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What Is Dembow? Tracing the Roots of a Global Phenomenon

19/03/2024

What Is Dembow? Tracing the Roots of a Global Phenomenon The story of the dembow beat, which can be found in reggaeton, hip-hop, pop, and far beyond, speaks to the power of cultural migration and artistic exchange.

By

Bryan Parys

March 18, 2024

Image by Elizabeth Friar

It's heard in the clubs. All over TikTok. In nearly uncountable Spotify playlists. Thumping off the walls of Zumba classes. Through the halls of malls. Scan the radio-it's there too.

Luis Saldarriaga B.M. 14 on Recording Despacito

Suffice it to say, you've likely heard the dembow beat, even if you didn't know it by name. Bad Bunny's chart-topping, Grammy-winning album Un Verano Sin Ti, which was inescapable in 2022, features the beat throughout, with a good example being 30 seconds into Tit Me Pregunt . Also, Despacito, the 2017 mega-hit by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee credited as a breakthrough moment for Latin music's popularity in US markets, centers its rhythm around dembow.So how did this drum rhythm come to dominate the global pop music charts? The answer is anything but simple.

Roots of a Jamaican RiddimOn the surface, it's not so difficult to trace the rhythm's origins, since the name comes from the 1990 song Dem Bow, by Jamaican dancehall musician Shabba Ranks. But go just a little deeper and things get more complex. The rhythm track (or riddim as it's referred to in Jamaican parlance) propelling Dem Bow was first used by Jamaican production duo Steely and Clevie for Gregory Pecks Poco Man Jam (1989), an instrumental they released on the B-side of Pecks record as Fish Market (1990). (Add to this the fact that, lyrically, Dem Bow is deeply homophobic, which has made it an unfortunate namesake).

Steely and Clevies riddim brought this cherished rhythm into modern reggae form and to the world, inspiring the Spanish language interpolations that would help shape reggaeton. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Caribbean, dembow becomes not just a popular beat, but its own genre once it finds its way to the Dominican Republic. It also bears mentioning that Dominican dembow is a harder, faster derivative of Puerto Rican reggaeton, which is itself a derivative of the Spanish reggae that began in Panama in the 1980s. But also, you don't get any of this without New York City.

Still with me?

New York is a global city, says Wayne Marshall, an ethnomusicologist and professor in the Liberal Arts and Sciences Department who did his doctoral work in Jamaica and has become a leading expert on reggaeton and dembow. He explains that reggaeton wouldn't have happened without the decades of migration to New York from Jamaica, Panama, and Puerto Rico. Every city, every country in the world is in New York. So of course, its going to end up being a center for global culture.

Reggaeton-and Dembow-Goes GlobalWhile the intersecting geographic origins of dembow can help us understand the beats explosion into the mainstream, the spread of this rhythm across borders and cultures also represents a far more personal story of artists and their communities.

It stopped being about locations and started being about people, says Rodney Alejandro, chair of the Songwriting Department, who created the course Latin Pop Songwriting and Production in 2021. Wherever these communities existed, Alejandro explains-New York, Florida, Texas-certain populations of people can congregate and create a market for the music there. So, youre now music for the people. Now youre creating more of an ecosystem where before it was radio in America playing English songs or Spanish stations playing only Spanish songs, and none of them would blend.

In his course, Alejandro makes sure to center the international perspectives of his students, recognizing that this is where innovation happens. One of my favorite things about the class is helping the students recognize that where they come from has tremendous value for where theyre going, he says. This is what Im trying to encourage with the students-your musical experience meeting the industry standards and production value now is going to create the future.

Theres almost no corner of the musical world now that hasnt been touched by it. . . . It really establishes [dembow] as one of the premier world rhythms.

- Wayne Marshall

Take Daddy Yankee's 2004 breakout hit Gasolina, which is a key stepping stone in giving Latin pop-and dembow-a global boost. Gasolina was also a breakout hit for the song's producers, Francisco Salda a and V ctor Cabrera, collectively known as Luny Tunes. The Dominican duo spent part of their childhood in Puerto Rico before relocating to Lynn, Massachusetts, and shortly before being discovered, were working at Harvard Dining Services.

To me, they typify the sort of migratory essence of reggaeton, Marshall says of Luny Tunes. It really is so much about the movement of people and culture in that way. The song has since been sampled 15 times, including songs by Indian composer Anu Malik and the trap group Migos.

The Rhythm of MigrationWhile the modern history of dembow is largely an exchange among communities in the Americas over the past 40 years, the rhythms roots reach even further into the past and across the globe. In many African countries such as Congo and Ghana, there are versions of dembow-like rhythms, often used in call-and-response and dance contexts, that stretch back through history. It is particularly important to remember these deep roots, given that these traditions arrived in the West Indies and the Americas not through an equitable cultural exchange but by way of the Atlantic slave trade.

[Culture] gets all tangled up with money grabs and a history of racial exploitation. That makes it a much bigger mess, Marshall says. But through this mess, he adds theres almost no corner of the musical world n
LINK: https://www.berklee.edu/berklee-now/news/what-is-dembow-tracing-the-ro...
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