Category Archives: Caribbean literature

A Tale of the Magical Calabash

imagesOnce upon a time, three friends, Colin, Kwame and Justine, set out looking for treasure.  Not quite.  They weren’t children playing in the sand.  They were adults who understood that treasure isn’t something you just find.  It’s what you create.  And they certainly knew about creativity:  Colin, the novelist; Kwame, the poet; and Justine, the producer of events from scratch.

So they conjured up this international literary festival and set it in an improbable location, Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth, Jamaica.  It would add a whole new dimension to Brand Jamaica!  They named the festival ‘Calabash’.  And they invited the world and his wife to attend.  Mateys were welcome too.  And admission was free.  Whosoever willed could come.

photos_1But why this quirky name?  Well, the festival was going to be held at Jake’s Hotel in Treasure Beach.  But that’s not a single beach.  It’s a string  of fishing villages: Billy’s Bay, Frenchman’s Bay, Great Pedro Bay and, yes, Calabash Bay.    Colin chose the name to honour the location of the festival.  And calabash also suggests creativity.  As we say, turning our hand to make fashion.

res1_07aThe hardy calabash, from both the tree and the vine, is very versatile.  It has several practical and artistic uses.  In many cultures of the world, the hollowed-out gourd is a water vessel.   And musical instruments are also created with calabash.  For both the sitar from India and the kora from West Africa, calabash is used as a resonator.  So the multi-functional calabash is a brilliant image for a homegrown literary festival that includes musical performance.

‘GLOBALICIOUS’
The twelfth staging of the Calabash International Literary Festival, a month ago, was dubbed ‘globalicious’ by Kwame Dawes, the programmer for the event.  And it certainly was both global and delicious.  The calabash was full to the brim and running over with both literary and musical delicacies.

Calabash2014Logo-300x256The writers came from twelve countries:  Antigua, Barbados, Belarus, England, India, Ireland, Jamaica, Kenya, Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago, Scotland and the USA.  And the musical performers were from Haiti, Jamaica, the UK and the USA.

For me, the most engaging writer/reader was Jamaica Kincaid.   She “shell down di place”, as one of my friends put it.  We’re now so attuned to the culture of the gun that excellence in all spheres of life is celebrated with a gun salute – whether verbal or literal.  A real pity!  Blame it on the military and all those Hollywood movies that big up gun violence.

boutique-hotel-Jakes-Hotel-Villas-and-Spa-St.-Eli-1-8-3-2-thumbA very close second was Salman Rushdie who turned out to be quite different from what I expected.  He was very cool; not at all stuck up.  As another of my wicked friends said, “nothing like a fatwa to keep you real”.  After the festival, I stayed on for a few days at Jake’s.  And the young man who carried my bags announced with quite a flourish that Salman Rushdie had stayed in that very cottage.  I must admit I felt like a groupie.

ngugi_wa_thiongoThen I was so looking forward to hearing Nguigi wa Thiong’o read.  He’s one of the stalwarts of the anti-colonial war on the African continent. Unfortunately, his daughter, Wanjiku, stole the show.  Literally.  She read for forty-five minutes, instead of her allotted twenty.  And her brother Mukoma read for thirty minutes.  So the Big Man had to be cut off soon after he began.  And it was such a powerful story he’d started to tell about coming home from boarding school to find that his village had disappeared.

OPEN MIKE, MAIN STAGE

 One of the highlights of the festival always is the Open Mike.  There are so many entertaining surprises.  Like the farmer and fisherman whose stage name is “The Incredible Steel”!  He rode 48 miles on his bicycle from Jerusalem, Santa Cruz to perform his poem, “The Voice”, in tribute to Tessanne Chin.  He got a standing ovation.  Then there was the cosmetologist, Venise Samuels, who performed a brilliant poem about unconscionable taxation.  So much talent!

Treasure Beach Sc_bc_TreasureB28The only disappointing aspect of Calabash is the lack of comfortable accommodations.  Of course, there’s very little the organisers of the festival can do about that.  After all, Treasure Beach, is a fishing village.  But some of the people in the rental business have rather grand names for very basic lodgings.  ‘Villa’ is a most pretentious word for a small four-bedroom house.  And there are ‘resorts’ that bear absolutely no resemblance to their upscale namesakes.  All you can say in their favour is that they are a last resort if you absolutely can’t find anywhere else to stay.

calabash-2007-stageBut all you really need for Calabash is a place to crash.  If you try to keep up with the programme, you would go non-stop from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. the next day!  And even if there are not too many villas and resorts in the fishing village, there is always the sea.  It’s a magnificent backdrop for the main stage.  I can’t imagine that there’s any literary festival anywhere on Earth that has a better setting.  It’s all in the magical calabash.

