Category Archives: popular music

Twenty Years Of Reggae Day

Last Tuesday, July 1, was International Reggae Day. One of the highlights of the celebration was a huge video installation projected on to the exterior wall of The Jamaica Pegasus hotel. From Emancipation Park, it was quite a sight. Reggae posters from across the world were displayed, demonstrating the magnetic power of Jamaican popular culture, especially our music.

5-taj-francis-jamaicaI overheard a woman complaining with typical arrogance: “Mi a see picture from all bout an mi naa see nothing from Jamaica.” Mi naa lie. As soon as she said it, Taj Francis’ brilliant poster of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, the Upsetter, appeared with a big flag of Jamaica beside it. Seet deh! My lady laughed contentedly.

The moral of this little story is that we’re often so nationalistic we just can’t appreciate the global impact of Jamaican culture. It’s quite ironic. The fact that so many of the reggae posters came from outside Jamaica should be a cause for pride, not complaint.

We don’t seem to realise just how far Jamaican popular music has spread. We take our creativity for granted and we rarely stop to think about why so many people from such diverse cultures are attracted to the music produced on this little rock. And it’s not just the beat and the lyrics that fascinate foreigners. It’s also the academic value of the music.

ROOTZ RADICALS

Just last Friday, I got a telephone call from Christian Moll, a graduate student specialising in English/American studies and music at the University of Regensburg in Germany. He was trying to find an external supervisor for his thesis on dancehall. Moll is also a reggae artiste who has been performing for over a decade. His band, Rootz Radicals, plays original music, both roots and dancehall.

http://rootzradicalzsound.wix.com/rootzradicals

Of course, I’m going to take on the project. It sweet mi so til! Twenty-five years ago, this month, I presented my first academic paper on dancehall at the annual conference of the UK-based Society for Caribbean Studies, ‘Slackness Hiding From Culture: DJ Rule’. I am indebted to DJ Josey Wales for the title. That pioneering work has inspired a younger generation of scholars, both local and international, to take dancehall culture seriously.

So we’ve given reggae music to the world. But sometimes we act as if reggae was stolen from us. We conveniently forget that the roots of reggae run deep into other black musical traditions. African-American R&B, fused with jazz and mento, produced ska – Jamaican jazz! Ska evolved into rocksteady, then reggae, and now dancehall. And we hear the riddims of religious revival music in dancehall.

Jamaican popular music is a ‘mix-up an blenda’ of musical traditions, both sacred and secular, that take us straight across to the continent of Africa. We don’t ‘own’ the music. Of course, this certainly does not mean that individual creators of song lyrics, melodies and riddims are not entitled to claim all the benefits of their intellectual property.

PROTECTING THE FUTURE

Unknown-1One of the tragedies of our music industry is that so many of the pioneering artists were cruelly exploited. Not by foreigners, but by unconscionable Jamaican producers who knew that for some never-see-come-see artistes, just hearing their tune on the radio was enough of a reward.

Leading up to International Reggae Day, there was an excellent conference held on June 30. One of the sessions focused on ‘Copyright Term Extension: Preserving the Past and Protecting the Future’. No matter how many of these conferences are convened, there are still so many players in the creative industries who do not know their rights.

Another session examined ‘Social Design: The Power of Art to Transform Space’. Like the exterior wall of the Pegasus hotel! Thanks to Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson, founder of the International Reggae Poster Contest (IRPC), art moved out of the gallery and into public space. Phase Three Productions, one of the sponsors of International Reggae Day, provided technical support for the video installation.

reggea-poster-map-1The 2012 IRPC attracted 1,142 entries from 80 countries. In 2013, there were 1,100 submissions from 78 countries. The 2014 contest was launched on International Reggae Day, and within hours entries came in from Slovenia, the UK, India, Portugal, Croatia, Spain, Greece, Japan, Venezuela and, of course, Jamaica – as that anxious woman in Emancipation Park will be pleased to hear.

Andrea Davis, founder of International Reggae Day, must be commended for her grand vision. Two decades ago, she recognised that the globalisation of reggae should be acknowledged and celebrated. It hasn’t been an easy journey. Sometimes, vision isn’t enough. You also need plenty backative.

I think it’s most unfortunate that six years ago when the bright idea of a Reggae Month came from out of the blue, somebody forgot that we already had a Reggae Day. It would have been so sensible to build on the foundation laid by Andrea.

134_imgaWe could easily have dubbed July Reggae Month. It would now fit so well into the Government’s plan for ’90 Days of Summer’. There’s Sumfest, which, like its predecessor Sunsplash, helps to fill empty hotel rooms in the slow summer season. But we always have to keep on starting from scratch. We forget that protecting the future also means remembering the past.

