Reggae inna India

IMG_1391IMG_1392

I’ve been enjoying the month of July off from my column, so much that I’ve even forgotten to post the last few columns from June. This is my Gleaner column from June 9. Taru and Samara have received much publicity recently with a really good Guardian article about them last week. 

With all the angst about two Japanese performers supposedly taking over the Jamaican music scene by entering local competitions and dominating them (Japanese sound system Yard Beat beating Jamaica’s Bass Odyssey in the Boom Sound Clash finals, and Japanese reggae/dancehall artiste Rankin Pumpkin, nearly winning Magnum Kings and Queens) I thought I might highlight a happier story about the export of Jamaican music and culture.

Last month Al Jazeera aired a half hour documentary called India’s Reggae Resistance: Defending Dissent Under Modi. The film featured a musician named Taru Dalmia aka Delhi Sultanate and his partner, singer Samara Chopra aka Begum X. Principals in a band named the Ska Vengers, bringing classic Reggae to the masses of India is their mission.

After current Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi was elected the Ska Vengers produced a confrontational video called A Message to You, Modi, with lyrics that went”Stop your fooling around / Messing up our future / Time to straighten right out / You should have wound up in jail.” Like many other artists, writers and musicians they were worried about what the new regime might mean for freedom of speech. The bold song earned the band a lot of attention attracting filmmaker Vikram Singh, who made the Al Jazeera documentary.

I met Delhi Sultanate and Begum X about three years ago when they visited Jamaica. For them it was a pilgrimage, a much cherished visit to the holy land so to speak. For Taru in particular the trip was like living a dream because of the close emotional and psychic connection he feels with Jamaican music. He first encountered Reggae as a young teenager living in Germany where his mother taught Hindi. The bond was immediate and his love for the music followed him to Berkeley in California where his family moved next.

In California Taru hung out with youngsters whose parents had been members of the Black Panthers and continued to nourish his radical roots with Reggae. Fast forward to today and Delhi where he now lives. The documentary showed Taru and Samara in the process of getting a large sound system built called Bass Foundations Roots – BFR Sound System. Their plan is to tour the country with it, visiting sites of environmental and human rights protests bringing Reggae, which they see as the quintessential protest music, to protesters.

An earlier project called World Sound Power, tried to meld Indian folk resistance music with Jamaican sounds, with lyrics focusing on caste violence, state abuse of power and crony capitalism. With the BFR Sound System their intention is quite simple and revolutionary. As Taru explained in an interview on criticallegalthinking.com:

“We can make people dance. Our sound system is powerful and can create a sense of physical well-being and connectedness in listeners. At present, this is one thing that we can contribute to political spaces and gatherings. There is a time for speeches, for critical discourse for discussion, for slogans, but dancing and singing together is also very important. We will only get through these times if we find joy in each other and build strong relationships of trust and care, with each other as well as with the larger community. It’s the only way I find myself being able to not get depressed and to despair.”

Begum X who has a yoga therapy show on TV also sings over the sound. She’s a small woman with a big voice, when you hear her you look around expecting to see someone like Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan only to see a petite pixie like figure dancing Jamaican stylee in between belting out lyrics. She designs all the graphics and organizes the shows.

Both Taru and Samara sing in Patwa which the former fluently raps and DJs in, something people are surprised by. According to him if you sing in American English or perform on a theatre stage in India with a British accent it is considered normal, but “speak in English from another colony and people start raising questions at once. JA to my knowledge is the only colony that has managed to export its form of English globally.”

In the criticallegalthinking.com interview Taru elaborated on his unusual identity formation: “I consider the heritage that made Reggae to be part of my heritage, and my work aims to bring this into the Indian context. For me there are also clear links between the forces that underpin Reggae music and things that are happening in India today. The colours red, gold and green have concrete meaning here, incidentally the first national flag of India or the flag of the revolutionary Gaddar party also featured Red, Gold and Green. Red stands for the blood of the martyrs, green stands for natural abundance, and gold stands for the wealth that is inside the earth.”

