Get to talking about reggaeton with someone from Panama, and they will invariably form two fists. With those fists, they will either begin pounding the nearest available surface, or, if none presents itself, punching the sky. Take away the recourse of their hands, and they will start clucking a sound like this: BOOOOM, chh, BOOM, chhk; BOOOOM, chh, BOOM, chhk.
This is the “dem bow,” the stiff, staccato rhythm at the heart of reggaeton. It’s as intrinsic to the genre as the clave is to salsa, and if you live in Latin America or, in the last five years, the United States, you have undoubtedly heard it rattle a few speakers.
Since arriving on the radars of academics and pop music junkies here in the States, reggaeton has generated no shortage of scholarly and not-so-scholarly rumination conflating the “dem bow” with everything from emergent transnational Latino identity to a failing music industry’s Great Brown Hope (in 2004, platinum releases by reggaeton icons like Daddy Yankee and Don Omar helped fuel a 24-percent increase in Latin music shipments to retailers, at a time when sales across the board were plummeting).
Receiving less attention was the fact that the “dem bow” was also central to a long-running feud between reggaeton fans in Puerto Rico, the genre’s de facto home, and their counterparts in the small, isthmus nation of Panama. To this day, Panamanians lay claim to transforming the “dem bow” from a Jamaican dancehall riddim into the pulse of the most popular and profitable Latin music since salsa.
And some artists here have a plan for reclaiming what’s theirs.
It’s 2008, and Panama City is well-dressed and well-connected. Suit-clad men and women dash madly across Via España, the clogged six-laner serving the city’s teeming financial district, and hair-trigger car alarms sound long into the night. There’s a bank on what seems like every corner and, in between, electronics stores hyping the latest in name-brand American and Japanese gear.
And then there’s the canal.
Over a decade after the United States relinquished control of the billion-dollar waterway and the contentious American-controlled zone that surrounded it, the canal serves as an enormous source of pride for Panama’s 3.2 million citizens. For decades they saw their greatest national resource, their best claim to exceptionality in Latin America and the world, controlled by someone else. Today, many aspects of commercial, political and cultural life ¾ from tourism to high-tech imports to employment ¾ point in some way to the 48-mile-long channel. Not coincidentally, reggaeton points here too.
Across the isthmus, at the northern mouth of the waterway, lies the side of the Panama Canal you won’t see on postcards: Colón, a crumbling, tightly packed city that guide books urge tourists to avoid. During the mid-19th century, Colón was the staging ground for a massive influx of newly emancipated West Indian laborers to Panama. Beginning in the 1880s, they constituted the majority of the labor force behind the trying, twice-abandoned French- then U.S.-managed bid to carve a passage between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Upon the canal’s completion in 1914, many workers took what “Panama money” they’d saved and returned to the Caribbean. Others, including those who could not afford the passage home, stayed. It was into this context that, 60s years later, reggae en español was born.
“Everything started here in Panama,” Colón-based reggae promoter Rasta Nini tells me. “The music started in Jamaica, but the roots, the birth of the legend, started in Panama. Precisely here in Colón.” A familiar bouquet of incense and ganja fills the Rasta’s sun-baked living room, a small third-floor space decorated with paintings of Bob Marley and Haile Selassie I ¾ also, a not-so-subtle watercolor of a policeman clubbing a dreadlocked Rasta in the street. The 1977 ABC miniseries “Roots” is playing on the TV set.
Rastafari’s ties to Colón date back to 1911, when the Jamaican-born black nationalist Marcus Garvey, whom Rastas regard as a prophet, visited the city. Here, the story goes, he witnessed the plight of the black Caribbean canal laborer, an experience instrumental in shaping his views. Consigned to the “silver” pay roll while their white peers were paid in gold, black workers endured under their American bosses a segregated social order inspired by Jim Crow. The racism cultivated within the Panama Canal Zone permeated Panama to the point that, in 1940, the country’s president pushed a constitutional change that would have prohibited the immigration of all “peoples of Negro race whose original language is not Spanish.” The racial provision was later dropped, but throughout most of Panama, the stereotype of the unassimilated black West Indian, friend to neither white American nor mestizo Panamanian, remained.
