Bolt and Beyond

“If at first you don’t succeed, you suck salt through wooden spoon” – Amina Blackwood Meeks

Yohan Blake, Usain Bolt, and Warren Weir swept the men’s 200m

The total sweep by Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Warren Weir in the 200m for men of the 30th Olympiad in London isn’t merely the icing on the cake for Jamaica, it is the cake. But it’s not just their victory that makes up this cake, every other Jamaican athlete who has taken the field has been a part of it. This awesomely rich cake, that right now appears so sweet you could get diabetes looking at it also includes Shelly Ann Fraser Pryce, Veronica Campbell Brown, Asafa Powell, Alia Atkinson, Hansle Parchment, … and …. and …. and…

The nation’s triumph at the 2012 Olympics, sure proof that neither the Beijing Olympics nor the World Championships of Berlin or Daegu were flukes, is the perfect gift for its 50th year of independence. The celebrations of Olympic victories and independence have therefore been swept together in a massively rising ball of euphoria. Numerous buildings in Kingston, the nation’s capital, are decked in swaths of black, green and gold, as the buildings themselves scream it is independence to claat and we are victorious. Those who deigned to question whether celebrating Jamaica 50 was worthwhile can no longer be heard above the din of Sweep! Sweep! Sweep!

Jamaica now firmly grips the title, the world’s fastest nation. And of course the superstar of it all is Bolt, who by becoming the first man to successfully defend the 100m and 200m titles has become a living legend. How much greater that legend gets depends on his further feats. At 25 years Bolt’s shine is far from over, and his fellow country men, who race behind him sweeping along their own share of glory dictate that if he wants to keep his status he will have to rise.

This incomplete monument at the Habour View round-about is decorated for Jamaica 50

Truthfully, Bolt was striding toward legendary status even before the 200m win. He has committed that rare feat that no other sprinter has done before him, become a bonafide superstar. Bolt electrifies not merely with his feats, but also with his showmanship. As Bolt himself said in an interview, the Jamaican audience is hard to please, and in their fickle demand for constant greatness, if he slips they will cuss him faster than he can say 19.32 seconds.

But right now, he is our darling, a symbol of what we believe we can achieve. So, we look at his antics, whether post victory or prior to a race and we think you know that bwoi not right and we smile affectionately, indulgently, like a mother looking at her washbelly because he has made us proud.

Even before the Bolt/Blake/Weir sweep, the international press has been much taken up with exploring the issue of Jamaica’s massive cultural impact despite it’s size. There have been some interesting articles but none of them come close to explaining this.  The theories are many. For some, it is simply a manifestation of hard won tenacity born from a brutal history. This theory rests on the idea that the most problematic slaves were shipped to Jamaica, and our history of rebellions and that revolutionary ethos that has passed from Tacky and Sam Sharpe, through to Bogle and Bedward and on through Garvey and ultimately rising up in the beat of Reggae, seem to prove this true.

It might be this same history that has instilled a braggadocio and our inability to comprehend that we are a small nation. We’re not surprised to be world class, we expect to be, even when we’re not.

But bubbling beneath this euphoria of Jamaica 50 and the London Olympics is the daily reality that we will have to face once again… eventually. Many of these companies, including some of the island’s biggest brands, are no longer locally owned, which means despite the show of patriotism, most of their earnings go elsewhere.

Through the feats of our Olympians, particularly Bolt, we have garnered more positive press than our tourism marketing budget could ever afford. But more importantly, their achievements remind us that the nation’s greatest resource remains its people. One of the striking things about this year’s achievements (and I don’t only include those who medalled) is that there were quiet a few in areas Jamaica had never competed in before or reached that far.

Reality will not wait for the euphoria to pass

In light of the Jamaica 50 celebrations, there was some minor controversy over the fact that some souvenirs (the most notable of which was the “pin of pride”) was manufactured in China. Some saw this as a betrayal and shortsightedness and further evidence of why the country continues to wade in a morass of economic woes. But if we are honest with ourselves, we would really admit that manufacturing is not ideally suited for the island. Manufacturing brings employment, but most of it is low level with long hours and minimum wage. We tried the Free Zone dream and last I checked it left us with nightmarish tales.

