Your favourite festival song?
INDEPENDENCE celebrations have come and gone. A perennial question returns. Why are festival songs of yesteryear seemingly so much better than most recent winners? Is this a perfect, or at least a good “ponder”, as Toots and the Maytals would have asked.
Some of the old hits have formulaic touches, but still bring old hands to our feet (Bam Bam, Baba Boom Boom, and Boom Shakalaka come to mind). It may be that we prefer oldies because they came out in the early flush of Independence and reflected early joy and enthusiasm, but it could also be that success in the Jamaica Festival Song Competition meant more to entertainers in the past, inspiring high-class entries.
This year’s winner, Donald “Slashe” Anderson’s Best in the World faced good competition, and the quality of entrants was reasonably high. The target for the Government of Jamaica should be to restore festival song popularity to its old-time standing, even though there are many alternatives to festival song enjoyment these days.
Cherry Oh Baby
A second perennial question: which is the best festival song ever? My ranking, pace the experts, is: (1) Cherry Oh Baby, (2) Land of My Birth and (3) No Weh No Bettah Than Yard. But there are qualifications.
Eric Donaldson’s Cherry Oh Baby is so beautiful, melodic and rhythmic it prompted even my favourite (conservative) primary school teacher to shake a leg at Hope Gardens on a group trip in August 1971. It was spell-binding. And yet, it is subject to the criticism that it, as a tribute to Cherry, ostensibly has nothing to do with Independence, Festival or Jamaican progress.
Land of my Birth
Land of my Birth (1978), also by Donaldson, captures your attention from the first “Ooh, ooh, ooh” and takes you, roller coaster style, across the landscape of patriotic fervour associated with Jamrock. It is inspirational to many. The problem, though, is that Land of my Birth is built on a nativist assumption that suggests that persons “born ya” instinctively have a stronger love for Jamaica than everyone else.
Why is paramountcy to be given to place of birth in our culture? There are loyal Jamaicans — born abroad — who have exhibited unsurpassed love for the country. Are we alienating them by glorifying the birthright? We should want cricketer George Headley, Gleaner editor Theodore Sealy, Minister Dudley Thompson, and Prime Minister Seaga to be fully unified with us even though this is not their birthplace. Not to mention some successful Reggae Boyz and Girlz.
Also, as we would not wish Jamaican-born persons in the Diaspora to be alienated overseas by virtue of their place of birth, we should be careful not to do the same to foreign-born persons who are now Jamaicans. To be frank, then, Land of my Birth slips in my ranking because, despite the rhythmic power, the lyrics tend to disregard Jamaica’s internationalist outlook.
No Weh No Better than Yard (1981) is more universalistic than Land of my Birth and it captures a sentiment held by many Jamaicans. It is also a catchy tune, delivered with gusto, which rises to a crescendo at the point of its key message about the “Yard”.
Arguably, though, “Yard” has not penetrated the Jamaican psyche to the same extent as my first two selections, “Cherry” and “Birth”. This may be because Yard seems on the face of things to be counter-intuitive or to assume facts about Jamaica that are not in evidence. In short, many Jamaicans — even those rocking to Tinga Stewart’s beat — firmly believe that there are places in the world that may, overall, be better than “yard”.
As the basis for motivation, or to borrow an old phrase, “national mobilisation”, No Weh No Better than Yard has its place, but the queues outside the US Embassy and the applications for Canadian visas do not tell the same story about national sentiment that Tinga Stewart does.
So, that’s it: Even our best and most brilliant festival songs are not perfect. But while we are still on this subject, do you have a list of the best festival songs that did not win the Jamaica Festival Song Competition? I have two in mind: (1) Move Up by Al & The Vibrators in 1967 and (2) Chiquitita by Clive “Snow Ball” Brown.
Move Up came third behind BaBa Boom by the Jamaicans and Unity by Desmond Dekker and the Aces. It was probably the most popular song of the year, and its lyrics were inspirational to many — politically it enthusiastically embraced The Whig Interpretation of History before we got jaded.
Chiquitita is another story. In 1994 it came in behind Stanley and the Turbines’ Dem a Pollute. Dem a Pollute delivered an important message to the community and carried Stanley’s famous mento beat — it was a popular selection. But, oh my, Chiquitita was just unique. It was sung by a squeaky-voiced Brown who delighted television viewers and crowds with an unusual dancing style. The lyrics were not outstanding — and like Cherry Oh Baby it was an all-purpose love song — but it captured mass attention. You had to laugh as you rocked to Snow Ball.
Ambassador Stephen Vasciannie is professor of international law at The University of the West Indies, Mona.