Putting a price on our musical heritage

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On  Sunday February 21, everybody in the lecture hall at the Institute of Jamaica was on a high, I’m sure. And there was not a spliff in sight. It was the third in the Reggae /  Black History Month ‘Grounation’ series on Don Drummond, hosted by The Jamaica Music Museum. The final session was on February 28, ‘Don Cosmic: Mad With the Madness of a Great Maestro’, featuring Dr Earl McKenzie, Dr Clinton Hutton and Prof Fred Hickling.

Grounation is a word coined by Rastafari to describe a ritual of reasoning. Philosophical conversation, music and dance are all essential elements of the Grounation. And, of course, the holy herb! It’s a gathering that is grounded in African traditions celebrating word, sound and power.

Four brilliant trombonists spoke about Don Drummond’s music and performed their interpretations of his work: Steve Turre of Saturday Night Live fame; jazz master Delfeayo Marsalis; youthful Andre Murchison, the current trombonist with the Skatalites; and our own Romeo Gray.

It was sublime. Or as the young people say, awesome! These days, the word ‘awesome’ has been watered down. In the 16th century, it meant “profoundly reverential”. Now, it’s American slang for just about anything, no matter how ordinary.

That Grounation was truly awesome. It felt like church. You know that moment of transcendence when you forget about everyday reality and enter an elevated space of pure spirituality. So I’m getting carried away. That is exactly what it felt like. Possessed by the spirit!

img_3350I overheard one of my breathless friends telling Herbie Miller, director-curator of the museum, that he didn’t need to do anything else after that programme. I knew what she meant. It’s the kind of thing you say when you’re high. But I couldn’t agree with her at all. There is so much more that needs to be done to make the Jamaica Museum Music what it ought to be.

HIGH-PROFILE SETTING FOR REGGAE

Next year, a major exhibition on Jamaican music will open in Paris. It’s called ‘Jamaica, Jamaica! Innovations and Inventions of Reggae Music’. The exhibition venue is the brand-new Paris Philharmonic, which opened in January 2015. The first concert was a performance of Gabriel Faure’s Requiem by the Paris Orchestra, in honour of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

The 2,400-seat concert hall is part of a magnificent cultural complex known as the City of Music. It includes the Music Museum, which houses a collection of about 4,400 musical instruments, some dating from the 16th century. And there’s a temporary exhibition space. This is the high-profile setting for ‘Jamaica, Jamaica!’

12631467_10153828301264098_7768649976598216411_nThe curator is the visionary Sebastien Carayol, a French journalist and documentary director. This is how he describes the project:  “Before anything, this exhibition is a musical exhibition – where the Jamaican music’s journey is used as a starting point and an Ariane’s thread of sorts to broach on the political, social, economic, religious and philosophical history of the island.

“Few other musical genres have generated so many of their own different, on many levels: Jamaica has been at the avant-garde in music (the offbeat rhythm), graphic and visual arts, as well as fashion. Hence the deliberate call in the exhibition to a vast array of non-photographic visuals, memorabilia, illustrations, paintings – all the way to conceptual artworks inspired indirectly by this culture.”

Ariane’s thread is a reference to Greek mythology. Ariane is the French spelling of the name of the Greek princess Ariadne. She fell in love with Theseus and gave him a ball of string to guide him out of the maze in which he was trapped. So, for Carayol, reggae music is the thread that connects all the elements of Jamaica’s complex culture.

WE JUST SALT

Carayol has been collecting artefacts for the exhibition from all over the world. Not surprisingly, Jamaica’s musical heritage is scattered across the globe. We just didn’t take the music seriously so we no longer own our heritage. And we certainly don’t have the money to buy it all back. Now that others have recognised its value, we just salt.

 

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Mural outside Jamaica Music Museum

What is even worse is this. Suppose we were to ask Sebastien Carayol to bring his exhibition to Kingston after Paris and he agreed. Where would we put it? So we don’t have a Philharmonie de Paris. That building cost approximately €386 million! But we certainly couldn’t take the exhibition to our makeshift museum space on Water Lane.

We need a state-of-the-art music museum in downtown Kingston that’s worthy of our UNESCO designation as a Creative City of Music. I suppose we could go and beg the Chinese for the building. But what would we give them in exchange? Cockpit Country? Dunn’s River Falls? The Goat Islands? All of the above?

We must remember the warning of Marcus Garvey: “The Negro who lives on the patronage of philanthropists is the most dangerous member of our society, because he is willing to turn back the clock of progress when his benefactors ask him so to do.”

We can’t depend on philanthropists for our music museum. We have to start building for ourselves. It’s a daunting task. But we can’t fold our hands and wait. We have a new Government that has promised to take us from poverty to prosperity. If only it was as easy as a campaign slogan!

