Made in Jamaica, a 2006 documentary film by French director Jerome Laperrousaz, finally receives a limited cinema release in Britain this week.
The film looks at the history of reggae and its most popular modern form, dancehall. It is told entirely through the words of some of the genre’s most prominent artists.
There are also specially-staged live performances and evocative footage of life in the ghettos and dancehalls of West Kingston.
There’s little attempt made to trace the musical roots of reggae in mento, ska and rocksteady.
Instead, Laperrousaz offers an impressionistic portrayal of reggae music as it’s performed, and attempts to outline some of the key social and political contradictions that have informed the creation and development of the culture.
The film opens with the drive-by murder of “Dancehall Master” Gerald “Bogle” Levy in 2005.
It uses the incident to explore the apparent contrast in attitudes between old school “conscious” roots reggae and the frenetic energy, bluntness, and sexual explicitness of the dancehall scene today. The opposition is shown to be less marked than is commonly supposed.
The implication is that the musical and lyrical concerns of reggae are influenced more by the backdrop of Jamaican and global politics than what the morals and intentions of its leading exponents may be.
Jamaica’s extreme poverty makes it harder for dancehall to be commodified and divorced from its social roots.
Even artists firmly associated with gun talk and lewdness feel the need to pay tribute to the militant spirit of reggae’s founders.
As well as being goodtime party music, dancehall contains plenty of anger at the situation most Jamaicans find themselves in.
This is usually expressed in less religious terms than the Rastafarianism of the older generation or current more overtly “conscious” artists such as Capleton, though the influence of Christianity looms large.
Dancehall artist Bounty Killer says, “I want to tell the world I’m from the ghetto. Passers-by and children get shot every day from the violence in Jamaica.
“I think it’s because everybody don’t have hopes and dreams to live up to. If they shared out the wealth and everybody was happy with a nice life and family, then they wouldn’t feel like giving up their life for nothing.”
Vybz Kartel, goes further in the haunting “We Kill We”, saying, “They build the slums/And import the guns/Property and drugs is the parents of thugs/Me wonder how we can’t see the trap they set/Black people no dunce”.
He explains, “Violence in Jamaica originally started from its political culture. You have garrison communities. The real blame for the violence is with the government.”
In “Emergency” he spits out “Emergency – we are suffering here/Mr Man, what are you doing for the gutter round here?/Two parties play the same sad song/They raise everything from oil to Craven A/How come they don’t raise no decent pay?”
Laperrousaz touches on the sexism that permeates society and culture, in interviews with Lady Saw and Tanya Stephens.
Lady Saw describes how she felt she had to emphasise raw, sexual lyrics, to get anywhere.
Stephens says simply, “We live in a really chauvinistic society.”
Her songs have the familiar soul response to the experience of sexism – alternately poking fun at the hapless, ignorant men in her life and then wishing the worst on a former lover.
Made in Jamaica’s music is fantastic throughout, reminding you of the astonishing cultural achievement of a poverty-stricken nation.
The incredible energy and rowdy exuberance of dancehall, and its continuing fertile relationship with hip-hop, R&B, crunk and electro are captured excitingly in the performances of Elephant Man, Bounty Killer, and Lady Saw.
There are memorable performances from some real reggae greats. The incomparable Gregory Isaacs contributes a wonderful “Kingston 14” and “Temptation”, while Bunny Wailer has great versions of “I Shot The Sheriff” and “400 Years”.
To the uninitiated, or to those looking for a definitive movie account of Jamaican music, Made in Jamaica may not satisfy.
It’s arguable whether such a broad and rich subject could be done justice in a feature film.
For a comprehensive account, get Lloyd Bradley’s brilliant book Bass Culture.
But anyone who loves reggae music will enjoy the film enormously. It deserves the chance to be seen by a much wider audience.
Made in Jamaica is out on 23 October