A Cultural Transformation?


Published: Sunday | August 15, 2010


Kevin O'Brien Chang, Gleaner Writer

We may not be as prosperous or educated or as peaceful as we would like to be, but the recent 'Emancipendence' celebrations once again made all who watched proud to be Jamaican. Many hopes and wishes rose with the black, green and gold flag on August 6, 1962, but who could have dreamed then that this tiny, newborn island would, in 2010, be a world cultural power?

Our rise to international cultural prominence almost defies explanation. Before 1962, Jamaican music, to the outside world, mostly meant pseudo-accented Harry Belafonte renditions of the Barbadian Irving Burgess-penned Island in the Sun and Jamaica Farewell, and it was not only condescending Trinidadians who considered mento 'Jamaica-nised' calypso. Though people like Edna Manley fought to 'nativise' local painting and literature, genuine indigenous culture was hardly visible in pre-independence Jamaica.

There was some official encouragement and, whatever his faults, Edward Seaga helped to transform ska from a ghetto, to national, to international sound. Perhaps, too, Bob Marley was a sui generis, border-transcending genius. Yet, the astonishing fact remains that almost every genre of music created here since 1962, from ska to rocksteady to reggae to roots to dub to deejaying and dancehall, has been internationally influential. Jamaican music is likely the world's most popular indigenous (i.e. non-western) sound.

It's not only the international aspects that make Jamaica so culturally remarkable. The fabulous breadth of our Emancipendence celebrations, from the speech and dance of Mello Go Round to the Gospel Festival Song Competition to the Grand Gala extravaganza to the 300,000-strong Half-Way Tree street dance, proved again that this is one of the world's few living folk cultures.

From babies to great-grannies, from kumina to dancehall, from Miss Lou to Vybz Kartel, it was all aspects of our heritage being savoured by all. We take it for granted but, from what I've heard and read, this kind of harmonious and integrated national culture - spontaneously appreciated across all age, class and racial boundaries - is hardly to be found anywhere on the globe these days.

Penny wise, pound foolish

Babsy Grange, perhaps the most effective cultural minister of recent times, says financial constraints almost caused the Grand Parade and Grand Gala to be cancelled. Well, any prime minister or finance minister who would deprive the country of such a priceless sense of national self-esteem to save a few shekels is penny wise and pound foolish. The positive emotional benefits to our island of these universally appreciated activities must vastly exceed their costs.

Over the holiday week, I heard many 'I wish the Monday and Friday holidays were together!' comments. Now, up to 1997, Independence Day was designated as the first Monday in August, and it was observed with no less vigour than today. So, suppose we celebrated Emancipation Day on the first Friday in August and Independence on the following Monday in a four-day holiday weekend every year?

Purists and pedants will want to stick to Emancipation Day on August 1 and Independence Day on August 6 but most Jamaicans I have talked to feel that a regular four-day holiday would make the occasion feel even more important and increase, not lessen, the Emancipendence fervour. It's not like anyone would forget the reasons we are celebrating. Even now, there are times when the actual non-working holiday is not August 1 or 6, as with Monday, August 2, this year.

'Augus mawnin'

Perhaps the most important emotional aspect of Emancipendence is the 'Augus Mawnin' midnight vigil that relives the moment when slavery ended in Jamaica on August 1, 1838. But we could still have a midnight vigil every year on the night of July 31. One late night before a work day every few years - when August 1 falls on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday - would in most eyes be more than offset by the cultural and economic benefits for the entire nation of a continuous Friday-Monday celebration.

Such a change would definitely have a big economic impact. Many more Jamaicans abroad would come home for Emancipendence. When August 1 and 6 fall on say a Thursday and Tuesday, even homesick yardies often can't bother with a disjointed visit. Four straight days would also mean that ATI weekend in Negril would get even bigger and more hyped, again helping to draw more foreign visitors and boosting tourism.

A last weekend in July Reggae Sumfest, followed by a first weekend in August four-day Emancipendence bashment could become an internationally recognised two-week 'party of parties!' for both overseas Jamaicans and lovers of Jamaican culture. It might become even bigger than say Trinidad carnival. Let's face it, our culture is about the only legal thing we Jamaicans produce that is in worldwide demand. We should be doing everything we can to increase its intensity and marketability.

Four consecutive days would also mean lots more stage shows, parties and dances around the island, and more 'freedom' spirit. The Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC) could just keep cranking up the vibes. For example, Mello Go Roun' on Friday, a big stage show and street dance at Half-Way Tree on Saturday, the grand parade and grand gala on Sunday, official awards on Monday. We get bits and pieces of this some years but when August 1 or 6 is far from the weekend, it's difficult for any real spirit to build up, and Emancipendence can be flat and lacklustre. Why should we not have the maximum excitement every year?

The Government could run a Don Anderson poll to see if most Jamaicans would prefer things as they are with holidays on August 1 and August 6, or prefer a change to holidays on the first Friday in August and the following Monday. After all, should holidays not be about pleasing the people?

Another of the so many intriguing aspects of our music is that almost every aspect of the Jamaican experience is vividly reflected in song. Our deejays are the unadulterated voices of the masses, laying bare the dreams and realities of the people with, perhaps, unparalleled forthrightness.

Recently, there has been what some call an 'outbreak of sanity' in the dancehall. Lecham Semaj jokes that we haven't heard half a line of gun lyrics since the 'pre-Dudus extradition' mass cancellation of artiste visas. The Tivoli 'invasion' and the state of emergency further accentuated the downsides of 'badmanism'. Many saw Vybz Kartel's incarceration as a warning from the state that certain attitudes and behaviour would no longer be tolerated, even in celebrity deejays.

Tough love

This tough love is certainly having an effect. You don't hear many Gaza and Gully war cries anymore, and even former gun-praising Mavado is now talking peace. Bounty Killer, who a few years back was chanting 'Copper Shot' and praising 'Stone Crushers', 'bigged up' the security forces and condemned 'shottas' as 'wasted sperm' at Reggae Sumfest. Last weekend he held a 'no more war' peace reunion with Beenie Man.

Does all this signal a true shift in the national psyche? And how can officialdom help further this cultural transformation? Tony Rebel says the government and groups like the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica should hold meetings with the artistes and listen closely to what they have to say.

The steep murder drop in June and July has heartened us all but fundamental change cannot be forced on a people from above. Successful national transformation must have the buy-in of uptown, midtown and downtown. Our deejays both reflect and amplify the cries of the masses, and can perhaps play a crucial role in helping to create a new Jamaica - but only if those in high places open their ears.

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