Miss Lou, Your Culture Lives On

Published: Sunday | July 30, 2006

"Is like mi grandmother dead!" That was the reaction of a friend to the passing of Louise Bennett-Coverley. And it's probably how most Jamaicans feel. Rex Nettleford and Barbara Gloudon are no doubt right that Miss Lou would not wish us to mourn and we should be celebrating her life and legacy. But, when someone who has brought so much joy to so many leaves us, well it's hard not to shed a tear.

They say meeting your heroes in person is always disappointing. But when I met Miss Lou for the first time, she was exactly how I had always imagined her - full of life, laughter and stories, and very sharp and articulate. She will be missed not only as a national institution but as a simply wonderful human being.

The media will be justifiably full of praise for her matchless cultural contributions. As broadcaster, actress, television personality and stage performer, she tirelessly championed Jamaican folk customs for three generations. She's also arguably the greatest poet we have produced, and still outsells all the others put together.

But Miss Lou's impact on the national psyche is perhaps even more important than her artistic legacy. For she almost single- handedly gave Jamaicans pride in their heritage and language. It was her insistence on the inherent worth of Jamaican expression that made people see 'patwah' as not merely corrupted English but a creation of immense vitality and humour.

Racial pride

No single individual has been more responsible for this nation's emancipation from colonial mental slavery.

Many people associate Louise Bennett-Coverley primarily with comedy. But while we rightly treasure those who bring the gift of laughter, this should not make us forget her serious side. Only someone with an unshakeable sense of racial pride and self-belief could have withstood the torrents of criticism aroused by her championing of the people's language and culture.

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.

Though in much of her work she did 'tek kin teeth kibber heart bun', poems like Dutty Tough addressed the issues of the day as seriously as any current singer or deejay. In Tony Rebel's words, "Miss Lou was a sort of female Marcus Garvey."

She is a true giant on whose shoulders every reggae artiste and dub poet now stands. Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Bounty Killa, Yasus Afari and Sean Paul are all her children.

There have been other cultural icons, but Miss Lou is undisputedly the most universally loved personality this nation has ever produced. She transcended all boundaries like none other, engendering unabashed feelings of pride and affection in Jamaicans of all ages, colours, classes and creeds. Here was a queen! When comes such another? Never, never.

But though she may be gone, her memory will never be forgotten and the culture she fought so hard to preserve will live on. Of that there can be no doubt.


Over the past few months I've been playing Jamaican folk songs for my daughter and her sister and friends. It's amazing how much these two to five-year-olds like this 'old-time' music and in fact usually want nothing else. They dance and sing ecstatically to songs like Long Time Gal, Yellow Yam and Train a Blow.

The Cari-Folk Singers and Ernie Smith are outstanding, though it's sad how few folk song CDs are available. Yet, the album these children love above all is Miss Lou's Lawd De Riddim Sweet, where she sings, recites poems and chants ring games like Mosquito One, Mosquito Two. Last month while listening to it, one of these little girls spontaneously remarked to me: "I love Miss Lou you see!"

Now at four years old all she knows about our icon is the picture on the CD cover. It can only be the warmth and jollity of the great lady's voice that has inspired such affection. Yet, this little girl was so insistent about wanting to meet Miss Lou that eventually about one month ago I called Miss Lou and told her the story and let the young lass talk to her.

Her first words were: "Miss Lou I love you," and after the conversation she was beaming and laughing about how Miss Lou sang to her and told her stories. "I can't wait to meet Miss Lou in person when she comes to visit Jamaica!" she exclaimed. Alas, it was never to be. But hopefully that phone conversation is a memory she will treasure all her life.

Now in many countries, the American video juggernaut has all but obliterated indigenous entertainment, reducing them to fossilised tourist displays. But Jamaican folk culture is as alive and vibrant as ever. This is vividly evident in our annual festival competitions. In 2005, over 8,000 persons aged six to 80 entered in music, speech, drama, dance, traditional folk arts, culinary arts and visual arts. On a per capita basis, festival probably has no equal on the planet.

A very noticeable feature is the enthusiasm of the school children entrants who appear completely in tune with their cultural history. Little boys and girls dance dinki mini and mento with gusto. Even BET and MTV inundation has not, as in so many other places, caused them to turn their backs on their traditions.

Not only are the Festival performances extremely varied and of a consistently high level, they incorporate all phases of Jamaican culture in a remarkably natural manner. Century- old traditions like Quadrille and Kumina, the latest emanations of the dancehall, and everything in between, jostle on equal footing for judge and audience approval.

This adaptability to change while holding on to roots is a hallmark of Jamaican culture in general and reggae in particular. It's common for the latest hits to use motifs from traditional music. So, for instance you have popular music videos with a Jonkanoo theme and dancehall hits such as Chakka Chakka based on folk tunes like Sammy Dead O —- a ska version of which topped the charts back in 1964. Old time something is always coming back again in Jamaica.

The 2003 Independence Day concert at Emancipation Park held in honour of Miss Lou was a remarkable example of this cultural continuity. It included every form of local music, poetry and dance imaginable with performers ranging from primary school children to dancehall stars like Beenie Man. Yet, despite the age differences and varying styles and forms on show, nothing seemed out of place and the massive audience vociferously applauded every performance. It was active proof that Jamaican culture is a living unbroken tradition. Maybe we should have an event like this every year to commemorate Miss Lou's birthday.

The vibrancy of its folk heritage would be remarkable even if Jamaica was a large country with an ancient past. But for a nation so small and young —- a mere 2.5 million people and only 43 years independent —- to show such cultural confidence is nothing short of astonishing. From this perspective, reggae's world-wide popularity and influence is no accident, but merely reflects the tenacity and strength of the traditions that produced it.

And none of this would have been possible without the mother of Jamaican culture. Miss Lou, walk good in Heaven.

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