 

Vybz Kartel’s Book For CXC

images-3Vybz Kartel’s arresting book, The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto, co-authored with Michael Dawson of People’s Telecom fame, gives a penetrating account of the deadly conditions endured by too many youth who are barely surviving on the margins of Jamaican society. Claiming the authority of the traditional warner man, Kartel compels his audience to pay attention to his prophetic story. You just can’t put the book down.

Kartel’s intention is not to entertain but to upset: “As strange as it may sound, I hope you do not enjoy this book. I hope it disturbs you. I hope after reading you realise there is something wrong with Jamaica that needs to be fixed. I hope you will never look at a ghetto person the same again.”

Cynics have been asking if Kartel really wrote the book. They clearly have not listened to his songs. There’s an organic connection between the two: “… After seeing the crowd’s response to my conscious songs, I wanted to tell more of the story that I could not capture in three minutes riding a riddim. So I started writing, still unsure at the time if a book was what I wanted to do.”

Each of the 10 chapters amplifies the core concepts of selected songs. For example, chapter 1 is based on ‘Thank You Jah’:

Psalms 127 Selah,

Except di Lord build di house,

Dey labour in vain dat build it,

Except di Lord keep di city,

Di watchman watcheth, but in vain.

Thank yu, Jah, it’s just another day, selah,

It’s just another day,

Thank yu, Jah, mi wake up dis mornin

Roll out di herbs before mi start yawnin

Tun round buss a kiss pon mi dawlin

Tell har seh, “Honey, mi ah touch inna di steet.”

In di street mi see poor people bawlin

Nuff juvenile no even nyam from mornin,

“Weh di black woman future?”, me aks him

“Weh di system a do fi she”?

Now big up di gyal dem weh fight it alone

An ah raise two, three pickney pon dem own,

Weh di man deh? No man no deh home,

Babylon have dem inna jail.

Big up di juvenile dem inna di street

Weh a seh dem haffi make it

An nah touch di chrome!

Dem no waan wi fi claim our own,

But Africa nah form no fool inna Rome,

Ghetto youth, we go on and on

Babylon waan wi gone,

Hungry from morning til night come,

Dem waan wi fi live our life so,

Dem a wonder if di youth dem a go stop, no!

A wonder if di ghetto a go drop, no!

Dem a wonder if wi ketch inna di trap, no!

A wonder if Jah tun him back, no!

SAVAGES SAVING SOULS

‘Thank you, Jah’ is a prayer that every fundamentalist Christian in Jamaica can identify with – up to a point. Kartel chants his gratitude to Jah in Old Testament lyrics. But the song quickly changes tune and tone. ‘Thank you, Jah’ becomes a damning judgement on the failures of modern Babylon. Kartel’s invocation of the psalm is decidedly ironic.

images-1The Lord is certainly not keeping the city of Kingston. Babylon labours in vain to build a city founded on injustice. The so-called ‘system’ brutalises poor people in Jamaica. The profound philosophical question the song raises is whether or not ‘Jah tun him back’. Are ghetto people the victims of divine indifference, as Babylon hopes? The song condemns the conspiracy of Church and State to keep poor people in bondage.

In the book, Kartel has ample room to elaborate on the inequities of Jamaican society, especially the apparent willingness of the Church to postpone justice until ‘Thy kingdom come’. He gives a quick history lesson to demonstrate the origin of the racism at the root of imperial Christianity.

Christopher_Columbus3-1Kartel demolishes the myth of European conquest as a mission to save the souls of savages: “Sometimes, I wish Gaza was around in those days when these men came off their ships, dressed in their stockings, short pants and funny hats to tell Portmore people they are heathens so they should come and work for free and these men in stockings will show them salvation. I am confident you could stay from the toll road and hear those sailors begging for mercy when the Gaza done wid dem.” Although Kartel doesn’t want us to ‘enjoy’ the book, there’s lots of humour.

THE GARVEYITE AND THE BLEACHER

In a telephone interview last week, Michael Dawson explained his role in the creative process. He sees the book as a recording of the ‘reasonings’ between himself and Adidja ‘Vybz Kartel’ Palmer. In his ‘Preface’, Dawson admits the ironies of the project: “Many people have wondered how this improbable collaboration came about. How could someone who is a known Garveyite collude with the ‘Bleacher’ to write a book? … How did my Campion background find common ground with the Gaza?”

Dawson gives an intriguing answer: “I realised what Addi was reluctant to admit; that deep down he realised he had the gift of being a lyricist and the ability to put it on a dancehall rhythm like no one else had. He feared, however (my observation), that being known as a conscious artiste would gain him a label that he did not want.”

It was the opportunity to lecture at the University of the West Indies that changed Kartel’s mind. Wilmot Perkins must be turning in his grave. The ‘intellectual ghetto’ has clearly served its purpose, promoting dialogue between town and gown.

images-2The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto should be read in and out of school. It ought to be on the CXC social studies syllabus. It raises complex issues of social justice in an accessible way. This book will engage the attention of every student, from Campion College to Gaza Secondary. And Adidja Palmer needs to be given a fair trial. Quickly! Otherwise, we run the risk of turning Vybz Kartel into a political prisoner, fulfilling the expectation of the book cover.

