Miss Lou: Mother of Jamaican Culture

Published: Sunday | September 12, 2010


Kevin O'Brien Chang, Contributor

Louise 'Miss Lou' Bennett is undisputedly the most universally loved personality this nation has ever produced or likely will ever produce, engendering unabashed feelings of pride and affection in Jamaicans of all ages, colours, classes and creeds. For more than 50 years, she tirelessly championed Jamaican folk customs on stage, radio and television. Yet apart from being our most celebrated entertainer, Miss Lou is also the most popular poet in this island's history, outselling all others put together. Her impact on the national psyche was perhaps even more important than her artistic legacy, for she almost single-handedly gave Jamaicans pride in their cultural heritage.

In musicologist Marjorie Whylie's words:

"All of us are the inheritors of the groundwork Louise did ... .Folk music only gained respectability after Louise came back from London and sang 'Rookumbine' on RJR ... .' "

Her extensive travels throughout Jamaica gave her a perhaps unsurpassed knowledge of native folklore. She collected and studied folk songs, ring games, Anancy stories and riddles, becoming a primary resource for scholars and artists interested in such material. Marjorie Whylie called her "the most generous soul I know ... always so ready to assist with material or contacts or pointing you in a direction for tracing further material ... a casual social visit with Louise ... would make a good anthropological study."

Standing tall

As her Norman Manley Award for Excellence citation noted:

It is this truth, grounded in her faithful observation and a genuine empathy with Jamaican folk life, which makes Louise Bennett stand way above all her colleagues ... . Her deep knowledge of Jamaica has helped to give her literary and theatrical work an authenticity that few other Jamaican artistes have achieved ... . Many of our other significant artistes, working in their various media, are accessible only to an elite, cultivated or otherwise. Louise Bennett has achieved an excellence while reaching the entire society.

But she does not flatter us. She is forever exposing our pretences, our idiocies, our cosmic disproportions. She measures us against the values of common sense, of sanity, of reason; and, yet, in her compassion, does not seem beyond us all. She speaks not so much to as for the whole Jamaican society.

And as Rex Nettleford says: "... those who indulge her rumbustious abandon and spontaneous inducement of laughter will sometimes forget that behind the exuberance and carefree stance, there are years of training - formal and informal - as well as this artist's own struggles to shape an idiom."

It was Miss Lou's insistence on the inherent worth of Jamaican expression that established in the populace a respect for their language and tradition - the belief that 'patwa' wasn't merely corrupted English but a creation of immense vitality and humour.

In her own words:

"Some thought Jamaican English was vulgar, out-of-order language. It came out of the African heritage and, at that time, anything African was bad: hair, colour, skin, language, music. But I thought it was fascinating. Everything had a rhythm. It was a creation of the people. One reason I persisted in writing in dialect in spite of the opposition was because nobody else was doing so, and there was such a rich material in dialect that I felt I wanted to put on paper some of the wonderful things that people say in dialect. You could never say 'look here' as vividly as 'kuyah'."

In her 1944 poem, Bans O' Killing, she laughed at the snobbery which denigrated all common Jamaican speech:

... Meck me get it straight Mass Charlie

For me no quite undastan,

Yuh gwine kill all English dialect

Or jus Jamaica one?

Ef yuh dah-equal up wid English

language, den wha meck

Yuh gwine go feel inferior, wen

It come to dialect?

Ef yuh kean sing 'Linstead Market'

An 'Wata come a me y'eye',

Yuh wi haffi tap sing 'Auld lang syne'

An 'Comin thru de rye'

Her dialect performances were the direct precursors of deejay music and dub poetry. Tony Rebel, who uses Jamaican dialect as effectively as anyone in reggae, acknowledges Miss Lou as his greatest influence. While Luciano puts it this way: "She has worked forward into my consciousness that I can be proud of my culture and proud of myself."

No single individual has been more responsible for the Jamaican nation's emancipation from colonial mental slavery. In Rex Nettleford words again:

" ... She has carved designs out of the shapeless and unruly substance that is the Jamaican dialect - the language which most of the Jamaican people speak most of the time - and raised the sing-song patter of the hills and towns to an art acceptable to and appreciated by people from all classes ... ."

Many people associate Miss Lou primarily with comedy. Yet while we rightly treasure those who bring the gift of laughter, we should not forget the serious side of Louise Bennett. Only a person with a very strong sense of racial pride and self-belief could have withstood the torrents of criticism she had to endure when she first championed the language and culture of her people.

Jamaicans today might be happily at ease with themselves and their customs, but it took a true 'lion heart' to speak out, as she did at the height of 'only white is right' colonialism. Even though in much of her work she did 'tek kin teeth kibber heart bun' (Take skin teeth [a smile] cover heartaches), in poems like Dutty Tough she addressed the issues of her day as seriously as any reggae artist and deejay ever did.

"Sun a shine an pot a bwile, but

Things no bright, bickle no nuff

Rain a fall, river dah flood, but,

Water scarce and dutty tough."

In Tony Rebel's words "Miss Lou was a sort of female Marcus Garvey." She was a giant on whose shoulders all reggae artistes and dub poets now stand.

This is an extract from 'Jamaica Fi Real: Beauty Vibes and Culture' by Kevin O'Brien Chang. Published by Ian Randle Publishers, available October 2010.

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