Boom boom! Thump thump! Amplified screeches, wails and shouts fill the air.
Jamaica is a noisy country, I think most of us would agree. But the noise is not that of production – machines whirring, factories under construction, people hurrying to and from work.
No, this is the sound of revelry; the clamor of partying. And we take our fun seriously.
I know – you are going to accuse me of being “miserable” – in Jamaican parlance, a killjoy, a wet blanket. But I like parties, too! I have a loud voice, my father often told me (he who had an even louder one). I like music; my dancing skills are barely adequate, but I try. And having grown up on a diet of rock music (I once went to a Led Zeppelin concert and my ears rang for a week afterwards) I do know what loud music is all about. But I don’t recall it being inflicted on the entire neighborhood, much. The music festivals I attended were usually in a muddy field with inadequate sanitary arrangements, miles from anywhere; and the concerts were in cavern-like town halls and old converted cinemas, even warehouses.
But hey, “It’s our culture,” I hear you cry. Yes, and other cultures have their festivals and celebrations, too. The Carnival of Venice, for example, dates back to the twelfth century. New Orleans has its Mardi Gras. When I was in Japan, I discovered all sorts of odd little festivals (omatsuri) – there was one in every small town and in fact one at every shrine, too. Never a dull moment. But let’s keep it in proportion, shall we? In Jamaica, it has become an obsession.
And I do know it to be true that Jamaica has far more to offer in terms of culture than braying into microphones at all hours of the day and night, consuming large amounts of alcohol and marijuana, and standing around dressed up to the nines in short shorts.
This is all replicated on our local television sets daily, by the way. The two major local stations believe that their demographic in prime time (holidays, weekends, evenings) is primarily aged fourteen to twenty-four years (maybe older), with an insatiable appetite for dancehall music. I suppose the videos of women with gyrating backsides must come cheap, along with the lame re-runs of eighties/nineties American network series I have never heard of. Jamaicans not in this niche audience need to find something else. Thank God for cable television.
Another argument goes something like this: Well, poor people – they don’t have anything else in their lives. They need something to relieve the stress (how patronizing is that!) So let them inflict a cacophony of noise until five in the morning on the rest of the populace – the sick, the elderly and people who are just tired and need their sleep.
I’d suggest that one way of relieving the stress of our urban (and rural) poor might be to offer them decent job opportunities – work! Then they would have to get to bed earlier so they could get up in time to go to their place of employment. How about that? Similarly, we are told that these dances (where, if you are lucky, two or three people actually dance and the others stand around and watch) generate income for the community. People sell stuff (local drug dealers included) and they depend on these parties for their income. But these are mostly hustling; again, if they had an actual job to go to… etc, etc.
Having said that, partying does seem to be big business in Jamaica – along with the security industry (armed guards, ferocious dogs etc) and funeral homes. You can’t go wrong. “Promoters” have clout – even with politicians and the police. Politicians and police often support the promoters of noise. And it is by no means a “working class” phenomenon – although that is the wrong euphemism really, as they mostly aren’t working. The middle-class embrace the partying whole-heartedly. Academics praise it as if it is some hallowed space, wherein meaningful social interactions take place. I suppose that is the men rubbing their hips up against women’s hips part; or the fights over who steps on who’s toe, or who has stolen who’s girlfriend/boyfriend. And the middle classes love to have their photo in the newspaper – on the ubiquitous, daily “social pages.” They pretend to be embarrassed when they appear on those pages of partygoers, but they are not, really. It shows they are serious party people.
Partying is cool, and don’t you dare say anything different, or it insults our culture. The noise must go on, no matter what. It is sacrosanct.
It seems some of our visitors aren’t so keen, though. A small hotelier in Negril interviewed on television (with a loud thumping noise in the background) said his guests frequently complain about the non-stop noise in that tourist resort. Whenever they complain to the tour operator, the operator has to compensate the guest, and then deducts money from his payment to the hotel. So he, a Jamaican small business owner, is actually losing money because of noise.
But, I am told, why should tourists expect special treatment? Well, tourism is still our biggest earner of foreign exchange, last time I checked; and there is currently a reported shortage in that department. We sure aren’t exporting anything much, although we try. Whether we like it or not, we do depend on the tourists’ approval.
Well, if they don’t like noise they can go to one of those little quiet islands, I am told; Jamaica is the fun island. Yes, they can; and they likely will after several sleepless nights in a row, taking their dollars and euros with them. Can we remind ourselves that these tourists are mostly working people who like to sunbathe, read a book on their lounger in the sun (yes, you have seen them), take a dip in the sea and eat and sleep a lot. They are tired and stressed and want to rest and relax. Constant noise is not relaxing?
But, don’t these tourists come here for the exciting fun of “Brand Jamaica”? Most of them, the small hotelier asserts, do not go to local dances/parties – 99 per cent of the revelers are locals. If we do only want the fun-and-excitement-loving tourists, then we could abandon the hard-working ones with lots of foreign currency in their pockets. We could seek to attract more of the travelers who think Jamaica is some kind of ganja heaven; and that sex with a “rent-a-dread” is somehow more thrilling than with dull, pale-skinned boys at home (my apologies to the Rastafarian brethren and sistren who may be reading this – I am talking about those fake ones that we know so well).
Talking of “Brand Jamaica” (a phrase that government tourism officials are very fond of, but the rest of us are uncertain what it actually is)… We do, of course, have our very own Minister of Partying. He is the Hon. Damian Crawford, who is State Minister in the Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment, with responsibility for the Entertainment part. Well, he is young, has a nice big smile and dreadlocks. I like Damian. And he is certainly having lots of fun in his job, while working to make changes to the Noise Abatement Act. There is no abating likely any time soon. The reverse, I am afraid, is lurking on the horizon.
So I would recommend to tourists who don’t want their eardrums assaulted that they avoid populated areas and especially, the coastline. Where there is a beach, there is noise.
Perhaps the worst thing about the partying is that it is all so mindlessly boring. It is all the same, over and over again. The same jumping up and down, drinking out of plastic cups, displaying of one’s body parts. It builds to a frenzy around public holidays; this is the noisiest Easter weekend we have had for some time. There’s Christmas, and then there’s the entire summer… and so on. But it is all the same. If you have been to one of these parties, you have been to them all.
I have also been told that this is part of our “creative industries.” Well, how about doing something really creative, really different. Let’s educate our people, and provide jobs for them.
Then, on their days off, they can party to their hearts’ content, and with money in their pockets.