Hard Woman fe Dead

portia


Prince Buster died on September 8 this year, roughly two weeks ago. I remember feeling a deep  sense of loss all day long into the next few days that was exacerbated by the scant attention local media was giving the news. On the day of the latter-day superstar’s death radio and TV newscasts in Jamaica carried it way down in their line-up. None of them even had the sad news as a top three item as far as I recall.

I didn’t know Prince Buster personally. I know that he was a crucial pioneer of the success story that is Jamaican music and I love his music and his swaggering history. When @DahliaHarris said “The way international media is paying tribute to Prince Buster is amazing. We need to teach our youth about our Jamaican legends” I completely agreed. The news of Prince Buster’s death should have led newscasts in Jamaica on that sad day for this was the passing of a legend.

Think about it. Had a paltry politician from the top two rungs of Parliament died it would have led the news here but someone who helped to put Jamaica on the map through its music, someone who inspired so many people worldwide that when you google his death you get a list of tributes published in all the top global media—the New York Times, BBC, The Economist, The UK Guardian, Rolling Stone—no of course not…that’s secondary news in the country of his birth.

The Economist’s tribute described Prince Buster’s life as “a chronicle of the tropical tempest that is modern Jamaica” and ended by invoking his blockbuster Hard Man fe Dead:

“In his 1966 record “Hard Man Fe Dead”, Prince Buster sings the tale of a corpse who steadfastly refuses to die.  It’s an ode to the indomitable spirit of his countrymen—and a fitting tribute to his own legacy:

“Now the procession leads to the cemetery,
The man holler out—don’t you bury me!
You pick him up, you lick him down,
Him bounce right back, what a hard man fe dead.”

It’s at moments like this that you realise there is something seriously askew with the way Jamaican society operates. This lopsidedness also manifests itself in the inability of the country’s bourgeoisie to understand who Portia Simpson Miller is and what she represents to many people in this country. “I’m a hard woman fe dead,” she said when she emerged triumphant from the internal elections of the People’s National Party last weekend, having won 2,471 of 2,669 votes cast by delegates.

This after a mounting campaign in the media to discredit her in the weeks preceding the election, on the grounds that it was time for her to go, particularly as her health seems increasingly to be an issue. The negative campaign only seems to have spurred on the support this grassroots leader enjoys. In 2006 when Portia won the PNP’s leadership election for the first time, with the vast majority of PNP delegates voting for her, it was against the wishes of the majority of the party leadership at Cabinet level, and in Parliament.

Unfortunately for the top leadership they soon realised that none of them could muster similar support from the delegates and thus began a decade of an uneasy coalition between middle class and elite PNP leaders and Portia. Although some of them were involved in the campaign to hasten her departure they have now been told in no uncertain terms by the delegates that she will go, when she, and they, are ready. Without Portia the PNP may never win another election and that is the simple truth of it.

As a wit once observed in response to snarky sniping about Portia Simpson Miller’s lack of higher academic degrees, “Who say Portia don’t have PhD? Portia Have Delegates. seet deh? PhD.” An upper St Andrew friend was bitter about Portia’s re-election as party leader, grumbling that she needs to go as she couldn’t represent the country. Why not, I prodded. “No man, she can’t speak for me,” came back the answer, and implicit in that statement was all the prejudice and disregard too many of us feel towards the grassroots of this country.

The sober truth though, is that neither can Upper St Andrew (and its counterparts) speak for the grassroots any longer. That is why Portia still reigns…and why the passing of Prince Buster should have been front and centre of the news on September 8, 2016. No two ways about that.

(The above is my Gleaner column from September 21, 2016)

Melba Liston’s Jamaican Epilogue…

A note on noted jazz arranger Melba Liston and her stint in Jamaica.

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One of the highlights of my trip to New York City last week to attend the CAA2013 conference was a visit to the Whitney Museum to see a show called Blues for Smoke. I was with art historian friends Krista Thompson and Amy Mooney. Amy asked if i had heard of Melba Liston. No, who was she i asked. A trombonist, music composer and arranger who had performed or written music for all the now legendary figures of American jazz as it turns out.

Here’s what one biographer  had to say about her:

Melba Liston certainly saw every side of show business. On one occasion she was stranded with Billie Holiday, both of them broke, in a hostile South Carolina, and on another she walked about playing a harp in the film “The Ten Commandments” (1956).

It was her talents as a composer and arranger that distinguished her, rather than her work as an instrumentalist. She wrote scores for innumerable big bands including those of Quincy Jones, Count Basic, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. Her long association with her mentor the pianist and composer Randy Weston took her to the forefronts of modern jazz and Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln and Diana Ross were amongst the vocalists that commissioned work from her.