6th Edward Baugh Distinguished lecture

Edward Baugh

This year, I will give the 6th annual  Edward Baugh Distinguished Lecture which  is put on by the Department of Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies, Mona.

Professor Emeritus Edward Baugh has earned an international reputation as an authority on Anglophone Caribbean poetry in general and on the work of Derek Walcott in particular.

An outstanding teacher, Professor Baugh has guided the  intellectual development of several generations of students at Mona.  I, myself, chose to do my PhD dissertation on Derek Walcott’s poetry and plays, largely because of Professor Baugh’s passion for the subject.

TheDistinguished  Lecture Series pays tribute to his stellar career.  Previous speakers  include Trinidadian writerEarl Lovelace,  Guyanese author/scholar Mark McWatt and Australian literary critic  Helen Tiffin, one of the co-authors of the foundational post-colonial text, The Empire Writes Back .  

Out of Many, One Problem

Miss Lou

In 1948, Louise Bennett’s subversive poem ‘Nayga Yard’ was published in Public Opinion. I don’t know what or who provoked Miss Lou. Beneath the humour of her poetry, there was always a serious intention to expose the true face of Jamaican society. This is how ‘Nayga Yard’ blasted off:

Cock cyaan beat cock eena cock own yard

We all know dat is true

Is who-for yard Jamaica is?

Is who dah beat up who?

Fast-forward to 2012. Last week, I got a most distressing email. Here’s an excerpt: “I too made my way to the Jamaica village to mark the celebration of our nation on Monday, August 6 with my daughter. My heart beating with pride, my body decked out in the national colours and my hands waving the flag, I excitedly joined the festivities. Then it was back home to Waterhouse where I live.

“This morning, I woke up feeling a sense of loss, not because ‘mi menopausal effects a kick mi an mek mi feel like a drug addict weh want a fix’, but because my daughter, who graduated from the UWI, went to a job interview a few months ago and was asked “is this address where you will come from to work every day?” Weh dem mean by dat? A yah so she live, so wah? So I, in my motherly wisdom, that is, trying to steer the child in the way of survival, caution her to change her address”.

COLOUR AND CLASS PREJUDICE

Waterhouse

As we celebrate the Olympic victories of our male and female athletes, we cannot afford to forget that after the festivities, we all have to go back home to Waterhouse. We have to confront the deep-rooted problems of colour and class prejudice in Jamaican society. This is how that distressed mother ended her heartbreaking email:

“If an interviewer says to a young person who is fresh out of college and has limited resources, that to have a car would help your personal development, what exactly do they mean, and if young people are not trained, where will the years of experience come from? If class and colour still takes [sic] precedence over character and hard work, should we be surprised when some of us decide ‘fi tun cruff’?”

In 1948, Miss Lou was much more optimistic than this mother from Waterhouse about the prospects for black people in colonial Jamaica:

Call fi Jamaica fastes sprinters

Gal or bwoy, an den

De foremos artis, doctor, scholar -

Nayga reign again!

Miss Lou humorously admits that ‘nayga’ are also dominant in less desirable spheres:

Go eena prison, poor house, jail

Asylum – wha yu see?

Nayga dah reign predominant!

De place belongs to we!

Who is fooling who?

Nobody in their right mind could look at the crowd of people in the National Stadium on August 6 and not see that Jamaica is a predominantly black society. Ninety per cent of Jamaicans are black, black, black. Bleach or no bleach. So why is our national motto, ‘Out of Many, One People’? Who are the ‘many’ and who are the ‘one’? Who came up with this motto? And what was its purpose? Who is fooling who? Or ‘whom’, in deference to the purists.

Incidentally, ‘whom’ is fast dying. The English language keeps on reinventing itself and bits and pieces fall by the wayside. But some of us in Jamaica will be the very last to know. We’re convinced that English grammar is divinely ordained. So a grammatical error is a sign of sin, not just a slip of the lip. For example, we assume that the use of ‘whom’ shows that we’re very righteous. Some of us even wrongly use ‘whom’ for ‘who’ as in, “May I say whom is calling?” It just sounds so ‘stush’.

TEDxIRIE

Anyhow, when I was asked by a newspaper ‘a farin’ to write an opinion piece on Jamaica to be published on Independence Day, I decided to focus on troubling questions about identity. I suppose I could have written an obviously celebratory piece ‘bigging up’ our athletes and singing the glories of Jamaica in many other fields of accomplishment.

I’d actually started off with the headline, ‘Jamaica – A Speck of Greatness’. I’d spoken on that topic at a TEDxIrie event held in April 2011 in Kingston. TED talks are designed to promote technology, entertainment and design. The x brand signifies a local event. The ‘Irie’ forum was organised by Knolly Moses, CEO of the cleverly named Panmedia, a digital agency specialising in mobile, social media, online marketing, and web development.

