Fri | Jan 18, 2019

Carolyn Cooper | Getting the facts on Reggae Month

Published:Sunday | March 4, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Two weeks ago, the headline of my column was a provocative question: 'Reggae Month mek sense'? Quite a few people posted irritated responses on Facebook. It sweet me so till! Every month when I write in Jamaican, I get hostile emails from readers complaining about how hard it is to decode the written language. That column is frequently dismissed as "gibberish".

It doesn't seem to matter that I use two writing systems. 'Chaka-chaka' is based on English spelling, which is notoriously irregular. Just think of the range of pronunciations of 'ough' in the following words:

1. though (like o in go)

2. through (like oo in too)

3. cough (like off in offer)

4. rough (like uff in suffer) day

5. plough (like ow in flower)

6. ought (like aw in saw)

7. borough (like a in add)

Readers who are literate in English and who have learned to avoid the potholes of English spelling really shouldn't have too much trouble figuring out the chaka-chaka writing system. Some of them just can't be bothered. Incidentally, our word 'chaka-chaka' comes from two African languages, according to the Dictionary of Jamaican English: tyaka in Geh and tsaka in Ewe, meaning 'to mix, to be mixed'.

Chaka-chaka is the perfect description of the mixed-up writing system of English. That language is the world's greatest patois, borrowing words from all over the place. And English speakers tend to hang on to the original pronunciation and spelling of borrowed words, making spelling in English a hazardous business. Champagne is not spelt shampain or pane - though it's pronounced that way. Hors d'oeuvres is not or derv. Paradigm is certainly not paradime. And, understandably, it's often mispronounced as paradijim or digim.

The 'prapa-prapa' writing system isn't so easy for English speakers. It looks rather strange. Like a very foreign language. But its advantage is that it's perfectly regular. The same symbol always represents the same sound. Once you put your mind to it, there's really no problem understanding it. Readers who are proficient in the 'prapa-prapa' system proudly tell me dat dem no even bodder wid 'chaka-chaka'. Dem head straight fa 'prapa-prapa'.




Perhaps the people who responded to the Reggae Month column are all unusually perceptive. They had absolutely no problem understanding what I'd written. And they were quite clear about disagreeing with me. Colleen Douglas, who has been part of the Reggae Month team since its inception, cleverly started her response to my question in Jamaican: "So me on me lunch break and see dis ... . Of course Reggae Month mek sense Carolyn! As much sense as Literatures in English Month in March ... probably more sense than a lot of other months. Why? Reggae Month because we needed a time to celebrate, reflect."

Taking Colleen's point, I'm highlighting events in March hosted by the Department of Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies, Mona. 'Love Affair With Literature' is on today at 11 a.m. Edward Baugh, Barbara Lalla, Kwame Dawes, Curdella Forbes and Lesley-Ann Wanliss will read their work in the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre. Professor Barbara Lalla's new novel, Grounds for Tenure, will be launched next Tuesday, March 13, at 6:30 p.m. at the Undercroft of the Senate building.

This Tuesday, also at 6:30 at the same venue, Professor Kwame Dawes will give the 11th annual Edward Baugh Distinguished Lecture, which honours our first West Indian professor of English at the University of the West Indies. Professor Dawes will speak about his brainchild, the African Poetry Book Fund, which is giving poets from Africa a valuable opportunity to develop their work and be published. He will also give a writers' workshop on March 3. Several engaging films will be screened throughout the month. On March 27, 'Reggae Talks' will feature Koffee, Lila Ike and Gussie Clarke.




Other readers of the contested Reggae Month column set me straight on a couple of unfortunate errors. I'd misread this statement on the JaRIA website: "Reggae Month is an annual celebration of reggae music for the entire month of February. Organised by the Jamaica Reggae Industry Association (JaRIA) since 2009." Lloyd Stanbury, who conceived Reggae Month, posted this clarification on Facebook:

"Dr Carolyn Cooper, you got it all wrong regarding the inception of Reggae Month.

* Reggae Month was not started by the Jamaica Reggae Industry Association (JaRIA); it was started by the Recording Industry Association of Jamaica (RIAjam)

"* The first Reggae Month was not staged in February 2009, it was staged in February 2008." Barbara Blake Hanna posted, "A simple Google search would have brought this information to light." Believe me! It didn't.

For me, the JaRIA Honour Awards is the premier event in an overcrowded month. This stellar occasion has the potential to become for us a welcome alternative to the Grammys. Reggae is still a sidelined category. Grammy winners should take pride in their success in that foreign arena. But we should also big up our own award and make it an industry standard for reggae artistes across the world. And, by the way, what happened to the defunct JAMI awards? Where's the continuity? These questions may prove to be just as contentious as "Reggae Month Mek Sense"?

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to and