It is little surprise, then, that by the late-1970s, roots reggae was finding an eager audience in Colón, the nerve center of Afro-Panamanian culture. The music’s message of love, unity and unwavering resistance spoke to a generation of young, marginalized blacks ¾ descendents of canal laborers, most, and many of Jamaican ancestry ¾ who were in a position to understand, literally and figuratively, Bob Marley’s call to arms. Many were ready to invoke that message and the rhythms that sustained it, in Spanish. Reggae en español was thus born.
Seated in a noisy Panama City cafeteria, Leonardo Renato Aulder Morrell is rattling off the names of the famous Panamanian athletes whose life-size photographs line the walls ¾ New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera, Hall of Famer Rod Carew, NBA all-star Rolando Blackman. Renato was the first true star of reggae en español and he speaks of the genre ¾ and it’s influence on reggaeton ¾ with an authority befitting his 40 years.
“It started in Panama because Panama is a place like the U.N.,” Renato says. “We have cultures from all over the world. We don’t have, like, guerrillas, war stuff. We’re a peaceful place. And in a peaceful country, people party much.”
By the 1980s, partying had indeed become the raison d’etre of Jamaican popular music, and in Panama, where the audience for Jamaican music was slowly growing, fans were taking note. Politically inspired roots reggae was beginning to fall out of fashion in the Caribbean, and dancehall was taking hold. A blend of bawdy, hip-hop-inspired toasting and danceable riddims, dancehall traded roots reggae’s socially committed lyrics for sex-fueled, sometimes violent braggadocio, its lilting melodies for sweaty, synthesized beats. The genre transformed the dance scene on the island, and soon it was everywhere in Panama ¾ but only in its original English form.
Renato was 13 and working for a local English-speaking DJ named Wassabanga when he got his first taste of the frenetic new style.
“I heard Wassabanga sing this stuff on this version, like ‘everybody lift up your hands and move your body, I want to see all the girls scream,’” Renato says. “One night he told me, ‘Hey, do what I’m doing, but do it in Spanish.’ So I said, ‘Yeah, but I don’t speak Spanish.’ He says, ‘Come on but you gotta learn ¾ ‘levantalamano’!”
At the time, not speaking Spanish was hardly uncommon for a certain small segment of Panamanian society. Renato’s father worked as a dredger for the Panama Canal Company and as such, he was raised a Zonian, one of more than 30,000 people (presumptive Republican presidential candidate John McCain and musician Stephen Stills notables among them) who lived in the controversial U.S.-controlled territory spanning the length of the canal, five miles on either side.
But unlike most of his peers inside the U.S.-run territory, Renato was black, and unlike virtually all Panamanians outside the Zone, he only spoke English, making him a double target for slurs ranging from “chombo” or “chumbo” (reserved for non-Spanish-speaking blacks) to the equally stinging “americano.” The irony of a such an outsider pioneering a style destined to be become part and parcel of Hispanic youth culture is not lost on Renato.
“I can’t say how a kid from the Canal Zone that didn’t know Spanish was gonna be the first artist to start the musical genre reggaeton,” he says, laughing. “My mother was in New York dancing to my song and she didn’t know it was me, because she knew her kid didn’t know how to speak Spanish.”
In 1984, Renato recorded Spanish reggae’s first bona fide hit. The song was “El D.E.N.I.,” a playful track loosely based on a popular Jamaican tune called “What Police Can Do.” Named after Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega’s notorious secret police force “El D.E.N.I.” featured original lyrics, and more importantly, a specifically Panamanian theme.Both a boastful party tune and a careful name-checking of the then-dictator, the song was an instant hit. (As it happened, Renato claims, Noriega liked the song, and called on him to perform at several political functions.)
Other Afro-Panamanians were soon to follow. As Spanish became the lingua franca of reggae from the region, artists like Chicho Man and Nando Boom became household names across the isthmus and beyond.