Creating Wealth From Culture

In December 2015, The UNESCO Creative Cities Network dubbed Kingston a ‘Creative City of Music’. This distinction confirms what we already know. Kingston’s culture is world-class. In spite of all the problems of urban blight, the city does have the potential to become a livable home for all of us, and an attractive destination for tourists.

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But the history of the city is far from glamorous. Kingston was founded in July 1692 as a place of refuge for survivors of the Port Royal earthquake. They camped on the seafront in dreadful conditions. And mosquitoes ravaged them. Approximately 2,000 survivors of the earthquake died from diseases carried by mosquitoes.

It wasn’t ZIKV or chik-V. And, by the way, chik-V didn’t come to the Caribbean in the 21st century. As early as 1827, the disease was already in the region. In a case of mistaken identity, it was called dengue. That name comes from the Kiswahili language of East Africa. The word ‘dinga’ means ‘seizure, or cramp’.

But the big difference between chik-V and dengue is arthritis. Chik-V weakens the joints. And it has devastating consequences, both physical and social. For example, The Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases reports that, in 1827, “when the disease first appeared in St Thomas [US Virgin Islands], several Negroes, who, being all at once attacked with pain in the knees, had fallen down, [and] were actually apprehended by the police for drunkenness”.

SUSPICIOUS OF GOVERNMENT

Kingston gradually recovered from its disastrous start. By the middle of the 18th century, it had become the commercial centre of the island. Sitting on the seventh largest natural harbour in the world, the city was ideally located to be a global player in international trade.

1375285952-1In 1891, Kingston hosted the Great Exhibition. It was a very ambitious affair. Its aim was to show Jamaicans all the latest in foreign products and machinery; and to exhibit Jamaican products to foreign investors. The Jamaican economy was in decline and a small group of visionaries realised that something grand had to be done to drive productivity. One of them was George Stiebel, who made his money in shipping and mining.  Devon House was one of his homes.

The Exhibition wasn’t an easy sell. As Joy Lumsden reports in a 1991 article in the Jamaica Historical Society Bulletin, “From the start, it was feared that the attempts to get people to send produce to the exhibition was an indirect way of finding out how much they produced so that taxes could be increased.”

Sounds familiar. Many players in the field of the creative/cultural industries are now very suspicious of the Government’s relatively new interest in their work. Where was the Government when the music industry, for example, was struggling to establish itself in Kingston’s concrete jungle? And why the sudden interest in the earnings of the industry?

DISTINGUISHED WRITERS

UNESCO identifies seven creative fields in which selected cities are judged: Crafts and Folk Art, Design, Film, Gastronomy, Literature, Media Arts and Music. I think Kingston’s creativity extends way beyond music. We could just as easily have been recognised as a creative city of literature. And it’s not only Kingston; it’s the entire country.

Jamaica has produced a whole heap of distinguished writers. Edward Baugh, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Erna Brodber, Colin Channer, Michelle Cliff, Neville Dawes, Kwame Dawes,  H.G. DeLisser, Lorna Goodison, John Hearne, Roger Mais, Rachel Manley, Claude McKay, Kei Miller, Mervyn Morris, Tony McNeill, Mutabaruka, Velma Pollard, Claudia Rankine, Trevor Rhone, Andrew Salkey, Olive Senior, Dennis Scott, Tanya Shirley and Sylvia Wynter are just some of the writers whose work has received international recognition. Many have won major literary prizes.

Linton Kwesi Johnson, who was born in Chapelton and migrated to the UK as a child, enjoys the distinction of being the second living poet and the only black poet to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series.

lead_960Marlon James recently won the 2015 Man Booker prize and a 2015 American Book award for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings.  With all its blood and gore, the novel is Kingston hard-core. James’ transformation of the murderous reality of the city into brilliant literature is a powerful manifestation of the creativity of Jamaicans.

CULTURAL CAPITAL

In the 1970s, the Jamaica Tourist Board rebranded the island this way: “We’re more than a beach. We’re a country.” UNESCO’s designation of Kingston as a ‘Creative City of Music’ is good news. But we’re much more than music. We’re a creative country in so many domains.

So how are we going to turn our new UNESCO branding into cultural capital? And where is our museum of Jamaica music? It’s on Water Lane, an alley in downtown Kingston. The creators of our music deserve much, much better than this.

The director/curator of the so-called museum, Herbie Miller, has been given basket to carry nuff water. He has done his best to apply tar. Every Sunday in Reggae Month, he hosts a public forum on our music at the Institute of Jamaica’s lecture hall.  This year, the focus was on Don Drummond.

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Kingston is, indeed, a capital city for music and literature. If only all our politicians could understand this and invest in our culture!