Thu | Apr 2, 2020

Carolyn Cooper | Jamaica Music Museum to step up in life

Published:Sunday | February 2, 2020 | 12:30 AM

A grand exhibition opens today at the National Gallery: ‘Jamaica Jamaica! How Our Music Conquered the World’. The original exhibition was mounted at the Paris Philharmonic in 2017 with a far less ‘boombastic’ subtitle. It was, simply, ‘From mento to Trenchtown to deejays…’. That exhibition ran from April 1 to August 13. On the opening night alone, there were 1,300 visitors.

For the four and a half months, the exhibition attracted more than 50,000 fans of Jamaican music from all over Europe and beyond. From March 15 to August 26, 2018, it was in São Paulo. Additional material featured Jamaican music in Brazil, especially Maranhão, which boasts a reggae museum, the first outside of Jamaica. Entry to ‘Jamaica Jamaica!’ was free and hundreds of thousands of Brazilians visited the exhibition.

‘Jamaica Jamaica!’ has finally come home. Unfortunately, some of the artefacts from the exhibitions in France and Brazil are missing. They are held in museums and private collections abroad. It seems as if their curators did not want to risk sending them here. Art objects are sometimes acquired in dubious circumstances. So, perhaps, the curators feared that the rightful owners might claim their property.


In the early days of the Jamaican music industry, neither the Government nor the private sector put much value on Jamaican creativity. This was largely because it was nurtured in rural Jamaica and the inner city. Thanks to the religious zeal of non-Jamaican collectors, many valuable artefacts have been preserved. Foreigners recognised the genius of Jamaican artists and cleverly amassed their work.

Now that we’ve belatedly discovered the economic power of our creative industries, it’s too late to get back a lot of what we’ve lost. And we still haven’t learned the lessons of the past. Several objects that should be in the exhibition are still waiting at the ports for clearance. The prohibitive government tariffs on the movement of cultural artefacts have made it rather costly to release the objects.

The Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport is in dialogue with the Ministry of Finance to resolve the matter. But, surely, in ‘joined up’ government, it ought to be obvious that the value of including these objects in this magisterial exhibition far outweighs the cost of waived or reduced tariffs.


Maximum respect is due to the primary curator of ‘Jamaica Jamaica!’, Sebastien Carayol, a music journalist and filmmaker from France. Raised on the outskirts of the port city Narbonne, Carayol feels completely at home in Greenwich Farm. He’s not from uptown.

In London, in the 1990s, he discovered Jamaican sound systems, like Jah Shaka, and was hooked. Carayol has written about Jamaican music for about 20 years in magazines such as Natty Dread, Wax Poetics, Vibrations, and for the Red Bull Music Academy.

Carayol directed the documentary series ‘Sound System’ for Arte channel (France). In 2014, he curated an exhibition, ‘Say Watt?’, on sound systems and conceptual art. The Philharmonic invited him to produce an exhibition on Bob Marley. Carayol sensibly declined. He knew that Jamaican music was much bigger than Marley. He proposed an alternate project which became ‘Jamaica Jamaica!’

As in Brazil, there are objects here that were not in France. Ebony Patterson’s 2010 ‘Cultural Soliloquy (Cultural Object Revisited)’ is the centrepiece of the dancehall gallery. It’s a mixed media installation with a car. The witty licence plate is ‘ONE ED’. Graphic designer Sassafrass did all the new signage for the exhibition. Some of his vintage dancehall posters are included.


Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson, another brilliant Jamaican graphic designer, must be a very happy duppy today. He co-founded the International Reggae Poster Contest with Greek graphic designer, Maria Papaefstathiou, as a platform for promoting his vision of a world-class music museum and performing arts centre in downtown Kingston.

The ‘Jamaica Jamaica!’ exhibition proves that there’s more than enough material to sustain a museum worthy of the breadth and depth of our music.

The Jamaica Music Museum on Water Lane is housed in a former storeroom of the Institute of Jamaica. It seems smaller than any of the seven rooms in which the exhibition is mounted.

Despite the lack of appropriate resources, the director/curator of the Jamaica Music Museum, Herbie Miller, has been cautiously carrying water in a basket. A little tar here and there! One of the long-lasting accomplishments of the museum is the annual ‘Grounation’ forum. This year’s theme is ‘Blackhead Chiney Man: The Chinese Contribution to Jamaican Popular Music’.

One day, one day, the Jamaica Music Museum will move beyond Water Lane. If only the Jamaican government would follow the example of Harry and Meghan and withdraw from the monarchy. The grounds of King’s House could be used for a variety of purposes, including a new Parliament building, a performing arts centre and the National Gallery. The rebranded former gallery could become a music museum we could all be proud of.

‘Jamaica Jamaica!’ has shown that it’s high time for the Jamaica Music Museum to step up in life.

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to and