Panamanian reggae en español star El General is credited more than any other performer for bringing Spanish reggae into the international mainstream. Following in the footsteps of Panama’s most famous musician, salsero Ruben Blades, Franco moved to New York at the height of his success in the early 1990s to record his breakout album, “Muevelo con el General.” Featuring the hit single “Te ves buena,” the record made him the face of reggae en español ¾ by now a legitimate genre throughout Latin America. On side two of the “Muevelo” cassette was a cut called “Son Bow,” a near snare-for-snare Spanish-language remake of a popular dancehall hit by Jamaican MC Shabba Ranks. That hit was called “Dem Bow,” and it featured a simple, hypnotic drumbeat that would soon be cracking out of speakers worldwide: BOOOOM, chh, BOOM, chhk; BOOOOM, chh, BOOM, chhk.
Spanish reggae was evolving.
Exactly how and when Panamanian reggae en español became reggaeton is unclear, but it’s well-documented where this transformation took place ¾ in Puerto Rico. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, Jamaican dancehall and its Spanish-language offshoot in Panama were influencing a blossoming rap scene in the U.S. commonwealth. While roots reggae had been popular in Puerto Rico for years, its main audience was composed of wealthy white surfers known collectively as blanquitos. The sounds to emerge from San Juan’s poorer barrios would represent a different constituency. In the late 1980s, the New York-born, Puerto Rican-raised rapper Vico C began melding dancehall rhythms with the ghetto-centric lyrical stylings of American hip-hop to shape a sound far less lighthearted than that of El General or Renato. The “dem bow” riddim, by now the most popular Jamaican dancehall beat in Latin America, was central to the new sound, and by the mid-90s a new generation of Puerto Rican artists with names like Daddy Yankee and Ivy Queen were rhyming over it. The music was at first known simply as “dem bow,” then “underground.” Eventually, it became reggaeton.
Meanwhile, Spanish reggae performers in Panama, far from the United States and devoid of a unifying marketing tag like “reggaeton,” were slowly being left behind. El General’s success may have piqued the interest of the major U.S. labels, but by 2000 only a handful of Panamanian performers had record deals, and those who did complained that little promotional funding meant their impact was nil. A few artists, like the producer Rodney Clark (known by the antiquated slur for West Indian blacks, El Chombo), made their mark with the occasional international hit, but many more took day jobs. Some began to claim that Puerto Ricans had stolen their sound ¾ or at least turned it into something alleged to be Puerto Rican-born.
By some reports, Jamaican dancehall first arrived in Puerto Rico in the suitcases of visiting musicians from Panama. Another story has the Panamanian producer Ramón “Pucho” Bustamante collaborating with a Jamaican to create a salsa-infused variant of “dem bow” called “pounda,” then handing it over to Puerto Rican producers. While the truth is likely less clear-cut than either yarn, the debate over who started reggaeton, or rather, how Puerto Rican artists discovered “dem bow,” rages on outside shows and on countless Internet message boards today.
What’s known, though, is that by 2000, the burgeoning reggaeton scene in Puerto Rico had caught the attention of Francisco Saldana and Victor Cabrera, a pair of aspiring producers, born in the Dominican Republic but raised in Boston, who spent their days cooking and washing dishes at Harvard University’s Leverett Dining Hall and their nights making beats. In 2001, with the backing of a prominent Puerto Rican producer, the duo moved to Puerto Rico, took on the name Luny Tunes, and almost immediately began redefining reggaeton, giving the previously crude genre a commercial sheen layered with multi-tracked backing vocals, synths and computer-generated horns, flutes and guitar. Seldom absent was the “dem bow.”
Theirs was the sound that put reggaeton on the world stage in the summer of 2004, when Puerto Rican rapper Daddy Yankee released the now-famous “Gasolina,” which boom-chhk-ed its way to the top of the Latin charts on bouncing Luny Tunes beats. The song’s popularity was hardly a fluke. Capitalizing on growing interest among Latinos in the United States, reggaeton has since solidified its presence in the American soundscape, withr chart-topping releases by artists like Wisin & Yandel, Tego Calderon and Luny Tunes, themselves.