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.

 

Cali P to give ‘Reggae Talk’ at UWI

Cali-P-20110131CThe very popular ‘Reggae Talks’ at the University of the West Indies, Mona continue on Thursday, April 11 at 7:00 p.m. in the Neville Hall lecture theatre (N1). First it was Jah9, then Protoje, then No-Maddz. This week’s speaker is the Swiss reggae artist Cali P who now lives in Jamaica.

In an exclusive interview with Gleaner writer Jordaine Delahaye, Cali P, whose legal name is Pierre Nanon, said, “I started writing lyrics and singing in Switzerland when I was 14. There were positives and negatives living there. Looking on it as a whole, I had a lot of moments where I really didn’t want to be there because I felt unwelcome. Not being white there makes people treat you like a foreigner at all times, and that can get really annoying”.

Born to a Swiss mother and a Guadeloupian father who is a Rastaman, Cali P knew where to turn to escape the alienation he felt in the land of his birth.  He feels much more at home in his adopted country.  The title of his talk, which will focus on his artistic development, is “musicCALI-sPeaKING”.

Protoje to lecture at UWI

Protoje20130220CThe Department of Literatures in English, University of the West Indies, Mona continues our series of ‘Reggae Talks’  on Thursday, March 28  at 7:00 p.m.  This week’s  featured guest is Protoje.  He will speak on the topic, “Music From My Heart”.  The venue is the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre in the Faculty of Humanities and Education.   Copies of his latest CD, “Eight Year Affair” will be on sale for $1,000.  The public is invited to attend and admission is free.

Who’s In Charge of the Rompin’ Shop?

Hot_Dancehall_Queen_by_answer973March is International Women’s Month.  It’s a good a time to talk about sexual politics in dancehall culture which is often dismissed by outsiders as misogynist. But dancehall culture can be seen in a quite different way as a celebration of full-bodied female sexuality.  Especially the substantial structure of the Black working-class woman whose body image is rarely validated in the middle-class Jamaican media!

The uninhibited display of female bodies in the dancehall is vividly illustrated in the lyrics of two foundation deejays whose endurance is legendary: Shabba Ranks and Lady Saw.   References to fleshy female body parts and oscillatory functions should not be seen just as devaluation of female sexuality.

32349In “Gone Up,” from the As Raw as Ever 1991 CD, Shabba, playing on the proverbial association between food and sex, notes that the price of a number of commodities is going up.  To a chorus of affirmative female voices, he asks women a rather pointed question and proceeds to give advice on negotiating a mutually beneficial sexual contract:

Woman, wa unu a do fi unu lovin?

(Wi a raise it to)

Before yu let off di work

Yu fi defend some dollars first

Mek a man know seh

Ten dollar can’t buy French cut

No mek no man work yu out

A body line, old truck.

‘Everything a raise’

images-2Shabba makes it clear that he’s not advocating prostitution. The complicated relationships between men and women cannot be reduced to purely economic terms of exchange. He insists that men must assume responsibility for their sexual partner.  It’s a moral issue:

Is not a matter a fact seh dat unu a sell it.

But some man seh dat dem want it.

As dem get it, dem run gone lef it.

No mek no man run gone lef it

An yu no get profit

Everything a raise, so weh unu a do?

Shabba encourages robotic, domesticated females to stand up for themselves. They are often too timid to question the unequal exchange of services and resources in the household:

Have some woman gwaan like dem no worth

Hitch up inna house like a house robot

House fi clean, dem clean dat up

An clothes fi wash, dem wash dat up

An dollars a run an dem naa get enough

Shabba chastises irresponsible men who waste household resources on carousing with their male cronies:

IcyMint32x405g100ctNow yu have some man no want do no spending

Dem wuda do di spending pon dem bredrin

An naa buy dem darling  a icymint.

An icymint is one of the cheapest sweets on the market. The depth of the delinquent man’s failure is measured in very common currency.

Erotica or pornography?

Lady Saw would certainly not put up with this kind of cheap man. In a decisive act of feminist emancipation, she cuts loose from conventional social expectations. Marian Hall’s spectacular performance of the role of “Lady Saw” is not often acknowledged as a calculated decision by the actress to make the best of the opportunity to earn a good living in the theatre of the dancehall.

images-3     Flamboyantly exhibitionist, Lady Saw embodies the erotic. But one viewer’s erotica is another’s pornography. So Lady Saw is usually censured for being far too loose—or “slack”. Even worse, she is often dismissed as a mere victim of patriarchy, robbed of all power. But it is Lady Saw’s anansi-like personality that appeals to a wide cross-section of intelligent fans – both male and female.