I fully believe that the craft market is important but craft should be separated from the souvenir market. While some craft are souvenirs, all souvenirs aren’t craft. I have no problem with the fact that flags we wave to show our joy were made in China, (I’m just asking that we should insist that our flags have gold not yellow, or worse yet lime green.) The country has far more to earn from its creative output than from manufacturing.

The fact that the track and field podium has been so heavily decorated in black, gold and green, highlights that as unique and phenomenal as Usain is, he isn’t merely a bolt from the blue. His talent has been built on a strong foundation which is currently pushing out several other sterling athletes.

A part of the beauty (in the way that tragedies are usually painfully beautiful) about Jamaica, is that we usually succeed despite ourselves. Athletics have become one those areas that have received the requisite support, and now it is bearing fruit. So we need to take these athletic achievement not merely as occasions for momentous joy, but as lessons for the way forward. Getting here is not accidental and has taken far more than talent. The same is true for so many other areas of Jamaican life where we continue to succeed in spite. It is hard to succeed here, so it doesn’t quite surprise when we succeed where playing fields are more level or fewer hurdles are in the way. It is high time that people be given more than wooden spoons to treat with the salt rubbed in their historical wounds.

Making Waves and Sporting Greatness

Alia Atkinson

Alia Atkinson, 100m breaststroke finalist

Jamaica had its first medal brush in the 30th Olympiad in London on Monday afternoon (Jamaica time) when Alia Atkinson powered through the waters of the Aquatic Centre for the finals of the 100m breaststroke. By a hair’s breadth, Atkinson placed fourth. And in the Olympics where a hair is all that separates glory from failure, Atkinson’s fourth-place is far from failure because, well… it’s swimming.

One of the greatest paradoxes about Jamaicans (and I’m told Caribbean people in general) is that we might be surrounded by water, but we don’t swim. We have wonderful beaches where we cavort, drink rum or coconut water (or both), eat jerk chicken and steam fish and we’ll even go as far as splashing about in the water, but swimming, … not really. For some of us the sea is just the place where you go to break the curse of salt and wash off your bad luck. So it’s absolutely great that we have a swimmer in the 2012 Olympics, one who made it to the finals and almost earned a medal, creating a national record.

Alia Atkinson

Atkinson did her country proud by placing fourth in the 100m breaststroke

Atkinson wasn’t merely swimming against her competitors in the pool at the Aquatic Centre; she was going against a tide of tradition that has in the main kept the Caribbean out of the competitive waters. She is not alone. If Wikipedia can be believed (with the requisite servings of salt of course) we have had a few decent swimmers. However swimming is not athletics.

The separation between the two isn’t a matter of history. It’s a matter of resource. It’s been noted by various experts (and non-experts like myself) that Jamaica has been able to create its current glorious crop of sprinters because our runners are developed at every stage of the education system. Even from our early education (basic school) days when we are just learning to count to ten, running (often with a lime and spoon) is a part of the school’s extra-curricula activity.

Every school doesn’t have a pool. Every school doesn’t have a language or science lab. Every school doesn’t do dance or drama or lawn tennis, or table tennis. But every school has a patch of grass or dirt where they can have a sports day and that sport is usually running.

Swimming on the other hand, is largely relegated to the elite with many high schools, including some of our very established and highly respected institutions, having no access to swimming pools. Additionally, as far as I am aware (and I admit to not being very aware) even our athletic tradition was developed more from well-meaning private groups or individuals rather than a general national policy geared at developing athletics. That policy (I think) is just coming around now.

And as Atkinson’s interview with Gleaner reporter Andre Lowe highlighted, getting the sponsorship support to keep you in the game is far from easy. Though not complaining, Atkinson remarked that she hoped to be able to garner enough support to be able to continue to train through to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. And while we hope she is able to, the trick of it is that we tend to support winners, not those who have a great chance at winning. The attention she has thus far received may well earn Atkinson her much needed support.

Gi dem a run! When the sprints begin every pan shall knock and every bell shall ring!

Atkinson’s performance allowed many Jamaicans to feel an additional swell of pride we were waiting to tap into later this week, because when the running begins every pan shall knock and every bell shall ring. Recently there seems to have been greater effort to support other sports which will is very welcome. Our athletes Arthur Wint, Herb McKenley, Donald Quarrie, Merlene Ottey, Grace Jackson, through to our current crop of Asafa Powell, Melaine Walker, Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce, Veronica Campbell Brown, Yohan Blake and Usain Bolt are a huge part of Brand Jamaica and the reason we pack a cultural punch that resonates far beyond our size. These athletes allow us to sport our greatness. It gives us something else to be proud of in our wonderful little country where so much goes so wrong.

