Routes and Culture

IMG_4655
Cutting a cake for Marcus Garvey at the launch of Cinema Paradiso

Below is my Gleaner column of August 16.

Last weekend I found myself repeatedly being reminded of something the eminent social and cultural theorist Stuart Hall was fond of saying about identity and culture: “If you think of culture always as a return to roots — R-O-O-T-S — you’re missing the point. I think of culture as routes — R-O-U-T-E-S — the various routes by which people travel, culture travels, culture moves, culture develops, and culture changes, cultures migrate, etc.”

I found myself thinking this as I watched Rasta: A Soul’s Journey, a film starring Donisha Prendergast, that kicked off Cinema Paradise, the Portie film festival put on by Portland-based Great Huts Resort. Produced by Patricia Scarlett whose brainchild it was, Rasta tracked the routes taken by Rastafari as it traveled across the world, reincarnating itself in various locations from Ethiopia to South Africa to Canada to England.

Cultural identity, Hall said, is what you make with what you find. Thus Donisha Prendergast, found herself born in Jamaica into the family of Bob Marley, her maternal grandmother being Rita Marley, whose first child Sharon, Donisha’s mother, was adopted by the famous singer. Though not connected to Bob by blood, Donisha grew up identifying with him as her grandfather and Rastafari as her cultural heritage.

The film followed her travel to eight countries linking with those espousing the tenets of Rastafari far from the Caribbean island where it was born. Thus Prendergast was following the routes taken by the culture of Rastafari as it rooted itself in different parts of the world. The second film in the Portie Film Festival, screened the following night at Great Huts, was Shashamane by Giulia Amati, an in-depth look at Jamaican and Caribbean migrants to Ethiopia, who went there in enactment of the Back to Africa ideology so integral to Rastafari.

Theirs was an attempt to return to their roots, to the legendary promised land, “We’re leaving Babylon, We’re going to our Fatherland” as Bob Marley sang in Exodus. But it was a bittersweet experience for the few who survived and remained in Shashamane, especially after Emperor Haile Selassie who had donated the 500 acres of land in 1948 for descendants of the enslaved to repatriate to, was deposed in 1974. The communist government that followed reclaimed most of the land leaving just a little for the Rastafari who had been living there since the early 60s, to call their own.

As Ras Mweya Masimba, the protagonist of the film said: “After being so long in the Western world, it’s a joy to be back in Africa. But it’s a very great challenge. We are coming back here now as foreigners. People don’t remember who we are, or forget that they sold us into slavery, or how we left here. It is a hard task of re-integration with the people on all levels.”

IMG_4679
Dr. Paul Rhodes introducing the film Shashamane at Africana House

The film Shashamane captures exactly why thinking of culture exclusively in terms of one’s biological and ancestral roots is insufficient. The routes Masimba and his ancestors took or were taken on, from Western Africa to Jamaica to the UK, where he lived before migrating to Shashamane, defined his identity and made him who he is just as much as his ancestral origins. What comes across clearly in the film is how Jamaican/Caribbean and Rastafarian the culture of most of those who migrated from this region to Shashamane, has remained.

“I’ve got to go back home, This couldn’t be my home, It must be somewhere else…”, plaintively sang another Jamaican singer, Bob Andy, in his contribution to the back to Africa discourse. But going back is easier to sing about than to accomplish. In the words of Bro Trika, another resident of Shashamane, “It was a complete challenge to make it here to Ethiopia. And a lot of people couldn’t do it. So whenever you see people come from outside to Africa, you have to respect them. Because there are so many people who don′t have the guts to leave the developed countries to come here.”

IMG_4709
A chair by Gilbert Nicely

There was something poetic about viewing Shashamane at Great Huts in Boston Bay, an Afrocentric resort created by an American medical doctor, Paul Rhodes, who first visited Jamaica in 1973 as a medical student. In Brooklyn where he studied, his landlord, Edward Gentles, was a Jamaican. It was a Caribbean neighborhood and Rhodes, a secular Jew, felt a kinship with Rastafari, because of the common histories of persecution and longing for a promised land to call one’s own. “Many Jews would look upon the Rastafari as their brethren,” explained Dr. Paul, the name by which he’s popularly known.

With its ingenious architecture and design, furniture by master carver Gilbert Nicely, statuary by master potter Sylvester Stephens, artworks by Mazola, Alicia Brown and others, Great Huts occupies the land with a lightness of being that’s bracing. If you’re ever in the area you should check it out, it’s a serious hat tip to African roots/routes and culture right here in Jamaica.

Evening Sun Can’t Dry Clothes…

IMG_3467

My Gleaner column of April 12, 2017

Reparation begins at home and last week’s unprecedented government apology to Rastafari for the Coral Gardens ‘incident’—really an attempted pogrom or ethnic cleansing by the state—is a good beginning. In the years just before independence there was a worry that Marxist extremists, emboldened by Fidel Castro’s overthrow of Batista in Cuba in 1959, might influence militant Rastas to do the same in Jamaica.

