Lessons from St Lucia Jazz

The producers of the Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival really ought to go back to the drawing board and rethink the concept.  TurnKey Productions, the US-based company that has been staging the festival right from the start, needs to change key.

Trapped in the old Air Jamaica format of less jazz and more everything else, the rebranded jazz and blues festival rarely satisfies the discriminating taste of expectant jazz fans. The headliners for this year’s 15th anniversary production clearly illustrate the problem.  Maroon 5 are pop rock; Ron Isley is R&B; Natalie Cole is also R&B with a shimmer of jazz.  She did a magnificent set but it certainly wasn’t hardcore jazz.  Or even blues.

Morgan Heritage

By contrast, St Lucia Jazz is the real deal. True, the festival does include music in other genres.  For example, Morgan Heritage did us proud with a blistering set on the last day.  But the bill is much more jazz than anything else.  I was fortunate to catch the 20th staging of this calendar event last month.  I’d been invited to give a lecture hosted by the Open Campus of the University of the West Indies, St. Lucia.  The title we agreed on was “Islands Beyond Envy:  Liberating Nation Language in the Caribbean.”

The topic of the lecture acknowledged the artistic struggles of St. Lucian Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott to find his own voice.  In one of his essays published in 1970, the poet describes the unenviable position in which he found himself as a young man learning to master the craft of writing in a colonial backwater:  ‘I sighed up a continent of envy when I studied English literature, yet, when I tried to talk as I wrote, my voice sounded affected or too raw.’

Sounds familiar?  As our own poet of the people Mutabaruka puts it so wittily, ‘the language we write we can’t talk; and the language we talk we can’t write.’  Enslaved by envy, the juvenile Walcott at first paid little attention to the language of local verbal arts: St. Lucian Creole.  Eventually, he liberated himself by opening his ears to the sounds of street culture.

LIME’s sweet party

One of the big hits of the St. Lucia jazz festival is the free lunch hour concerts held in the square that’s named in honour of Walcott.

A large cross-section of St Lucian society, including enthusiastic high school students, turned out in huge numbers, three days in a row, to hear some of the stars of the festival perform in the day-time concert series for which LIME was the lead sponsor.

LIME seems to have had a rather sour experience with the organisers of St. Lucia Jazz.  The company was the original sponsor of the whole festival and then got displaced by newcomer Digicel. It’s a familiar tale.  Obviously, as an outsider, I don’t know the whole story.   In any case, proverbial wisdom warns that ‘cockroach no business inna fowl fight.’   But even cockroach can speculatively put two and two together.  How could Cable and Wireless, now astringent LIME, start off as a monopoly and end up as the underdog fighting to survive in a market the company once dominated? Competition is a hell of thing.

All the same, LIME certainly knows how to throw a sweet party. On the Saturday night of the festival the company hosted an event billed as ‘Rapture Theme Party.’  I hit the dance floor running.  At my lecture, I got a good joke from a man who complained that I’d stopped him and his wife from leaving the party. Since I appeared to be older than them, they couldn’t bear the thought of being outdone by a senior citizen with obviously much more stamina.  So they had to keep dancing.  ‘Mi nearly dead with laugh.’

‘Church in the jook joint’

For me, the outstanding performance of St Lucia Jazz this year was given by Regina Carter.  A ‘classically’ trained violinist, she magisterially demonstrated the eclectic fusion that is jazz is in its purest form.  I put ‘classically’ in quotes because I know that supposedly ‘classical’ music is not just European ‘art music.’  It’s simply the best of the best.

A lot of the music we now think of as ‘classical’ started life as lowly popular culture.  So it’s not about ‘class’.  It’s all about aesthetics.  No culture has the monopoly on classic music.  With or without cables, wires and all sorts of strings.

Carter’s jazz band brilliantly illustrated the harmonising of European and African musical instruments:  violin, double bass, accordion and kora.  The kora is made from half of a huge calabash covered with cowskin, with a notched bridge for its 21 strings.  The sound plucks your heartstrings.

Another memorable performance came from R&B/jazz/gospel diva Ledisi who wickedly described her set as ‘church in the jook joint.’  Her insight reminded me of James Baldwin’s witty observation in the novel Go Tell It on the Mountain that it’s hard to hear any difference between the secular music of the sinners going home from the club late Saturday night and the sacred music of the saints going to church Sunday morning.

‘Jook’ is a fascinating word.  A variant of ‘juke’ – as in juke box – the word has African origins.  The Dictionary of Jamaican English compares ‘jook’ with Fulani ‘jukka’, meaning ‘spur, poke; knock down as fruit.’  The dictionary also notes the Cameroons pidgin expression, ‘juk am’, meaning ‘pierce, prick, etc.’

     Like ‘jazz’ itself, ‘jook’ has sexual overtones. In her book Jookin’:  The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture, sociologist Katrina Hazzard-Gordon highlights the vital role of the jook joint in nurturing the body, soul and spirit.  If we really want the Air Jamaica jazz and blues festival to ‘tek life’, TurnKey needs to jook it with a lot more jazz.

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