rubbing elbows with elephants
jamaica is a small world unto itself. i have been told that there are fewer than six degrees of separation between everyone on the island, and i believe it to be true. often it seems as if two degrees are enough to make a connection. i see the same people at parties, at the beach, and driving around town. jamaica's star musicians are no different, and i seem to see or bump into one or another of the greats every other day or so (though, ironically, i still haven't met the other wayne marshall). just last week, while driving past don corleone's studio in mona (which we pass twice daily traveling to and from UWI), i caught a glimpse of sizzla kalonji, his vividly colored head-wrap announcing his presence. unfortunately, i didn't notice him in time to yell, "ha! got ya!" or "yo! crush dem!" or one of his other lines at him. i would have liked to see his reaction to my best imitation of his gruff tones. (click here for a recent interview.)
on saturday night, at a party held at devon house's grog shoppe, i watched elephant man, harry toddler, and a group of young artists get "jiggy" (a term that has enjoyed a much longer life in jamaica than up north) on the dancefloor. ever the icon, ele was decked out in a pink stetson hat with an outfit to match. renaissance provided the sounds for the evening, which were a combination of contemporary hip-hop and dancehall: the standard soundtrack for a party here--though the ratio of hip-hop to dancehall seems to increase the further one ventures uptown. (of course, there are also more specialized sessions around town, offering up oldies [i.e., classic reggae], r&b and soul, and even "rock and rave" [thursday nights at quad].) the place was packed, and the dancefloor was hot, so i spent most of my time outside, enjoying the "inclusive" appleton drinks and the company. marvin can play quite the socialite at times, so i've made a heap of new friends in just the last couple of weeks. it's nice to find familiar faces at events, and i am charmed every time someone grabs my wrist in that jamaican-sort-of-way to get my attention and tell me something. it delights me that men as well as women will grab your wrist or hand to show affection: such displays of interpersonal, intra-gender warmth seems to counteract some of the homophobic barking that so permeates the public discourse here. sometimes the situation strikes me as the opposite of what goes on in the states, where people seemingly have more enlightened attitudes toward sexuality but are afraid to touch each other at all. there must be a middle ground somewhere. maybe cuba. we'll see if i ever get there. (my brother was supposed to spend the spring semester of next year in havana, incidentally, but that program was cancelled a month ago when the president stiffened the already ridiculous cuba policy, ostensibly to win votes in florida. just a few days ago, a friend told me of the latest election-swindling conspiracy theory: an invasion of cuba this fall. that's almost better than "pulling out osama" [from whatever the hole the CIA is keeping him in] or "pulling out cheney" [out of the race, that is]. here's another one.)
on friday night, marvin carried me, as well as my friend ben walker (who's visiting kingston in order to produce some prison-related radio), to a rather lavish party up in the hills called "special delivery." the subtitle was "high society" and the event's organizers, who put on such a party annually, did their best to present an atmosphere that lived up to the decadence that such a phrase conjures. (of course, no card-carrying member of "high society" would attend a party featuring banners proclaiming the fact.) the party was billed as an "ultra all-inclusive" (a term and approach borrowed from the tourist industry), and featured a number of open bars and a great variety of snacks: from oysters to sushi, bbq chicken to salted pork, crackers and cheese to curry goat. people dressed to the nines, and the number of dimes (aka, perfect tens) in attendence was consistent with jamaica's extraordinarily high ratio of beautiful people. once again renaissance provided the soundtrack. they began with an eclectic mix of 80s american electro and pop and moved into contemp hip-hop and finally to the latest, greatest dancehall hits. (elephant man's "too bad mind"--a rousing soca-gospel number--got the biggest forward, and was pulled up several times.) when we arrived at around 1:30, people were just arriving. things got heated up by around two-thirty and continued apace until the sun began coming up just after five. at around 4 i noticed sean paul off to the side of the stage, taking in the scene and dancing along with everyone else. i walked up, gave him a pound, and told him to keep up the good work. he was down to earth, and surprisingly unaccompanied by body guards or any visible entourage. i'm told that sean doesn't roll that way, and that, in fact, few jamaican stars do. it's just not necessary. meantime, 50 cent, who has shared many a stage with sean paul, doesn't leave the house without his kevlar. thug life, eh? sounds dreary to me. i'd rather be out dancing with people and getting love from my community, as sean was clearly doing.
