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Spotlight on Jamaica

STELLAR CAST: Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake greet fans after track success at the London 2012 Games

IF RECENT weeks have been any indication, the Jamaican mantra "we likkle but we talawa" (we’re small but we’re mighty) couldn’t be more true.

Jamaican cuisine, values and even the flag have earned media attention (I know I wasn’t the only person who spotted the lone black, green and gold flag being randomly waved by an attendee at this year’s MOBO Awards), proving that the island is worthy of much note on our UK shores and internationally.

Often regarded as a proud nation, it’s no wonder many Jamaicans have been vocal in recent weeks when the media spotlight was shone on the island.

Unless you’ve been hibernating in a cave, you’re bound to have caught the furore that was sparked by Channel 4’s recent programme My Crazy New Jamaican Life. Exploring the lives of two white English women, Debbie and Holly, who had embraced elements of Jamaican culture, the show came under fire from a host of Jamaicans who felt it falsely and negatively represented Jamaican values, specifically in its insinuation that men having children with multiple women was inherent in Jamaican culture.

Channel 4 received numerous complaints and The Voice was inundated with feedback from viewers who were angered by the documentary.

Also feeling the wrath of Jamaicans recently was Marco Pierre White. The celebrated British chef probably had no idea what anger would be sparked by one of his recipes, which he described as “brown rice, Jamaican style” before claiming: “I go to Jamaica now and then and it’s something the locals cook for me, which is delicious.”

But the floodgates of Jamaican vexation opened when White’s video demonstration of the dish, which sees him cooking chicken drumsticks with rice and peas – but using garden peas, instead of red kidney beans or gungo peas, traditionally used in Jamaican rice and peas – started doing the rounds.

Many viewers posted angry comments under the video on YouTube; The Voice received huge feedback from people who felt White’s dish was an insult to Jamaican cuisine; and a petition was even launched via online activist network Avaaz, calling on the chef to “issue a public apology to the people of Jamaica”.

As the product of Jamaican parents – and having written articles about the Channel 4 documentary and the Marco Pierre White saga – I watched these scenarios with interest.

And having subsequently interviewed the cast and crew of new film Home Again, which examines the issue of Jamaican deportation (interview on page 22), my intrigue about my parents’ island of birth was aroused once again.

What is it about the Caribbean island that has long made it the source of excitement and curiosity in the UK and beyond? Why did Sean Paul’s emergence on the mainstream music scene in 2002 cause folks of all nations to emulate Jamaican dance moves?

Why did so many English folks get caught up in Jamaican hype during the 2012 London Olympics, forgoing the UK flag to wave the Jamaican one instead?

MOVIE: The 1993 film Cool Runnings charted the story of Jamaica’s 1988 Olympic bobsleigh team

Perhaps David ‘Sudz’ Sutherland, co-director of Home Again, summed up the island’s impact best when he told Life & Style: “Jamaica has an outsized cultural footprint. Wherever you go in the world, people know about Jamaica.”

Considering why this is the case, Mavis Stewart, chair of the Association of Jamaicans UK Trust feels that it is the confidence of the nation's people that makes the island so endearing.

"Jamaicans are trendsetters," says Jamaican-born, UK-based Stewart.

"We’re not afraid to take risks and we lead where others tend to follow.

"We are a confident nation and I think it’s our confidence that people gravitate towards. We’re not afraid to tread where others have failed to tread in the past, and we’re not afraid of challenge."

A fine example of Jamaicans embracing "challenge" came in 1988 when, for the first time, the island entered a national bobsleigh team in the Winter Olympics.

Alas, the team did not officially finish, after crashing out of the competition during one of their four runs. But so unique and inspiring was the true story of the 'sunshine island' training a team – comprised of Devon Harris, Dudley Stokes, Michael White and Nelson Stokes – to compete in a winter sport, that it was immortalized in the 1993 film Cool Runnings.

"We would rather try something out and even if it fails, at least we can say we tried it," Stewart adds. "We are an incredible nation and people recognise that."

British reggae singer Lloyd Brown, who is of Jamaican heritage, offers his views on the island's impact: “Jamaican culture is very much about tradition, resilience and principles, and many things that have stemmed from those values have stood the test of time.

"Whether it’s the tradition of Jamaican music or the resilience of our sports stars – not to mention the many Jamaicans who represent the island in the world of academia – our culture is both warm and welcoming and it’s not surprising so many people gravitate towards it."

BIG MOVES: Sean Paul and Sasha perform on Top Of The Pops in 2003

One element of Jamaican culture that has garnered worldwide attention is, of course, the music, specifically dancehall. In fact 19-year-old Holly, who featured in C4's My Crazy New Jamaican Life, explained that it was the music of Sean Paul that inspired her love affair with dancehall music and culture.

Some Jamaican traditionalists frown upon the raw and explicit elements of dancehall culture, dubbing it 'slackness' (specifically the crude language of some of the lyrics and the sexually-charged dance moves). But Stewart feels that dismissing dancehall as a relevant part of Jamaican culture would be denial.

"To deny [dancehall's impact] wouldn’t make sense. That it is one element of our culture and we cannot deny parts of our culture because others frown upon it. Jamaican culture is a package, made up of many things. That’s who we are."

But it's not Jamaican just music and sport that has earned worldwide attention. In her upcoming documentary, Dreadlocks Story, anthropologist Linda Aïnoucheput puts the spotlight on Rastafari.

A movement synonymous with, though not exclusive to Jamaica, Rastafari sparked the interest of French-born Aïnouche, who, through her film, examines the bonds of survival of African and Indian culture in Jamaica – and specifically, in Rastafari.

“As an anthropologist, I have wondered, what is Jamaican culture? It embraces foreign cultural aspects and the history of the island has been made from a range of different people, and therefore cultures".
Now based in New York, Aïnouche, who is of Algerian and German heritage spent extensive periods in Jamaica, mostly in the capital, Kingston, in order to produce her film, which is due for release later this year.

She explains it was Jamaica's varied cultural landscape – which bred the island's motto, 'Out of many, we are one' – which piqued her curiosity.

"My film is partly about Indian culture within Jamaican society, but it is also about how two cultural aspects that met at a critical moment – socially, politically, etc – created a new 'culture', in this case, Rastafari."

She adds: "Growing up as a child with parents from two different cultures, I came up with this project to give a new platform to both the Rastafari movement and Indian legacy.”

Summing up the pride many Jamaicans have for their island, Stewart concludes: “I have a song that I sing when challenges face me. It goes: ‘The Lion of Judah, shall break every chain, and give us a victory, again and again.’

“I’ve held onto that whenever I was challenged, and remembered my Jamaican in-built confidence. That is what Jamaica gave to me and for that, I will be forever grateful to my island home. God bless Jamaica and its people!”

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