So what do you say? Are Delhi Sultanate and Begum X not the most unlikely but inspiring Reggae Ambassadors ever? So what if the Japanese are invading Jamaican culture? The groundwork is being laid for access to the second-largest market in the world. Run wid it producers!

“As Jamaican as Ackee and Saltfish”: Soul Rebel Cindy Breakspeare Part 1

Excerpts from my 2007 article for Riddim magazine on Cindy Breakspeare…

Photo: Source unknown

Ever since Cindy Breakspeare gave the annual Bob Marley lecture last week interest in her story has heightened. I had interviewed her in 2007 for Riddim magazine. The article appeared in German in Riddim and it just occurred to me that I could publish segments of the English original here on Active Voice. Enjoy!

When asked in a radio interview about her origins Cindy Breakspeare once said “I’m as Jamaican as ackee and saltfish”. The comparison to the national dish was particularly apt as the codfish used in it is often imported from Newfoundland, Canada. Ackee of course is a strange fruit considered inedible in many places because of the potent alkaloid toxins it contains. Jamaicans however eat it with gusto. Apt too because Cindy is the product of a Canadian mother and a Jamaican father; coupled with her white skin her bi-cultural heritage is what often subjects her to questions about her eligibility to be considered Jamaican.

I started thinking about this article after listening to numerous radio interviews with Cindy Breakspeare over the last five or six years. Who was this extraordinary woman? I was struck by her voice and the down-to-earth sincerity it radiated, her healthy sense of humour, her refusal at a certain level to wield the celebrity that is her entitlement or even to take it too seriously. This was in stark contrast to the social columns of Jamaica’s newspapers–filled with the affected poses of individuals whose lives are completely banal and vapid, their only claim to fame being their  disproportionate control of the resources of this small postcolonial nation.

Cindy on the other hand had not only been the favoured consort of the first (and to date the only) global musical superstar from the third world—Bob Marley—shortly after meeting him  she had become a celebrity in her own right by winning the Miss World competition in 1976. In those days this was an even rarer achievement for an unknown from a small developing country than it is today. As for Cindy’s Marley connection, many of us would have given our eyeteeth just to have heard Bob Marley in concert live, let alone to have enjoyed an intimate relationship with this extraordinary musician whose fame and influence have grown exponentially since his untimely death almost thirty years ago.

Cindy actually bore Marley a son, Damian, or Junior Gong as his father called him, who has turned out to be an outstanding singer and songwriter in his own right. Damian, more than any of his half brothers and sisters, has seemed the reincarnation of his father–the champion of poor people’s rights, the shamanic performer chanting down Babylon. Some Jamaicans, however, criticize Damian Marley as an example of an “uptown browning,” suggesting that he lacks street cred, something essential to good Reggae.

The success of Damian’s 2005 hit ‘Welcome to Jamrock’ silenced most critics. In any case this sort of criticism rarely originated in the streets where people appreciated the younger Marley shining a spotlight on their plight. The question is where did he get this social conscience from? From where did he get his unflinching penchant for reality and plain speaking?

Without a doubt this was partly a legacy of his legendary father who had died when Damian was only 2 years old. But having the same legendary father had not led the other Marley siblings to produce music of this caliber. What if some of Damian Marley’s outspoken lyricism actually came from his famous mother, the beautiful Cindy Breakspeare?

Judging by the interviews I had heard with Cindy I began to suspect that far from being a pampered member of any VIP club the young Marley had actually benefited from a double dose of radicalism: Not only was he his father’s son he also had a mother who had flouted the values of Jamaican society, turning her back on the wealth and privilege that could have been hers and embracing a countercultural lifestyle that was far from glamorous then no matter its currency today.

Who was Cindy Breakspeare exactly? Born in the fifties to a Canadian mother and Jamaican father Cindy was brought up in Jamaica and went to school at Immaculate Conception, a local convent school, as a boarder. Having to be a boarder at such an early age while difficult and challenging taught Cindy independence and self-sufficiency.

