Thursday 12 October 2017

Be Cool, Stay Sick and Turn Blue!

Although it is usually recognised that rock 'n roll emerged from the delta blues, people seldom go further back, beyond New Orleans of a century ago to examine the roots of the music in the Caribbean, on the island of Hispaniola - today Haiti & Dominican Republic - where the cultures of Central and West African slaves merged with that of Irish slaves deported as pagans by Cromwell. The story is beautifully told by Michael Ventura in his inimitable essay Hear That Long Snake Moan. Beyond the music itself, I love that some of our most common words in rock 'n roll slang are actually derived from Africa - and love repeating the story at length in bars (so you are forewarned!). Many of the terms, like "cool" for example, have a far deeper and more complex meaning that Africans should recover, understand and deploy. Partly because of this fascination, I started compiling a dictionary of words associated with rock 'n roll and the psychobilly subculture. Enjoy!

Psychobilly Dictionary (a work in progress)

Rockabilly = a form of rock ‘n roll usually played by only three musicians, wielding a stripped-down drum-kit (base, snare, side, high-hat), a steel-stringed lead guitar (sometimes even a 12-string), and a stand-up bull bass, usually played to a fast staccato rhythm.

Psychobilly = a form of Rockabilly that explicitly draws in its lyrics, mood, and style from the B-movie horror and suspense film genre of monsters and mobsters.

Billydolls = rockabilly and psychobilly dames, usually effecting either a retro ‘50s look or more outrageously morbid dress as in Vampira.

Knif = a reversal of fink, a US term meaning punk in its original sense, an undesirable person, a low-life, and like punk, adopted as a rebel self-descriptive. 

Stay sick = in typically inverted psychobilly cant, it means stay awesome, stay true to the psychobilly way of life; as with the phrase below, it has the virtue of being eight letters so readily tattooable on the knuckles. 

Turn blue = turn your back on the conservative norm, reject square life.

Square = the nature of the conventional world and those who inhabit it, unable to think outside of the box.

Stilyaga = style-hunters, Russian psychobillies of the 1950s, defiant of grey Stalinism, not to be confused with the fictional Russophile "Droogs" of A Clockwork Orange who owe more to skinhead subculture. 

Kaminari Zoku = Thunder Tribe, Japanese psychobilly gang of the 1950s, the name derived from the roar of their motorbikes. 

Canary = a female torch-singer, as in she sings like a canary. 

Dudes = city slickers, urban dandies in cool duds. 

Hep = from the Wolof term hepi, meaning in the know, streetwise, enlightened and worldly, later mutated into the be-bop term hip. 

Cats = psychobilly dudes, affecting the languid, aloof attitude common in domestic cats, the feminine of which is kittens. 

Betties = psychobilly kittens with their hair banged in Bettie Page style. 

Juke = from the Mandinka of Mali, meaning bad, in the sense of an unrighteous (ie: irreligious) person, thus a juke joint is an unrighteous place.

Boogie = derived from mbugi, a word of the Ki-Kongo of the Congo, meaning devilishly good. 

Mojo = the Ki-Kongo word for soul, meaning invested with transcendent, healing spirit power. 

Cool = from the Yoruba of Nigeria, meaning self-possessed, exhibiting grace under pressure, and a sophisticated, calm-yet-audacious representation to the world. 

Subfuck = underwhelming, nowhere near up to scratch, the opposite of cool. 

Funky = derived from the Ki-Kongo word lu-fuki, meaning a healthy sweat, as in that worked up by dancing or working on your hotrod. 

Dropped and chopped = a hotrod made from a vehicle that has had its suspension lowered to almost scrape the ground (dropped), and shortened (chopped). 

Shaved = a hotrod that has had all its door-handles and other protrusions removed to provide a smooth profile. 

Lead sled = a big gas guzzling hot-rodded sedan, dropped so that it rides like a sled, but unchopped.

Rat rod = a hotrod that is deliberately not polished up but rather left with its natural patina of rust and chipped paint, often augmented by whimsical psychobilly items such as moonshine barrels or hatchet gearshifts.

Witchdoctor = a member of the clergy, a jungle piss-take on the religious square. 

Jungle = a rhythmic African drumming technique based on the congas, signifying a wild abandon (yes, this way predates Tricky!).