of course, this is not to say that there is no danger in jamaica, and kingston especially can be a perilous place. still, it's about knowing where to go and where not to go and, in particular, where one should not go alone. for instance, one should not walk through a crack alley in new kingston at night alone. on thursday night, my friend ben, who has been to jamaica several times and stayed in new kingston and thus developed a sense of security about the place, made the mistake of drawing funds from an ATM, buying some chicken and ting (a tasty grapefruit-flavored softdrink), and walking through an alley known for its crackheads on the way back to his hotel. ben didn't know about the crackheads and he didn't know that new kingston is crawling with desperate predators looking for unsuspecting, ignorant tourists. i got a call from ben while i was at dinner on thursday night. actually, i got several. i ignored the first few since i was eating dinner and my eagerness to answer my cellphone at all moments is, shall we say, less than lebanese. "i just got mugged, and stabbed," said ben, and i immediately felt my stomach sink. fortunately, by the grace of good cowhide and bad mugsmanship, ben was only stabbed in his belt and emerged unscathed but for a slashed shirt and JA$5000 missing from his pockets. apparently, he struck one of the men--there were two--with his ting bottle and thus saved his minidisc recorder from being "tiefed," as they say here. i soon joined him at his hotel, where he was filling out a police report. the next day he moved to a hotel that offers better access to knutsford blvd, through less darkened streets, and i doubt he will be cutting through any alleyways, or even venturing out alone at night, anytime soon. marvin and i were happy to carry him out to some fun parties this weekend, and i think he has recovered his appreciation for kingston's positive aspects as well as his respect for the desperation on the streets here. all of the jamaicans to whom i mentioned the incident were ashamed and angered by it. they don't like feeling unsafe in their own country or hearing that visitors are welcomed so rudely. of course, they also drop JA$2500 for an "ultra all-inclusive" party with the knowledge that others could eat for weeks on such a sum.
still, it seems to be common across all classes of jamaicans to accept the status quo. if everyone could participate in the "high society" of ultra all-inclusives, many more would. as would they drive SUVs. i was in a little quandry recently, as one of my collaborators--a young man of lower middle-class standing--wanted to do a song with me about rolling around in SUVs and so forth. i finally told him that i don't rate that kind of lifestyle, nor the glamourizing of it. i don't advertise for capitalism, i said, and i equate bling-bling with babylon. he sympathized and relented, though he remains convinced that an artist, especially an aspiring artist, should speak in terms that his audience will understand. although he has greater artistic ambitions, he is determined to "bust" and he has decided that the way to do so is to make what he calls "bubblegum": songs about cars and girls and gangstas. after he succeeds with this popular fare, he argues, it's time for the "next project," which presumably would be less determined by cliches. i have to say that i find such an approach somewhat hollow, lacking in integrity, and ultimately unfulfilling. to glamourize wealth--the term glamour, by the way, etymologically-tied to the discourse of witchcraft, seems an appropriate descriptor for the baubles that magically maintain consensus--is to endorse a system that denies the vast majority the resources that they need to maintain health and dignity. and that's a system with which i can not be complicit.
whether i can convince my jamaican friends to record the kinds of songs that i want to record is another question. last year, in the making of boston jerk, i embraced a more impartial, "ethnographic" approach to production, allowing the interests and song-writing proclivities of my collaborators to drive the creative-process, with the underlying knowledge that i would bring my own aesthetics to the table as well. overall, i think it worked, and i like the way that i was able--often through simple song-sequence or subtle sonic cues--to articulate my own position alongside theirs. this year i don't think i could make the same album. that would feel too static. so, i'm going to push toward what i'm feeling, and we'll see what happens. the funny thing is, i know that my friends here share many of my political and philosophical views. why they so rarely put them explicitly into song, i don't know. i suspect that hip-hop's hegemony has convinced them that the market is seeking more middle-of-the-road fare. they seem to forget that reggae's appeal outside of jamaica has a great deal to do with its alignment against corruption, capitalism, imperialism, injustice, etc. of course, it's easy to be distracted these days: between the shiny foreign things and the threat of muggings and worse [incidentally, while we were building our non-SUV-concerned song last night, my bredren got a call telling him that his 24-year-old cousin had been shot dead], the appeal of a successful music career is the end that justifies uninspiring content. i feel like this situation is itself plenty of grist for the mill. still, imaginary riches remain king.
i'd rather write rhymes about the food i've been eating, much of which, by the way, has plenty of interesting background. curry, for example, which has become such an integral part of jamaican cooking, is the contribution of the south asian workers who came to the west indies in droves after slavery was abolished. ("off-shore" labor is right.) moreover, a good deal of the strange meat i've been consuming represents, like much american soulfood, the legacy of making due with very little, with the parts of the animal that the masters didn't want. recently, i added a couple more curious dishes to the list: turkey-neck and pig-tail. not surprisingly, i preferred the turkey-neck.