<%@ LANGUAGE = VBScript %> <% sPageID = 49 %> <%= sHeadSpace %> <%= sMetaString %> wayne's blog (01-31-03) - back to jamaica

back to jamaica

it is my intention to keep a daily, or near daily, weblog of my thoughts, experiences, and other media that i record or create while in jamaica. not only is this a great way to force myself to articulate some things on a regular basis, but i hope that by sharing ideas, sounds, and images with a larger audience i can invite others to get in on the conversation. so please feel free to send me comments, questions, or other relevant materials as you see fit (wayne@wayneandwax.com).

i suspect that good, concrete, vivid descriptions (if i may presume to offer such quality prose) are what most people would enjoy reading here, so that is what i will attempt to provide. readers should know, however, that any description i make is inextricable from the act of interpretation, at least on the simple order of what i choose to describe and what i decide to leave out. moreover, i am deeply interested in abstract questions and eternal puzzles, so one should expect that my descriptions will routinely open out into broader observations and queries.

this is my fourth time in jamaica, which, according to some people here, makes me jamaican (others say i am not jamaican until i can speak with a yard accent; to be honest, i do not aspire to be jamaican, though i do hope to cultivate a passable patois).  i and my partner, rebecca, moved to kingston last friday, the 24th of January. we are renting a one-bedroom apartment on hope road. hope is one of kingston’s major roads, running from half-way tree—a commercial center of town that, with its numerous stalls, bustling activity, and “fat women,” prompted an african colleague of a friend of ours to dub it “little lagos”—up to papine, where kingston meets the mountains and the university of the west indies finds some shade. the apartment is located in the uptown area where bob marley settled after some success and soon scandalized the neighbors (the marley museum, formerly his residence, is located a couple blocks down the road from us). we are less scandalous, i am sure, though we do stand out because we are white. (according to the lonely planet jamaica book: “jamaica is overwhelmingly black. some 76.3% of the population is classified as being of pure african descent. another 15% are of afro-european descent, with the remainder white minorities (3.2%), east Indian and middle eastern (3%), and afro-chinese and Chinese (1.2%).”) it is interesting to feel like such a sore thumb, but it is also an appropriately humbling experience. generally, except when traveling through new kingston, which contains the city’s major hotels and therefore its foreign visitors (mostly businessmen—all other tourists tend to stay in montego bay or negril on the north and west coasts), we receive little attention despite our somewhat rare looks.

in new kingston we are much more likely to be the targets of people selling wares and weed. an entirely different set of assumptions rules the way people view us and treat us. i don’t really like walking through new kingston. i feel harassed and misunderstood, though i realize that my assailants have plenty of good reasons for acting the way they do: chances are, looking the way i do, i have money, and i want weed and/or trinkets. better believe soon as i can say, “me nah tourist,” convincingly enough, i will. the worst becca and i get up here are frequent offers of taxi rides, which we frequently take. i do not really feel on my guard here, which is nice. i do not like to feel as though i cannot trust people. it saddens me, challenges my belief in the goodness human beings are capable of. when competing for meager resources, what can you expect. it’s a cruel economy, especially with the IMF involved (66 cents on the dollar go to debt, according to stephanie black’s film, life and debt). not to mention crooked politicians with god complexes and patois lip-service for the people. (though, i should say, after our meeting yesterday with mr. edward seaga, former prime minister of jamaica, i emerged a bit more heartened about the real, good deeds that compassionate politicians can accomplish. mr. seaga has revitalized tivoli gardens, one of the poorest communities of kingston with a community center, a state of the art high school, and a digital music studio. we all came away excited about how well our projects dovetail.) but maybe economics is a misplaced focus. perhaps, as trevor rhone and i discussed the other day, it’s really a liberation of the mind that is needed. as trevor’s latest play, bellas gate boy, suggests: let every one discover that they are “the greatest” (thanks, cassius) and they will be free. the art of life, as nietzsche, via dave “mr.6” gilbert, might call it. what is most crucially needed is a change in imagination, in vision, in (self)representation, says my friend thaddeus miles, whose various programs in the boston area seek to enable young people of color to express themselves and change the field of representation via digital media production. the buddhists mystify it a bit when they speak of awareness, though that is also a profoundly simple statement of the insight. and i think some other jamaican spoke of emancipation from mental slavery, or something like that. i guess that’s why i’ve got rastas (or at least look-the-parts) trying to sell me weed up and down knutsford boulevard. and at american prices! the nerve. me nah tourist.

