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.

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Rastafari Reclaim Jewish Roots

Stuart Reeves photo

Last Sunday evening, a binghi was convened on the sandy ground of the Shaare Shalom synagogue, located downtown at the intersection of Duke and Charles Street.  This crossroads, named for British royalty, was transformed into a gateway to the roots of Rastafari.  Majestic Nyahbinghi singers and players of instruments celebrated the survival of both Jewish and African people who learned to chant songs of freedom in a strange land.

Grounded in the Bible, much of Rastafari symbolism is rooted in Judaism.  Though Rastafari themselves reject ‘ism and schism’, their philosophy and livity owe much to the ‘ism’ of the Jews. Captive Africans in the Americas identified with Jews enslaved in Babylon.  Zion became a code word for Africa; and Babylon was the Diaspora.

It was the Melodians who composed and first recorded the Rastafari chant, “By the Rivers of Babylon”, which was adapted from Psalm 137: 1-4.

“By the rivers of Babylon

Where we sat down

And there we wept

When we remember Zion

For the wicked carry us away captivity

Require from us a song

How can we sing King Alpha’s song

In a strange land?”

The holy book of the Jews provided vivid imagery for many other reggae songs, as in Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”.

“Old pirates, yes, they rob I

Sold I to the merchant ships

Minutes after they took I

From the bottomless pit

But my hand was made strong

By the hand of the Almighty

We forward in this generation

Triumphantly.”

Marley’s lyrics echo Genesis 49:24: “But his bow abode in strength, and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob”.

Shashamane

King Alpha, Emperor Haile Selassie I, empowered Rastafari to refrain from weeping in exile.  He facilitated the process of repatriation to the continent of Africa.  In 1948, the Emperor set aside 500 acres of his own land for Rastafarians in Jamaica and members of the Ethiopian World Federation Incorporated (EWF), based in the United States, to establish a settlement in Shashamane. The EWF took its mission from Psalm 34:14 – “Depart from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it”.

Kingston on the Edge

The cross-cultural groundation in the synagogue was part of Kingston on the Edge (KOTE), the exhilarating urban arts festival that ended yesterday.   First staged in 2007, KOTE continues to cross borders and level barriers.  This year’s theme was “Identity The Opened I”.  The sacred concert in the synagogue was certainly an eye-opener.

The photograph taken by Stuart Reeves documents the grandeur of the occasion. The sand on the floor is a reminder of the wandering of the children of Israel in the desert for 40 years after they escaped Egypt.  It is also a symbol of the divine promise recorded in Genesis 22:17: “That in blessing I will bless you, and in multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies”.

The Spanish Inquisition

During the Inquisition, many Jews were forced to convert to Christianity to escape death.  But they continued to practice Judaism in secret – in much the same way that many Christians in Jamaica practice obeah, I suppose. According to legend, the undercover Jews used sand on the floor to muffle the sounds of their prayers.

Behind the magnificent mahogany doors in the synagogue is the sacred space in which the Torah is housed.      These doors also provided a towering backdrop for the musicians. Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith, popularly known as ‘Melchizedek, the High Priest of reggae guitar’, was the chief celebrant.  The Hebrew word Melchizedek means ‘my king is righteousness’.

Enola Williams photo

All of the ‘Inna de Yard’ musicians who performed with Chinna Smith lived up to their righteous, royal calling: Kiddus I, Cedric Myton, Jesse Royal, to name just a few. Della Manley and Suzanne Couch also performed.  After the concert, Ras Sangie confided that it was he who had written “Wake Up and Live”, a song he gave to Bob Marley.

L A Lewis Almost Famous

Other events for this year’s KOTE festival included an Open House with the Rose Town Potters; a short film festival at Red Bones curated by David Morrison; a public forum on “Copyright Laws and the Creative Arts” at the National Gallery.  The Kapo Gallery was re-opened last Sunday.  One of my favourite Kapo paintings is titled ‘You Are My Plumbubi’.   It shows a man and woman tightly locked in an erotic embrace – a divine encounter.

Last Friday evening, the infamous L A Lewis, whose purported signature defaces many public spaces, made his debut as a ‘real-real’ artist at Redbones.  Described as a ‘conceptual’ artist, L A created an installation that included, according to the KOTE brochure, “some items that he has ‘actually touched’”.

More conventional artists like David Muir, Maxine Gibson, O’Neal Lawrence, Carol Crichton, Mortimer McPherson, Gisele Gardner, Garfield Morgan, Olivia McGilchrist, Mark Harrison, Ingrid Coke and Inasi also exhibited during the festival.

Thanks to the founders of KOTE – Enola Williams, Beatriz Pozueta, Carolyn Lazarus, Joaquin Portocarero and Omar Francis – we’ve been reminded yet again that, despite all the crime and violence, Kingston is a capital city.