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The smallest world cultural power

Published:Sunday | August 14, 2011 | 8:00 AM
A patron at last weekend's Grand Gala. - Ricardo Makyn/Staff Photographer

Kevin O'Brien Chang, Contributor


When the black, green and gold went up on midnight August 5, 1962, this island was unknown and insignificant to most of the world, and even to those who lived here the word, 'Jamaica' evoked little emotion.


Forty-nine years on, we are famed planetwide for our vivid music and culture, and 'Jamaica' instantly induces a sense of spontaneous excitement and freedom of spirit.

Now world-influencing nations are usually old, big or rich.

Independent for less than five decades, with not even one-twentieth of one per cent of the global population or GDP, Jamaica should still be an obscure dot on the map. How such a young, tiny and poor country came to resonate so forcefully around the Earth must be one of the great post-World War II cultural stories.

Media discussions about Jamaica's Independence, and even our leaders' speeches, tend to dwell on the negatives. True, our economic development has not matched our cultural progress, and the more than tenfold increase in our murder rate since 1962 is a national disgrace.

Racially harmonious

But while acknowledging our failings - and let's not overlook our stable and racially harmonious democracy - the general public in no way shares the gloomy assessment of our intelligentsia.

Recently, I asked 50 of my staff to give me three words that 'Jamaica' brings to mind. (Not a scientific poll, obviously, but as good a snapshot as any of how ordinary Jamaicans view their country.) The following responses, listed in descending order, came up more than once: beauty 12, crime. 11, reggae 9, food 8, culture 7, corruption 6, music 6, sunshine 5, beaches 4, entertainment 4, fun 3, independent 3, talented 3, unique 3, vibes 3, tourists 2.

So the top general groupings were culture 35 (reggae, culture, music, entertainment, fun, talented, vibes), beauty 21 (beauty, sunshine, beaches), crime 18 (crime, corruption). Which strikes me as a rough approximation of the reality you hear expressed on the street and in our music.

In truth, there are many poor and violent countries around the globe, and the problems we face are ones of basic governance. There's no shortage of economically successful and relatively peaceful models to emulate - Barbados, Panama and Mauritius spring to mind. All that's stopping us is ourselves.

On the other hand, countless nations wish there was a blueprint for creating the kind of proud self-identity, and its brilliant musical expression, that Jamaica has somehow developed. There have been lots of Third World 'economic miracles'. But Jamaica's development into a cultural world power is unique and remains the envy of countries a hundred times richer and bigger. "Show us how you did it!" they earnestly ask. All we can honestly answer is: "We're not quite sure how it happened ourselves!"

Powerfully felt

The keen sense of Jamaicanness is perhaps most powerfully felt and expressed at Emancipendence in the speech and dance of Mello Go Round, the Festival Song Competition, the Grand Gala extravaganza, and the tens of thousands who turned out for the Half-Way Tree street dance. Ours must be one of the few living folk cultures, for this kind of spontaneously appreciated national ethos is rather rare on today's planet, and getting rarer by the day. Travellers scour the globe in search of the kind of 'authenticity' we Jamaicans are so wrapped in as to be hardly aware of it.

The Grand Gala again provided a dazzling exhibition of our national spirit and culture. It's a wonderful tradition that makes all ages proud of the land of their birth, and must never again be allowed to lapse into hibernation. Yet Culture Minister 'Babsy' Grange is right. If it was so packed for the 49th, where is she going to put all the people next year?

Since it's never too soon to start planning, here are a few possible suggestions for our golden jubilee. A suitable Grand Gala theme would be 'Jamaica to the world!', and we should showcase all our great living artistes in a ska to rocksteady to reggae to roots to dub to dancehall concert. Toots Hibbert, Jimmy Cliff, Prince Buster, Derrick Morgan, Bunny Wailer, Bob Andy, Marcia Griffiths, John Holt, Ken Booth, Leroy Sibbles, U Roy, Burning Spear, Half Pint, Beres Hammond, Yellowman, Admiral Bailey, Papa San, Lovindeer, Shabba Ranks, Tony Rebel, Lady Saw, Luciano, Beenie Man, Bounty Killer, Shaggy, Sean Paul, Vybz Kartel and Mavado are just some prominent names that spring to mind. No doubt they will be in demand elsewhere, but surely a sense of patriotism should make them want to be part of such a once-in-a-lifetime, cross-generational event.

Grand Gala should also be preceded by a big street parade, with floats and carnival-style sound-system-laden trucks, which would cost the Government nothing if every large-scale company like Tastee, Juici Patties and Wisynco, etc, sponsored a truck.

Another suggestion is for all our current dancehall stars to be asked to do a song about 'what Jamaica means to me'. Early foundation stars like the Maytals and Desmond Dekker celebrated their country in song.

Let's hear today's musical heroes on the subject, and it might make a great keepsake album.

Over the holiday week, I heard many comments of 'Lord, them tief we holiday and put it on Saturday!' and 'I wish the Monday and Friday holidays were together like in Easter!' Now up to 1997, Independence Day was designated as the first Monday in August, and it was observed with no less vigour than today. So suppose we celebrated Emancipation Day on the first Friday in August, and Independence on the following Monday, in an annual four-day holiday weekend? Since August 6 actually falls on a Monday in 2012, next year would be an ideal starting point for announcing such a change.

A few pedants will want to stick to Emancipation Day on August 1 and Independence Day on August 6. But in my vox pops, every single person asked was, as one put it, 'more than in favour' of a four-day weekend.

For when August 1 or 6 is far from the weekend, it's difficult for any real spirit to build up, and Emancipendence can be flat and lacklustre. Why should we not have maximum excitement every year?

Four consecutive days off would mean lots more stage shows, parties and dances around the island, thus increasing and not lessening the Emancipendence fervour, and making it feel even more important. It's not like anyone would forget what they were celebrating.

Such a change would definitely have a big economic impact. Many more Jamaicans abroad would come home for Emancipendence. When August 1 and 6 fall on, say, a Thursday and Tuesday, even homesick yardies often can't bother with a disjointed visit. Four straight non-working days would also mean an even bigger and more hyped 'Dream' weekend in Negril, again drawing more foreign visitors and boosting tourism.

A last weekend in July with Reggae Sumfest, followed by a first weekend in August of a four-day Emancipendence bashment, could become an internationally recognised two-week party of parties for overseas Jamaicans and lovers of Jamaican culture. It might become even bigger than, say, Trinidad Carnival. Since our culture is about the only legal thing Jamaicans produce that is in worldwide demand, we should be doing everything we can to increase its intensity and marketability.

The Government should run a scientific poll to see if most Jamaicans would prefer things as they are - with holidays on August 1 and August 6 - or prefer a change to holidays on the first Friday in August and the following Monday. After all, public holidays are about pleasing the majority of the public.

Kevin O'Brien Chang is author of 'Jamaica Fi Real: Beauty, Vibes and Culture'. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and Kobchang365@gmail.com.