Book Review | The irrepressible rhythm of life
Book Review: The Music Vendor and Other Stories of Kingston
Author: St Hope Earl McKenzie
Critic: Glenville Ashby, PhD
The Music Vendor is subtly intoxicating. Written with poise and seamless passion, it captures the aesthetics of Jamaican life. McKenzie masterfully explores the psychic bond between music and a people. Music tells more than a story. It is archetypal, a cultural imprint that defines their experience. Music opens the gates of imagination and serves as an instructive and telling tape of a people’s past, present and future.
In ‘Mento,’ a story of personal struggles amid the catharsis of culture, two young women face the reality of growing up in harsh times. Here, music is more than a diversion. It peers into the state of the human condition. Melody and lyrics repeat themselves in the mind of one of these women: “Carry me ackee go a Linstead Market, not a quattie wut sell.
In the same vein, no one wanted to buy her ackees. Her eyes welling with tears, she is struck by the enormity of her plight.
Message of duty and morality
‘The Cotton Tree,’ is a narrative embedded in teleological ethics, the message of duty and morality transcend all else.
Barry, the figure around whom the story unfolds, is a memory looming large, his life snatched by the vagaries of time. He lived life against the grain, a radical, defiant and combative; a Rastafarian emerging from the box of tradition; a heretic among traditionalists.
In death, though, his spirit soars, unifying and reconciling (dissident movements) if only for a moment. In the lugubrious timbre of the funeral, every heart is open, raptured by his uncanny life, moreover, enthralled by music. In this case, “the melody of Europe and the rhythm of Africa.”
In ‘The Deal,’ Providence smiles to some among us. Maybe we create our reality after all. A young craftsman inscribes on his crate who he is and must become - “Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” and "I Man, the Conquering King."
Maybe he found the keys to life’s wonderment. Visualize the future and it can materialise. At least, so it appears. ‘The Deal’ endorses the sheer power of the human will. As if by magic, the young man’s debut outing with handcart in tow is a fortuitous one. His cart - his creation - catches the eye of a foreign curator. He is showered with epaulettes - “It is a work of art. A fine piece of Jamaican folk art. You’re an artist. How much do you want for it?”
The young man inks the deal, and “as he began walking down the street he put his hand in his pocket and clutched the dollar notes. And he began pondering over the events of the first day of the rest of his life.”
Femininity fused with masculine spirit
“The Hills of Papine,” titled after Edna Manley’s sculpted art depicting the creative and protective grace of motherhood, traces the union of two professionals. Femininity fused with the masculine spirit, both needing each other.
Together, they are an impregnable gestalt that represents the fruition and continuance of life. In lovemaking, dancing, and dining, they are One. This Oneness is evident in a car-washing scene that elicits a telling comment from a stranger: “This is a beautiful sight. It is the first time I have ever seen a man and his wife washing their car. I hope you make love afterwards.” They do. Passionately.
And later, the wife, thinking of Hills of Papine, “placed her hands over her stomach. Perhaps the baby they wanted was on its way.”
In the eponymous 'Music of Vendor,' the artistry of a nation is celebrated through the blistering mouthpiece of a huckster. He sells more than masterpieces of Jamaica’s iconic talents; he is a nationalist, his pride unmistakable. Music permeates society’s every fabric, ever healing and edifying. The vendor is vocal: “As you can see, me peddling the music you done know say is me dat from long time. That is what we known to the world for. Music and sports. You did watch the Olympics? We wicked eh? Music not bad...I can get to meet a lot of people...Politicians? No, me don’t see any of them yet. But a Bishop passed one day and bought some sacred music. Quite a few people from TV, radio and the entertainment world. But mostly ordinary people like you and me.”
‘Jonkunnu’ challenges us to engage our youth - their talent and candour stifled by a lack of mentorship. McKenzie tailors a traditional masquerade with a modern message. Although clothed as the characters of the past - Devil, Pitchy-Patchy, King and Queen, Belly-Woman, Actor Boy and Horse-head - young men, once disillusioned, deliver robust and uplifting pronouncements. Theirs is a spoken word that captures the national zeitgeist.A single experience proves a catalyst on a very intimate level. The young men redirect their energy on personal goals and ambitions.
Such is the transformative power of culture.
‘Kingston Farewell,’ is arguably McKenzie’s most provocative offering. It centres on nationhood and ethnicity, and the perseverance of identity in an existential crisis. In this case, one’s Jewishness takes precedence. The political climate of the 1980s, the spectre of communism and lawlessness gripping Jamaica thinned a family’s patience. Well-heeled, options are always available.
With nostalgia, the protagonists recalls, “Although it is said that oppressed people seldom bind with other oppressed peoples. I have always felt a certain affinity with them. Until the socialist movement of the nineteen seventies when a black girl spat on my daughter Ruth at school. It was the final straw...” He continues to justify his decision: “There an unprecedented level of violence in the country. Rapists were terrorizing suburban communities. We were among those who felt we had to leave.”
Even Jamaica’s art takes on a troubling aura. Of his visit to a gallery he concedes, “I was struck by the technical excellence and austere aesthetics of much of the pottery...I did not know what to make of the macabre models of human heads and the sculpture f scrap-wood on the floor. For some reason, the section devoted to the so-called intuitive artists made me feel very uneasy and afraid...It was as if there was an unseen but very disturbing spirit there.
The Music Vendor, a compilation of ten captivating tales, is an artful piece of literature. It is portrait of time captured by a writer intrigued by life’s deeper, incalculable meaning.