Oh For the Love of Trees

The Poinciana flower

The Poinciana in bloom looks like a tree ablaze.

It’s easy to lose perspective in the heat and noise of Kingston. Faced by the constant rising tide of the cost of living, it’s easy to forget why this country was dubbed called the land of wood and water. Though Kingston is embraced by the beautiful Caribbean sea and cradled by the Blue Mountains many of us rarely take the time to look up or look out. Our vision is blocked by that insolent taxi-man who just bad-drive you (and possibly sent you two pieces of his favourite claat to top it off) and the myriad of other things that annoy and frustrate.

Driving through downtown Kingston and seeing the dilapidated skeleton of a city that was can be heart breaking. But to focus on the decay and poverty is to miss the true potential of this city. To see only the noise and heat is to miss its beauty.

What I love most about Kingston is when the city blooms. It’s June and the poinciana is robed in fiery orange petals which have earned it its other names of flame tree and flamboyant. The golden shower tree, boasting massive cascading bunches of petals that are reminiscent of little girls with breaking-and-entering tendencies.

Neither the Poinciana nor the Golden Shower are endemic to Jamaica, but they are an important part of Jamaica’s over 3000 species of flowering plants. But Jamaicans have a strange relationship with plants. For many of us, unless they are potted, bought from a plant shop or gifted by a friend (and sometimes even a stranger) they are just bush, nameless, anonymous. And as much as our people, our plants reflect our multiple origins. They remind us that many cultures and beliefs are fused into who we are, they are a part of our out of many that has become one.

The Karato or the century plant

The Karato or the century plant blooms on the hills among the rocks

So these trees are a part of the reason that when I think I’ve had enough, when I hear another budget being read and mistake it for Canada calling, these trees remind me that I am home. Every time I see the Poinciana, the Poui, the Lignum Vitae, the Karato, or even the ignominious shrubs like the shame-a-lady and the ramgoat roses … they remind me that there is beauty here.

So for the love of trees I remain, and remind myself that Buju was right, those who can afford to run will run, but some will have to stand. And so I stand … under the cooling shade of a Lignum Vitae, hoping to gain strength and wisdom from its gnarled, hardened wood, trying to figure out how I can make a difference in the 50 years to come.

50 Days Toward Jamaica 50

Jamaica 50 logo

Jamaica 50 logo

In just under 50 days, Jamaica will officially mark it’s 50th year as an independent nation on August 6, 2012. As we trod toward that important date and jump over the numerous fracas that continue to mark the commemoration I wanted to craft 50 posts in the fifty days leading up to Jamaica 50. I am two days behind.

In numerous posts I have expressed my frustration with this nation so, I thought I would start my Jamaica 50 in 50 series simply by making a pledge, the national pledge in fact:

Before God and all mankind, I pledge the love and loyalty of my heart, the wisdom and courage of my mind, the strength and vigour of my body in the service of my fellow citizens; I promise to stand up for Justice, Brotherhood and Peace, to work diligently and creatively, to think generously and honestly, so that Jamaica may, under God, increase in beauty, fellowship and prosperity, and play her part in advancing the welfare of the whole human race.

May be it is because you have to learn these things by route, but I think its easy to not really pay attention to what the words truly say. But reading these words again remind me of what I must do if I wish at all to make a difference in this country, in this world. I particularly like that the pledge leaps beyond our island state to speak to our roles as citizens of the world.

So I pledge…

‘On a Mission’ – Notes on Misdirection

The Doctor Bird in effigy

There is a myth that says the doctor bird has its name because the fluttering of its wings can heal depression

Maybe it was because I had just watched Snow White and the Huntsman, but when I listened to ‘On A Mission’ the anthem for Jamaica 50, I felt as though someone was trying to rip my heart out and crush it. For the umpteenth time I understood what Edward Baugh meant in the phrase “this bruk spirit kiss mi heart place,” because once again Jamaica land I love left me heartbroken.

I’d been half-listening half reading the comments about the song, some in person, some on twitter and finally, with the twitter rants of @bigblackbarry  I succumbed, stopped trying to avoid it and gave it a listen. From the opening, my heart began to sink. As much as I love Shaggy, beginning the song with a “Yo! Yo! Yo!” such an Americanism was a clear indication that on this mission, something had gone amiss or maybe the song is really a mere note on misdirection.