I went to Immaculate at the age of 7. I think when you’re separated from your family at that age you have to make a lot of decisions for yourself at a very early age–so you learn to trust your instincts, your own instincts, at a very early age; you develop your own value system, your own sense of what’s right and wrong for you. You tend to move away from being a sheep and doing what every one else wants because you don’t have that safe cocoon; you have to follow your own feelings a lot more. Yes, this feels right for me and no that doesn’t and yes I like this and no, I don’t like that and maybe because there is no family constantly directing and supervising and saying no, you can’t do this and no you can’t do that you just tend to wend your own path and after a while you just kinda don’t know any other way to be–you just dance to the beat of your own drum.

While going to a convent school gave her the foundation of a good middle class upbringing her own family life was fractured and unstable so that when she finished school she was on her own, fending for herself and looking for any opportunity that might come her way. At 19 Cindy had been out of school for a while and done many different jobs. There was no money for further studies; her parents were separated, her father now in Canada and she had to get out there and hustle for a living. “I worked at a furniture store for a while, I worked at a jewellery store, I ran a nightclub, I worked at the front desk of what was then the Sheraton, now the Hilton, so I did many different things and eventually found myself at this restaurant …Café D’Attic.”

Café d’Attic was Jamaica’s first health food restaurant specializing in “fruit platters and salad plates and very healthy sandwiches…It was very health-oriented and attracted those who were looking for something other than your greasy spoon, your fast food”. It was during this period that Cindy met Bob whose own preoccupation with healthy food and ital living brought him to the restaurant. This was also what brought Mickey Haughton-James, the owner of a fitness club called Spartan there, a momentous connection that ultimately led to Cindy becoming Miss World in 1976.  “So Mickey came and began talking to me about leaving there and coming to be involved in Spartan. He had not opened it yet but he was looking for someone he felt embodied health and beauty. “I was looking for opportunity, always, always looking for opportunity. Whatever looked like the next good step to take, take, let’s roll with it. So I went to Spartan.”

A Patient by the Name of Gregory…

Gregory Isaacs. Legendary Jamaican singer dies. a memorial.

Gregory Isaacs, from the Gleaner archives

Gregory was drifting across the stage, in an orange three-piece suit, his skinny back swayed like a sea-horse, his voice a rippling whinny.

–Colin Channer, Waiting in Vain

It’s for lines like this that I rate Colin Channer; with 25 cannily chosen words he curates a transcendental image of  the inimitable Gregory Isaacs, the much beloved Jamaican singer who surrendered to the big C in London today. Popular well beyond the shores of this small island the words Gregory and Isaacs have been trending worldwide on Twitter today. To understand what a feat this is, know that during the peak of Buju Banton’s recent troubles in New York, he trended for half a day in the New York region only. With Gregory every ten minutes 112 new tweets are pouring in from all over the world. Not all of them are in English (see sample below) showing that the Cool Ruler’s reach transcended geographic and linguistic boundaries in a virtual enactment of his song The Border. It’s hard to choose any one GI song as No. 1 but for me this one comes close.

If i could reach the border
Then I would step across
So please take me to the border
No matter what’s the cost
Cause I’m leaving here
I’m leaving out of Babylon…

This place could never be my home…
we waan we waan go home…
where the milk and honey flow
That’s where we want to go…
we waan we waan go home…
Africa we want to go…

So please take me to the border
and i will pay the cost
coz i’m leaving here…

The metaphor of Babylon has multiple meanings in Jamaica but the most potent is that of the biblical Babylon, the proverbial den of iniquity, reeking of corruption and venality…a place we know well…guarded by the world’s most brutal soldiers, themselves known as Babylon. The Jamaican Police.

