Friday, April 06, 2007

# 71 A High Wind in Jamaica – Richard Hughes

Yah mon, when children, Jamaica and England are linked together, many of us think of Musical Youth, the adolescent reggae act known for the 1982 hit, “Pass the Dutchie.”

In 1979 Frederick Waite, a Jamaican musician who had moved to Birmingham, England, founded Musical Youth as a vehicle for himself and his talented two sons, who were joined by three fellow students, one of whom replaced the father as lead vocalist.

“Pass the Dutchie” was a cover of “Pass the Kouchie” by the Jamaican trio,
The Mighty Diamonds, who tour internationally to this day. The original’s lyrics reflect a pro-ganja perspective evident in many other songs in reggae, hip-hop and rock—“kouchie” or “kutchie” is slang for a smoking pipe or chalice.

Seeking a broader, less druggy appeal in accordance with their ages, Musical Youth changed “kouchie” to “dutchie,” a term for a cooking pot, as well as other lyrics so that their theme concerned hunger and poverty. For example, “How does it feel when you’ve got no herb?”
became “How does it feel when you’ve got no food?” The switcheroo succeeded to the tune of more than 4 million records sold worldwide.

Yah mon, some old cats remember when MTV played videos, and, uh, thanks mon…yah, and “Pass the Dutchie,” in very heavy rotation for months and months, was a pleasant pre-Nickelodeon curiosity—due especially to the chubby-cheeked li’l dudes, Kelvin and Michael Grant, who “toasted” (a Jamaican form of rapping in patois) and played guitar and keyboards. Viewing the
video again, we find the band lip-syncing in London across the Thames from Parliament, with cuts to a trial in which the boys are wrongly prosecuted for injuring an overly restrictive policeman—a priggish, bearded, toy fascist.

Ultimately justice prevails and Musical Youth is declared innocent, free to dance and sing before the judge and jury as the song closes. The policeman is humiliated and he bows his head—a better fate than that which befalls his doppelganger in a video for yet another 1982 hit by yet another act from Birmingham.

In “
You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’” by Judas Priest, we see an engineer-functionary, with a Chaplinesque mustache and bowler (Charlie Chaplin played the first toy fascist in the 1940 movie, The Great Dictator), serving as the antagonist. He traverses elevated bridgework in front of an energy ministry, just as the policeman crossed the bridge from Parliament, the seat of power, to confront Musical Youth. This prig frowns at the intense radioactivity—one of the properties of actual heavy metal—of Judas Priest, a heavy metal band par excellence, in full headbanging lip-sync mode. Rob Halford, Judas Priest’s singer, waves his arms and emits a pulse of energy that causes the functionary’s head to explode; authority is not just humiliated, it is destroyed.

Unlike Judas Priest, Musical Youth emphasized playfulness over violence, yet we still acknowledge their video’s imagery of governmental/societal persecution and joyous rebellion supporting the song’s initial declaration, “This generation rules the nation.”

A courtroom scene appears in another artwork linking children, Jamaica and England—the 1929 novel, A High Wind in Jamaica, by Richard Hughes. The child protagonists rule the events of what seems to be a Caribbean pirate fable; their prospects for eventually ruling the nation are, to a cynical reader, better than Musical Youth’s.

When the 10-year-old heroine Emily’s testimony regarding an alleged murder is required, she is coached by a slick attorney and watched anxiously by her parents, who are unsure about her recollection and interpretation of the events. The scene predates by more than two decades Arthur Miller’s dramatization of the Salem witch trials in The Crucible, in which children formally but dubiously corroborate misconduct. Indeed, the competency and credibility of
child testimony has continually bedeviled the American judicial system.

Emily, it turns out, is less than truthful on the stand, and the defendants, a pirate captain and his crew, are condemned to death. Had the captain been a musician, he might have voiced the sentiments found in the 1993 reggae/dancehall hit “Informer” by
Snow, a young man who rapped nimbly and autobiographically in patois about his trial for murder based on false testimony. Snow was acquitted, and he proclaimed the retribution he wanted to exact against the prosecution witness: “A licky boom-boom down” probably signifies revenge by gunfire.

Notions of a more Christian, turn-the-other-cheek type of justice are expressed in A High Wind in Jamaica by a wrongly accused man. The “negro cook,” one of the novel’s minor black characters, responds publicly to the conviction, stoically addressing the inevitability of death and the comfort of his innocence. Why did the Times, the paper of record in England, according to Hughes’s narrator, report that this man alone of the pirates was noble when faced with the gallows, was most comfortable and articulate when subserviently coming to terms with abusive power?

Snow’s beef is not with power—it’s personal. In his
video the antagonist is a slick, mustachioed informer who drinks champagne in a steam room with a group of attractive ladies. He presumably informed on Snow for money to attain or continue a pimp’s lifestyle.

“Informer” passed over the theme of racial injustice; A High Wind in Jamaica prefers the subjects of morality and child psychology. The seeds of evil are on display in all of us early on, the book argues. Environment and circumstance, such as captivity on a pirate ship, enable the worst to occur. Moreover, children inherently possess and rapidly develop the means to shame a victim—most notably the traumatized Margaret—and conceal the truth.