The forum’s goal was “to show the world that Jamaica’s size doesn’t limit what we can contribute globally in all areas of human activity”. TEDxIrie featured speakers in a range of fields: Ebony Patterson (fine art); Jacqueline Sutherland and Mark Jones (contact centre services); Kaiton Williams (information sciences); Wayne Marshall (not, Tru Tru Tru; this Marshall is an American ethnomusicologist with expertise in Caribbean popular music); I kicked off the forum, with a talk on repositioning Brand Jamaica.

As I started to write that Independence piece, the national motto kept on bothering me. It was forcing me to reflect on some of the deep-rooted contradictions of our society. So I decided to focus on the spirit of resistance to imperialism and racism in Jamaican culture, another form of celebration, I would argue: who-is-jamaica.html

Marlene Malahoo Forte

In a recent radio interview with Marlene Malahoo Forte, I was most surprised by her interpretation of the motto. ‘Many’ could mean people from different walks of life. It doesn’t necessarily signify race. Not even her predecessor Motty Perkins, in his worse moments of Anancyism, would make such claim. We’re still afraid to confront the issue of race and that’s why we continue to take comfort in our deceptive national motto. One people? Just ask that mother from Waterhouse.

Who is Jamaica?

The morning after Emancipation Day, August 1st, I took out my prized Independence commemorative plate from the hand-carved mahogany cabinet in which it’s kept.  It was a gift from the mother of a long-ago boyfriend who, incomprehensibly, complained constantly that she loved me more than him.  Needless to say, he didn’t last.  Gender politics in Jamaica can be quite complicated.

The plate does have a little chip, but it really doesn’t matter.  It’s the spirit of the thing that counts: a little bit of tactile history.  The decorated plate features the Jamaican coat of arms.  On February 3, 1661, Jamaica became the first British colony to receive its own arms.  The Latin motto grandly declaimed: ‘Indus uterque serviet uni’ (Both Indies will serve one).  From East to mythic West, colonial relations of domination were inscribed in heraldry.

1661 Coat of arms

The coat of arms memorializes the Amerindian people of Jamaica.  There is a woman bearing a basket of pineapples and a man holding a bow.  At school we were taught that they were Arawak.  These days, they are Taino.  But the subtle distinction is purely academic.  The native people of Xaymaca, as the island was once called, are extinct. In their culture, the pineapple symbolized hospitality.  Genocide was their reward for the naïve welcome they gave Christopher Columbus.   They survive only in the coat of arms and in the modest museum that is dedicated to their history.

Perched above the Taino man and woman is a crocodile.  This reptile has fared much better than the indigenous people.  Its descendants are still alive.  A popular tourist attraction is the Black River safari which allows foolhardy explorers to get up close and personal with crocodiles.  An ad for the safari promises:  “A smiling crocodile right alongside the boat.  You can touch him if you are brave”.

At Independence in 1962, the national motto, enshrined in the coat of arms, was changed to “Out of many, one people”.  Though this might at first appear to be a vast improvement on the servile Indies, both East and West, the new motto does encode problematic contradictions.  It marginalizes the nation’s black majority by asserting compulsively that the idealized face of the Jamaican nation is multiracial.  In actuality, approximately 90% of the population is of African origin; 7% is mixed-race; 3% is European, Chinese and East Indian combined.

It was my high school English teacher, Miss Julie Thorne, who, for me, first interrogated the racial politics of the supposedly unifying motto.  She had come from the United Kingdom to teach on an international   development program much like the Peace Corps.  As an outsider, she could immediately detect the fraudulence of the homogenizing racial myth.  She asked us students a rather cynical question.  “Out of many, one people?  Which one?”

The classic Jamaican film, The Harder They Come, released in 1972, documents the mood of the earlier decade.  Optimistic rural youth migrated to Kingston and the smaller towns, looking for fulfillment of the promise of Independence.

On my commemorative plate, there’s a map of Jamaica which highlights Kingston, Spanish Town, Mandeville, Montego Bay and Port Antonio.  These were the centres of commerce to which ambitious youth gravitated.   Jimmy Cliff, the star of The Harder They Come, sang their hopes:

‘You can get it if you really want,

But you must try, try and try, try and try

You’ll succeed at last’.

Cliff’s lyrics echo a famous 19th century exhortation that has been much spoofed:  “‘Tis a lesson you should heed, try, try again.  If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”.  Schoolchildren in Jamaica memorized that gem.  It motivated us to excel.  But ‘it’ often proved elusive, especially for the underclass who had no sustained access to formal education even after Independence.

