigotry. I have personally never understood how one line in an obscure bit of the bible can trump all the stuff about love, understanding and supporting the downtrodden, but what do I know?

A final effect that I see religion having is to reinforce a lack of questioning of authority or critical thinking.  A common frustration for volunteers in Guyana working with many different organisations is that we find people seem to be unwilling to question authority, or to re-think how things are done.  This kind of attitude built into the structure of many organisations, especially the education system.  There is always a right or wrong answer – opinions and ambiguity are rarely, if ever, encouraged and discussed.  A good child is quiet, does their work, and gives the answer that the teacher wants to hear.  And a good follower of a religion is one who Believes.  No prophet (except Brian) has to my knowledge ever said ‘think for yourselves’ or ‘I could well be wrong’.  Religion is obviously only one factor that contributes to this way of thinking – the long history of slavery, indentured labour and colonialism, and the authoritarian governments that inherited the power structures left by the British clearly have a huge role to play – but I feel that until there is a change in the prevalence or attitude of many of the religious organisations here, the development of the country as a whole will be held back, and those who do begin to think differently and question how things are done will continue to move away.

But despite all this, my experience here has led me to believe that there is something that New Atheism / Scepticalism / Secular Humanism hasn’t yet come to grips with.

There are many religious objections to atheism.  Many of them are to do with the philosophical or scientific evidence for god.  These are mostly ‘god of the gaps’ type arguments, and I have not heard any that are at all persuasive, at least for anything other than a meaninglessly vague, non-specific idea of God.

The more powerful arguments are the ones that say, in one way or another, that what is true doesn’t really matter – it is the effect that belief can have on your life that matters. For those with science/logic type brains like mine, this gets nowhere.  I would rather be miserable and right.  For more normal people however an appeal to emotion can be very powerful, and for good reason. From my experience, you could break this argument down further into something like this:
Religion is the only way people will be good
Religion makes people happy
Religion gives a sense of awe/transcendence
Religion brings people together

The argument from morality is easily taken apart, by empirical evidence - 9/11, the Catholic Church covering up widespread paedophilia, the Spanish Inquisition etc etc - and by reason - ‘religious’ ethics seem to be quite flexible according to the wider societal norms of the time, and for most people an innate sense of right and wrong seems to trump the religious one. And when it doesn’t, the consequences can be horrific.

The happiness argument is a bit harder – religious belief is one thing that crops up in many large studies of happiness as a reliable factor in making people happier.  I think however that the field of positive psychology is showing the way forward here, with evidence that techniques such as meditation, mindfulness, exercise, doing good, and having a sense of purpose are powerful secular routes to the same end.

The sense of awe or transcendence argument simply evaporates if you were to spend a second in my brain while I am looking out over an amazing landscape (I haven't been there yet but really want to), listening to ‘Sir Duke’, learning how the brain works, or looking at Summertime, and I am sure every atheist in the world could give their own examples.

But, in the UK at least, the sense of community seems harder and harder to find, especially as ‘the local as the hub of life is, outside of soap operas and sitcoms, more and more a thing of the past. We seem to be desperately searching for a community with common values, in the virtual world through Facebook or on internet forums where we can find people across the world who share our most obscure tastes, or in the real world through sport tribalism, music subcultures or book clubs. Maybe this splintering of smaller specialist groups is the future.  And maybe we will find ways to make that work.  But I hope that there is some way to bring that wider sense of community cohesion back.

By the way - think for yourselves. I could well be wrong.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Not over the hill yet

We are in danger of finishing a meeting on time.  It’s the end of a long day of note taking, roleplay activities, group discussions, and more note taking for the region’s Head Teachers.  The Regional Education Officer winds up her speech and I get ready to stand for the last verse of the national anthem, the usual finish to any meeting.  But no – there’s something else that wasn’t on the agenda.  I had been wondering why I had seen one of the recently retired head teachers lurking at the back.  Surely head teacher meetings are not so much fun you would want to keep coming after retirement?

It turns out that a group of the head teachers have put together a special programme to honour two of their recently retired colleagues.  The retirement age here is 55, but from their appearance and energy levels you would put both ladies in their early forties.  They are dazzling in coordinated red and black attire.  The programme includes heartfelt and tear-stained speeches, poems, songs, an acrostic – ‘R is for robust, rambunctious, resplendent Rosie’ – and a dramatic skit.  The love and respect felt for the retirees is palpable.

