Eyeless in Gaza (and Gully): ‘Mi deh pon di borderline’

Clovis Brown, Wednesday, October 7 2009, Jamaica Observer

Gaza. Gully. The two words, inscribed in locations all over Kingston and Jamaica, signify internecine zones of conflict competing for supremacy in the dancehall universe here. For those who don’t know: Gaza=Kartel and Gully=Mavado. Mavado, popularly known as ‘Gully Gad (God)’, comes from Gullyside in Cassava Piece, an impoverished community in the foothills of Kingston. Kartel comes from a neighbourhood in Portmore that was once known as BORDERLINE.

And thereby hangs a tale. A story you wouldn’t find in the normal media yasso which specializes in skimming the surface and shallow moralizing. The Jamaican media generously accommodates both sinners and sermonizers, protecting the former by voluntarily gagging themselves and the latter by giving them as many column inches as their sermons demand. In the US it is citizens who usually “plead the fifth” and have “the right to remain silent”, both stemming from the Fifth Amendment of their constitution. In Jamaica the media seem to have arrogated such rights to themselves; they provide a minimum of in-depth coverage of events apparently on the grounds that the information given could be used as evidence against them!

So like me, you may not have known the etymology of the term ‘Gaza’ in the Jamaican context (Talk bout the media being eyeless in Gaza!) or why Borderline came to be so renamed. It’s a fascinating story which is intimately connected (as a batty is to a bench you might say) with this culture’s notorious attitude towards male homosexuals or ‘batty’ men as they are called here.

http://www.facebook.com/profile/pic.php?uid=AAAAAQAQVI9_PpNzEuTOnAdJ4J37_AAAAAoXoDCB-q_XlO3LZXDM3JMF
Shebada Ramsay, the ‘Gender Bender’

It all has to do with an actor called Shebada, the star of a super successful series of plays put on by Stages Productions. This company produces what is known in local parlance as ‘roots plays’, a kind of farcical, over the top production with picaresque characters performing or acting out the issues of the day. Sex is a big part of it, and subtlety is not, but Stages Productions whose slogan is “Comedy is serious business” always plays to full houses.

Stages Productions has also pioneered the explicit exploration of alternative sexualities and Shebada himself, whose stage persona is camp as they come and twice as provocative, sports a bleached face and gay-ish attributes that complicate the argument that Jamaica is unremittingly hostile to Gays. In fact international Gay rights groups who have targeted the island’s musicians repeatedly would do well to analyze such productions and feed the resulting insights into their jackhammer strategies at outing and combating what is touted worldwide as Jamaican homophobia.

The induction of the name ‘Gaza’ into the Jamaican firmament came about because in the very first insanely popular Stages Production, Bashment Granny, there is a scene where a policeman confronts the sinuous Shebada asking “Yu a man or yu a woman?” “Mi deh pon di borderline” declares Shebada unabashedly, emphasizing his retort with an exaggerated wag of his hips. The phrase became so popular in the context of discussions about sexuality that Vybz Kartel decided that the name of his community ‘Borderline’ had been irrevocably contaminated by association. He therefore adopted the name of the most violent place he could think of at the time—Gaza in Palestine.

Again Fernando Guereta, or Mr. Previous, as I have nicknamed him, the man responsible for the film, Why Do Jamaicans Run so Fast? has been quick off the mark. He is already in the middle of his next film, which documents the Gully Gaza phenomenon (please note he was NOT the source of information for this post). The interview with him I promised is still pending. I will unveil it over the course of the coming week. In the meantime check out these two video clips of Shebada in Bashment Granny (the relevant declaration is four and a half minutes into the first one). The second one has some priceless footage of Shebada teaching Bashment Granny how to walk and dance with credibility. Enjoy!

Masters of the Universe?

Remember how former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller was chided and ridiculed for wanting to hold elections on July 7 last year? 7-7-7 I did try and point out at the time that in countries like India and China it’s quite normal to schedule things on auspicious dates at auspicious times. Numbers are nothing after all if not symbolic!

Like many others I ritualistically seated myself in front of my TV screen at 8.08 pm Chinese time on August 8, 2008 to catch the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. What a stupendous show! To have pulled off such a stunning feat live, with the entire world watching, without a glitch or stutter—hats, tams and solar topees off to the mighty Chinese!

I gushed about it to all and sundry for two whole days till my cousin Susan sent me a tart email from Delhi saying: Dear Annie, I’ve been supporting the Tibet group in India, so the Beijing opening seemed stylistic and opaque, also 95,000 people were evacuated from Eastern China because of flash floods same day as the opening…and I’m not even a political person really, so Tiananmen square is always dedicated in my mind to those students.

Stick a pin.

For me it was the East showing the West what the marriage of technology, art and people can do. A show of power but one far more sophisticated than the nationalistic military parades normally on offer. With this synthesis of China’s penchant for the military, their mastery of technology and ancient flair for the artistic the mightiest nation of the east was signaling that it has reached; it has arrived. China has dramatically proven its prowess, displaying complete mastery over the universe on the very terms that capitalism uses to assess success.

