Fare thee well, melody maker John HoltSaturday, November 01, 2014
JOHN Holt, Jamaica's reggae superstar and balladeer extraordinaire, who died in London on October 19 this year at the age of 67, was, without a doubt, one of the best personalities in the Jamaican music industry.
His calm, unobtrusive, yet jovial nature was pleasingly reflected in his stage performances here at home and in the Diaspora, complemented by his extensive catalogue of songs as a solo artiste and member of the legendary native reggae group, The Paragons.
Holt, who was a resident of Greenwich Town in the prime minister's constituency of South Western St Andrew and a convert to the Rastafarian faith in his senior years, emerged -- like many of his contemporaries in the local music industry -- at a time when reggae had to endure some of its harshest criticisms and prejudices from those Jamaicans who preferred to rattle their dentures from behind the walls of plush upper St Andrew homes.
One critic, writing in The Gleaner some 22 years ago (February 27, 1992) summed up this prejudice as follows: "Reggae (and its half-witted offspring dancehall) may rule the roost in Jamaica's musical kingdom...but happily there are enough lovers of more serious music..." No doubt, some Jamaicans still cling to this sentiment.
But the vast majority appreciate that such prejudice is rooted in the ongoing subterranean controversy surrounding the value we place as a society on things created out of the artistic imagination and aesthetic energy of the Jamaican people, especially those from the marginalised dispossessed majority. In case we have forgotten, it wasn't long ago when the old ska and rocksteady and the early reggae were all dismissed as sheer noise and non-music.
For his part, John Holt confronted such prejudices throughout his career with beautiful melodies that had his audiences of men and women, here and throughout the world, literally begging for more whenever he performed. He expressed this struggle of resistance beautifully in the song I'll Take A Melody, written by Allan Toussant:
"I've been called dreamer;
Dream that never will come through,
Well, I've been called so many things before,
Tell you what I'm gonna do.
I'll take a melody and sing what I can do about it."
As the world has come to know through seriously written books, television documentaries, numerous scholarly articles, Grammy awards, song of the century award, and more, out of the noisy pratings of our reggae singers -- to paraphrase the critic -- have come the unquestionable classics of Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Beres Hammond, Dennis Brown, Alton Ellis, Gregory Issacs, Joseph Hill, Marcia Griffiths, Errol Dunkley, Leroy Sibbles, U Roy, Big Youth, Ken Boothe, John Holt, and a
host of others.
The music industry's reputation for ruthlessness, especially surrounding money, never seemed to have affected Holt much. In fact, he was easily one of the most trusting persons I have
For some inexplicable reason, he singled me out to ask a favour a decade ago or more from among a group of fellow reggae artistes -- Ken Boothe, U Roy, and Leroy Sibbles among them -- in the check-in line for a flight to Miami at the Norman Manley International Airport. It was our first and only encounter, and he requested that I deliver an envelope to his daughter in Miami containing US$300. Needless to say, I had never met his daughter before.
Although I agreed to his request, I must confess that throughout the duration of the flight I was baffled by his completely trusting nature -- notwithstanding the fun-filled nature of the journey which led to my discovery that Ken Boothe is a humorist of no mean order, and that U Roy is not terribly fond of flying.
When I finally met John's daughter, I asked her about her father's trusting nature. Her reply was: "That's how he is."
In my estimation, given his temperament, personality and outlook on life, John Holt as a poet of utterance and melody, belting out the travail of urban depression, ghetto dispossession, love, and social harmony, has given to the musical expression of the age ideal, form, and purpose.
Acclaimed musicians the world over now hail composers such as himself as artistes to take seriously, and I am certain that in the decades to come his many songs will still be sung, providing a basis for versions in all modes of musical expression.
John Holt has helped tremendously, along with Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, and others in establishing the triumph of reggae worldwide. No one dares ignore the genre anymore. Walk into any record shop in any city across the globe and you will discover reggae as a full-blown category beside rock and roll, soul, European classical, country and western, and jazz.
By any stretch of the imagination, this is a major achievement by what some would describe as unschooled brats from the Jamaican ghetto, as the Trinidad calypso came from the unschooled brats from the hills of Laventille.
As such, I am extremely happy to know that the music of our beloved John Holt is no less serious to its devotees, like me, than Bizet's Carmen is to those who are enthusiasts of European opera.
But I am unhappy knowing that the State in its reluctance to declare our National Heroes' Park the final resting place for our true-blooded Jamaican singers, poets, performers and players of musical instruments, have not yet settled the issue of a suitable alternative site. For Holt deserves to be interred in the company of our great artistic achievers.
Throughout his life this legendary musician honed his talent to perfection and gave to the world artistic excellence and sanity. And, in doing this, he helped to build ancestral reggae to something of value today in its own right.
Fare thee well, melody maker.
Now you can read the Jamaica Observer ePaper anytime, anywhere. The Jamaica Observer ePaper is available to you at home or at work, and is the same edition as the printed copy available at https://bit.ly/epaper-login