Finally comes the giving of gifts.  Two male head teachers have the task of presenting the tokens of appreciation – a set of jewelled gold earrings each.  Rose, known for bringing laughter, warmth and a wonderful line in topical poems to liven up every meeting, is up first. She removes her earrings and tilts her head to let her presenter carefully begin putting the new pair in.  The room collectively holds its breath as the heavily emotional proceedings of the afternoon come to a head.

Rose, always blessed with perfect timing, chips in:
“Now we see if he knows fi find de hole.”

The resulting shrieks of laughter must have been audible in England.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

"They all look the same."

White people all look the same.
Cows all look the same.
Chinese food all tastes the same.
Reality TV shows are all the same.
Football matches are always the same.
All X looks/tastes/sounds/smells the same

It is interesting being on the receiving end of this for a change.  Despite living in a town with a total of probably less than five white men at any given time, I am nonetheless often mistaken for somebody else.  This is a common experience for lots of the volunteers here.  Due to the complicated history of Guyana since independence, outside of the capital and a few tourist hot spots, white bais and gyals are a rare sight here.  So to many Guyanese, we all look the same.

If you hear this kind of statement from an English person talking about their two Indian colleagues you would (and probably quite rightly) think 'racist'. But nonetheless, they are telling the truth. People of a race that you are not used to seeing often do, literally, all look the same. To you. Just like to the elderly classical music fan, punk rock all sounds the same, to the beer connoisseur all red wine tastes the same, and to the city dweller all cows look the same. But to the punk, the sommelier and the farmer there is a world of difference between bands, wines or cows.

A nice aspect of travel is that you get to experience your perception of the world around you change as your mind creates new categories and relationships to make sense of your new surroundings.  I recently re-listened to one of my first Dancehall CDs, and what sounded repetitive and impenetrable on first listen is now a connected world of vocal styles, recognisable riddims and emotional associations.  One of the hardest things when you are new in the country is that you meet many, many people who all remember you, but at that point many of them, to you, look the same.  As time goes on, the differences become clearer and the categories in your mind get more detailed and finely drawn every day. The change is too gradual to notice, but dramatic when you look back to your first impressions.

A quick google tells me this is called the 'own race bias' or 'cross race effect' (the internet really is amazing - i searched for 'they all look the same psychology' and found that out in seconds). Wikipedia tells me that this effect has been studied extensively, and studies show it may be responsible for around 30% of failed negotiations between English and Chinese businesses. I am sure that the similar 'cross music/literature/taste/species' effects are responsible for all sorts of misunderstandings, distrust and dislike between different ages, classes or social groups within countries too.

So - a late new year's resolution for everyone: take the time to investigate some food, music, people, language, sport or animal that all smells, tastes, looks, sounds or feels the same to you. You might be surprised.

PS: I managed to get cognitive science, food, music, learning, wikipedia and Guyana all into one post. Jackpot!

PPS: This is an interesting and entertainingly named paper on the subject - apparently the cross-race effect disappears for angry faces. Maybe when first meeting people of a different race you should ask them nicely to pull an angry face? On second thoughts, perhaps not. You might get a real angry face. The disturbing implication of this is that we instinctively see people of a different race as an 'out group', and therefore potentially threatening.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Mix of 2010

This is a mix with my personal choices of the Guyana tunes of the last year.  It is mostly a pretty accurate picture of what I’ve been hearing this year, with a few personal favourites thrown in.  Some tracks are included because I love them, and some because they were inescapable.  Some are a bit of both (Rum and Redbull, please stand up). And some popular tunes have been left out - the floppy haired teenager that sounds like a girl was also inescapable, but I you’ll be pleased to know I have kept this 100% Bieber free. However, it was prepared in a factory that also handles Black Eye Peas and Shakira, so be careful.

It's mostly Soca, Dancehall and Reggae with a little hint of Chutney. I was going to write some posts about each type of music but that's what Wikipedia is for.  I'll post some more in depth mixes of each style if you all are interested.