It might seem preposterous today but in 1960 a Rastafarian elder named Reverend Claudius Henry wrote a letter to Castro asking for help in overthrowing the “oppressors” in Jamaica. This was followed by his son, a Black nationalist activist from the USA, Ronald Henry, and members of his First Afrika Corps who had established a military training camp in a remote area in the Red Hills, ambushing and killing two Royal Hampshire Marines. In an interview I did with Professor Robert Hill some years ago he said that for the next six days they were hunted down in the largest search operation that Jamaica had ever witnessed with close to a thousand military and police taking part in the search.

Norman Manley was then the Premier of Jamaica and his security adviser was the noted anthropologist MG Smith. According to Hill Smith viewed the Rastafari as a serious security threat, describing the situation thus in a letter: “Revolution becomes Redemption with Repatriation as the issue provoking bloodshed. The Marxist vanguard wears a Niyabingi cloak.”

Of course anyone who knows Rastafari today realizes how remote such an eventuality really was. But in those days Rastas were seen as disreputable, dangerous thieves and murderers both by the PNP, the JLP and the middle and upper classes generally, mainly because with their dreadlocks, their vernacular speech and smoking of ganja the brethren violated every aspect of the codes of respectability and faux gentility the upper crust lived by.

The persecution of Rastafari by the state started way back in the 30s when according to the Observer: “For preaching against the British monarchy and pledging open allegiance to the Ethiopian Emperor, Howell and Hinds were arrested and charged in January 1934 in St Thomas for sedition. The trial of those early Rastafari preachers was heavily reported in the Daily Gleaner and followed by the general populace, as Jamaicans became exposed to public anti-Rastafari sentiment. The Rastafari doctrine and community were on trial and under scrutiny…The police attended at Howell’s camp in St Thomas and smashed it. Between 1934 and 1935 other early Rastafari leaders were also targeted and prosecuted, including Archibald Dunkley in 1934 and 1935 and Joseph Hibbert in 1935.”

By the time of the Coral Gardens events in 1963, the Jamaica Labour Party was in power and plans were afoot to develop prime St James properties into exclusive enclaves for tourists.The problem was that these were areas co-inhabited by Rastas and it was feared tourists might be alarmed by sightings of the unshorn bredren. On April 11, 1963, there was a series of incidents in Coral Gardens resulting in the burning down of a gas station and the death of 8 people, including two policemen. According to Professor Horace Campbell the Jamaican state used the altercation at Coral Gardens, to mount a violent campaign against the Rastafarian community in Western Jamaica.

“The brethren had claimed freedom of movement for themselves and for other oppressed Jamaicans. They were being prevented from walking along the areas of the Coast close to the Half Moon Bay Hotel. These areas were being segregated in order to make the Montego Bay area ready for international investments in tourism.”

The biggest landowner in St James in those days was Sir Francis Moncrieff Kerr-Jarrett. “He continuously petitioned the Governor and the colonial office to clamp down on the Rastafari who he described as ‘an undesirable sect’ saying that the governor should do everything to discourage their activities During the latter years of the fifties, Kerr Jarrett was behind one of the conservative movements to appear in Jamaica under the guise of Moral Rearmament. In the years 1951-1960 he was the principal patron of this conservative cold war pseudo-religious movement. Through the activism of Kerr Jarrett, the colonial special branch police had placed numerous Rastafari camps under surveillance and had used the Vagrancy laws of the period of enslavement against the camps of the Rastafari.”

This is the background to the explosion that took place at Coral Gardens that fateful day in April 1963. It is surely one of the finest ironies that 55 years later the Jamaican tourist product is inconceivable without the accompanying image and sound of Rastafari. We have lived long enough to see Bob Marley’s words come true: “the stone that the builder refused, shall be the head cornerstone.”

The government’s apology comes not a moment too late but the accompanying offer of reparation in the sum of $10 million dollars seems paltry. It is too little, too late and exemplifies that wonderful saying “Evening sun can’t dry clothes.”

As Bunny Wailer exclaimed on Facebook:

“AFTER RASTAFARI CREATE BILLIONS OF WEALTH FOR BRAND JAMAICA, THEM WANT OFFER RASTA $10,000,000 DOLLARS? $10,000,000 DOLLARS is what its costing just to produce my One Love Tribute Show! Its A Disgrace When I First Heard It & It’s No Less Now!”

What the Rastafari always wanted was land to live and grow on. If money is in short supply, why can’t the Government make up the shortfall by apportioning land to them? There’s certainly plenty of land lying idle all around the island; this would go much further toward repairing the wounds of yesterday and also prove that the apology is sincere.

Jamaica Get All Right…??

What’s the Jamaica Tourist Board up to with its new slogan?

Travel slogan jamaica

The UK Guardian carried a story on the  Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) and its new slogan which doesn’t immediately resonate either with them or me–Jamaica Get All Right. As the Guardian points out its a slightly dodgy slogan grammatically speaking. Reminds me of the Jamaica Broadcasting Commission’s  Transitioning Digital campaign; I don’t actually remember the slogan correctly anymore merely that it was fundamentally ungrammatical. Mercifully the powers that be seem to have realized this belatedly and ditched it. Anyhow here’s what the Guardian had to say on the new JTB slogan:

Earlier this month the Jamaican tourist board unveiled a new brand identity, ditching its previous slogan, “Jamaica – Once you go, you know”, and replacing it with the far more succinct, albeit grammatically obtuse, “Jamaica – Get All Right”. The new slogan is currently being launched around the world; last week the tourist board rolled the world’s largest stress ball into New York’s Times Square and on Tuesday a twitter campaign ran to the tune of #getallright.

