Tue | Sep 26, 2017

Brian-Paul Welsh | Send in the clowns

Published:Monday | March 13, 2017 | 3:00 AM
Brian-Paul Welsh

Recently, while in rumination with a close associate, we stumbled upon the realisation that coping with life in Jamaica often requires an unhealthy dose of self-medication, especially given the perpetually poor state of the health sector these days. Fortunately, there is still enough of a spectacle in village life to sufficiently distract us from the nonsense one perceives with a sober mind, otherwise more of us would probably go stark raving mad.

Following the daily reports of life on this rock can indeed be quite unsettling, and with the ebb and flow of advancing doom and receding hope, merely surviving the week unscathed can often feel like a hero's journey. Some have said this is perhaps the reason we have developed a culture with such frequent festivity, making merriment at every opportunity by magnifying the tiniest morsel of amusement to be found in the deluge of despair, and indulging to the point of excess. Others suggest this is the reason so many of our young men find remedy for their chronic pain by compulsively scratching their palms on street corners islandwide.

Successive governments, perhaps cognisant of their neglect and the consequential widespread suffering, have granted respite by largely ignoring the increasingly bizarre behaviours of the peasants at play. These diversions from reality can be observed in the masquerade of folk expressionism to be found in the dancehall space, ranging from one extreme to the other, from the whimsical to the sensual to the macabre, with players transcending euphemism and quite literally dropping dead among an ever-increasing variety of scary feats. This Jamaican soap opera, along with its energetic soundtrack, reveals the rhythm of the village, the way the people move.

 

PRODIGIOUS PERFORMERS

 

Every once in a while, there emerges a set of characters with certain magical attributes that hypnotises the nation and spawns an intense following. These prodigious performers attract cult attention and we watch with collective glee, amazement, and eventual disappointment, as they spring, blossom, then rot, dispersing their ideas to inform the next generation of storytellers.

In the medieval political tradition of our former colonisers, kings and other so-called nobility would often employ the services of a cadre of skilled entertainers to punctuate the tedium of governance. These court jesters were granted the rare privilege not only to speak, but more remarkably, to periodically inject their signature style of wit and sardonic humour into the otherwise dull proceedings, thus granting them a freedom of expression not otherwise available to ordinary subjects.

For this reason, such artistes were revered and also reviled for their candour, the way they were empowered to say what they saw irrespective of political politeness, whether it was remarking on the emperor's nakedness or the stench of corruption that emanated from his mouth. A good jester balanced the servile political function with the subliminal role of cultural iconoclast, challenging popular sensibilities, causing discomfort among the gentry, and ultimately forcing a confrontation with societal illusions through their artistry.

 

GOING TOO FAR

 

Their quips, ostensibly crafted for comedic relief, were often taken quite seriously and it wasn't uncommon for a joke to go too far, resulting in the swift disposal of the offending clown for their insolence and disloyalty to the crown.

King James VI of Scotland once employed a jester named Archy, who rose to great fame and popularity because of his particular brand of irreverence. It is said that he frequently passed his place and was eventually thrown out of court by the furious monarch for incessantly insulting the bigwigs. Even after this scandal, Archy enjoyed immense admiration in popular culture with books of his works remaining hot sellers in London, though he fell into relative obscurity.

As the heirs to Babylon's throne, our proxy slave masters have gladly continued the traditional 'poppy show' with all its customary characters, including the outrageous and impertinent clown. In a rare display of seemingly genuine emotion, the Prince of Tithes recently came out in swinging defence of some of the more unsavoury expressions of his own disgraced jester, Addi.

For almost two decades, this enigmatic performer captivated Jamaican culture, becoming a hero to common folk and a nuisance to the elite. When he was eventually thrown from court and into the dungeons for murder, the villagers threatened to riot should a lock from his head come undone, and this is perhaps the reason he wasn't executed like his predecessors.

Lady Suburbia's righteous inquisition into how Addi's provocative ditties continue to float up from the depths of his cell was met with swift indignation by the peasants, apparently intent to impale her for blaspheming their god. This must have given the king momentary pause, as he considered whether he could be usurped by a clown.

- Brian-Paul Welsh is a writer and public affairs commentator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com or brianpaul.welsh@gmail.com or tweet@islandcynic.