When i moved to Jamaica in 1988 Gregory’s Rumours ruled the airwaves and the balmy, steamy nights just before Hurricane Gilbert. The dramatic opening chords and riddim bars hint at that heady mixture of menace and romance that typifies the Jamaican landscape. Another favourite…I still think of it as Rumours of War…which is what i thought i was hearing but it was actually Rumours a gwaan…

A pure rumours a gwaan, (rumours a gwaan)

Please mr. officer, leggo me hand
You don’t know me and you don’t understan’
You see me flashin’ a criss rental
So you claim that me a criminal

Rumours dem spreadin’…



Then who couldn’t love the perfectly fork-tongued Night Nurse, on the one hand a straightforward song of playful passion that so many couples can relate to, on the other a veiled paean to Gregory’s one time muse–the other big C–

Tell her it’s a case of emergency
There’s a patient by the name of Gregory

Night nurse
Only you alone can quench this Jah thirst
My night nurse, oh gosh
Oh the pain it’s getting worse

I don’t wanna see no doc
I need attendence from my nurse around the clock
‘Cause there’s no prescription for me
She’s the one, the only remedy

There have been 553 new tweets since i started writing this an hour ago. (PS: One is not making exaggerated claims for number of tweets as any indicator of real quality mind you, for alas, today, the day after i posted this, Gregory has been replaced by Paul the Octopus as a top trender. Apparently poor Paul was found dead in the water this morning. “Anyway Paul always had four feet in the grave…” quipped @Sidin. No doubt because his mortality had intimated itself to him !)

But back to Gregory…i present an excerpt from a conversation on Facebook between me and Olu Oguibe, a Nigerian artist and critic.


Olu Oguibe Declaring 24 hours of nothing but The Cool Ruler

Annie Paul Times like this you realize not just the breadth but the depth of Jamaican music...

Olu Oguibe Still remember and cherish my first Gregory Isaacs cassette tape: Gregory Isaacs Live at the Brixton Academy, 1984. Wasn’t till I moved to Britain 5 years later that I realized Brixton Academy isn’t a real academy, but a night club, lol!

I was once even wooed with Gregory’s words by someone who thought he was the paradigmatic expression of Jamaican male angst (‘Though she isn’t in my top ten, still she is on my chart…”). Gregory forever holds a place in my heart on that count.

Here’s a selection of tweets on Gregory from local tweeters. i challenge you to guess which singer @bigblackbarry is referring to:

bigblackbarry [to] @oblessa He isnt in the category I was referring to but your dad would prolly be the biggest trender currently god forbid if he died.

oblessa [to] @bigblackbarry yeah he would be in that catagory God forbid.

@bigblackbarry [to] @oblessa prolly the biggest i believe.

@bigblackbarry [to] @oblessa but he aint “current” so he doesnt count.

wadablood R.i.P gregory issacs real legend. What a year this has been oniel, sugar now gregory

@cucumberjuice Amen»RT @MsTrendsettas: Dear Lord, please don’t take Beres Hammond! Many thanks!

Below a few random tweets from the twitterverse at large…people expressing their appreciation of Gregory in many languages. Keep ruling Cool Ruler…

roots

@csr_0922 roots
また偉大なアーティストが逝ってしまった。R.I.P Gregory Isaacs http://bit.ly/9l6v5l

João Júnior

@joaojunior_pi João Júnior
Rra relembrar a lenda GREGORY ISAACS NO RONDA DO POVÃO – TV MEIO NORTE http://t.co/aXUq1Go via @youtube

brandy@whothefackcares brandy

I DO care about Gregory Isaacs…R.I.P

Rafa Melo

@RafaellaMelog Rafa Melo
R.I.P. Gregory Isaacs, uma lenda do reggae.

황승식

@cyberdoc73 황승식
얼마전 타계한 Gregory Isaacs을 추모하며, 그가 부른 Night Nurse란 곡( http://youtu.be/K6oYyG0KcvQ )을 듣습니다. 멋모르고 처음 쓴 논문이 교대 근무 간호사에서 수면 장애에 관한 내용인지라 달리 들립니다.