These days, Panamanian reggae performers regard Luny Tunes and the rest of Puerto Rico’s thriving reggaeton industry with more admiration than animus. Many insist that present-day Panamanian dancehall, popularly known as bultron, vultron or plena (not to be confused with the Puerto Rican folkloric music of the same name), is sonically distinct from Puerto Rican reggaeton and thus cannot be compared to it. Others simply give the commonwealth’s musicians their dues for advancing the genre.
But few artists here would let pride get in the way of an opportunity to make the charts outside of Panama. And as Saldana, Luny, explains: “If you don’t make a hit in Puerto Rico, it’s going to be hard for you. That’s why every reggaeton artist comes out to Puerto Rico. You have to blow up in Puerto Rico then go to the rest of the world.”
In 2006, the baby-faced reggae singer El Roockie became the first Panamanian to sign a record deal with Luny Tunes. Roockie has a thin mustache and ringlet curls that give him the innocent looks of a teenage boy. This is a good thing, his managers confide, given that Ivan Bladimir Banista is pushing 30.
It’s dusk in Panama City, and Roockie and his driver are following a dump truck into San Miguel, a tough neighborhood just beyond the boundary of what used to be the Canal Zone. Like many of Panama City’s poorer areas, San Miguel has the familiar trappings of first-world poverty: barred windows, chipped paint, exposed cinderblock. Many of the buildings here date back to the turn of the century, housing built to accommodate the influx of West Indian labor. The neighborhood is still mostly black.
“Most of my music is based on community problems,” Roockie says in barely audible Spanish. “The gangster problems, the education problems, how the government behaves toward poor people.” In Panama, most aspiring reggaeton performers ape the gaudy, hard-edged stylings of Puerto Rico’s biggest stars. But El Roockie has shied away from that, striking instead a balance of sugary sweet ballads and pointed, often spiritual, minor-key protest songs. Five albums into his career, he’s won over both the radio and the Rastas. His songs have names like “Niños de la calle,” and “Buay del barrio.” His first hit, in true roots-reggae fashion, was titled “Más violencia no.”
Banista makes no bones about his commercial aspirations. His official bio, updated for posting on the Luny Tunes Web site, reads like this: “In this new stage of his career, El Roockie is aiming at new horizons and new heights to climb, like a ranking in Billboard.” Still, he is hesitant to talk about his collaboration with Luny Tunes, and what the new album might mean to his career.
“Everything is going to depend on what God has to say,” he says. “All I want to do is pay for my children’s education. As soon as I can do that, I’ll feel good.”
As we drive off, Roockie’s latest single with Luny Tunes comes on the radio. It’s a “dem bow”-driven remake of one of his old songs, called “Bajo la vigilia de un santo,” “Under the watch of a saint.” The strings on this version build ominously, and between verses, there is a sample of a handgun cocking.
A few days later, on a balmy Friday afternoon, I’ll make my way to a local Panama City elementary school, where El Roockie is performing in a free, city-sponsored concert to commemorate the coronation of the capital’s carnival queen.
Roockie is only here for two songs this afternoon; a crew from the popular Panama Music label has the evening slot in the lineup. They’ll perform the closest thing to reggaeton tonight ¾ group throwdowns, surprise guests, gold chains and all.
Roockie, on the other hand, takes the stage alone and reaches back into his catalog for two of his sappier romantic hits, “Vengo de la casa de ella” (“I Come From Her House”) and “Mi cama te extraña” (“My Bed Misses You”). The “dem bow” is altogether absent.
Still, the boys and girls in the front row shriek with delight. Cordoned off behind a rent-a-fence, they yell his name again and again, rolling the “r”: “Roockie, Roockie!” Reggaetonero or not, he’s a hit. And for the moment at least, he’s theirs.