In the late 60s Melba seemed to fade away, hardly making an appearance on stage or behind it anymore. What is less known about Melba Liston is that in 1973, invited by the Government of Jamaica (“which was anxious to provide facilities where young Jamaican musicians could learn about a wide range of modern music forms”), she took up a 6-year contract at the Jamaica School of Music where she headed the Department of Afro-American Pop and Jazz.

 

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According to an article in Ebony:

In recent years an increasing number of seasoned professional Jamaican musicians have enrolled in the department’s advanced courses in theory, harmony, improvisation, jazz choir and jazz history. The students have also benefited from private seminars with artists such as saxophonist Frank Foster, drummer Elvin Jones and trumpeter Lester Bowie.

Who were all these professionals i wonder, and how come we hear so little about pioneering figures like Liston, especially when they play pivotal roles in our cultural development?

Wikipedia provides more information about Liston’s work in Jamaica:

During her time in Jamaica, she composed and arranged the music for the classic 1975 comedy film Smile Orange (starring Carl Bradshaw, who three years earlier starred in the very first Jamaican film, The Harder They Come). The Smile Orange experience was probably her only known venture into composing reggae music (on which, in this case, she collaborated with playwright Trevor Rhone for the lyrics). Sadly, a soundtrack album for Smile Orange was never released or made available.

Here’s an excellent NPR documentary on Liston full of the most entrancing samples of her music. The set called Melba! was produced by Chicago musician Geof Bradfield, who incidentally is married to Amy Mooney (go back to top), which is how i came by her story.

http://www.npr.org/event/music/168976328/geof-bradfields-melba-on-jazzset

Wanted: Frank Gehry for Reggae Hall of Fame

An exhibit featuring a selection of the 2012 First International Reggae Poster Contest’s winning posters opens at the National Gallery of Jamaica on Sept 30, 2012 unveiling an ambitious agenda to build a Frank Gehry-designed building on the Kingston Waterfront to showcase Jamaica’s globally renowned music.

5 | Taj Francis | Jamaica

Taj Francis, a Jamaican designer, came fifth in the the 2012 First International Reggae Poster Contest with the poster directly above, depicting Lee Scratch Perry.

In my last post i decried the shambolic music museum that has been created in Jamaica to honour its world historical musical tradition. I also mentioned the National Gallery of Jamaica, an almost first world facility created to showcase the visual arts tradition of Jamaica. I could never understand why I rarely got a sense from the art displayed at the Gallery that there was any cross-fertilization between the powerful music scene here and the visual art scene. I also thought it strange that there was no reference to the fact that the Gallery was situated on Orange Street which in the 60s and 70s was known informally as Beat Street because it was the throbbing centre of musical activity in Jamaica. The passage quoted below will give you an idea of what I mean:

Junior Byles & Friends
129 Beat Street

Like Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Beale Street in Memphis, 42nd Street in New York or Music Row in Nashville, Orange Street in Kingston, Jamaica is the prototypical ‘Music Street’. As indicated by its unofficial name, Beat Street, the area around Orange Street in central Kingston had been a centre for sound system activity since the 1950s. By the 1960s Orange Street itself was the subject of numerous songs – the great Prince Buster’s “Shaking Up Orange Street” being merely the most famous [and versioned]. Many producers rented shops in and around Orange Street, including Bunny Lee at number 101, Sir JJ Johnson at number 133, and perhaps most celebrated, Prince Buster’s legendary Record Shack at number 127. Sonia Pottinger’s pressing plant was also in Orange Street, at the bottom; just around the corner was Randy’s Studio, above the shop on North Parade. The area continued as a centre for music into the seventies and beyond, although on a much smaller scale. Prince Buster still operates his shop there, as does Augustus Pablo. Producer Trevor ‘Leggo’ Douglas was one who came to Music Street in the late seventies, opening Cash & Carry Records at 125 Orange Street, just down the street from Prince Buster; like Buster, he’s still there today, running his own studio. Right next door to the Prince was the address that gives title to this compilation; Dudley ‘Manzie’ Swaby and his then-partner in music the late Leroy ‘Bunny’ Hollett moved into premises on the music street late in 1975, having previously operated from Manzie’s family home in Love Lane nearby. From the House of Music at 129 Beat Street they issued a series of recordings – both in roots style and love songs – that have easily stood the test of time. Most of this music has never been issued outside of Jamaica; this compilation is hopefully the first of several to chronicle Manzie Swaby’s underground roots legacy.