I remember being downtown during the 2008 Olympics and a newspaper vendor was selling the afternoon Star. She looks at me through the open window of my trusty 1996 Suzuki Swift points at the paper and  says “Downtown girl a front, country girl a back! No uptown girl!” The “girls” being referenced were Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce and Veronica Campbell Brown. But what the vendor was pointing to is that Jamaican athletics is dominated by many who strive against great economic and social odds. The growing cadre of locally grown athletes have further cemented it position as a valid path and it has certainly been an inspiration to others to attempt to achieve such greatness.

However, regardless of how my heart soars and races along with our runners, we can’t all run. So it’s important that other routes be developed, whether they be other athletic, artistic or academic avenues. Indeed, as this is Jamaica, let me not ask too much. We don’t need the avenues – those wide, well-paved, tree-lined routes. Just a give us track and we will cut and go through.

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.

Word Up! Those Blooming Caribbean Lit Fests

Earl Lovelace accepts the Bocas Caribbean Writing Prize

Earl Lovelace (left) accepts the Bocas Caribbean Writing Prize from Marina Salandy (centre) Brown and Dawn Thomas

With two Nobel Laureate’s and several other internationally recognized and award winning writers hailing from the region, the Caribbean’s impact on the international literary sphere is significant. Additionally, literature is one of the bridges linking our archipelago of tiny islands. Yet publishing in the Caribbean only takes place on a limited scale, and often the focus is on text books. So its intriguing that there are now two major lit fests in the region, the Calabash International Literary Festival (May 25 – 27, 2012, Jamaica) and the Bocas Literary Festival (April 26 – 29, 2012, Trinidad).

The thing about being on an island, especially a tiny island is… well, you’re on an island and that means you are pretty much isolated. So, although we can point to a Caribbean identity, especially for those of us all the way over here in Jamaica, we often know very little about what is happening on our sister isles, except what we hear on the news (and that’s usually only the negative) or what we read in books.

On my recent visit to Trinidad to attend Bocas I realized something… I’ve thought of Trinidad as a place in story. Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s a real country, but my concept of Trinidad has largely been shaped by books. Until recently when I started reading more contemporary Caribbean literature, most of the Caribbean texts I read, most as part of the prescribed school texts were based in Trinidad. The list comprises classics such as Wine of Astonishment, A Brighter Sun, Miguel Street, Minty Alley, Green Days by the River, Ways of Sunlight and A House for Mr. Biswas. Technically, The Dragon Can’t Dance can be included, but I read the play not the novel. As a result I imagine a Trinidad, where everyone plays all-fours and eats doubles and bake and shark. They also appear to be obsessed with Tunapuna, as I’m sure that in every Trinidadian book I’ve read, at least one person had been to, was going to, or left from Tunapuna at some point in the book. That said, I would also like to file a complaint against all Trinidadian writers for failing to explain that a) ‘bake’, is not baked, it’s fried and b) the Savannah is a really big-ass place. That would have been good to know.

Caribbean lit has also been responsible for fooling me into buying this concept of Caribbean unity because with these books I felt that we had much in common. Indeed, could honestly swear that a few of the people from Miguel Street lived on my street. Additionally, most of the writers who evolved from that classic period, were firmly committed to the concept of Caribbean unity. Maybe its because many of them were in that cold crucible of London for so long, and its so much easier to see our commonalities when stuck on that other foggy, rainy island, rather than basking in the Caribbean sun.

So having seen the impact of Calabash on the widened variety of books now available in Jamaica, I welcomed the arrival of Bocas as additional stimulation for regional literary pursuits. Bocas had a very different vibe from Calabash, which I had been attending for 9 years. A part of the difference is that Calabash is set against the backdrop of the Caribbean sea while Bocas is in a library in the heart of the city. Yet both are great experiences and the organizers of each festival show great dedication to showcasing great literature, film and music from the Caribbean and the rest of the world. Of course, Bocas’ creation of the Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for a whopping US$10,000.00, has allowed it to be taken seriously, quickly. Their introduction of a new prize for emerging writers worth it £25,000 will only go even further in cementing their reputation.

