‘Nah mek dem win’: The rise of the Tambourine Army

The following is the unedited version of my March 15, 2017, column in the Gleaner

March 11, 2017. Tambourine Army’s emotionally charged, moving survivors’ march from the Moravian Church at 127 Molynes Road to Mandela Park in Half Way Tree Square was one of several held across the Caribbean that day. It was probably also the most heart-wrenching one, organized as it was mostly by survivors of rape and abuse, for many of whom this was a cathartic experience. Impressive also were the number of men who participated in this 700-strong march, a record number for non-political or religious public protests in Jamaica.

Heralded by dissension on social media and fallout with earlier generations of feminist activists the Tambourine Army nevertheless prevailed on March 11, their well-orchestrated, rootsy, Rasta drum- and pan-driven procession moving at a nimble pace through the streets of Kingston. Led by flag woman Taitu Heron, gloriously clad in Orisha-inspired white and expertly manipulating a large white flag in front of purple-clad marchers the procession packed quite a visual punch. Such a pity that neither of the two TV stations in Jamaica seemed to be there (recalling the famous words of Gil Scott-Heron “The revolution will not be televised…”) so that it fell on social media to disseminate the colourful images.

A truck with a sound system accompanied the procession, pumping out the doleful but mesmerizing song ‘Nah Mek Dem Win’ with lyrics telling an all too familiar Jamaican story. Young girl being abused by her father, tries in vain to bring it to the attention of her family, yet:

Mama neva listen
Aunty neva listen
Mi try tell mi sista but…. She neva listen
But this is healing time…
An you don’t have to do it on your own
Just Stan Firmm.

Nah mek dem win
Nah mek dem win…

Keisha Firmm, author and singer of ‘Nah mek dem win’ is the survivor of a horror story herself. After her mother’s death her relatives sent her to England to live with a man who claimed to be her father. The inevitable happened leaving young Keisha full of anger and pain with nowhere to turn for help. Questions kept swirling through her mind. Why had this happened to her? How could society leave children to the mercy of predators with no protection whatsoever? Would she ever be normal again?

I asked her how participating in the march had made her feel. Less empty, said Keisha, less alone. A student in UTECH’s USAID-funded Fi Wi Jamaica arts residency programme, sharing her story and turning it into song has been therapeutic for Keisha, who hopes that it will help other young women like herself. During the march the truck would stop along the way allowing different survivors to share their stories, the singer Tanya Stephens, among them.

Leading the march, right behind the flagwoman, was a row of black clad women, in armour-like. outfits. They were members of En Kompane, the dance troupe started by virtuoso dancer Neila Ebanks. When the procession reached Mandela Park to find that the generator had packed up and there was no sound, the rag tag live instrumental band struck up and Neila danced a powerful ‘cutting and clearing’ dance.

Cutting and clearing space for themselves was what this march was about for the women and men who participated in it. The unseemly pre-March kass kass between older feminists who should know better and younger activists whose zeal and passion at times made them hotheaded and confrontational was unfortunate. The public’s apathy made me realize that there’s no culture here of holding protest marches, or protests generally. The Immediate response of too many is—what is a protest going to achieve? They miss the point. For the victims of abuse who participated the march was part of the healing process. For others like artist Deborah Anzinger, who brought her 6-year old daughter, it

“…felt like a valuable step and exercise. As children we never learned of organized demonstrations/protesting as an option for us to show disapproval of any social problem. It felt good introducing this to our daughter and her friend. It was an opportunity to talk to them about how far we’ve come towards basic equality and human rights for all people and how much further there is to go.”

I’ll close by quoting Kashka Hemans whose Facebook status said it all:

“… Respect where respect is due. I’d like to congratulate the Tambourine Army on their fearless and, in many ways, peerless activism in the cause of ending gender-based violence in Jamaica. I am discomfited by some of their strategies and harbour doubts about the long term effectiveness of the contestational stance they have at times taken but, you know what? So what? I stand with them on the basis of what they stand for. I also stand with others who represent a more staid approach to activism. There is space and a need for many voices and approaches. But the present moment belongs to the Tambourine Army, they are giving a platform to many women to tell their stories, to vent, to ‘gwaan bad’ and cuss claat in a country where claat cussing is the only language many in officialdom seem to understand. More power to you sisters, may your movement grow in strength and impact.”

The Blogging Caste


I’m really glad the Jamaican government decided to spend $12 million (Jamaican of course; J$80=US$1) on fireworks at the waterfront on New Year’s Eve. It was a mere series of blips compared to the displays in Hong Kong and Australia but they were our blips and we enjoyed them. I hear the mutterings and rumblings about how the money could have been put to better use etc but it’s not as if Jamaica is Zimbabwe or Iraq. We haven’t been ravaged by disease or war in quite the same way and there’s a limit to the difference a hundred and fifty thousand American dollars could make to the general well-being of the population.