For more click here.

As an exhortation to the country itself it might work…for the Lord knows Jamaica does need to ‘get all right’. It seems to be suffering from a malingering degenerative disease that we would all like it to snap out of. But as a slogan for tourists? Do you think it works?

Smiley Jamaica…

Featuring Super Smiley…the giant stress ball advertising Jamaica in NYC…

WIN! Jamaica Tourist Board’s giant stress ball in NYC. Did you see it by any chance? I’d say JTB should use Draftfcb Agency more often. They clearly know what creativity means and how to apply it.

Apparently Gyptian was on location too…read about all about it in this Adweek story  (thanks to @Gordonswaby for drawing my attention to it with his tweet).

Like Diamonds and Glass: The Barbados Tourism Authority vs The Jamaica Tourist Board

The Barbados Tourism Authority vs The Jamaica Tourist Board. A comparison of two advertising strategies….

The above ad featuring the ‘Minnesotan Jamaican’ of VW ad fame was produced by the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB).

And this one featuring Rihanna was produced by Barbados’s tourism entity–the Barbados Tourism Authority.

Do you see a difference in strategy, production values, script and use of each island’s natural assets? Why does the Jamaican ad seem lame, insipid and bereft of imagination? why is the Barbadian ad on the contrary so perfect that it could be a global model on how to sell yourselves? And contrastingly how and why does the JTB ad sell the country short?

After 50 years of Independence is this the best our creative class can do? or is JTB hiring friends and relatives and not the pros that we need and have?

Discuss.

PS: This post came out of a discussion on Twitter and is indebted to @Gordonswaby, Erin MacLeod @touchofallright for drawing my attention to the Rihanna ad and @drewonline.

Welcome…to the Hotel Krasnapolsky! (to the tune of Hotel California)

a further brief account of a visit to Suriname and the charming Hotel Krasnapolsky…

Rhonda Fredericks poses in front of works by Kit-Ling Tjon Pian Gi…

So as i said we stayed at the Hotel Krasnapolsky in downtown Paramaribo. I liked the fact that when i finally arrived in my room at 3 am after travelling incessantly on Caribbean Airlines which wouldn’t allow us out at Piarco to get some doubles even though there was a 3.5 hour layover there, and after all that you couldn’t even get a real drink on the plane to calm your nerves because for some inexplicable reason they had no alcohol on board,  when i finally got to my room hungry, thirsty and starving at 3 am it was incredibly welcoming to find a little care package waiting with slices of cheese and bread, peanut butter, chocolate spread and a bottle of water.

Bedroom suite at Krasnapolsky

Likewise when we departed a week later, also at 3 am (the airport is almost in Guyana, an hour away and the flight was at 6 am) each of us received another care package with an apple, bottled water, bread, cheese and a boiled egg, albeit without salt or pepper. It would be a few days before I would learn that Carlos Fuentes once said that sex without guilt is like a boiled egg without salt, the twitter feed was buzzing with Fuentes quotes the day his death was announced. Carolyn Cooper managed to find a vagrant Rastaman at the airport who was happy to receive whatever was left of our Krasnapolsky care packages. I hope he was luckier with the salt situation (an Ital Rasta would’ve eschewed salt anyway) but at any rate Dear Dear Krasnapolsky Hotel, you made us feel loved and cared for on leaving tantalizing Suriname. The only complaint i might have was the patchy wi-fi in my room and the Protestant work ethic of the cleaning staff who liked to start their working day very early, practically dragging you out of bed to clean your room.

This time the wait at Piarco was much shorter and Carolyn and i nearly missed the connecting flight so deep in conversation were we. Actually she was trying to mark papers and periodically showing me the most egregious samples of what passed for student English and it wasn’t until we suddenly heard a voice on the loudspeaker announcing a final boarding call for Caribbean Airlines flight 455 to Barbados and Kingston and urging passengers Cooper and Paul to show themselves immediately that we realized that everyone else had inexplicably boarded the plane without our even noticing a thing.

Short Stories’ by Kit-Ling Tjon Pian Gi, Fort Zeelandia. Kit-Ling posing in front of her paintings.
Issue 5 of ARC which has just hit the newstands

Some of the other enjoybable things about the Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars (ACWWS) conference we had just attended were the art exhibit ‘Short Stories’ by Kit-Ling jon Pian Gi and the launch of ARC no. 5, the latest edition of that remarkable art publication by Holly Bynoe and Nadia Huggins, two women from Bequia and St Vincent. If you haven’t seen it yet, get copies, they’re likely to become collector’s items for they’re produced in limited editions with the highest production values imaginable. Rarely has the region seen such an uncompromising commitment to international publishing protocols and standards. May ARC have a long and eventful life.