Shara McCallum and Kei Miller

Poet Shara McCallum and poet and author Kei Miller on the Anxieties of Influence panel at Bocas 2012

My point here isn’t to pitch Calabash and Bocas against each other, but rather to indicate their value to developing the literary landscape. Bocas’ ability to create the two writing prizes suggests that they have managed to tap into significant financial support. More importantly, it suggests that it has found financial resources that can be tapped. After its 10th year Calabash, despite the revolutionary impact it had on the Jamaican literary landscape, stalled due to insufficient financing. The festival is back this year, but as yet, there is no clear word whether it is back to stay. Its disappearance would be a great tragedy, one more example of how Jamaica constantly manages to sabotage itself. For me Calabash has been a true example of the ways in which Jamaicans often strive for excellence and achieve it, even when it seems that they shouldn’t have. In a country that is supposed to be devoid of readers, it makes very little sense that they have an annual literary festival that attracts a few thousand people. Yet, it happens.

There is a third festival, Bim in Barbados on the horizon, but as it has not happened yet (it takes place May 16 – 20), it’s a little too soon to decide whether or not its a major festival. It’s line-up however, including Derek Walcott, Lorna Goodison and Kei Miller is certainly impressive.

Of course replication of festivals means that the names are beginning to recur from one festival to the next. So Bocas and Bim share Kei Miller and to some degree George Lamming (though not as a reader) while Bocas and Calabash share Loretta Collins, Fred D’Aguiar, and Shara McCallum.

Bocas and Bim both follow the Calabash model of being free and open to the public, and so for both festivals it probably remains true that the writers are not paid performance fees. However, what they gain, and more importantly what we gain, is a lot more exposure to writers from the region as well as from elsewhere. Through these blooming festivals, each with their own initiatives for supporting and developing writing, the Caribbean can be even more fertile ground for literature to flourish.

Still Searching … Finding Marley and Losing Ourselves

ImageAttending the premier of the film Marley at Emancipation Park, last Thursday was an interesting adventure, and not merely because the movie was good. Kevin MacDonald did a fine job of creating an interesting story about an engaging man, and it is very well told. My only point of issue is that he allowed Cindy Breakspeare to be the character to explain Rastafari, which for me grated. Of all the people in that film, I thought if someone was going to explain Rasta, it should be a Rasta. But I’m biased.

I was also awed at the unnecessary use of segregation measures at a park named for the achievement of emancipation for a film about a man who spoke about equality. We still appear to be too concerned with strata in this country and far too often assume that our people will misbehave and if the chairs are done will suddenly riot in the streets rather than calmly pull for a square of grass. Partitioning off the segment of the park before the main stage for supposed VIPs (and therefore relegating the rest of us to PIVs – Poor Innocent Victims a la Chinua Achebe) was completely unnecessary. Apparently, none of the organizers had heard that “until the philosophy that holds one man superior and another inferior is totally discredited and abandoned…”


That said, I think that the flock of Jamaicans who turned out for a documentary certainly speaks to the continued strength of Bob’s legend. Watching the film on the grass at Emancipation Park, in the open air, even the bit of rain that started late in the night, augmented the whole experience and highlights the potential strength of the cultural industries and the increase vibrancy of Kingston as a thriving city if we found ways to improve and diversify available entertainment through out the year.

Of course, a part of our problem with dealing with culture and the creative industries is that we still seem to have our perspective twisted and despite producing Garvey, Marley, Bogle, Bedward, Nanny, Reggae, Rastafari and Jerk we are still unable to fully grasp who and what we are. Certainly, we still have a very strange idea of what is culture and the value and role of the cultural industries. A strange thing therefore happened on Thursday night. Ibo Cooper was introducing Majah Bless to perform a poem. Now aside from the fact that the addition of the poem to the evening was completely unnecessary, my real point is that Cooper introduced it as a “cultural item”. As though the film which we were about to see was not a “cultural item”. This kind of arbitrary mind blowing relegation of culture to poetry and dem things is a part of why the creative industries continue to struggle. Of course, please note that Calabash points to the great potential of poetry and dem tings as well.

