An important development in Caribbean poetry

Voiceprint is an extremely important landmark in the documentation of the poetry, its roots, its quality and its continuing evolution because it brought together in one volume the Caribbean poetic ‘voice’ in ‘print.’  The poetry always had roots in the oral traditions and their oral poetry. These deepened and re-attached with the scribal tradition in literary and performance developments after 1968.  A new brand (strand) of poetry – dub poetry – first emerged in publication in 1970-71 and was critically acknowledged by Gordon Rohlehr in 1971. Other forms were, in related fashion, gaining strength at the same time, namely, poetry was acquiring oral qualities; there was creole verse and its linguistic influences; the acceptance of the folk forms, oral poetry including calypso and reggae, into the mainstream; and the increasing contributions of the music, the dancehall and its culture.

Just as Voiceprint captured in its title the printed voice, the scribal and the oral, so did Wheel And Come Again capture the musical culture of the dub and the dancehall.  It echoed the popular fashion of false starts and repetitions in dancehall music performances while the selections of ‘Reggae Poetry’ in the book represent a very wide range of verse arising out of, influenced by, making use of or otherwise impinging upon the rhythms and the quality of orality, resistance and the music.  These trends and traditions were in evidence since Jamaica’s ‘rude bwoy’ era, the cultural shock waves that reverberated after the Walter Rodney expulsion incidents of 1968, and the DJ performances long before those.

Kwame Dawes is not associated with this by accident because of his connections with both the written and vocal traditions.  He is a prominent poet and prose writer good enough to ‘win’ the Commonwealth Writers Prize.  In 2003 his collection of short stories was selected as the Best First Book in the Canada and Caribbean Region, but he turned it down.  He said he could not accept it because if challenged, he would have a problem providing documentation to prove he was Jamaican.  He is the son of Jamaican novelist Neville Dawes but was born in Ghana and brought to Jamaica, where he grew up and worked apparently without all the necessary citizenship documentation.  He is also a musician and performed with a band, so has therefore been a practitioner in the musical culture.

Stewart Brown, whose poem Let them Call It Jazz is included in the Reggae Poetry Anthology, is not associated with this by accident either. He is an Englishman but is among the foremost authorities on West Indian literature as an academic, published researcher and critic.  He is one of the co-editors of Voiceprint on which he worked with Mervyn Morris and Gordon Rohlehr, in addition to writing Tourist Traveller, Troublemaker, and editing The Art of Derek Walcott, The Art of Kamau Brathwaite, The Art of Martin Carter and a number of other collections.  He is closely acquainted with the culture and the poetry and capable of producing verse belonging to the anthology.  Brown is an artist and a published poet whose collections include Lugard’s Bridge (out of his experiences in Nigeria), Zinder and Elsewhere.

The poem’s title Let Them Call It Jazz is borrowed from a short story by Jean Rhys – the narrative of an alien young woman of unspecified background recounting experiences in London.  The faint thread of ‘otherness’ and resistance in that tale is sufficient inspiration for Brown’s poem about a jazz band.  Rhys’s heroine sings a song which has a great deal of meaning for her but is stolen by a pianist who jazzes it up and publishes it commercially in a typical fashion of exploitation.  Brown dedicates the poem to Cedric Brooks, a Jamaican band leader and paints portraits of each member of his fictional band linked by the refrain “We Must Unite.” These players are from diverse backgrounds but all united by elements of history, colonialism, suffering and resistance.  The final stanza, which might be a description of Brooks, calls him a “musical Mais” – another intertextual literary reference.  Roger Mais was a Jamaican fiction writer known for his social ‘consciousness’ who has written about the Kingston slums, backyards and Rastafari.

This musical Mais, the leader of the pack,
has his army massing the foothills
and the squares: come, come, come…

    we must unite
    We Must Unite
    WE MUST UNITE

The poem ends as if the band leader is marshalling an army of these musicians in a resistance against the various inflictions of history, race, class and culture.  In relevant fashion, Brown crafts a variety of rhythms and verse structures in the varying biographies of each member of the band, to bring them all together at the end in a unity that a band needs to play, but a unification with multiple political meanings.  It is well within the traditions associated with dub, DJ, dancehall and “reggae poetry.”

Stewart Brown

Let Them Call It Jazz
(for Cedric Brooks)

“People of the Americas
People of the Caribbean
Of Asia and India
Of Africa
WE MUST UNITE!”

The band blares and beats its wrath
to a handful of hypes, mostly whites
whose culture does not swing
to such sleazy, threatening blues.

But Dr. B and his bad-time band
are already on the road
to Mozambique, are possessed now
by spirit – and too besides

The institute have paid them
for this Musical Communiom
and they will blow it, no matter
if they end up on the streets.

WE MUST UNITE!

Tambu man is jungle dyed,
He stared hard at the sun
on that black passage
and now the Niger’s flood
Ssill courses/curses in his veins …

It is the tap
    tap root of his fear
    of his fear
    that he fight fight
    fights

“ we must unite!”

So he remembers. Hates.
Remember. Hates.
Remembers. Tries to love. Hates.
he is killing us with iorn digits,
gun, gun, Ogun

WE MUST UNITE!
        [ ……]
Don D junior
has a lot to live
down.
    Indifferent
eyes circle the room
till he blues us,slews
us,
    chew us down
the flower of his
bone.

    He shows us
black horizons,
albino lies,
    terminal greys
of corrosion.

WE MUST UNITE

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