Dennis Bovell - Decibel

The Grunwick Affair
Harmoniser Dub
Dominion Dub
Rowing 12" Version
Zombie Zones
Zion Dub
Higher Ranking
Ranking High
None Jah Jah Children (Melodica Version)
Uganda Crisis
Ah Fi Wi Dis
Blood Ah Go Run

Talk to Dennis Bovell for half an hour and this is what you hear: music.

Dennis Bovell talks music. Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Duke Reid, Tappa Zukie, The Slits, The Pop Group, U-Roy, Hendrix, The Beatles, Dylan, Faces. It's there everytime he makes a point, it frames each sentence, it's the punchline and the reason.

"We made Linton Kwesi Johnson's first album in three days" he says. "You know, like Louie Armstrong. The way he and his band used to rehearse and then go in and cut five tracks before lunch and another five after."

From Linton Kwesi Johnson to Louie Armstrong in thirty seconds. "It was all about the playing. Getting it right. Preparation."

For Dennis it's always been about playing. "My uncle taught me to play guitar," he says. "What my parents called wordly music. Any music that wasn't Gospel. Gospel was the only music allowed in the house. My uncle had a Gospel quartet. Old style harmony singing. We had a strict home."

Home was Barbados in the early sixties, a time when calypso, American pop and R&B ruled the airwaves. Mighty Sparrow. The Drifters. Ben E. King. Ray Charles. Sam Cooke. "I listened to everything", he says, "all of it. All the time."

In 1965 he came with his family to London and began listening in a new way. As an interloper, as someone who, having grown up with British pop on the radio, was no thrust into the very middle of it.

"I was into all that pop music" he says. "I started playing guitar in a band doing Hendrix and Beatles songs. I was thirteen. I remember we entered a talent contest in Vauxhall and everyone was into us cause we were these kids playing all these rock songs."

Even then he was talking music. Talking with a different accent, using different words, looking in from a different place. Watching and learning. Always listening. It was in the late sixties that he started playing reggae. "I hooked up with some guys I was in school with with; Nick Straker, Eaton Blake and Bevan 'Bagga' Fagen, and started a band," he says. Matumbi, as the band became known, released its first single on Duke Reid's label out of Jamaica. "He just liked our thing", says Dennis. He also began working with Jah Sufferer's sound system in North London. It was here that he began listening to not only the dubplates but to the reaction of the crowds.

The music Bovell began to make wasn't Jamaican, it wasn't Channel One or Coxsone Dodd. This wasn't roots by rote, this was interpretation and invention. Reflections in a cracked glass. Uprooted and anxious. Roots music filtered through the streets of London, the English weather, the pop charts, pie and mash, Enoch Powell, riot and affray, the distance between what is and what was.

It wasn't long before Bovell began experimenting with dub. "We introduced a lot of things", he says. "English stuff. Fuzz guitars and sounds they didn't use in Jamaica."

The playing was the thing. Classic roots rhythms booming beneath subtly shifting melodies. A Dylan song here, a jazz riff there, a Beatle song interpreted. A twist take on an already abstract form.

It was from the sound systems that Bovell and his brethren birthed the English answer to Roots Reggae, Lovers Rock. "It came", he says, "as an answer to all that hard core man chanting business. You know, knives and guns and things. DJ's shouting about this and that. I wanted to do a more ballad kind of thing. Pure soulful. Like Curtis Mayfield or William Bell. When I used to play in the sound systems I used to have a big following of women so I knew what they wanted."

The tracks on DECIBEL form the bedrock of Bovell's contribution to dub. If, for a brief period in the late seventies, British music was the engine powering global music, reggae was it's spark plug. And dub was it's brightest and most elusive spark. Dub, the most slippery of all musics, was perfectly suited for reinvention. rooted not in ideology or rhetoric, but in pure sound, dub could be bent and pulled into whatever shape was needed, whether by fellow English experimenters like Adrian Sherwood or by American studios like Bullwackie's.

Bovell found his own unique way of engaging with dub. From the horn led mysteries of The Grunwick Affair (1977) to the Lee Perryish Rowing (1976), the tracks sidestep tradition, giving us instead something both borrowed and something new. Zombie Zones dump us in an apocalyptic no-man's land, Higher Ranking contains some of Bovell's best guitar work, while Scientific pushes dub to it's pure sound limits before giving us a lovers rock chorus. Shi-cago, drawing on Bovell's past association with British rock, features blues harmonica, while Entebbe and Uganda Crisis point to the news headlines of the day.

Always listening, always finding a fresh way to say something new, Dennis Bovell has never stopped talking music. Whether producing records by The Slits or The Pop Group, mixing records for Marvin Gaye, or continuing to work with Linton Kwesi Johnson, Bovell has never lost the ability to see around corners, to look into the middle of next week.

This is how it goes when you leave home and find a new one. This is what it means to be different. This is what the new world sounds like. This is talking music.

Jeb Loy Nichols - May 2003

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