our apartment is spacious, for the two of us, and airy. like most residences in kingston, we have a combination of windows and slats, which allows the steady breeze to pass through our house and keep things cool. (the temperature here is a year-round 80 degrees, though it has been comfortably cooler lately because of some cold fronts that you up north should know about.) click here for pictures of our apartment. the building itself is more a collection of connected bungalows than the cell-block arrangement of soviet-style complexes that seem so popular in poor areas of the urbanized world (or in any area that had the misfortune of designing and constructing big buildings in the 1970s). my favorite feature is the back porch. through the vertical-brick-patterned, wrought-iron bars, one can see the mountains appearing to rise just over the nearest apartment complex, the pink-and-white stucco “hollywood manor.” we live in “sandhurst mews,” where the unassuming but grandly named hollywood road meets hope. if we look to the left, kingston lurks and sprawls behind four large trees that shield our view. on our right, across little hollywood, stands a primary school, christian in tone, which fills our daily soundscape with the sound of playing children from morning through afternoon every weekday. it is a rather musical and delightful kind of noise. much better than the screeching of cars racing up hope or the wailing of third world dogs —ownerless, starving, usually maimed, and sometimes quite a racket in the middle of the night.

the apartment feels very safe. it is not quite “gated” (it has no guards or dogs), but it does have a gate (as do nearly all residences in kingston). we are a short walk from an unremarkable but handy strip-mall called the sovereign center. (perhaps it is “centre”? i thought new england had a ridiculous legacy of british words and names. you should hear the local news run down the football scores from jamaica’s various parishes.) everywhere else we go, we have to take taxis or buses. we are considering getting a car, but the prices are exorbitant (US$350/week for rentals—nearly twice what we pay for rent). independent cabs abound, though we recently found a reliable cab company, express (923-6893), which we have been using almost extensively.

a couple days ago while taking a taxi to new kingston for a meeting, we were pulled over, for no apparent reason by the police. [for the record, this was not an express company cab.] the officer instructed our driver to pull up close to the squad car on a quiet little sidestreet. according to the police, we were not supposed to be driving on that particular road. out of our sight, the cabbie paid a JA$500 (US$10) extortion-fee, as he informed us shortly thereafter, and we were allowed to move on. more importantly, the cabbie was able to keep his license “cris,” or nice, which is to say, clean of infractions. just another day for him. standard practice in a city where neighborhood dons, because of their ability to protect community members and deal out “jungle justice” (as a downtown, and “protected,” kingstonian friend of ours called it), receive more respect, and have much more power, than the police. last night on television, it was reported that four policemen were arrested for engaging in part of a multi-million dollar extortion scheme. i have read elsewhere that one-third of homicides are committed by police. establishing the rule of law in a city torn apart by poverty, garrison politics, and the cocaine trade is certainly an uphill battle. such a task is made no easier by the misdeeds of corrupt civil servants. a line that dami d, a dancehall artist with whom i have worked, sings in his song “no more war”—“i see the youth them fight crime with police”—reveals its true meaning in this context.

in an environment so pervaded by suffering and selfishness (different, perhaps, from the environment of, say, cambridge, massachusetts, only in its intensity, its in-your-face fatality), it is most remarkable that the character of so many people i meet here is so deeply resilient—affirmative even. in the face of death and despair, life thrives here. flowers vine their way through the urban squalor. reggae and rasta are perhaps the more obvious examples of life-affirming expressions here. more cynical forms exist as well, though i am challenged to even label them so, considering their positive expression. in some cases, people greet death with open-mouthed laughter. as i watched the news with a number of friends, mostly young men but also an older woman, two nights ago, i was struck by how hard they all laughed throughout a story about a suspected-repeated burglar who was apparently beaten to death after he was finally caught in the act. as local home- and shop-owners expressed satisfaction if not glee over the man’s demise, my friends found amusement in the entire phenomenon. it seemed like a show of great pessimism, but there was something pragmatic and cathartic about it at the same time. i found myself laughing too, at the television, at the laughing, at the fucked-up-ness of the whole situation. it is not surprising, considering this moment, that these same friends, while listening to some selections from my latest cd (it was my turn to share after listening to many of their new songs), reacted strongly to my favorite line in “america”: “admit it’s frightenin’ that white men dye their hair to look like black men tryna look like white men, but it’s also funny.” damn right it’s funny, if a bit tragic. but understanding the depth of what we do to ourselves and each other has got to be one of the best steps toward fashioning our own self-image in a more less debilitating way. what’s more, it feels good to laugh. and humor seems strongly connected to a sense of perspective, a terribly important thing to have in a world of delusion and suffering.

i could go on and on. i realize, in writing this blog, how easily my experiences open out into larger questions and quandaries. one of my major tasks while living here will be to assemble the most vivid set of stories i can in order to tell a bigger story, and to explode some others. before i finish this initial entry, though, allow me to explain a bit more about what i am doing here.

