Fri | May 27, 2016

Diplomatic passports for musicians

Published:Sunday | August 25, 2013 | 12:00 AM

Carolyn Cooper

THE 20TH staging of the Rototom Sunsplash festival in Spain got off to a brilliant start with the Third World Band. Their opening song, Reggae Ambassador, artfully voiced a major theme of the Global Reggae book which had its European launch last week at the festival's 'Reggae University' forum: Jamaica's songwriters, singers and players of instruments are global ambassadors for the nation. Whether it's mento, ska, rocksteady, reggae, dancehall, hip hop, gospel, so-called 'classical' music or a mix up and blender of everything pon a sound system, all the practitioners of these art forms are musical ambassadors for Brand Jamaica.

And talking about 'classical' music, this label is not owned by Europeans. If we define classical music as art music that is carefully crafted, then we know that all cultures of the world create their own distinctive classical music. In the case of Jamaica, our popular music is not only classical, it's also classic - top a top - just like the artistry and prowess of our athletes. To the world!

Jamaican musicians can master Western musical forms if we choose. A no nutten. Just think about Cat Coore's genius on the cello. Trained as a 'classical' musician, Cat became a maroon, running away from the plantation of social privilege. He chose to take on the dreaded identity of Rastafari. But he took the core of his cello with him, transforming it into an abeng, a musical weapon of resistance.


One of the most anticipated events of the festival was the clash between Tony Matterhorn and Ricky Trooper. Rory of Stone Love fame was the host. He ruled that the clash was a draw. I think Trooper slaughtered Matterhorn with his very first selection, the Blue Danube waltz. Johann Strauss II composed that tune - or chune as we say a yard - in Austria in 1867. He could not possibly have anticipated that almost a century and a half later, on the very same continent, that song would end up on a dub plate destined to kill a sound bwoy.

In fact, the first orchestral performance of the waltz was a flop. And Strauss was so vexed he said, 'The devil take the waltz!' I'm not saying Trooper is a devil. But he certainly committed musical murder using the weapon of Strauss' melody and waltzed away with victory, in my opinion. To be honest, I witnessed only the first round of the clash which started after 2 a.m. I had to go to my bed. Earlier in the evening, Dutty Bookman, a bright youth who spoke about the Reggae Revival at the festival, mischievously asked me if I was trying to keep up with young people. I just laughed. I know my limitations.

In fact, I was not alert enough to realise that Trooper disqualified himself in that first round by repeating one of Matterhorn's selections. Still for all, in my book, im win.

Ricky Trooper's brandishing of Strauss' waltz illustrates another important theme in the Global Reggae book. The reach of creative work often escapes the grasp of the originators themselves. Even with all the intellectual property laws these days, creative people cannot determine the value of their work or its full impact once it's released. The foundational Jamaican reggae ambassadors like U Roy, who performed so brilliantly at the Rototom festival, could never have anticipated the global spread of reggae. It's a real tragedy that most of the pioneers have not reaped the rewards of their creative labour.


In Reggae Ambassador, The Third World Band documents the uexpected potency of high-grade reggae:

So everywhere I jam it's the same question

'How can a big music come from a little island?'

When the music play[s] it leaves them in a state of shock

The big-big music from the little rock!

How the music of a small island in the Caribbean becomes the amplified soundtrack of revolutionary politics across the world is a puzzle the Global Reggae book attempts to crack.

At the Rototom 'Reggae University' forum, Dr Sonjah Stanley Niaah, author of Dancehall: From Slave Ship To Ghetto, gave a preview of her soon-to-be published book which focuses on reggae pilgrims to festivals all over the world. There are approximately 563 reggae festivals held each year, as documented in the Reggae Festival Guide, published in Nevada. Some of these festivals are not strictly reggae. The Guide includes hemp festivals and roots festivals such as Back To Africa.

Dr Stanley Niaah's research has confirmed that most of the bona fide reggae festivals are not put on by Jamaicans and there are no Jamaican performers on the bill. The Italian hosts of the exceptional Rototom Sunsplash Festival must be commended for their commitment to showcasing a high percentage of Jamaicans in the line-up. They know the value of original Jamaican reggae. Many of us in Jamaica don't, especially successive ministers of culture and/or entertainment who just don't seem to get it.

Jamaica is no longer the reggae capital of the world. If it were, reggae pilgrims would be coming to the island in much larger numbers to live the culture. These heritage tourists would pay to visit our world-class music museum. It exists only in the imagination of a few visionaries. Kingston would flourish again as a capital destination. There was a time when cruise ships docked in Kingston. The city's vibrant nightlife, especially its music, was a major attraction.

Most Jamaicans simply don't understand the global impact of our culture. And the very idea of a reggae ambassador is a big joke. I think it's time to accredit the best of our musical ambassadors and give them diplomatic passports. They have earned this distinction. One of our officially appointed ambassadors, Don Mills, who was Jamaica's permanent representative at the United Nations, once confided his fear that one of these days, somebody, somewhere will exclaim in all seriousness, 'Oh, they have reggae in Jamaica too!' And we will have nobody to blame but ourselves.

Carolyn Cooper is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Visit her bilingual blog at Email feedback to and