Francine Prose’s introduction to the novel alludes to frequent comparisons with William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, which also explores the outbreak of corruption and violence among youngsters in an exotic island setting. In fact, the last paragraph of A High Wind in Jamaica reminded the centathlete of a different Top 100 book.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita concludes with the image of the tragic heroine, as imagined by Humbert Humbert, permanently exiled from childhood:
“What I heard then was the melody of children at play and nothing but that, and I knew that the hopeless thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that chorus.”
A High Wind in Jamaica ends similarly with a zoom-out from Emily at play as she is, in contrast to Lolita, able to blend in again with her schoolmates back in England—not even the narrator can tell her apart from the others. Emily can overlook, perhaps even forget, her transgressions and tribulations, and society will accept her. In this respect, the novel anticipates by more than 30 years Hannah Arendt’s controversial concept of “
the banality of evil.”

For Hughes, innocence is a false construct. Violence—in the animal kingdom (the family cat is shredded by other wild cats), the climate (the hurricane) and the land itself (the earthquake)—is part of Existence in which humans are willing or unwilling participants. Emily and her siblings thoughtlessly kill and torture animals in the very first chapter, but in so doing they’re seen to be only playing games.

One such game involves the elaborate capture of a bird by its feet. The description concludes,
“…decide by ‘Eena, deena, dina, do,’ or some such rigmarole, whether to twist its neck or let it go free—thus the excitement and suspense, both for child and bird, can be prolonged beyond the moment of capture.”
Then comes a chillingly abrupt, provocative segue. The next paragraph begins, “It was only natural that Emily should have great ideas of improving the negroes.” Animal cruelty and racial progress are equally practiced by the adorable little Englishwoman; degrees of mindlessness and earnestness toward both behaviors are devastatingly called into question.

Emily finally rejoins the ruling class. Others would find assimilation more difficult. One reggae artist, Eddy Grant (born in
Guyana, not Jamaica, and then relocated to England), sang about the troubles endemic to the predominantly non-white neighborhoods outside London in his 1983 hit, “Electric Avenue,” an actual area of Brixton.

In reviewing the
video, we see images of Grant jogging on a Caribbean beach, dreadlocks bouncing, juxtaposed with close-ups of a faceless outlaw revving a motorcycle. The lyrics begin with “Down in the street there is violence,” as Grant lip-syncs on a couch in a living room, watching TV. The established context is of injustice/uprising and awareness/indifference.

The biker is joined by an anonymous twin and they roll (as a reduced incarnation of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) through “Electric Avenue,” a scruffy urban neighborhood, at night—the dangerous time. “Can’t afford a thing on TV,” Grant sings, affirming poverty and exclusion from Society.

He steps onto the carpet and falls in a pool before the TV, and he also staggers and drops on the sand—injustice wounds the dreadlocked man in the city (England) and on the beach (the former colonies). The bikers magically revive and transport him to a classroom with children.

The lead student is an adorable, spectacled girl similar in age to Emily. She leaves the classroom to join the crowd that is now following the bikers, who are fomenting a protest or rebellion, interpreted in the chorus as, “We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue/And then we’ll take it higher.”

The presentation of the girl, who smiles as she descends to the street, lightens the song’s tone of protest and mitigates the ominous appearance of the bikers and murky cinematography. Originally scowling, Grant himself lip-syncs somewhat impishly once the girl has joined the movement. His exhortation for immediate progress is thus “positive” and more commercially appealing.

The contemporary power structure, however, might have been alarmed that the message is depicted as dangerously seductive to its children—how would Musical Youth’s and Judas Priest’s toy fascist have reacted as the girl left the classroom?

Whereas Eddy Grant referred to socioeconomic discrimination as the cause for Electric Avenue’s state as “the dark side of the town,” Richard Hughes dramatically argued that the dark side lives in every heart and throughout nature.

His blandly named novel (the “high wind” does not seem to refer to pungent breezes from the camps referenced by The Mighty Diamonds) offers no apparent cure. The book seems simply to warn against Pollyanna-ish ignorance toward and coddling of children.

The generically named Musical Youth advocate in “Pass the Dutchie” that consciousness, celebrated in dance and song, will alleviate hunger and carry the day. Unfortunately, the future was
not as rosy as it once appeared to the boys. Patrick Waite, while awaiting a drug-related trial, died at age 24 of heart illness. Junior Waite suffered a nervous breakdown. Kelvin Grant suffers from psychological problems and lives reclusively.

Michael Grant and Dennis Seaton, however, soldier on as musicians and adult caretakers of their legacy as child stars. “We be the Youth till we die,” Seaton
said. In his case, the child is publicly and unusually father to the man. In Emily’s case, the child is metaphorically and unusually mother to the woman, and the rest of us. Yah mon.


Cheng Yu-tung said...

Hi I was just going through sites adding links for my website. However after finding this post I would like to say thankyou.

I remember from the Musical Youth video Pass the Dutchie, there is a scene where in the park they are chased by the park keeper Keep of the Grass.

Not actually a fan of Musical youth, I prefered Bob Marley (Who I saw live in Brigton), African Dub Chapter 3, Keith Hudson, Burning Spear.

I find your posts really good, informative. As A thankyou I not use name and URL but my Google account, link to this site and read your blog

The Centathlete said...

Thank you for the note, Yu-tung, very glad you enjoyed the notes.

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