Of course the true heart of the matter always comes back to the way that we treat Reggae and the general lack of support given to the cultural industries. Reggae Month continues to struggle despite its potential impact to totally revolutionize Jamaica’s continually diminishing role in the global Reggae landscape. Only when we return Jamaica to the kind of Mecca for all Reggae officianados can we begin to scratch the surface of the music’s potential for earning for this country.

For this aspect, I will turn over to Mr. Lexx. I receive the quote below via a bb blast last week and I thought it would be interesting to share it here.

Disclaimer: This blogger does not agree with all the assertions below, but he has a point.

On Jamaica Carnival — There is no name bigger in the world than ‘Marley’ musically. No not Presley, not ‘Jackson’, and not Montano.. Marley has more prestige anywhere in world than any other musical last name. Anyone that has travelled should know the power of Jamaican culture, of which our music is an integral part.. So why is “JAMAICA”s carnival a celebration of SOCA music?
Don’t get me wrong, i am not fighting down soca music at all, but when you label something as ‘Jamaican’, a country that has so musically inspired the world.. it should reflect our culture..

Mighty Crown has a reggae dancehall party of over 40 thousand ppl in Japan. Ppl everywhere love our music. Yet we produce hip hop and r & b and our carnival is soca.. Sighs.. Imagine a carnival where 3 truck were rockers with Sanchez & Richie Stephens etc, 5 dancehall trucks w. Octane Movado TOK Sean Paul Marshall Popcaan Konshens Bounty Beenie etc, 5 with reggae music w. Tarrus Jr Gong & Kimani Marley Jah Cure etc..

Road wuda BLOCK & hotels sell off with ppl from around the worldddd coming to our country to celebrate our music and culture with us..

Patwa is NOT broken english (its a different language altogether – check the semantics) & our music and culture is arguably the greatest per capita in the world! Big up all who love Soca, but JAMAICA’s carnival should be JAMAICAN music. Not for MY benefit, but for the country’s. Soca locks Jamaican streets & roadways in the middle of the day & we have no choice, while OUR dancehall locks off at NIGHT at 2am. Why don’t our ‘leaders’ stop bickering over gang colors like bloods and crips, and move towards supporting the culture..??” (By Mr Lexx)


On a final note. What I love about this film is that it properly contextualizes Marley. There are some interesting silences and I won’t try to go into what caused them and the film is good. By having this free and open premiere it also allowed many Jamaicans to know a lot more about one of our major icons, and the man behind the image that represents us in most parts of the world. But even as the film allows us to find Marley we still seem to be loosing ourselves.

I came across a snowball of a discussion, thanks to a Facebook Post, on he issue of teaching Jamaican Creole (patois) in schools. It made me think of writing about the article, then I realized that I already had in 2008. I therefore thought since my opinions hadn’t changed, I’d simply re-post the original. Language I think remains one of the critical issues we must grapple with as we re/consider we commemorate Jamaica50

The bitter bean's Weblog

“In my view language was the most important vehicle through which that power fascinated and held the soul prisoner. The bullet was the means of the physical subjugation. Language was the means of spiritual subjugation” Ngugi wa Thiong’o

It is the eve of Independence … the 46th for this country, Jamaica – Land we should love and I cannot help but reflect on an article I read in the Jamaica Observer last week. It was, without a doubt the greatest piece of rubbish I had read in the newspapers in a long time – though in fairness to the writer (whose name I’m glad to have forgotten) I haven’t read the newspapers in a long time with the exception of getting my Calvin and Hobbes fix.

So, this gentleman, armed with a thick hide of ignorance proceeds to lambast all those who would propose to teach patois, or Jamaican…

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Dipping into our Untold Stories

I could go on and on the full has never been told…” Buju Banton

Story is the art of reshaping the world into your own image.  Literature was as much a part of the colonial project as the sword and gun and film remains the greatest tool in America’s arsenal for world dominion. It’s how the American dream is packaged and sold, and we all eagerly drink up the Kool Aid that they are the earth’s saviours, especially when the aliens finally arrive. Last weekend, as I watched Louis Marriott’s historic drama Bedward, it struck me that Jamaica remains a nation pregnant with untold stories.