1.      Bill Withers – Lean on Me
2.      Wayne Wonder and Frisco Kid – Dreamland (Old Dancehall)
3.      Baby Cham – The Mass (Old Dancehall)
4.      Voicemail – Laptop (Dancehall)
5.      Terror Fabulous Ft Nadine Sutherland – Action (Old Dancehall)
 This takes me back to dancing to a soundsystem on the main street last Christmas Eve. The bit where the drums drop out and the bass goes wobbly made me determined to find a copy. I love this style of older Dancehall.
6.      Buju Banton Ft Caron Gonslaves – No Second Class (Old Dancehall)
7.      Mr Vegas – Mi Believe (Dancehall)
8.      Iyaz – Replay (Dancehall Remix)
9.      Konshens – Pretty Devil (Dancehall)
Reminds me of a big crowd watching two toddlers showing off their disturbingly good wining skills at the boxing day lime in Georgetown at the end of 2009.
10.  Vybz Kartel – Virginity (Dancehall)
 I had a shock when this came on in a shared car (like a taxi that picks up passengers as it goes) with two little kids sitting next to me and nobody batted an eyelid.  But then I never understood the words to ‘Relax’ by Frankie Goes To Hollywood when I was growing up, so maybe it isn’t as bad as it seems. It is amazing (and worrying, considering much of the content) seeing how many kids know every song word for word.
11.  Rhianna – Rudeboy (Dancehall Mix)
12.  Rhianna - Rudeboy (Skinnyboy Reggae Remix)
I first heard this remix on a minibus coming back from some school visits, at the magical time of day when the sun is low in the sky and golden light shimmers across the ricefields.  As a result I like it far more than I should.
13.  Beres Hammond – No Apology (Reggae)
14.  Tarrus Riley – She’s Royal (Reggae)
15.  Fantan Mojah – Most high Jah (Reggae)
I love the high synth part on this riddim.
16.  Sanchez – Feel Good All Over (Reggae)
17.  Morgan Heritage – Down by the River (Reggae)
18.  Sanchez – Pretty Girl (Reggae)
19.  Jah Cure – Call on Me (Reggae)
20.  Jah Cure Ft Alison Hinds – Call on Me (Soca Version)
21.  Peter Ram – Real Tight Ft Che’Nelle (Soca)
22.  Lil Rick – One Juk For The Carnival (Soca)
23.  Rupee – What happens in de party (Soca)
What happens in de party stays in de party. My lips are sealed.
24.  Soca Elvis – Rum Don’t Bother Me (Chutney)
There is currently an epidemic of Chutney (Indian Calypso/Soca) records about drinking rum. Another great title is ‘You Always Knew I Was A Drinker’. In general, Chutney songs are either about drinking, wining or cheating;  Reggae songs are about making love, losing love, Jah, or smoking weed; Soca songs are about partying and wining; and Dancehall songs are about clothes, money, drinking, cheating, daggering (more on this later) or fucking.
25.  Patrice Roberts – Wukking Up (Soca)
26.  Machel Montano – Wining Season (Soca)
27.  Peter Ram - Pumping (Remix) (Soca)
One of my favourite Soca tunes. It baffles me that Soca has never really crossed over in the UK (with the exception of ‘Feeling Hot’).  I forsee a future England where Soca is in the ascendancy, and whining lessons are the new Salsa lessons. Every thirty-something single in the land will be there every week, with an instructor telling the class ‘for the next four beats, wiggle your arse into his crotch side by side… now up and down… and round in a circle… now put your hands on your knees and push back… now hands to the floor and right leg in the air …’
28.  Blak Ryno – Come a Mi Yard (Dancehall)
29.  Vybz Kartel – Bicycle (Dancehall)
30.  Beenie Man – Under Curfew (Dancehall)
31.  Mavado – House Top (Dancehall)
32.  Vybz Kartel – Gyal for Free (Dancehall)
33.  Demarco – Run Him Out (Dancehall)
34.  Serani Ft Ding Dong – Skip to Ma Lu (Dancehall)
35.  Voicemail – Style and Swagger (Dancehall)
36.  G Whizz – My Girl (Dancehall)
37.  Gyptian - Hold You (Dancehall)
For the first half of this year, every other car going past my house was playing this record. The plinky piano riff is burnt forever into my brain.
38.  Vybz Kartel – Straight Jeans and Fitted (Dancehall)
39.  Trevor Off Key – Fake Jeans Admit It (Dancehall)
40.  Bounty Killer and Elephant Man – This is How We Do It (Dancehall)
41.  Vybz Kartel – Clarks (Dancehall)
When I was growing up, Clarks were sensible school shoes that your slightly overprotective parents bought for you because they believed the marketing spiel that we all needed shoes exactly fitted to the width of our feet or we would grow up with crippled, twisted, pancake shaped lumps of flesh at the end of our legs.  Dancehall artists are obviously also very careful to have properly fitted shoes.
42.  Beenie Man – Nuh Stress Me Out (Dancehall)
43.  Beenie Man – I’m OK (Dancehall)
44.  Beenie Man – Rum and Red Bull (Dancehall)