The Jamaican sociologist Orlando Patterson wrote an empathetic novel The Children of Sisyphus, published in 1965, which skillfully recounts the uphill battle of those who tried to make it in Kingston, or ‘Killsome’, as Peter Tosh wittily dubbed the city.  The crushing boulders of oppression kept rolling back down.  Trapped in a cycle of repetitive failure, pauperised people struggled, nevertheless, to make meaning out of despair.

Reclaiming ancestral traditions of resistance, the urban poor fashioned new languages of survival.  Reggae music became the heartbeat of a people who refused extinction. In the words of Bob Marley’s “One Drop”:

“Feel it in the one drop

And we still find time to rap

We making a one stop

The generation gap

So feel this drumbeat as it beats within

Playing a rhythm resisting against the system”.

Reggae music filled the gap between reality and expectations. It articulated the philosophy and opinions of pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey.  The reggae drumbeat evoked Rastafari philosophy and livity, a coinage that is the decided antithesis of levity. With biblical authority, Rastafari claimed the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930 as fulfillment of the prophecy recorded in Psalm 68:31:  “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God”.

Marley’s conception of reggae as a rhythm of resistance brilliantly traces the lineage of ‘word, sound and power’ that connects African Jamaicans across several generations and to the continent.  The deployment of music as a therapeutic weapon of resistance is a long- established tradition in African Jamaican culture.

The abeng, a wind instrument of West African origin made from cow horn, is preserved in Jamaica by the legendary Maroons who emancipated themselves from enslavement.  In highly tactical wars of resistance, they defeated the British, asserting their right to self-government. The abeng sounded the alarm, protecting the Maroon strongholds from sudden attack.

The relationship of the Maroons to the wider community of African-Jamaicans is complex.  They signed a treaty with the British which demanded that they return belated runaways to plantation slavery.  Betrayal of other blacks was the price of their own freedom.  It is a familiar tale – divide and rule.

But even on the plantations, maroon traditions of resistance took root.  Forced to survive in the very belly of the beast, enslaved

Africans perfected weapons of war from within.  Silent poisoning of their supposed masters was a deadly tool.   And music, the drumbeat of resistance, was a potent language of communication through which those who were forced to simulate accommodation to servitude were empowered to exercise agency.

The word ‘abeng’ is of Twi origin.  This language provided much of the African-derived lexicon of the Jamaican Creole language that is now the mother tongue of most Jamaicans.  Devalued by the elite, the language of the majority speaks to the marginality of African culture in the construction of the nation state.

Conversely, cultural icon Louise Bennett, affectionately known as Miss Lou, has used her heart language to affirm Jamaican identity.  In her humorous poem “Independance”, [sic], which satirizes the song and dance of the elitist project of constitutional decolonization, Bennett creates a vociferous working-class persona, Miss Mattie, who has a rather grand vision of Jamaica’s geopolitical location:

Jamaican

She hope dem caution worl-map

Fi stop draw Jamaica small.

For de lickle speck cyaan show

We independantness at all!

Moresomever we must tell map dat

We don’t like we position –

Please kindly tek we out a sea

An draw we in de ocean

English 

She hopes they’ve warned the mapmakers

To stop drawing Jamaica so small

Because that little speck

Can’t show our greatness at all!

Moreover we must tell the mapmakers

That we don’t like our position –

Would they be kind enough to take us out of the sea

And relocate us in the ocean

Jamaicans are island people with a continental consciousness.  We remember our origins across oceans of history.  For us, Independence is not just about constitutional rearrangements.  It’s in our blood.  From Miss Mattie’s perspective:

Jamaican

Independence is we nature

Born an bred in all we do

And she glad fi see dat Government

Tun independent to

English

We are independent by nature

That’s how we’ve been born and bred

And she’s happy to see

That the government has now become independent

Elitist and popular conceptions of the Jamaican character finally converge.  Independent is who Jamaica is.

‘Worl-map Fi Stop Draw Jamaica Small!’

In a series of humorous poems written at the height of Independence euphoria in the early1960s, Louise Bennett, affectionately known as Miss Lou, raises some quite serious questions about Jamaica’s readiness for the rigours of independence.  In the opening verse of the poem, “Independance” – yes ‘dance’ – Miss Lou expresses her misgivings about the strains of the nation’s new political status:

Independance wid a vengeance!

Independance raisin Cain!

Jamaica start grow beard, ah hope

We chin can stan de strain!

Miss Lou acknowledges the fact that Independence is much more than the song and dance of Festival celebrations. It requires a capacity for self-sacrifice that some Jamaicans may stubbornly resist:

No easy-come by freeness tings,

Nuff labour, some privation,

Not much of dis an less of dat

An plenty studiration.

In “Independence Dignity” an excited speaker addresses a Jamaican away from home:

Dear Cousin Min, yuh miss sinting,

Yuh should be over yah

Fi see Independence Celebration

Capture Jamaica.