In addition to the sexually explicit songs for which she is infamous, Lady Saw’s repertoire includes impeccable hymns, country and western laments, songs of warning to women about the wiles of men and politically “conscious” lyrics that constitute hardcore socio-cultural analysis.

pa-4942810In a radio interview in the “Uncensored” series on Fame FM, Lady Saw boldly countered charges of vulgarity with absolute self- assurance:

Interviewer: Lady Saw, you do things like, yu grab yu crotch on stage. . . .

Lady Saw: Uh huh. Michael Jackson did it and nobody say anything about it.

Interviewer: And you gyrate on the ground. I mean, do you think this is acceptable for a woman?

Lady Saw: Yes, darling. For this woman. And a lot of woman would like to do the same but I guess they are too shy.

Shyness is not one of Lady Saw’s virtues. In response to the question, “Some people are saying that you are vulgar on stage and your lyrics are indecent. Do you think they are justified?”, she dismissively asserts: “I think critics are there to do their job and I am here to my job . . .  to entertain and please my fans.”

Aphrodisiac Avocado

So who’s in charge of the rompin’ shop? In the case of Shabba Ranks and Lady Saw it’s a clear draw.  And, not so surprisingly, even the frontrunners of the reggae revival are singing rompin’ shop songs. Last Thursday evening, Janine ‘Jah9’ Cunningham gave a brilliant lecture at the University of the West Indies, Mona, tracing her musical journey to her first CD, New Name.

images-4One of Jah9’s sweetest tracks ‘bigs up’ her ‘humble lion’ who is almost seven feet tall and wears size 14.  He satisfies her with the ‘right remedy’:  avocado. The aphrodisiac qualities of this fruit are well known.  At the album launch at Redbones, she put on the mask of her sunglasses to sing “Avocado”.

Jah9’s lecture was the first in a series of ‘Reggae Talks’ that are being hosted by the Department of Literatures English. Protoje will give this week’s lecture on Thursday at 7:00 p.m. in the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre (N1).  No-Maddz, Cali P and Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson follow.  The public is invited and admission is free. The reggae dancehall rompin’ shop has many rooms.

Taking Dennis Brown’s Name in Vain

   Image    The Crown Prince of Reggae has been royally dissed. D Brown’s duppy must be well vexed.  I expect he’s somewhere over the rainbow composing a wicked tune, and even wickeder lyrics, about the disorganisers of the tribute concert in his name. The Jamaica Reggae Industry Association (JARIA), Leggo Records, Sounds and Pressure and the Dennis Brown Trust are all going to be haunted for quite a long time.

       Since the inception of ‘Reggae Month’ in 2008, Dennis Brown’s name has been inextricably linked to the celebrations.  His birthday on February 1 has been a convenient date to launch the month’s activities. And the Dennis Brown Tribute Concert is a high-profile event. This year, the concert has been postponed two times.  First, it was lack of sponsorship; then security.  This is a very bad sign.   ‘Reggae Month’ seems to be in trouble.

The new date for the tribute concert is March 3, more than one month after Dennis Brown’s birthday. It’s like celebrating Christmas in January. There’s only one good thing about the postponement of the tribute.  Well, it may turn out to be a cancellation after all but let’s be optimistic for now.  In any case, the ‘cancelposting’ of the show proves that there’s nothing sacred about ‘Reggae Month’.  It doesn’t even have to be February!

Bob MarleyI suppose the rationale for dubbing February ‘Reggae Month’ was the fact that    the King of Reggae and the Crown Prince were born on the 6th and 1st respectively.  But instead of holding the whole month hostage to those two birthdays, I think we should free up February from all of the reggae-related events that have been compressed into the shortest month of the year.

I’m proposing that we celebrate the birthday of Dennis Brown and Bob Marley in February and that’s that.  If we want a ‘Reggae Month’, let’s find a less hectic season.  Cynics are already saying that ‘Reggae Month’ was intended to upstage ‘Black History Month’.  You know how ambivalent we are about blackness in this country. Be that as it may, there are eleven other months from which to choose.

International Reggae Day

images-6 I think July is an excellent candidate for ‘Reggae Month’.  There’s Sumfest, our international reggae festival, in the last week of the month.  And we shouldn’t forget the heroic efforts of our own cultural activist Andrea Davis to establish July 1 as International Reggae Day (IRD). The brand was launched in 1994 – almost two decades ago – as a “marketing platform for Jamaica’s creative industries and global Reggae culture”.