‘On a Mission’ isn’t a bad song as far as pop songs go anyway. Its lyrics are decent, offering a positive uplifting message. Given enough airplay, I’m sure that it will catch on. The truth is, that song popularity often has a lot to do with playing a song so much that it drowns out thought. I’ve caught myself singing more than a few Rihanna songs, and I’m no fan of hers.

However, it’s heartbreaking because it is set to a dance or house (honestly I don’t know the difference) soca rhythm with occasional sprinklings of dancehall and cadences of soca. This makes it a blatant insult to Jamaican culture, not because anything is intrinsically wrong with House or Soca, but by not using the music with which we have made the greatest meaning, the music through which we have bared our soul to the world, it suggests that 50 years after independence we are not good enough.

I’m on the last few pages of Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care, and I was constantly blown away by his definitions and descriptions of reggae. In one passage Bhattacharya described it thus “Reggae was the music of slavery. Its impulse was resistance, confrontation, a homeland severed so absolutely, seized back by force of imagination or ideology.” I don’t fully agree with Bhattacharya about this description as I believe that Reggae is the music of freedom not slavery. But where I must agree is that it captures our resistance, our confrontation, our imagined journeys to Africa, and an intense love for Jamaica even in the face of mind bending poverty and disillusion and violence. Reggae is filled with numerous praise songs of Jamaica and without touching on a single festival song (which are admittedly biased) we can produce a slew of songs from Josey Wales ‘Sweet Sweet Jamaica’ to Protoje’s ‘JA’.

And yet, in this our 50th year we are being asked to move and groove to a foreign beat, as though the fact that over 50 years ago we ingested and made imported beats anew was not enough.  That birthing ska, rocksteady, reggae and dancehall was not enough. Still those responsible for leading us, those with the power in the society continue to believe that we must look beyond ourselves to find ourselves.  If that is the mission, we must call it into question because it appears to be a path to forgetting ourselves.

It’s a clear sign that we do not understand the value of Reggae to Jamaica, whether economically or culturally. Jamaica 50 is a time to showcase, acknowledge, celebrate the best of ourselves, not merely paint a veneer of syrupy untruths.  Reggae is an inalienable element of that. People invent music that speaks to and of their reality. Reggae is no different. It is who we are, it is how we have made meaning, it is a part of why we remain defiant, indefatigable even when good sense says we should all just give in and migrate.

But unable to fully express how this music makes meaning for us, I turn to the voice of a poet and invoke Mel Cooke’s ‘Creation’…


In the beginning was the word
And the word was with God and the word was God
In the beginning was the word – simple, pure, divine…
And then, there was a bassline

Rolling thunder from the soul
Grumbling under the control of Family Man’s
Fingers on a four string Fender
Into the amplifier
Out the speaker
In a groove
The people moved
And it was good

Very good

The poet said, that’s a nice part
But where’s the heart?
And behold, I heard Style Scott’s drums start
The hi-hat was crisp and clear
There was a one-drop on the snare
The echo on the rimshot sounded near
And the kick drum
The kick drum
The kick kick drum….

Was heavy

Then the poet said, let self take flight
And Ras Brass horns came in, nice and tight
Soaring above drum and bass
Up and up and up into head space
And just when it seem they going someplace
Human hearing can’t follow
They come down and down and down
Until them and drum and bass blend
You can’t tell where one start, the other end
You just know sey when music nice
It must play twice
So the poet said ‘lif’ it up again!’

And before the people could be bored
In came Ansell Collins’ keyboard
With an organ bubble
So subtle
It no really clear
If you a hear double
But you still hear suppen
Like Beardsman Shuffle
And the waistline respond

And the poet said
Me a lef out suppen yu know star
Where is the guitar?
And behold, it came as if from afar
Cheng, cheng, cheng, chenge, chenge

And the poet said it was good, very good
Blessed it and called it reggae
String up Kilamanjaro and tested
On the stroke of midnight Ricky Trooper selected
We listened to rub a dub – and rested

by Mel Cooke

Its Time to Set Up Shop

“Economics 3: Verse 15 And it was written in those days, If thy nine to five doth not cover thy bills, thou betta be a hustla” – Dingo

Peanut Vendor

The peanut vendor is one of the most intrepid hustlers, an ever present figure at any event

