Editorial | Rest to Toots, but clear criteria needed
Few will demur at the idea of Toots Hibbert joining the handful of celebrated figures, including the Jamaican language poet Louise Bennett-Coverley, and the reggae singer Dennis Brown, who are interred at Jamaica’s National Heroes Park, although they were neither national heroes nor prime ministers. But who qualifies for such treatment needs to be clearly articulated in policy.
Toots Hibbert’s provenance as a cultural icon could hardly be questioned. Before the advent of Bob Marley as the music’s global star, Hibbert, first as part of the group The Maytals, was internationally recognised as a pioneer of reggae and its evolutionary genres, ska and rocksteady. He scored some of Jamaica’s early international hits, some of which were covered by foreign singers and bands. Hibbert was also credited with, if not naming reggae, being the first to use the word in the title of a song – the 1968 composition, Do the Reggay.
Then there was Hibbert’s longevity. Long past when many performers faded, Hibbert continued to tour, giving energetic, sellout performances around the world. His voice remained crisp, sweet and haunting. He remained relevant. Indeed, not long before his death last month at 77, Hibbert was one of several leading artistes to compete in this year’s Festival Song contest, helping to give the flagging annual festival a new energy and sense of direction.
However, the circumstances under which Toots Hibbert will be buried at National Heroes Park revives a two-decades-old debate over who should be buried there and calls for clarity on the matter. It suggests, too, the need for the Government to move ahead with the promised special venue for the burial and celebration of cultural icons.
If all had gone to plan, after a COVID-19-contained, low-keyed private service at a funeral home chapel last Friday, Hibbert would have been buried at the Dovecot Memorial Park in the parish of St Catherine. However, when the cortege turned up, they could not produce the burial order. The event was postponed. Thus, the announcement by the culture minister, Olivia Grange, that Hibbert will now be buried at National Heroes Park.
After the fiasco at Dovecot and the fact that some family members wanted the burial in Toots’ home parish of Clarendon, there is a hint of comedy in that he is displacing the actor and comedian Charles Hyatt, who, although he died in 2007, is not yet interred in the park. Were he around, Charles Hyatt would probably be poking mild fun, and having a bit of laugh, at the situation.
It is not known, and matters little, who approached whom on the latest iteration of the burial of Toots Hibbert. But according to Minister Grange, at the time of Charles Hyatt’s death, his family wanted him to be buried at National Heroes Park. No more space, however, was thought to be available in the designated area. So Charles was buried elsewhere.
It was subsequently discovered that a last spot was in fact available. Charles Hyatt was to be reinterred at the park. His family, said Ms Grange, has agreed to forfeit the space to Toots Hibbert.
When Dennis Brown, another celebrated Jamaica reggae singer, died in 1999, there was debate over the decision by the then Government to have him buried at National Heroes Park. A decade later, many Gregory Isaacs fans argued for the singer to be buried there, too.
Such decisions are not to be on the basis of requests by families or the result of lobbying. Criteria for burial at National Heroes Park, or any other place established as a memoriam to cultural icons, should be clearly documented and publicly available.
Further, it is more than a decade since the idea of the memorial park for cultural icons was first broached. Minister Grange says the concept is well developed and the site identified. These should be open to public discussion, and approval, before citizens are told that things are too far gone for their input.