i am here to study music. i am writing a dissertation for a phd in ethnomusicology (in short, the anthropology of music) on the interplay between hip-hop, or rap, and dancehall. as i currently conceive it, i am proposing a critical history and contemporary aesthetics of hip-hop as a transnational music. specifically, i am focusing on jamaica’s relationship to the music, from its origins in the founding figure of dj kool herc (i.e., clive campbell, a jamaican immigrant to the Bronx in the late 60s), through decades of constant interplay, to today’s current moment of greater fluidity than ever. my main questions concern the relationship between authenticity and musical power, and the relationship between soundscapes and the formation of social identities. by telling hip-hop’s story as a relational formation, occurring in and between the jamaica and the us (perhaps with a stop or two in europe, especially the uk), i am seeking to decenter the concept of a “hip-hop culture” that is too often represented as a stable, and usually exclusive, whole. by exposing a bit of the messiness of cultural and musical workings, i hope to shed light on the constructed and contingent way that we make meaning, and to show the power of music not only to express but to inform who we are, our epistemology and ontology, which is to say, the way we come to know the world and our sense of being in it. as you can see, i tend to slip into fairly academic language when i get into this subject. to some extent i am striving to expunge jargon from my vocabulary and to speak and write in clear, simple prose. on the other hand, i am swayed by the feeling that i can express myself more succinctly and precisely with these newly accented words of critical/cultural/post- studies. words which tend to sound either vague or big to the uninitiated. words like discourse and liminal. at any rate, i hope that you bear with the shifting quality of my language and tone. i hope that the ambivalence and occasional contradiction one encounters in my weblog is perceived not as weakness or hypocrisy but as representative of a human being working to find his way, to get a good grasp on the world—usually by unseating his own assumptions and trying to challenge others’.

i am also here to make music. there is perhaps nothing i enjoy more than making music. perhaps only listening to it, for, in some sense, that is the reason that i make music: to listen to it, to feel it in my body, to enjoy its play in my mind. since i began using computers to make music back in 1999, i have been utterly seduced by the power i have to harness the world of sound with my imagination and some simple but sophisticated software. i am consistently drawn deeper into the world simply by making beats on my laptop. organizing sound, or making music, can actually be a rather precise way to express oneself. i now understand what mendelssohn meant when he said that he preferred to be a composer, though he was supposedly a great writer, for he was able to express himself more precisely through music. i hope to be able to blog musically throughout my stay here as it will allow me to express and explain things that even the best prose can fall short of communicating. the internet, with its hyperlinks, provides an ideal medium for the kind of multimedia presentation that best suits musicological scholarship. i hope not only to produce music on my own here, however, but to collaborate with and to learn from others. my work with multicast—a group of young kingstonian dancehall and hip-hop artists—last summer was extremely stimulating and productive, informing my musical abilities as much as my ideas about music as a social practice, wrapped up in the messy networks of culture. i hope to have much more to share over the course of my stay here.

i am here to teach music, too. as an extension of the digital music workshops i began in roxbury last summer, i plan to offer a series of workshops in kingston’s schools, community centers, and possibly prisons. together with becca, who will be offering instruction to teachers and other trainers in skyBuilders open-source web-development software, i am hoping to create a vibrant online community for young music makers from kingston to boston. at wayneandwax.org, i envision a central area where digital music producers can share their music, access and remix others’ creations, and engage in a conversation about the process and whatever that opens out to. the site will also house individual web-pages for participants and institutions to present their work and collaborate on specific projects. i like the way that such a system can facilitate collaboration, foster an understanding of musical materials and the world of sound as a creative commons, and make the creative and collaborative process transparent to onlookers. individual “creation/conversation threads” will, through a ranking system, float to the top according to interest. becca and i, together with charlie (charles nesson, of the berkman center for internet and society at harvard law school, for those not in the know), received the support of the ministries of technology and education on January 28, and we are looking forward to beginning in some kingston- and portland-based schools soon. our meeting with mr. seaga suggests even further possibilities. at this weeks ICT (information and communication technology) conference in kingston, we made a number of great connections, including mr. alton grizzle, whose organization, cornerstone ministries, has been offering educational and vocational training in the prisons here for some time. finally, we may get a chance to offer digital music-making and web-design training as part of the correctional services’ interest in rehabilitation. we gave a demo of our tools and methods yesterday, which was rather well received. with the help of a number of enthusiastic audience members, we built this rhythm out of our own sounds (i ran through the aisles with my laptop and a mic, and then assembled a dancehall beat in a minute or two, right on the big screen).

finally, i am here to live, deliberately as i can. (thoreau’s walden is at my bedside; anyone care to read along with me? [and, no, i’m not comparing life in jamaica to life in the woods]). i am excited about daily life in a different place, with different people, and in the close company of my dear girl, rebecca (often taken for my wife here, or “wifey” as my hip-hop-inflected friends like to say), whose blogs may provide good counterpoint to mine. they will surely be more concise. i’m a verbose fellow, you know. more soon come. (couldn’t resist the pun on the classic email tag, “more soon”: “soon come” is jamaican vernacular for “don’t hold your breath.” though i do hope to be blogging regularly, it is taking us some time to get a phone connection from the monopoly telecommunications bureaucracy.)

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