Jamaica is a country wracked by debt so huge that it is threatening to squeeze the life blood out of its people. The recent announcement of new tax measures by Jamaica’s current Minister of Finance, has re-iterated a simple truth that has remained for the last three decades of the country: our politicians have no idea how to get us out of our worsening debt situation in which they have placed us. The current medicine is the same that is applied each year, levy more taxes. One would think as the plan continues to fail that they would try a new tactic. Alas, no such luck. But what they really need to do, is listen to Damian Marley and set up shop, that is, find the things we are good at, support it and allow the country to earn from it.
It’s often said that much of Jamaica’s economic trouble comes from the fact that our people are lazy and more interested in engaging in opportunism to make a quick buck rather than earning by the sweat of our brow. Interestingly, this assertion is often made by people ensconced in air-conditioned offices and thereby liberated from the stench and unsightliness of sweat. While there are lazy Jamaicans, that’s a given, every country has its share of lazy people, it’s in the social contract, Jamaicans are an industrious people. But this industriousness is often mislabeled and sometimes misdirected.
Case in point is Damian Marley’s latest single ‘Set Up Shop’. I’m particularly interested in the song because the entrepreneurship it describes is often ignored or at best viewed as two steps above wutlessness (which in Jamaica applies more active energy to the state of worthlessness). They are often seen as mere hustlers.
If you check the dictionary (and by that I mean the Oxford Dictionary), it will define hustling as aggressive or illicit selling. But for those who make their living on the periphery  of society especially those below the economic borderline,  hustling and illicit are often two very different things. So while sometimes a hustle might ‘scale’ the wrong side of the legal fence most hustlers merely engage in an informal income stream which can range anywhere from buying and selling to trading in your skills outside of office hours.  Much of our entrepreneurial spirit is manifested as hustling or opportunism. The people who realize that opportunities don’t always knock, so sometimes you have to sneak into the house through the back door to get at it.
In fairness, Set Up Shop isn’t original in tackling this topic. It’s already made an appearance in Marley’s own repertoire and more recently Specialist’s ‘Street Hustle’ was also a notable variant on the same theme. The visual paradoxes that are included in the video of Set Up Shop by its director Winston ‘Tyson’ May-hew certainly add to the song’s social commentary.

I’m immediately struck by the opening image of the Rastaman (Marley) in a field, reading a newspaper behind a traditional office desk.  (Now, I advise that you take a moment to look at the headlines plastered over the Star Newspaper that Junior Gong is reading. The main headline says “Woman Boxes Thief With Blackberry’.) But that gripping headline aside, what this image immediately speaks to is the growth potential of Jamaica’s entertainment sector if it is treated as a real business. It’s not accidental that the DJ sings in a field of burning cane. Jamaica needs to move beyond its agrarian economics, and explore industries where we have a greater competitive advantage.

Jamaica has generally been unable (and by unable I mean we have never applied concerted and consistent effort) to transform hustling into sustainable entrepreneurship. Chinese and Syrian/Arabic Jamaicans have successfully done this. Jamaica’s major boardrooms are littered with people whose forefathers started out peddling cloth or some other item, on foot, then by cart until eventually they set up shop.
Even so, Jamaica has a very high rate of start-ups. Much of this takes place at the informal level. This speaks to the constant attempts by ordinary Jamaicans to take lemons and make sky juice. This willingness to ignore or work around the system is probably the major reason that despite thinking that the new slate of taxes will mean greater hardship, there are no planned protests. In the main, Jamaicans expected no other result. We have become inured to a system which is automatically stacked against you, so unless you can cut and go through, climb over, dig under or otherwise circumvent the system, you are doomed to sufferation. It is this knowledge which underlies the phrase “no problem”, which when said by a Jamaican is filled with the irony left out of the t-shirt based slogan. We’re not unaware of the problem, we know it exists, but to focus on it is to admit defeat, is to die. So instead we laugh, dance or sing it off. We move on because the alternative is unacceptable.
And this brings us to the areas in which we should be setting up our greatest shop. Our creative industries. While Marley pays tribute to numerous other careers in ‘Set Up Shop’, the ever-present one is his own. The entertainment industry, be it music, fashion, or film bears immense potential for generating income and getting Jamaica out of its economic woes. But the road toward fulfilling this remains arduous and daunting as the government continues to proffer lip service and little else. The potential of reaping real rewards from setting up these creative industries have been reiterated time and again. However, rather than explore this, again we simply raise taxes, because it may not have worked last time, but surely, this time it will.