In a billboardbiz article, published on July 1, 2011, music journalist Patricia Meschino underscores the worldwide reach of Andrea’s vision: “Enabled by the proliferation of internet usage in the mid-90s and the rise of social media in the late ’00s, IRD now encompasses a vast international network of online newspapers, magazines, radio stations and other web based platforms, each tailoring their content on July 1 towards examining the power and potential of the island’s signature rhythm while highlighting the finest in Jamaican and international reggae, made by veterans and upstart artists alike”.

images-5 In the early years of the media festival, Andrea’s company, Jamaica Arts Holdings, promoted high-level workshops and full-scale concerts.  Celebration of IRD has become much more virtual over time largely because of lack of sponsorship for live events.  It’s a familiar story.  In the case of the Dennis Brown Tribute Concert, we may very well have to settle for a virtual, if not virtuous, staging this year.

‘Reggae Month’ Sound Clash

images-7    Whatever we decide about the scheduling of ‘Reggae Month’, we will still have to resolve the problem of clashing events.  In theory, JARIA’s calendar is the definitive guide to what’s on.  But it seems as if organisers of events don’t bother to consult JARIA.  They just do their own thing.

Before setting the date of my Global Reggae book launch, I checked with JARIA.  The only other event on their calendar for the 17th was the Jamaica Music Museum’s ‘Grounation’, scheduled for 2:00 p.m.  It was unlikely to clash with my 6:00 p.m. launch.

Then, out of the blue, the Dennis Brown Tribute Concert was rescheduled at exactly the same time.  Not even JARIA appears to have consulted JARIA!  Or, if they did, they must have decided that the launch of a book on the globalisation of reggae in ‘Reggae Month’ wasn’t all that important.  Then again, they may have assumed quite wrongly that people who read books don’t go to reggae concerts.

Seriously, though, the clash wouldn’t have mattered all that much really.  Patrons obviously do have the right to choose.  Except that Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, Jah9 and Protoje, who had all graciously agreed to make a cameo appearance at the launch, also needed to perform at the rescheduled Dennis Brown tribute, based on their earlier commitment.  Fortunately, No-Maddz and Cali P, the other ‘brand-name’ performers for the book launch, were not on that ill-fated show.

GlobalReggaeCoverWhen Ras Michael apologetically telephoned to let me know that he couldn’t make it back to PULS8 in time to do the invocation, I have to admit I called down judgement on the engineers of the clash.  I hadn’t realised how potent my words were.  Within an hour, Ras Michael called back to say that the show was cancelled.

Of course, I don’t actually take any responsibility for influencing the decisions made by the organisers of the tribute concert. It’s not my ‘judgement’ that mystically caused postponement.   ‘Me woulda never diss di Crown Prince’.  Hopefully, Dennis Brown will be honoured appropriately some time this year in a tribute concert that lives up to his name.  Respect is most certainly due, whatever the month.

Peter Tosh Pulse Interview

I’ve had several requests for this interview which I did with Peter Tosh after his last concert.  It was a magnificent performance  at Pulse Superjam in December 1983.

ToshPulse(Cooper)1984-06

Israeli Artist Wins First International Reggae Poster Contest

For the first time in its almost 40-year history, the National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) is hosting an exhibition of poster art.  It opens this morning at 11:00 o’clock and showcases the top 100 entries from the First International Reggae Poster Contest. Six hundred and seventy-eight designers from 80 countries submitted 1,142 posters! The lyrics of the Hotstepper, Ini Kamoze, are the inspiration for the title of the exhibition: ‘World-a-reggae’.

‘Freestylee’ poster

The contest was co-founded by Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson, a  Jamaican digital poster artist, and Maria Papaefstathiou, a German-born  graphic designer and art director who now lives in Greece.

Michael defines himself as an ‘artist without borders’.  This is not just because he was born in Jamaica, lives in the U.S. and traverses the globe on the digital highway.

Thompson’s conception of his ‘freestylee’ art as borderless also signifies his refusal to get caught in narrow definitions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture or ‘pure’ and ‘commercial’ art. And his work is ‘outer/national’.  It’s rooted in Jamaican culture and, at the same time, incisively engages with the whole world of international politics.

Maria’s brilliant blog, <www.graphicartnews.com>, documents what she calls her ‘twin passions’:  graphic arts and photography.  She describes her blog in this way:   “It is a blog for graphic designers and photographers, focusing on high quality designs and art photography. The ultimate desire is to constantly inspire people and expand their work all over the world.”

