Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Steel Band in Flight Is the Human Heart Singing

Conditions have changed little since I wrote this story, I expect, except the exchange rates, which can, of course, change very quickly. From the Herald-Citizen, Cookeville, TN, March 13, 2005.


The last morning before the Reggae Marathon, I figured a walk along the beach would be relaxing. So I struck out down Negril’s seven-mile beach, pride of western Jamaica. The sun was bright and warm, unlike the foggy December day I’d left behind in Tennessee.

Then a guy tried to sell me dope. Here he came, a stout young man wearing black droopy shorts, dreadlocks and a heavy ring on a gold chain around his neck, bling for the beach. He checked me out by offering a ride on the para-glider. But I wasn’t interested in any excitement. From my white beard, he concluded he faced an unreformed hippie—leastwise, a safe bet.

“I know a guy. I can get you some good smokes,” he said. I knew he could.

“No thanks, I wouldn’t care for any,” I said.

“It’s good stuff."

“No, I don’t want any. Thanks.”

“You don’t want that?” Puzzled, he turned and walked away.

His offer came on top of the female companionship a guy had tried to sell me the previous day, when I was in the airport restroom at Montego Bay.

The two trifling incidents maybe reflect a bigger problem for Jamaica: The economy is shattered. And where poverty goes, drugs, HIV, murder and other crimes follow.

A third of the population falls below the poverty line; the inflation rate hovers in double digits, and so does unemployment.

The Jamaican dollar is slipping. During the late nineties, 35 Jamaican dollars (J$35) bought one U.S. dollar (US$1.00). Lately the slide has quickened. As I planned my trip I saw an exchange rate of J$50. By the time I actually made the trip a few weeks later, it had reached J$60.

That may be good news for the traveler, but terrible news for Jamaicans. When their dollar falls from J$35 to J$60, their ability to buy groceries and other things likewise falls. Since this island country must import most of her staples, devaluation of its dollar hits doubly hard. Finally it takes a sack full of money to buy anything.

A gallon of gas costs J$140, a soda J$150, a beer J$200 and a speeding ticket J$10,000.

“They love the ‘American’ dollar,” a fellow traveler told me. Little wonder—the U.S. dollar represents lasting value, while the Jamaican dollar erodes away like sand under foot. Realizing that, I paid for most of my purchases with U.S. dollars.

Despite the hardship around me, my days passed pleasantly. I sat at a table on the veranda of my villa working and reading. A garden of shrubs and flowers comes up to the porch. Walks to other villas criss-cross the garden. Maids and maintenance men go about their work, singing as they pass. They love to sing—pop songs and reggae tunes mostly. But in the distance, briefly I heard a man’s voice booming two lines:

When we all get to heaven,
We will meet on that beautiful shore.

Not waiting for the sweet by and by, I promptly went down and sat on that beautiful shore.
The singing and the friendly demeanor of the Jamaicans that I met seemed at odds with the difficult conditions they face. A wide smile and a, “Yah Mon,” are typical.

But it was not always so pleasant. One day I sat working, reading and writing. An angry argument flared up between two men in the driveway near my porch. Although I couldn’t see the two men for a picket fence, the sound was more than enough.

The volume hit a shrill pitch I thought only the hard shock of a 9-mm would end. Or maybe a scream gurgled by a sharp blade. It was like a taunt rubber band stretched to the limit. The invectives screamed out in Spanish came in waves, and the altercation gradually drifted down the drive to the road. I hoped they’d take it a mile on down the road. But it continued there.

A car passed and drowned the argument under the loud wailing of Bob Marley. But just for a few seconds. Then the argument resurfaced. It was more than wearisome—it was unnerving. In it all, I hear two reasonable words shouted out en ingl├ęs.

“Shut up! Shut up!”

After twenty minutes it finally played out, from sheer exhaustion I guess. While it lasted, the strident Spanish set my primordial reflexes a-twitch, and I couldn’t concentrate on my work. I was working on my Spanish assignment.

Tourists are important to Jamaicans. They want you to come back. Tourism is one resource they do have. But, of course, lots of other places have the stuff of tourism, the beaches and sunshine. But Jamaica has something more, something no one else has, and something no one can claim or take away: Bob Marley.

Or rather Bob Marley’s legacy. His dreadlock image is everywhere—in photographs, on woodcarvings, on tee shirts. Though he died in 1981 his reggae music lives on, celebrated with fervor in Jamaica. His song, “One Love,” has become a Jamaican anthem, if not a world one.
Besides running the marathon, my main goal was to search out a place where I could hear live reggae music played by a steel band. I need not have worried. Race organizers had arranged for the Caribbean Regal Steel Band to play in the park at the pre-race supper. The ten-member mixed-gender group filled that space with music. I pulled my folding chair up to the front and center, and let the music wash over me.

In one stretch they played—what else—“One Love,” swung into—I swear!—Glen Miller’s “In the Mood,” sailed into “Rocking Robin,” and chased that with “Tequila”—something for everyone. Their music was complex, melodic, joyous, clear as a bell. I believe they could have played Beethoven’s ninth.

Oil drum: The ordinary 55-gallon steel barrel. Detritus of petroleum the world over: it took the descendants of slaves in nearby Trinidad to fashion it into a musical instrument. They cut the end off and hammered it into a concave surface, making a drum that sings. Strike it at different places and you make different notes. Shape another drumhead differently and you get a different tonal range. Ten such drums make a band spanning several octaves, one that can emulate a grand piano.

From oil drums, music, from oppression, joy. The human spirit wrenches beauty from bleakness. Is there a better example than this? A steel band in flight is the human heart singing.

The night after the marathon, I sat at the resort beach bar ready for supper. The electricity went off. I read the menu with my key chain light and ordered curry goat, a treat. The food is cooked in a separate building, one that I hoped had some kind of power. The bar’s concrete floor extends to the ocean; the waves wash gently against the edge where I sit. The restaurant has a roof but no walls. Beach walkers can drift through, and they do.

A young man suddenly sat down at my table and stuck out his hand. We shook. His approach was direct.

“I’m hungry,” he said.

He’d been in jail. The police arrested him for selling peanuts and cigarettes, he said

“They did? Man tried to sell me peanuts today.”

“They arrested me for selling without a license. You have to have a license.”

“Have you talked to the folks at the restaurant about working for food?”

He knew the answer to that question too. His situation was critical. He’d just gotten out that day. Unlikely, I thought, since it was Sunday. The earnest man wanted to raise enough money to get a bicycle and ride up and down the road to see if he could take tourists to the water park.

“You just got out today?”


I handed him J$ 500 and wished him luck. He headed on down the beach, but stopped under a beach light—the power was back on. He stood there, head down, counting his money. Suddenly he turned aside, and sat down with two tourists resting in the shadows.

I could’ve given his spiel.

1 comment:

  1. I had heard the economy was bad in Jamaica, but I didn't realize how bad. The exchange rate is crazy! I'm glad that there was good music (and a marathon) to balance out the other situations. This has been a learning experience. Thanks for sharing.