By the end of the eighties when i first came to Jamaica you could see little sign of the former life of this historic street and today very few are aware of its rich musical connection. It’s fitting that finally the National Gallery is putting on a show which directly references the globally renowned music of the counry–Reggae. Tomorrow, an exhibition featuring some of the winning designs in the 2012 International Reggae Poster Competition–World-a-Reggae–will open at the Gallery. The brainchild of Michael Thompson, graphic designer extraordinaire who was trained at the Edna Manley College and exposed to the great graphic tradition in Cuba, the Reggae Poster contest was truly global in scope. To quote the contest website:

The 2012 First International Reggae Poster Contest (RPC) began in December 27, 2011 with the goal of discovering fresh Reggae Poster designs from around the world. Interest in the contest grew significantly over the 4-month run with a total of 1,142 submissions from 80 countries. The contest winners were chosen from 370 finalists by a distinguished panel of judges known for their creativity and commitment to design.

Thoroughly impressed with the outcome of the competition, the RPC organizers are excited to announce that the international jury committee has selected the three finalist and the 100 best posters.

The winners are:

1st Place: Alon Braier, of Israel, for his “Roots Of Dub” poster
2nd Place: Zafer Lehimler, of Turkey, for his “Reggae Star” poster
3rd Place: Rosario Nocera, of Italy, for his “Riddim is Freedom” design

Please note that the top 3 winners are all from outside the Caribbean, a sign that local designers faced stiff competition from abroad. The contest also highlights the extraordinary reach of Jamaican music and popular culture, so inadequately honoured at home. Well Michael Thompson aims to change all that (for an interview with him on Jamaican TV go here). Along with Carolyn Cooper and others he’s all set to lobby for a world-class museum facility to be built on the Kingston Waterfront designed by none other than Frank Gehry, the architect who built the Bilbao Museum and so many other world-renowned art facilities. If he can find enough investors with the vision to see how this would add value to Jamaica’s rather limited tourism product–which does little more than capitalize on the country’s sun, sand and sea–the project could get on its feet. Some may think this is an absurdly grand project but to do justice to Jamaica’s music you do have to reach for the stars. I mean can you imagine how fabulous something like the building below would look squatting on the Kingston Waterfront? It could spearhead the long overdue revival of downtown Kingston. So what’re we waiting for? Let’s do it!

A Frank Gehry-designed building

World-a-Reggae, the exhibit of the 100 best entries opens tomorrow at the National Gallery of Jamaica at 11 am. The winning designer, Alon Braier, from Israel, will be there. Carolyn Cooper will be the guest speaker and the best part: The Alpha Boys Band will be performing all afternoon till 4 pm. So come on down! See you there!

The Jamaican Nation and its Music

Two shows at the Institute of Jamaica reveal the disinterest in archiving the nation’s valuable collection of musical artefacts and safeguarding the history of this iconic popular music.

A rather strange table donated to the nation by Chen’s Furniture company at Independence
Curator of Jamaica 50: Constructing a Nation, Dr. Shani Roper, displaying a gift given by Trinidad to Jamaica in 1962
The flag of the short-lived Federation of the West Indies and a wooden bust of Queen Elizabeth carved by a Jamaican sculptor

Visited two very poignant exhibits last week at the Institute of Jamaica…Jamaica 50: Constructing a Nation and Equal Rights: Reggae and Social Change, a show of historic Reggae album covers. The first of these actually opened today and will be open till February 2013. Equal Rights opened a few weeks ago and is a gem of an exhibit offering visitors a chance to see some rare Reggae album covers; it should also stay up into 2013 so try and catch it. The LP sized catalogue should be a keeper with texts about the raison d’etre of the exhibit and information about the various periods in Jamaican music that are featured in the show. What struck me as immeasurably sad was the cramped space made available to archive, document and display the vast portfolio of music this country has produced. There is a whole alternative history contained in Jamaican music which really deserves better treatment by the state than it currently receives.

I always find myself shaking my head when i contrast the resources made available to house Jamaica’s rather slender visual art tradition in comparison to the slender resources made available to showcase Jamaica’s internationally renowned popular music. Mi cyaan believe it indeed, to echo Mikey Smith. Is this really what the nation thinks of the extraordinary music generated by its people? Is it because Jamaican music comes from the underprivileged segments of society that it gets such shoddy treatment? For a previous post on the subject go here.

Director of the Music Museum, Herbie Miller who curated Equal Rights
Miller surveying the tiny storeroom available to house the rich artefacts of Jamaica’s world famous music scene
These beautiful album covers from the Dermot Hussey collection donated to the Music Museum are at risk if not properly stored.

 

This faded, ragged poster of Usain Bolt draped in the nation’s flag is symbolic of the neglect of both downtown Kingston and the popular culture of its people

For more photos go here.