Miss Lou’s choice of the word ‘capture’ suggests that Independence may prove to be a rather restrictive state of affairs.  Like the ‘privation’ and ‘studiration’ that are the price of Independence, the level of discipline that the new nation’s status requires seems far different from the usual unruly conduct of some out of order Jamaicans:

Yuh waan see how Jamaica people

Rise to de occasion

An deestant up demself fi greet

De birt a dem new nation!

Not a stone was fling, not a samfie sting,

Not a soul gwan bad an lowrated;

Not a fight bruck out, not a bad-wud shout

As Independence was celebrated.

This amusing catalogue of all the bad behaviour that is temporarily suspended suggests that after rising to the occasion for one ‘degeh-degeh’ day, a lot of people will soon fall back on their old ‘lowrated’ ways.  The strains and stresses of behaving properly might prove to be very taxing.

The Higher Monkey Climb

Louise Bennett

In “Jamaica Elevate” Miss Lou creates yet another enthusiastic character who also writes to a Jamaican in the Diaspora, singing the praises of the new state of Independence.  But the speed with which the weight of Independence is dropped on Jamaica – biff, buff, baps – leaves the letter-writer dizzy:

So much tings happen so fas an quick

Me head still feel giddy!

Biff Referandum! Buff, Election!

Baps, Independence drop pon we!

Jamaican High Commission, London

At the root of the poem is the cautionary Jamaican proverb, ‘the higher monkey climb, the more him expose himself.’  The presumptuous elevation of Jamaica to a scanty army, an unformed navy, consuls and ambassadors who ‘Dah rub shoulder an dip mouth/ Eena heavy world affairs’, is clear evidence of the pride that goes before the fall.

The make-do armaments of the newly independent nation are remarkably similar to the stones that are not flung in “Independence Dignity.” The more things change, the more they remain the same:

We defence is not defenceless

For we got we half a brick,

We got we broken bottle

An we coocoomacca stick;

But we willin to put down we arms

In Peace and Freedom’s name

An we call upon de nations

Of de worl to do de same.

‘Me Heart Go Boop’

Sir Clifford Campbell,
first native governor-general

In “Jamaica Elevate” Miss Lou also raises the vexing issue of colour and class politics in the newly independent nation.  She highlights an amusing case of mistaken identity, underscoring old antagonisms. The new, native Governor-General, the Queen’s representative, resembles a family member, Bada John.  At Independence, the changing face of authority would seem to confirm the ‘elevation’ of not just the Jamaican state, but, more important, black people.

But with wicked wit Miss Lou reveals the purely superficial nature of what appears to be fundamental social change.  The immediate response to what looks like Bada John’s picture in the newspaper humorously defines the usual circumstances in which a black person would be deemed newsworthy in the media politics of the times – the heralding of misfortune:

Di fus day im picture print, de

Paper drop outa me han;

Me heart go boop, me bawl out

‘Something bad happen to John!

Sir Kenneth Blackburne, last British governor and first
governor-general of independent Jamaica

‘Meck dem draw de picture big so?

Him too ole fi pass exam!

Him no buy no sweepstake ticket?

Someting bad happen to John!’

Of course, nothing bad has happened to John.  But in the eyes of some backward Jamaicans, the resemblance between him and the Governor General would have been a clear sign that something bad had happened to that high office.  The representative of the queen really ought not to look like her subjects.

A Speck of Greatness

In all of the mockery of the grand rhetoric of Independence, Miss Lou does affirm the high self-esteem of so-called ‘ordinary’ Jamaicans. Miss Mattie, for example, has a rather expansive vision of Jamaica’s geopolitical location:

She hope dem caution worl-map

Fi stop draw Jamaica small

For de lickle speck cyaan show

We independantness at all!

Moresomever we must tell map dat

We don’t like we position –

Please kindly tek we out a sea

An draw we in de ocean

What independent-minded Miss Mattie does acknowledge is the fact that map-making is not an exact science.  Territorial borders shift as power dynamics change.  Furthermore her vivid image of repositioning us out of the sea and putting us into the ocean is a recognition of the transatlantic origins of the Jamaican people.

Our history is one of migration.  All of us foreigners who came, willingly or not, and now call this island our own, do have a sense of ancestral homelands. This speck of Jamaica is great because our conception of ourselves is not dependent solely on our present insular location. Beyond the boundaries of this little island, we envision landscapes of greatness that we can also claim as ours.

African Explorers Came Before Columbus

Several years ago, on a visit to the magnificent National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, I had a little catch-up with our tour guide.  We were in the Gulf of Mexico Hall, looking at Olmec artefacts.  The most famous works of the Olmecs are gigantic stone heads, some of which weigh 40 tons and are over two and half metres tall.

In 1862, the first Olmec head was unearthed in the state of Tabasco.  Almost a century later, the American archaeologist Matthew Stirling began excavations in 1942 in the ancient city of La Venta.  He discovered even more Olmec heads and found evidence of a civilization much older than the Mayan, Incan or Aztec, dating from about 1200 BC to 400 BC.