At the same time the spectacular display was premised on teamwork, on large numbers of people working together, not on individual idiosyncracy so highly prized in the West. There were of course cameo concessions to the valued place of the modern individual for instance when two singers stood on top of a globe, looking like for all the world like one of those plastic couples used to decorate wedding cakes; dressed in Western clothes they theatrically lip-synched the haunting theme song You and Me, ingeniously combining Western pop and Chinese song (someone I read somewhere dismissed this as kitschy tripe).

Is this the same China that impassively stood by and allowed Tiananman Square to happen? I’m not sure but this Olympics also signals China’s opening up to the values of the West, including the notion of individual human rights I would imagine. Yet in this opening ceremony it was showing the splendour and vastness of imagination its people are capable of; the achievements of its civilization from the invention of paper and gunpowder to outer space exploration; its ability to command the heights of tradition as well as the most contemporary technology. There was something extraordinary in that display ( It’s cyberfeudalism growled Melinda Brown as we watched thousands of elegantly begowned, bewigged Mandarins juggling neon laserbeams).

Having so memorably flexed its creative muscles will China now be more willing to negotiate with the rest of the world? Will it feel more gracious toward the demands made on it by Tibet- and Darfur-watchers? We’ll find out in the sweet by and by, won’t we?

Meanwhile back home the excitement is building as Jamaica’s cassava-fed athletes get ready to hit their stride when the Olympic Track and Field events kick off tomorrow. Will Asafa finally deliver? Or will there be a repeat of the World Championships some years back when both Asafa and Usain Bolt were pipped by Tyson Gay; the best excuse I heard after that debacle was a radio announcer claiming that this was because “Jamaican men nah like Gay running after dem so dem just a let him pass”.

Some of the funniest commentary on the impending Olympic events is to be heard on my all-time favourite radio programme, Left, Right and Centre (LRC), part of the Nationwide Radio network here (Digital AM 770). For weeks now they’ve been carrying spoof ads on The Farcical News Network for products such as ‘ANDRALONE’. Here’s an example–

Intro: Bob Marley’s song “You’re running and you’re running and you’re running away…” Music fades.

Brooks: “Are you coming last in every race you run? Do you have dreams of placing 6th or 7th but can’t afford the high end drugs your friends are using? Well boost your performance with ANDRALONE, the fast-acting, low-end, generic drug designed especially for athletes who can’t seem to dig themselves out of obscurity. Build those muscles! Grow that chest hair! Get out of the blocks faster than you ever have before with ANDRALONE!

Last night the show lampooned Jamaican athletes in Beijing, imagining them upsetting Olympic Village officials by nonchalantly (Ja-style) calling all of them Mr. Chin. Missa Chin beg yu two slice a bread! Missa Chin which part di pattyshop deh? I tell you the hosts of LRC, Messrs Dennis Brooks and Damion Blake, rank right up there with Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert. Unfortunately Damion is leaving to do his PhD at Virginia Tech; he’ll be badly missed . Virginia’s gain, Ja’s loss.

Well, it’s been an intense few weeks for me lurching from deadline to deadline and trying to find a moment in between to blog when not being terrorized by my good friend Peter Dean Rickards. PD has been assaulting me at regular intervals with outtakes from his maiden music video, The System, featuring an amazing new female singer called Terry Lyn. I’m still traumatized by the first cut (trust me this is the most appropriate metaphor to use here) he sent me which involved a gory sequence of a pig being slaughtered to an unbearably cheery rendition of Fire of Eternal Glory (in her song, The System, Terry Lyn rhymes Waterhouse with Slaughterhouse).

“But I identify with the pig!” I squealed via sms.

“Pig nah die in vain! Him get videolight!” PD texted back callously.

Obviously all of this is a little premature considering that what PD refers to as the Pig Opera has yet to be released. But when it is trust me it’s going to create a sensation. Remember you heard o’ it here first!

Jamaica’s most successful products: Athletes and music. Both occupied the mainstream media in New York this past week first with Baz Dreisinger’s thought-provoking article in the Village Voice How Jamaica’s Volatile Dancehall Scene Can Avoid a Biggie vs. Tupac Tragedy; featured in this sharp critique which should be required reading for all the pontificating pundits in Jamaica who love to chant down dancehall is an in-depth profile of and interview with top DJ Mavado. With epigrammatic precision Mavado sums up the situation: “They are trying to blame a problem that they put we in on us. They are turning dancehall into a scapegoat.”

And weighing in on Jamaica’s runners, in the Wall Street Journal no less, was Colin Channer with the memorable line “Jamaica’s love of speed seems at odds with its hard-nosed commitment to nonchalance”: See ‘Cool Runnings’ Are Heating Up.

Meanwhile fingers crossed that both Asafa and Bolt prove on the global stage once and for all that they ARE, like the Chinese, masters of the universe.