Friday, June 17, 2016

The Sound of Jamaica's Festival

I recently came across what I consider a very catchy patriotic song online, Jamaica by Bella Blair. 

I like it! It's a good song and I think the video is awesome.  While listening I couldn't help but wonder if this song could ever have made it as a festival song competitor.  I really don't know the motive for doing this song, but I think we're lucky to have it.  Yet, I still harbor the question, could this have been a contemporary festival song?

Her words in the chorus, "I'm lucky cause I live in Jamaica" is a mantra that I think many Jamaicans at home and abroad can appreciate.  

In discussing this with a friend who is has a fairly good knowledge of the competition, some of my reservations were affirmed.  He too felt that this song would probably not have made it.  Sadly so.  This song celebrates the nation, which is part of the festival competition's mandate, but the sound (and possibly other aesthetics when we think of tourism) is not something we typically expect in this sphere and therefore it may not be so readily embraced.

All is not lost however, as that conversation also led to my discovery of a very insightful academic study on the subject, A We Dis?!: The Contestation of Jamaica's Post-independence Identity in the Jamaica Festival Song Competition.  In the undergraduate thesis, the writer Carolyn McCalla contends that the tension of the state to sanitize and present one image of Jamaica versus allowing the competition to reflect the actual essence of the Jamaican people have over a number of years contributed to a competition that is weak and distant from the popular culture.  I think having an idea of what's wrong is half the battle of fixing it.

The Jamaica Festival Song Competition began in 1966 and continues up to present day, but it's current impact is in question.  Carolyn MaCalla in her study reminds us that "the Competition was also to serve as a means of integrating Jamaica's popular music into the international music scene (one of the goals of the Popular Music Development Programme...)".  But if this is so, do many Jamaicans really think that many of the songs we have heard in recent times qualify as popular and have gained a life beyond the competition?  If this in not the case then it seems to me that the competition is failing at its mandate.

Some years ago I worked at the Ministry of Education, Youth & Culture, and back then I raised my concern about the sound of festival.  My question was why is the festival sound stuck in the 70s?  For some reason the sound stopped evolving as a popular music and remained something nostalgic. I recall that there was an effort to change this sound, but this was subsequently reversed. My thinking is that a festival song ought to be contemporary, and it ought to be a song that plays for years and years beyond the competition. Let's consider the more successful of these festival songs, here is a link to JCDC Festival Song Winners 1966 - 2015, chances are you actually know them, even if you did not know they were festival entries.

I think if we work towards creating the conditions that encourage entries of contemporary popular sounds the organizers could bring forward a certain relevance to the annual competition. 

Would you have voted for Bella Blair's Jamaica for a festival song winner? 

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