I knew a bit about the Olmec heads but I wanted to hear the official story. I asked the tour guide how he accounted for the African appearance of the heads.  It’s a long time ago so I can’t recall his exact words.  But it was something to this effect:  “Oh no!  It’s not African; it’s a jaguar”.  “A jaguar?” I asked in amazement.  “It looks much more like me than any jaguar.  Don’t you know that Africans were in the Americas long before Columbus?”

‘Jaguar’

The tour guide caved in:  “Yes, yes the lady is right”.  It was the only sensible thing to do.  If you look at head number 6 from San Lorenzo, Veracruz, there is no way you could mistake this decidedly human face for a jaguar.  But since it’s so obviously African, it had to mutate supernaturally into a non-human form.  The Mexican fairy tale of origins apparently could not accommodate an African genesis.

GAPS IN THE STORY

Sculptures from the Parthenon sold in 1816 to the British Museum

Museums are peculiar places, full of art and politics.  Their curators lock up pieces of the past in pretty cages and tell stories about them that are true or false to varying degrees. Many of these objects are stolen goods.  But that’s a whole other story.  Let’s just say that if the Greeks, for example, were to be properly paid for their cultural artefacts now imprisoned in the museums of their far more affluent neighbours, the proceeds would go a long way to help balance the national budget.

Acropolis museum

Better yet, if the artefacts were liberated and repatriated, the Greeks could make even bigger bucks in heritage tourism.  Museums are an essential component of the creative/cultural industries across the globe.  In non-Olympic years, one of London’s biggest attractions is the city’s network of museums and art galleries, some of which were funded, ultimately, from the bloody proceeds of plantation slavery.

Tate Gallery

Henry Tate, who made his millions in sugar refining, founded the Tate Gallery in 1897.  Tate started off rather modestly as a grocer’s apprentice in Liverpool in 1832 when he was only 13 years old.  True, slavery was abolished two years later in the British colonies in the Caribbean.  But Liverpool had been a major slaving port and, according to the website of the International Slavery Museum, “its ships and merchants dominated the transatlantic slave trade in the second half of the 18th century.  The town and its inhabitants derived great civic and personal wealth from the trade”.

On a related note, I ran into Ainsley Henriques, leader of the Jewish community in Jamaica, at the elegant launch of Diana McCaulay’s new novel, Huracan, two Fridays ago.

huracantrailer.htm

Ainsley and I  had a nice chat and he told me that several people had asked if he wasn’t going to respond to my column, published two weeks ago, on “Jews and Plantation Slavery in the Caribbean”.  He’d decided not to.  Like my Mexican tour guide, Ainsley seems to have conceded the accuracy of my account of the gaps in the story told by the Museum of Jamaican Jewish History.

AFRICA IN ANCIENT AMERICA

I discovered the Olmec civilisation in a book by the Guyanese linguist and anthropologist, Ivan Van Sertima, published in 1976.  The title makes a startling claim:  They Came Before Columbus:  The African Presence in Ancient America.  In addition to the spectacular Olmec heads, there was more evidence.

Peruvian portrait vessel

Von Wuthenau, an art historian and archaeologist at the University of the Americas in Mexico City, had unearthed many terracotta sculptures of ‘Negroid’ heads in clay, gold, copper and copal.  Van Sertima notes that the layers of soil in which these African sculptures were found “ranged from the earliest American civilizations right through to the Columbian contact period”.

Then Leo Wiener, a linguist at Harvard University, had earlier “stumbled upon a body of linguistic phenomena that indicated clearly to him the presence of an African and Arabic influence on some medieval Mexican and South American languages before the European contact period”.

Traditional pirogue

There was also the evidence of the boat-building skills and seafaring knowledge of Africans.  Small open boats could, in fact, cross the Atlantic, particularly with the assistance of the fast-flowing Guinea and Canaries currents. And the evidence kept piling up.  You just have to read Van Sertima’s book to get the whole story.  Closer to home, it makes you wonder who really discovered Discovery Bay and who had to run away from Runaway Bay.

Happy Birthday All The Same, Buju!

It’s Buju Banton’s 39th birthday today and it ‘hurt mi to mi heart’ that he’s behind bars.  Buju should be walking like a champion down Redemption Street.  Instead, he’s trapped in Uncle Sam’s conspiracy to derail his career.  It’s not an easy road he’s been forced to travel.

The Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison certainly understands the difficult path of the Rastaman as he ‘trods’ through creation.  In her poem, “The Road of the Dread”, she declares:

Lorna Goodison

That dey road no pave

like any other black-face road

it no have no definite color

and it fence two side

with live barbwire

And no look fi no milepost

fi measure you walking

and no tek no stone as

dead or familiar

for sometime you pass a ting

you know as . . . call it stone again

and is a snake ready fi squeeze yu

kill yu

or is a dead man tek him

possessions tease yu.

