Hardly a week goes by without my hearing from some adult person, sometimes several, about the state of our popular music. I frequently hear, “That’s not music, it’s just noise.” Or, “What happened to all that good music we used to have?” The simple answer is that music is not an isolated activity; it is, and has always been, a part of life, and unless we’ve been sound asleep in a hammock in the Pakaraimas ‒ and in fact, even there, life is not static ‒ it is continually changing and the changes in music are simply another part of that change. We live faster lives now, with a whole host of technological advances in the way we move (modern jets), communicate (cell phones), relay information and get medical treatment (computers), and endless variations of aids to living and working. Those changes have transformed our lives, and who we are, and music is only part of that wholesale change.
In a nutshell, we have more leisure time, and better equipment to play or listen to music, but we are also now a people who want everything faster, shorter, easy to copy and reproduce, and more portable, and that, essentially is where our music has gone. Contemplation was once part of popular music; that is now provided by various media outlets and online offerings; popular music has turned to emphasizing beat, or dance music, in its output and the technology for that has grown.
Go back to around 1980; that’s when the shift began. Back then, music was generated by musicians playing traditional instruments (drums, guitars, pianos, brass) with small p a systems. Technology created a drum machine to replace the drummer with his cumbersome drum set; it created a computer to eliminate the bulky pianos and the Hammond organ with a speaker weighing close to 100 pounds (musicians would be cussing and sweating lugging these monsters for a performance). Vocalists used small p a systems with one or two microphones and a modest pair of speakers. Technology eliminated the drum set with a drum machine; the bulky organ with a computer, and similarly replaced an entire 5-piece horn section with a single computer on a stand. This meant that a band could be smaller, but more powerful, and could therefore be employed more often, but, in addition, with the change in life generally, there was a parallel shift in the same time in popular music tastes; in the songs our musicians created for us. In this more hectic life style mankind wanted more energetic music in his/her relaxations, sparking the emergence of the disco era and, in parallel, a single deejay spinning records. The revolution in our societies at that time had clearly also made an understandable revolution in popular music, and the revolution continues today. Notice that now music is presented via huge p a systems, with speakers eight feet high, and powered by massive portable generators that have to be brought in by truck, all in the interest of making a great party, and ensuring an uninterrupted power supply so that the fete goes without a break. That engine, powerful, more affordable, and portable, is meeting today’s music needs perfectly and, in the process, generating what some people deride as “not music”. In fact, in content, it is actually the music that patrons of this time choose, and it is pervasive.
The change is the same in every country’s music. Whether it’s Britain, or Latin America, or North America, or India, or Australia, the shift is the same. One can go back to the 1980s in Trinidad and see it starting there. In that country, with hip-hop stirring in America, the calypsonian Lord Shorty, seeing the decline in calypso, turned to a newer version of that rhythm, emphasising a more penetrating drum sound and faster tempos for partying. He called it soca and we have seen that music almost completely replace calypso in Caribbean culture. Even in Jamaica, where calypso had declined, soca, with its carnival flavour became popular, and the new music of Jamaica, ska and then reggae, was music where beat was the main focus so that even the bass player in a reggae group, is often playing drum patterns on his bass guitar to add to the dance push. In Barbados, around that time, musicians were experimenting with a new ‘dance beat’ called spouge that was popular for a time. Concurrently in Jamaica, that shift to reggae found studios in that country taking a song from the American charts and rearranging it over a reggae drum pattern, with the cutting guitar, and the bass playing a drum pattern, and making a reggae hit from that. When it comes to assessing that music, the difference is that reggae is popular because one of the key aspects of it is, as my friend Henry Muttoo terms it, that “real dance floor music ‒ that hip-grinding beat” which is in line with the current importance of ‘make us dance’ in the popular music forms in most societies.
It has happened gradually, so we didn’t notice, but in fact our lives now are vastly different due largely to technological advances. The answer to the consternation in the “What happened to music” phrase one hears is simple: life moves and changes, it has never stayed static – indeed, the prediction for technology is that we are on the cusp now of even more enormous changes – self-driving cars, robots, artificial intelligence – that will dwarf what has gone before. Our music is simply part of our lives, and inevitably, it, too, will change. Going back to the cave man, or the first man ploughing the land, it has been so. It’s just simple, Bredrin.
If you don’t care for the current version, hold strain; another change will soon emerge.