Seeing green in the blue
So, there I was sometime last week, at a window in a dining area on the upper deck of the Norwegian Pearl eating fruit (yeah yeah, so me a gwaan like me neva get whe pon de whole heap a food, buffet style, too, so yu coulda go as much time yu want an no one nah frowns), looking out the window at the ocean and seeing green.
Not that the waters had changed colour somewhere between Miami and the two Jamaican stops, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, of the 2015 Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise's first leg. But while I was looking at the expanse of blue, I was thinking about the grass of numerous venues at which I have attended at entertainment events in Jamaica over many years.
For the ocean was the general dancehall lawn and the ship the section of that expanse demarcated for the session - a tiny, moving area on the open seas, where Jamaican popular music was presented in different ways and enjoyed over five consecutive days.
It took me a couple days to put my finger on what was different about the main stage area on the ship's upper deck where the nightly concerts took place. For while the line-ups were excellent, each performer given - and taking full advantage of - about 45 minutes to an hour for their presentation, the sound was superb (when Morgan Heritage played, the lowest bass guitar notes were subterranean) and the audiences very enthusiastic, I had the general feeling of having had similar experiences before.
Which is understandable, since I have been covering entertainment for a while. However, there is a huge difference between the personal and the professional, and looking at the music experience on the leg of the cruise I was privileged to be a part of from the general audience's point of view, I was mightily impressed.
Still, from the personal perspective, something was niggling at the corners of my mind, and finally, the nebulous became concrete.
There were no sponsorship signs around. No illuminated signs by a telecommunications company, no fluttering bunting hawking an alcoholic beverage brand, and no digital backdrop running advertisements for a media house. Neither were there any promotional hotties in clingy branded outfits designed to enhance the bulges before and behind as well as hitch up in the crucial creases - but heck, there was no shortage of that on board. More variety, too.
I have, unfortunately, become so used to the heavy, sometimes overwhelming, sponsorship presence at Jamaican live performance events that it has become par for the course. To have five consecutive days of concerts, parties, an interactive photo session on Bob Marley and movies without the MC shouting out about bucket deals was a welcome relief. However, in the indoor area where the parties took place, there was a single Marley branding on the stage and a Marley coffee advertising strip. It was a Marley-organised cruise, and still, the branding was very subtle.
Back to the window, looking out at blue and seeing green. I also got to thinking about venues. For the Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise has solved the problem of places to party and regulations very neatly. There is no need to bring in everything, from a stage and sound to portable toilets and vendor stalls to convert an expanse of green (or the dirt where grass would normally be) at the Catherine Hall Entertainment Complex, Grizzly's Plantation Cove or Jamworld for a specific event. There is no watching the Noise Abatement Act hours or peeling off a little something to a police officer who just happens to turn up when the promoter is at a make or break point in the event and says he is going to shut it down unless the organiser can 'do something' for themself.
Put together, the absence of obvious sponsorship and the regulations governing entertainment in Jamaica made for a concert experience as I remember dancehall in the early, early 1990s, just before Operation Ardent. Of course, let us not forget that the lawmen have plagued the performance of Jamaican popular music for eons - I remember King Stitt outside Afrique on King Street talking about how many times he had to run from the police, as it was like a crime to play a sound system.
Those who have been going to events long before I was will remember even more liberal times. Of course, the cruise ain't cheap, so isn't it ironic that the freedom to express (there were a couple claat moments, nothing to write home about) and enjoy music originated by Jamaica's lower socioeconomic class was on a ship in the ocean that took a good amount of cash to access? Yup, it took escaping from Jamaica to present the dancehall space unfettered as I understand it was at some points in the earlier stages.
And before we overlook what happens in Jamaica, let us note that the trips around Kingston Harbour on the Caribbean Queen have the same unencumbered characteristics that I appreciated on the Norwegian Pearl, which went much bigger and far further.
From a personal standpoint, the most engaging parts of the cruise were King Jammy's live mixing session, in which he played tracks like Nitty Gritty's Run Down the World (what a rahtid bassline), Shinehead and to a lesser extent, Damian 'Jr Gong' Marley joining in to freestyle. Then there was Neville Garrick's display of personal Bob Marley photographs and attendant memories. Also on the images side was seeing most of Shottas (my favourite Jamaican movie ever) on big screen with good sound. The Stardust Theatre on board the Norwegian Pearl is an amphitheatre a bit deeper than the Courtleigh Auditorium and slightly narrower (maybe). I will probably never see Shottas in that way again. It's all laptops and tablets again.
Then there was the first leg of the sound clash involving Metro Media, Bass Odyssey and Mighty Crown, as inconclusive as it was for the audience despite Mighty Crown being judged to have defaulted and Bass Odyssey winning. I am a clash fan, deejay or sound system, and it was interesting to see an audience of generally non-Jamaicans deeply engaged in the musical battle.
Topping it off was Shinehead's walk-around-deck mid-afternoon performance, where he spent more time off the stage than on it.
It is significant that Jamaicans were represented mostly as performers and media on that leg of the cruise I was sent on. For when it comes down to it, the Welcome to Jamrock Reggae Cruise is really an international all-inclusive festival where the cosmopolitan audience meets the performers on the high seas closer to the latter's Jamaican base, unfettered by the funding and legal parameters involved in staging events in Jamaica.
It is a hell of an idea, and it is working.