In fact a firework display for all to enjoy was one of the few ways the money could have been used to benefit many. All things considered the fireworks did briefly manage to prop up a generally sagging public morale I think. As bad as things seemed by the end of the year at least we weren’t too poor to afford fireworks. Thousands turned out to reclaim the normally abandoned downtown and waterfront areas of Kingston and I hear Tivoli was popping with a more rollicking session of Passa Passa than usual. I’m sure vendors and hustlers did a roaring business that night. And it wasn’t just downtown. Cars and people lined the Palisadoes road all the way to the airport to watch the fireworks and set off their own.

I surveyed the numerous firework displays from the lofty heights of Stony Hill where we enjoyed a commanding view of the city. A private home in Jack’s Hill threatened to rival the fireworks at the waterfront. We viewed it as a struggle between the private sector and the public to outdo each other. The latter won, just about.

So 2008 was a rough year and 09 doesn’t promise to be any better. The Israeli pounding of Gaza underscores the grim future that awaits many of us. Meanwhile that ingenious merchant of hope, Barack Obama, gets ready to occupy the most powerful throne on earth. Will he actually make a difference? What will we be thinking and saying of him a year from now? And when is someone going to invent fast forward and rewind buttons for life so that we don’t have to leave such matters to speculation?

My new year’s resolution in 2007 was to start a blog in 2008. Determined to join the blogging caste I managed to kick start Active Voice last January and it picked up momentum during the course of the year. What an odyssey into the unknown it’s proven to be, this excursion into the blogosphere; this deepening acquaintance with the internet and cyberspace. The world wide web is a sticky place and blogs are like mini-webs spun by human arachnids who aim to trap you with silky tripwires. Not to eat those who wander into their webs but to entice them to return, again and again, leaving trails of page views and visits and occasional comments— blogfood—that rich humus that feeds the growth of blogs.

How bloggers who never receive comments or a minimum of visits continue to maintain their output is beyond me. But then again its all relative. I think i’ve done well to have received close to ten thousand hits over the last year but when you compare that to Indian bloggers whose page views number in the hundreds of thousands you may as well retire coz it’ll probably be the year 3000 by the time you get there. I mean Domain Maximus will soon reach the million viewer mark and the Compulsive Confessor is already a million plus .

So although advertisers would have us rate the success of blogs by the number of hits they attract on a per diem basis—apparently anything less than 2000 hits per day is not considered worth spending advertising dollars on —there are other indicators of blog health and success that may not be as easily quantifiable.

The other highlight for me has been allowing myself to get into Facebook in a serious way. At first I couldn’t understand why I should join such a network. It seemed to me like entertainment for the feeble-minded or ultra young with its good karma requests and its past life, monster birth and mob wars invitations (all of which can be safely ignored). Then I read a New York Times article about ‘Digital Intimacy’ or something like that which explained the whole concept of the thing and suddenly I got why it’s as innovative as it is.

From the album: Hitman Wally

Haven’t looked back since. Life without Facebook is pretty damn unimaginable today. The poverty of the print media in Jamaica was brought home to me when I read Eve Mann’s review of Sting 08 (Jamaica’s top dancehall event, held every December 26) that she posted as a note in Facebook. Her excellent account underscored the anodyne, barely competent writing we tolerate from print journalists here. It remains a mystery to me why Jamaican newspapers offer their readers a third-rate product when first-rate writing is so readily (if not as cheaply) available. Surely they realize that like anything else you get what you pay for?

This preference for second and third-best isn’t confined to Jamaica. In Trinidad and Tobago (and elsewhere) stunned readers of his column are expressing dismay that the Trinidad Express has terminated B.C. Pires’s provocative and acutely critical weekly column. Ever one to lay bare the truth with wit and originality Pires probably wasn’t as biddable as the Express would have liked. Without more information one can only speculate. In one of his last columns for the Express he interviewed himself. He was nothing if not hard-hitting and original.

Closer to home the Gleaner seems to have terminated the column of the punderous Dr. Orville Taylor (it never fails to amuse me the childish glee with which people brandish their titles here. Even ‘Mrs.’ is an honorific in Jamaica and she who has earned the right to be called ‘Mrs.’ is likely to rub it into your face with all the zeal of a Pond’s Cold Cream salesperson). Dr. Taylor liked to announce his witticisms with an advance marching band of quote marks and both bold and italic type just in case there was a reader who didn’t get it. In many ways Taylor was the opposite of B.C. Pires, lacking his finesse and acrobatic way with words and ideas, so his departure is likely to be met more with sighs of relief than regret, although he did have his fans (Stero?). Of course no one could be more grief-stricken than Dr. Taylor himself. Contrast his parting column, Swansongs and Auld Lang Syne with that of Pires, Write time, wrong place.

But guess what guys! The twenty-first century piece of all-purpose advice is no longer “Get a life!”; its “Get a blog!” Come join the blogging caste–the only caste you don’t have to be born into. So what if your papers have cut you loose? Its their loss…light a candle, sing a sankey and find your way to blogger.com! Your readers will follow suit.