“Happy Song,” Icon Give Thank’s standout, thrives on this alien harmony. Nothing remotely like a kick or snare anchors the beat—instead, a brain-bending combination of wet guitar stabs, synth notes, chimes, creaks and echoed-thuds marks time while emphasizing its slipperiness. Most vocalists would balk at riding a riddim like this. Undaunted, the chants triumph: Let us sing this happy song/ Sing my favorite song. Their lyrics look simple if you write them out, but listening to the track conveys mysterious, joyful depth. When asked how it all came together in the studio, Myton bursts into a high-pitched giggle—he seems honestly startled to think that there might be people who don’t know how musicians create music. “Atmosphere,” he says. “Unpredictable. I mean songs, you don’t plan for them. Maybe they plan for you!” The room explodes with laughter, hoots of agreement. “The riddim is just how a person perceive or accept the riddim. You know, song made by words or by riddim. Or waves.” This observation comes from a band that named itself after the sound of a metronome. (The Afrocentric theme was a happy side effect.) As Roy tells it, “One morning we go to Scratch’s [studio] and we hear he have a metronome playing—tic toc tic toc. So I said, Wait, this could make a music from! So we start to sing congo a bongo congo a bongo—so it’s right there we get the name from.”
This casually serious approach to sound is shared throughout Jamaica. You find it spinning around the radio dial or in little kids tunefully singing badman lyrics—you can’t not pay attention to sound because it is ever-present. Doesn’t matter if you’re in bed or skanking in front of the homemade speaker stack blasting from an impromptu street party a half-mile away: how can anyone fall asleep when the DJs’ pacing and presentation is so thrilling? There are many perks to life in this ultra-saturated music environment where sound is publicly scrutinized at every point of its existence. When the DJ drops George Michael’s “Careless Whispers” (the only American pop song played the entire night) and starts spiking the chorus with laser sounds, it’s a revelation. It’s not just that the music really is better in Kingston (although this is often the case), it’s that one hears music you have already heard made unfamiliar in the best possible context. Which, at 1AM on Tuesday right before Christmas, is George Michael. With lasers.
The evening’s other sound is dogs—a ragged chorus flares sporadically throughout the night. Not pets; protection. Neighborhood parties spread Christmastime cheer, but the looming elections keep everyone on edge. In Jamaica, both major political parties (the Jamaican Labor Party and the People’s National Party) arm gangs, and those gangs clash. As this dance peters out, over in Spanish Town cops find Navardo Hodges of the Clansman gang with a bullet through his head—and the rest of his body a few blocks away. Violence in Jamaica crescendoed with the 2010 extradition of J.L.P.-supporting gangster boss Christopher “Dudus” Coke. The murder rate has since plummeted, but over a thousand people are murdered in the small country each year.