- “Mek Some Noise”: Gospel Music and the Ethics of Style in Trinidad
Timothy Rommen’s highly personal and engaging ethnography “Mek Some Noise” addresses the various styles of music found in Full Gospel Pentecostal services on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. His fieldwork was conducted mainly in Port of Spain and South Trinidad between 1998 and 2005. Full Gospel Pentecostal services, Rommen points out, encompass a wide range of musical styles—many of which are more akin to secular dance hall music and the revelry of Carnival than to traditional Christian music. The author makes a strong case that “Full Gospel congregations are what they sing” (p. 19).
Rommen focuses on four main styles: gospelypso, North American gospel, dancehall, and jamoo (Jehovah’s music). His major concern is what believers say about these four musical styles, and he accurately characterizes “Mek Some Noise” as a book about people talking about people making music. Rommen deftly explores the roles that music plays in believers’ daily lives and underscores music’s persuasive power, for instance, how music actualizes belief. In keeping with recent scholarship on Caribbean Pentecostal music, including the research of Melvin Butler, he pays careful attention to Pentecostal theology and argues that believers “mek” music in order to make a statement—to say something about themselves, their relations with others, and their respective places in the universe.
Musical choices, Rommen argues, are often interpreted as ethical judgments. Selecting one particular musical style over another positions the actor among a wide array of Trinidadian religious and secular ideas—what the author terms an “ethics of style.” In my own research, I found that musical choices are central in many areas of Trinidadian daily life. For example, those needing transportation are confronted with multiple musical options when selecting a maxi-taxi at the former train station in Port-of-Spain. Because maxi-taxis operating out of the same bay have the same destination and charge roughly the same fare, a major factor in selecting a maxi-taxi is what kinds of music will be played during the trip. Passengers sort themselves out according to musical tastes and—for Christian riders—according to musical styles. To ride in a maxi-taxi playing American gospel music is to proclaim oneself “American gospel.” To ride in a maxi-taxi playing jamoo is to declare oneself “jamoo.”
Chapter 2 offers a complex exposition concerning the putative roots of Afro-Caribbean ethical styles. The author compares Afro-Caribbean ethics and the philosophical writings of Emmanuel Levinas, Jürgen Habermas, and Charles Taylor. He correctly concludes that, in contrast to most European-derived philosophies, Trinidadian ethics are constructed in terms of personal, relational, and spiritual considerations. A problem with Rommen’s approach is that it assumes a high degree of personal choice in music selection, but for many Trinidadians, music selection and performance are thought to be divinely inspired—not matters of personal choice. In many Spiritual Baptist and Pentecostal congregations, for example, church leaders take full responsibility for selecting all music. Another complication is that Trinidadian artists are incredibly flexible in their approaches to style. They adopt multiple styles over the course of their careers, and they even adopt different styles on individual albums and within a single performance. A further difficulty is that “gospel music” is a catchall term, and Trinidadians commonly stress shared content over style. [End Page 377]
The bulk of Rommen’s study is dedicated to detailed descriptions of the most prominent musical styles. Chapter 3 addresses the emergence of gospelypso in the 1960s. Chapter 4 documents the increasing dominance of North American gospel music, while chapter 5 provides an accessible introduction to dancehall and soca. Chapter 6 explores jamoo (an innovative, alternative musical style developed and popularized by Ras Shorty). Chapter 7, which features a close reading of musical styles within a single church in Point Fortin, will be of great interest to ethnomusicologists. I visited this Point Fortin church in the 1980s, when it was a Spiritual Baptist congregation...