This was huge for the last few months of the year. I included a Guyana style spinback for you all. Guyanese DJing is doing this five times a song, shouting over the mike every two seconds, and singing badly over the chorus. When Beenie Man’s set was cut short by a torrential downpour, he played these tunes and then quickly left the stage. By this point the audience had either left, hidden underneath the stage itself, or crammed themselves into the side of the beer tents desperately trying to escape the deluge.
45.  Richie Loops – In My Cup (Dancehall)
46.  Ricky Jai – Bar Man (Chutney)
47.  Busy Signal – Up in Her Belly (Dancehall)
48.  Machel Montano – Thiefin (Soca)
49.  Mr Dale – Soca Junky (Soca)
My other favourite Soca tune.
50.  RDX – Daggering (Soca)
Daggering is the only dance style I have ever heard of that has allegedly caused a spateof broken penises.  I have heard it will be featured on next year’s Strictly Come Dancing.
51.  Spice – Jim Screechie (Dancehall)
52.  Baby Tash – Believe Me (Dancehall)
53.  Elephant Man – One More Whine (Dancehall)
I love any dancehall tune that rips off old house records, especially Daft Punk ones, especially with a punning title. I heard this coming out of a record shop and had to go in and buy it straight away. Can’t stop the whining.
54.  Laden – Time Fi Warm Up (Dancehall)
55.  Demarco – She Can’t Wait (Dancehall)
56.  Enur – Calabria 2008 (Dancehall)
57.  Swappi – Dis Gyal (Dancehall)
The new song of the moment. Non-music-geeks should skip to the next paragraph now. Music geeks still here? Good. It’s a Dancehall tune based on an old Claude Von Stroke remix! Superb. I’m hoping for one based on a minimal house record next.  Maybe one of those vocal versions of Marc Houle ‘Bay of Figs’ that Diplo used to play will catch on.  And I should plan to come back in two years, by which time Dubstep will have crossed over the Atlantic. That will be amazing. Dubstep Dancehall. On that subject … there’s a Dubsteppy tune on the new Kanye album. It’s great. As is the whole album. I realise I’m way behind the time on this, but it really is good. Have a listen.
58.  Donae’o and Problem Child - Party Hard (Soca)
I like the percussion combination beat and bassline to this, and the way it sounds borderline depressed whilst instructing you to party hard.  This will always remind me of the long, bumpy, dusty minibus rides to and from Lethem, Mahdia and Iwokorama after hearing it on repeat for a couple of those journeys.
59.  Major Lazer – Pon de Floor (Dancehall)
This took until the middle of this year to get really popular, since then and has been the song of choice for showing off your car soundsystem.
60.  Busy Signal/Major Lazer – Busy Medley (Dancehall)
61.  Black Eyed Peas – I Got a Feeling (Pop)
62.  Shakira – Waka Waka (Pop)
In terms of frequency that I have heard it, this is by far the song of the year. I must have heard this over a thousand times this year.  One school event alone counted for about a hundred plays, as the song was played for every child who came on stage for the fashion show and dance display.  I have absolutely no idea why it is so popular.
63.  Jah Cure – Unconditional Love (Reggae)
64.  Angel Doolas – You Trickster (Reggae)
The ‘Coming in from the Cold’ riddim that this song is based on has been huge all year and this is the version that has stood the test of time the best.  It reminds me of sitting at a friends house in Lethem while the whole Riddim CD – twelve or more songs based on the same backing track - was being played by the neighbours on repeat.  Lethem is near the Brazilian border, and since a new bridge was built across the river that crosses the border a large portion of the residents in the town are now Brazilian.  This means you hear a lot of Forra (???) music, a very repetitive and chirpy local style of Brazilian dance music. Traditional Forra is made with drums and accordion, but most of the modern stuff sounds like they have just left a cheap Casio keyboard on the ‘salsa’ rhythm. For half an hour. Then they stop and put it on again, slightly faster and in a different key. Even with dancing girls in little skirts to watch it is hard work – as noise coming from next door it is maddening.  A nice reggae riddim CD on repeat was a big relief, and suited the lazy feel of the hot, dusty savannah town.
65.  Tessanee Chin - I Want to Know What Love Is (Reggae)
Dan’s first law of Reggae Versions states that Eighty percent of songs in the world can be improved when covered in a reggae style. The second law states that the cheesier the original, the more it will be improved.  As the original to this is cheesier than the lovechild of a strong stilton and a ripe camembert sitting in a sauna on a hot day, this cover is as good as music gets. The brass in the chorus is just amazing.  I even quite enjoy the Disney style chord change near the end.  This song also stands in for all the cheesy eighties ballads that are frighteningly popular here.