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 Channer, the novelist; Kwame Dawes, the poet; and Justine Henzell, 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.