That poem, published in 1980 in Goodison’s first collection, Tamarind Season, uncannily predicts the way in which a snake-in-the-grass squeezed Mark Myrie, teasing him with the possessions of a dead man.  That trip to the warehouse to inspect a boat turned out to be a one-way street to catastrophe.

Spreading propaganda

Brought down by a paid informer, Mark Myrie seems to have carelessly forgotten what Buju Banton knows about the ways in which the political systems of the West work to spread propaganda against the innocent.  In his prophetic pan-Africanist chant, ‘Til I’m Laid to Rest, on the ‘Til Shiloh album, he details his sense of alienation in the Diaspora and his longing for repatriation.

‘Til I’m laid to rest, yes

Always be depress

There’s no life in di West

I know di East is di best

All di propaganda dem spread

Tongues will ha fi confess

Oh I’m in bondage living is a mess

And I’ve got to rise up alleviate the stress

No longer will I expose my weakness

He who seek knowledge begins with humbleness

Work 7 to 7 yet mi still penniless

Fa di food upon mi table Massa God bless

Holler fi di needy an shelterless

Ethiopia await all prince and princess

A decade ago, when ‘Til Shiloh was released, Buju’s bondage was metaphorical.  Today, it’s all too literal. Having foolishly exposed his weakness – running up his mouth with a stranger – Mark Myrie is paying a terrible penalty.  He’s facing the prospect of incarceration for fifteen years.

Myrie could have been given a mere three-year sentence if he had yielded to the temptation of a plea bargain.  But he has resolutely refused to concede guilt.  Some may say he’s foolish to hold out for justice.  But those of us who believe in his innocence completely understand why Mark wants his name cleared.

Stamina Daddy and Mr. Mention

‘Til Shiloh was a decisive turning point in the artist’s stellar career.  It marked his transition from dancehall DJ to roots reggae Rastafari icon.  Buju’s first two albums, Stamina Dadda and Mr. Mention, both released in 1992, are classic dancehall.  Most of the tracks focus on sexual love.  Buju pays respect to the shape and flexibility of the well-endowed woman in tunes like Mampy Size, Bxtty Rider and Love How the Gal Dem Flex.  But it’s not only the woman’s body that Buju admires.  It’s also her intelligence and her capacity to make her way in the world:  “Unu move up inna life no doubt about that”.

The early albums also include the exceptional ‘bad-man’ tunes Gun Unnu Want and Man Fe Dead.  Assuming the persona of the Hollywood gangster, Buju Banton discharges dangerous lyrics with unbelievable bravado: “Di amount a gun wi have wi can’t run outa stock”; and “Gun shot fi bus up inna informer head”.

But there was also the occasional politically charged song that anticipated Buju’s later preoccupation with social justice.  In How the World A Run from the Mr. Mention album, Buju takes up the mantle of the Warner man:

Where food is concerned there is a problem

Uman can’t find food fi gi di children

While di rich man have di chicken back a feed di dog dem

But woe be unto dem

He who rides against poor people shall perish inna di end

Voice of Jamaica, released in 2002, featured even more tunes focusing on social issues: Deportees (Things Change), Operation Ardent and Wicked Act featuring Busta Rhymes.

On tour in France in the 1990s, Buju had a Damascus Road conversion.  At the launch of his Rasta Got Soul album at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Buju told a compelling story of the impact of Burning Spear’s performance:  “Di man deliver such a set dat if dem never call mi right weh, mi just run come back a Jamaica. So mi inna di dressing room now an mi start tink inna mi self, it start come to me, ‘Mark, you’re not ready for this. No, you’re not. Yu lickle Bxtty Rider an yu lickle Love Mi Browning weak. Dis bigger dan you, man.’”

The very next day, Buju turned to Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry for a spliff and advice: “Lee, mi waan music, Iyah! Weh mi see di I dem a do, an mi see dem a play, mi cyaan, mi mi waan music, man.” This is how ‘Scratch’ responded: “Heh heh heh heh heh! Yu have to go out and make the music that the people can feel wid a humanistic approach.” The result was the masterful Til Shiloh.

Marcus Garvey

Til I’m Laid to Rest documents Buju’s trod across Africa and his ‘overstanding’ of Marcus Garvey’s vision of African Redemption:

What coulda bad so bout di East?

Everybody want a piece

Africa fi Africans, Marcus Mosiah speak

Unification outnumber defeat

What a day when we walkin down Redemption Street

Banner pon head, Bible inna hand

One an all mek wi trod di promised land

Buju go down a Congo stop inna Shashamane Land

Di city of Harare is where Selassie come from

In Addis Ababa then Botswana

Left Kenya an end up inna Ghana

Oh, what a beauty my eyesight behold

Only Ethiopia protect me from the cold

Keep the faith, Buju!  You’ll soon be walking down Redemption Street again.

Erna Brodber’s short story collection published

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