Mon | Sep 25, 2017

Carolyn Cooper | From Columbus to Kartel

Published:Sunday | August 13, 2017 | 8:00 AM

There's been a spectacular exhibition on Jamaican music at the Philharmonie de Paris that closed today after four months. More than 50,000 visitors viewed this truly inspiring tribute to our musical culture. The exhibition was brilliantly curated by Sebastien Carayol, a French journalist and documentary director. It's called 'Jamaica, Jamaica! Innovations and Inventions of Reggae Music'.

Carayol rightfully asserts: "Jamaica has been at the avant-garde in music (the offbeat rhythm), graphic and visual arts, as well as fashion. Hence the deliberate call in the exhibition to a vast array of non-photographic visuals, memorabilia, illustrations, paintings - all the way to conceptual artworks inspired indirectly by this culture." It's more than that; it's literature as well. Just think how many of our writers have won international prizes!

 

NO VISION

 

I visited the reggae exhibition last Tuesday and Wednesday. I couldn't absorb it all in just one day. I felt both pride and despair. Pride, of course, because there was so much to celebrate. But also despair. Why couldn't we have put together an exhibition on this grand scale in Jamaica? After 55 years of so-called Independence! Is it because the creators of the music are still not seen as ideal representatives of Brand Jamaica? Ideal for who?

Our national anthem is a prayer that makes quite a few demands on God. For example, "Give us vision lest we perish." We really shouldn't be looking to the sky for vision, like those two 'emancipated' figures lost in New Kingston. Proverbial wisdom reminds us that God helps those who help themselves. I sympathise with Oren Cousins, a retired school principal, who wrote a letter to the editor, published on July 11, 2017, with the headline, 'Revise national anthem from begging hymn'.

We are perishing because of lack of vision. We could be reaping huge returns from the creative industries if we made up our minds to invest in intellectual property. But successive governments just don't get it. Why don't we have a world-class museum in Jamaica that reflects the global impact of our music? Herbie Miller, director/curator of our rather modest Jamaica Music Museum on Water Lane, has been given basket fi carry water. And the basket isn't even big.

One of Miller's excellent initiatives is the annual Grounation symposium held during Reggae Month at the Institute of Jamaica's lecture theatre. At this year's event, Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sports Babsy Grange announced, with great flourish, that a new location for the museum had been identified on East Street. I was horrified when I saw the abandoned building that was supposed to house the museum: not a window, not a door, not even a piece-a roof!

The only thing to be done with that wreck is to knock it down and start from scratch. I certainly hope the minister has secured the necessary funding to transform that eyesore into a viable museum. And I don't understand why the museum has to be 'cotched' up under the arm of the Institute of Jamaica on East Street. Administratively, it's part of the Institute. But I think the museum needs to be spread out on the Kingston waterfront in fine style.

 

MURDEROUS HISTORY

 

The entrance to the 'Jamaica, Jamaica!' exhibition featured a graphic history of the island that began with Christopher Columbus and ended with Vybz Kartel: the genocidal 'discovery' of Jamaica in 1494 and Kartel's conviction for murder in 2014. Cynics will say that it's quite appropriate to frame Jamaica's murderous history in this controversial way.

In-between, there was not much to lift the spirits. In 1672, Britain formed the Royal African Company. This deceptive name did not signify the royalty of Africans. Instead, it reflected the alliance of British royalty and London merchants to engage in human trafficking on the African continent.

The next date was 1807, when Britain abolished the trade in Africans. There's another huge leap to 1914, when Marcus Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The pace picks up in the 1930s with the coronation of HIM Haile Selassie; the emergence of Rastafari; the eruption of the Labour movement of the 1930s; and the optimistic founding of the PNP and the JLP.

The visual history documents the emergence of Jamaican popular music as a potent social and political force. With Independence in 1962, songs like Derrick Morgan's Forward March define the upbeat mood of the times. The first image I saw when I entered the exhibition hall was a larger-than-life portrait of Miss Lou in all her bandanna glory. From the handcart sound system, called The Travelling African, Miss Lou's voice boomed out, singing mento.

In the next room, there was a display on the Alpha Boys' School and the Skatalites. Musical instruments played by the band were on display. Then there were the rooms on Coxsone, Lee 'Scratch' Perry, and other inventive music producers like King Jammy, who have influenced the sound of modern pop music. The reggae greats were represented, as well as the dancehall DJs and the sound systems. And there was so much more! It's all documented in the full-colour, 228-page catalogue.

Quite a few exhibits were on loan from the Jamaica Music Museum, the National Gallery of Jamaica and the Peter Tosh museum. I hope the exhibition will come to Jamaica. If it doesn't, we have more than enough to do our own. Where there's a will, there's a way.

- Carolyn Cooper is a consultant on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.