Bedward (Alwyn Scott) is gripped by doubt

Bedward (Alwyn Scott) is gripped by doubt and turns to Parto Roman (Winston Bell) for guidance. Photo by Clinton Hutton

Jamaican history is replete with fascinating stories, of which the tale of Bedward is one. The play, first staged in 1960, was remounted at the Karl Hendrickson Auditorium at Jamaica College, Old Hope Road. Directed this time around by Yvonne Brewster,  Bedward explores the rise and fall of one of our most famous preachers. For some of us Alexander Bedward is merely a man in a folk song who was either busily dipping people in a healing stream to “cure bad feeling” or protecting his chickens from the “sly mongoose”. For others of us, he is  an even more shadowy image as we are unaware of the impact he had as a forerunner to what we now call Brand Jamaica.

Having stirred thousands to his faith Alexander Bedward is one of our great Native Baptists. His road to greatness and allegedly madness highlights the inseparable roles of religion and rebellion in Jamaica’s history. As Bedward, viscerally brought to life by Alwyn Scott declared, he looked beyond the spiritual needs of his congregation to the needs of all poor black Jamaicans. His call went much farther afield attracting people from Costa Rica, the United States and other countries. The play is not the full story and left me wanting to know much more, however it is an important step toward bringing images such as Bedward out of the dark, even if it was for a very short run.

Unfortunately, in Jamaica we have done very little to encourage those industries that are about our gaining a better understanding of ourselves. As Bedward highlights, our playwrights have often taken up the challenge, but as they struggle with little funding for the arts, commercial interests and the absence of adequate spaces to stage productions, that battle seems to be getting increasingly uphill. The result is that it is much easier for us to create an easy laugh than try to tell deep meaningful stories. Nonetheless, some continue to try and even amidst the laughter we often get a view of ourselves even if it is a somewhat twisted and often caricatured one.

Yet film has long surpassed theatre as the greatest form of storytelling. Yet, 40 years after Jamaica’s first film, the industry remains embryonic (especially if you do not include the music video segment). Our major television station long ago discovered that it was much cheaper to peddle American TV shows than invest in local ones. Local fare is therefore now almost totally relegated to talk or reality tv, both of which are much cheaper to make than dramas and they often have great mass appeal especially when the combine the double wallop of potential greatness and people making complete fools of themselves. Fortunately, our film producers seem to finally be realizing that if they await the policy makers putting in place the right measures to stimulate growth they will be singing a Bob Marley tune for a long time.

A part of the challenge with film has been the intense focus on an urban reality from The Harder They Come through Third World Cop and Dancehall Queen or the more recent Better Mus Come and Ghett’a Life there has been an intense focus on guns, ghettos and gangstas in Jamaican film. Very few works have veered from these themes, the colossally bad Glory to Gloriana being one of them.

So it is in music that many of our stories can be found. Up to the 1990s, Dancehall could have aptly been described as the people’s history.  It isn’t accidental that Buju  Banton named his second album Voice of Jamaica. Our DJs have in many ways given voice to ordinary activities that would otherwise have got lost. While no where in my history books (not that I paid keen attention to them, other than to prop up my head for better sleeping in class) was there a tale of hurricane Charlie, Beenie Man’s nimble rhyme  “modelling a gwaan” with “51 storm” serves as a record. When Hurricane Gilbert hit, by the next morning there were several songs chronicling the force of the gale winds, and Lloyd Lovingdeer’s witty ‘Wild Gilbert’, which came out a little later, outlasted them all. But as a greater commercial imperative takes over the music, it has begun to increasingly mirror the definition foisted (a genre dedicated to the glorification sex and guns), dancehall has been giving up that role and instead we just buss a wine!

A part of the problem has been that we have not generally encouraged writing, whether in relation to novels or in any of the forms listed above. Fortunately, circa 2000 a new breed of writers have emerged and while I have no scientific proof of the role that the Calabash International Literary Festival has played in this, the festival has clearly helped to foster writing in particular and celebrating the word in general.

In this our 50th year it is important that we ensure that our his/her/story is recorded from our point of view. We must find ways to tell more of our stories, whether through film, theatre, books or song. Its important that we tell the stories about the great people as well as ordinary Jamaicans, real or imagined. Too much of our history remains shrouded in mystery too many of our people grow up ignorant of who they are and where they have come from. Lets do as Burning Spear said and recall some great men [and women]. Let’s dip our people in the churning streams of where they have come from so we can learn from our mistakes, celebrate our victories and yes even earn from our creativity.