Maria’s ironic design

Partisan ‘Politricks’

Like Maria, Thompson is a politically committed artist whose sophisticated posters lucidly articulate the breadth and depth of his insights.  In an interview posted on the House of Reggae website, he talks about how he started to do poster art.  His story is a graphic indictment of partisan ‘politricks’ in Jamaica.

“My poster art goes back to the late 1970s in Jamaica. My first protest poster was about an incident in Jamaica called the Green Bay Massacre. An incident that took place on January 5, 1978 in which seven youths from the South Side ghetto in Kingston were lured to the Green Bay military firing range in Hellshire, St. Catherine and were executed by JDF (Jamaica Defense Force) Soldiers. This incident was shocking when the truth came out and I had to use my art to protest the massacre by the Jamaican State.

“Some Reggae artist[s] at the time also recorded protest tunes about the incident, songs like ‘Green Bay Killing’ by Big Youth and producer Glen Brown. Incidentally one of the youths who was killed in the massacre was a young Reggae singer name Glenroy Richards who ironically recorded the chune ‘Wicked Can’t Run Away,’ on Glen Brown’s ‘Youthman’ riddim. This chune was later renamed ‘Green Bay Killing’, this was a wicked dancehall anthem and a haunting tribute to those who suffer injustice at the hands of the ‘wicked men’”.

Reggae Hall of Fame

Thompson conceived the International Reggae Poster Contest as a first step towards the construction of a Reggae Hall of Fame Pavillion and performing arts centre in downtown Kingston.  Thompson’s grand vision encompasses not just the intellectual capital of reggae culture but also the symbolic architecture of the building that would house the enterprise.

Biomuseo, Panama City

Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson is talking Frank Gehry:  architect of the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain; the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles; the Experience Music Project, Seattle; The Vitra Design Museum, Germany; the Novartis campus, Switzerland.   A magnificent BioMuseo has been designed for Panama but it’s still under construction.

So why not Kingston, Jamaica?  I can just see it.  On Kingston Harbour, the 7th largest natural harbour in the world, with the majestic Blue Mountains as a spectacular backdrop, an organic mass of crumpled steel rises to affirm the indomitable spirit of the Jamaican people.  Well, that’s before the IMF ‘done wid wi.’  Greece and Spain, here we come.

Yes, ‘wi ha fi tek bad tings mek joke’.  But fun and joke aside, doesn’t reggae music deserve a hall of fame worthy of the global reach of Jamaican popular culture?  Who would have thought that out of Kingston’s concrete jungle would have come a ‘riddim’ of resistance that now reverberates across the world?  Reggae music and its wild child, dancehall, symbolize the unlimited potential of the creative industries that enable hard-working, talented people to make ‘nuff’ money out of brainpower.

Jamaica Music Museum

Thompson’s dream of a Frank Gehry-designed Reggae Hall of Fame does not at all diminish the value of the pioneering Jamaica Music Museum, now temporarily located on Water Lane.  ‘Yu ha fi creep before yu walk an den bolt like Usain’.  Mr. Herbert Miller, Director/Curator of the fledgling museum, is doing the best he can in the cramped quarters he’s been assigned by the Institute of Jamaica.

The Museum’s current exhibition, “Equal Rights:  Reggae and Social Change”, uses mostly record album covers, along with sound clips, music samples and poster boards to document social history.   It resonates with the National Gallery’s ‘World-a-reggae’.  Both exhibitions focus on visual sound.  The powerful word and sound of music are transformed into the equally powerful image and ‘zeen’ of graphic art design.

All the same, can you imagine what a Gehry building would do for downtown Kingston? And for the Jamaican economy?  Without a penny in my pocket for the project, I contacted the Frank Gehry practice and was taken quite seriously when I asked if the firm might be willing to consider designing the Reggae Hall of Fame.  What is needed is a formal proposal and a commitment from ‘whole heap’ of people all over the world who love reggae music to come up with the ‘dunny’.  It shouldn’t be hard to do if the overwhelming response to the First International Reggae Poster Contest is anything to go by.

Alon Braier, winner of the contest, is a freelance illustrator and reggae musician living in Jaffa, Israel. His brilliant poster, “Roots of Dub”, features King Tubby, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Augustus Pablo. Alon uses the image of the recurring circle to represent dub echoes. He got it completely right.  I knew he had to come to Jamaica for the opening of the exhibition.  I called my sparring partner, Ainsley Henriques, honorary secretary of the United Congregation of Israelites in Jamaica.  He immediately caught the vision of cross-cultural exchange.  With the support of the Israeli government, ‘di yute deh yah’ in the Promised Land of reggae.

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.

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.