Tuesday 18 December 2012


(We review some books that would make thought-provoking gifts this season.)

Negro With A Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey, by Colin Grant

Reviewed by Patricia Viseur Sellers

The breadth of Colin Grant’s biography of Marcus Garvey will satisfy, intrigue and evoke sighs from the reader. The book’s cover revives the emblematic photograph of Marcus Garvey - stiffly crowned emperor of Harlem - as he presides over the Universal Negro Improvement Association parade in 1920, when adherence to the UNIA neared its apogee.

The framing of the photo, slightly derivative of the nineteenth-century miniature of Toussaint L’Ouverture with plumed “chapeu”, is iconic. Yet, the frozen imagery belies the wearer’s adeptness at navigating the tightrope of the colour line.  

Grant relentlessly recounts Garvey’s evolution, starting with his passages within Jamaica, from St Ann’s Bay and eventually to Kingston.  This internal migration forges the self-taught boy into a young man who becomes not only a printer but also an “elocutionist” for the Jamaican working poor.

Garvey’s re-invention was spurred on first as a timekeeper cum newspaperman at the United Fruit Company and then by his travels to Ecuador, Honduras, Colombia, and Venezuela, where he bore witness to the indignities suffered by Jamaican migrants alongside other Caribbean and Central American blacks, toiling as neo-slaves.

Garvey returned briefly to Jamaica as a “Colon” man, a lauded worker on the Panama Canal, before setting off to England. In London, Garvey the journalist/student experiences the social and metaphysical status of the “black man (who) is both visible and invisible” -  the European negritude life.  The initial constraints of Old World expatriation plunges Garvey into books, such as Edward Wilmot Blyden’s racial exhortations and essays on the mistrust of mixed race Negros, and Booker T. Washington’s treatise, “Up From Slavery”.

Garvey re-emerged as what used to be termed a “race man”, albeit not one pinned to the parochial views of Washington but rather bathed in Pan-Negroism.  This archetypical journey abroad and into Garvey’s own interior expands into a collective calling for racial change and personal recognition when he lands in Harlem, the Mecca, in 1916. There, amid the competing racialist philosophers and firebrands seizing upon the political ripening of the New American Negro(s) freshly seared by World War I, Garvey preaches/beseeches and soon culls his followers-to-be of the UNIA. Grant aptly denotes this period the “second coming of Marcus Garvey”.  

Author Colin Grant in Jamaica
And it was a glorious existence. Political activism caroused with journalism, the arts and religious-like acts aimed at the redemption, improvement and resurrection of the Negro Races.  However, all gallops toward self-realized freedom by the UNIA drew confrontations, denunciations and deceit from several other black organizations, most notably the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.

Grant details the bitter battles between the NAACP’s revered leader, light-skinned intellectually enthroned W E B Dubois, and Garvey who championed his working class, urban and agrarian-based UNIA.  Their philosophical divergences, the UNIA’s Back to Africa program and the NAACP’s political and social integration platform, frequently erupted into public intra-black showdowns. 

If the number of adherents signified the utility and worth of a black liberation philosophy, the UNIA (brimming with its international analysis of racism, especially concerning the New World Negro) won decidedly. However, there existed no neat measuring rods nor finishing lines in these intra-racial struggles for the souls of the Negro, and pithy success was to be discerned by concessions from the outside, non-black, world.

Moreover, the internecine animosity of Negro liberation organizations, and other political movements such as socialism or unionism, fuelled and played into the clutches of the encroaching US governmental surveillance of the UNIA. Garvey was ultimately charged with fraudulent use of the US mail, a federal offense.

Grant charts the UNIA’s demise as a viable commercial enterprise, and Garvey’s demise as its leader through his trial and imprisonment.  The author writes that the imprisoned Garvey lashed out at his black, half-caste tormentors, especially Du Bois, and censured them more than he blamed the inimical racist political constraints of the New World.  

Back to Jamaica but not to Paradise
The third act of Garvey’s life, told briefly, comprises his deportation to Jamaica.  This era is significant because it shows the political gap between the two countries. The UNIA philosophy of return to Africa appealed to US blacks who lived in a nation structured along racial apartheid.  It, however, proved more discordant in a still colonial Jamaica that toiled under a caste and feudal system, administered by appointed British whites.

Broken, Garvey leaves on his final sojourn to England.  This results in no return to glory, nor, more critically, any progression of Garvey’s or the UNIA’s philosophical bases.

Grant honours the reader by granting an unflinching aperture into this devolving, ruminating Garvey, too bound to his world view. It is an oft told tale of third acts. Garvey disdains deep self reflection. His evolution has sputtered then halted. In the aftermath of the Great War, he deftly seized upon former slaves’ seminal yearning for black pride and created an organization that offered a seemingly permanent solution – return to Africa. Two decades later, he remained myopically tethered to its untenable execution.   

As Garvey retakes to the Speakers’ Corner in London, the UNIA’s urging of separation and black colonization of Liberia misreads the new generation of Africans whose priority was European decolonization. He also misreads the American-based race movements’ determined struggle for political enfranchisement.

Colin Grant at a reading in Jamaica
Tellingly and sadly, Garvey, who prophesied the rise of a King from Africa, is stunned by Haille Selassie’s refusal to receive him and is angered, inconsolably, by London liberals’ enchantment with Paul Robeson. Grant’s dense, fact-packed biography, viewed mostly through Garvey’s eyes and personality, occludes Garvey's insistence on his now ill-suited vision of colonisation. Not enough distance is provided for the reader to fully contemplate how Garvey comprehends the political world he inhabits.

Thankfully Grant stopped to direct a word to the reader on that fateful day of the UNIA parade.  Grant observes and avers that if Garvey were the embodiment of a Roman charioted emperor, at the cessation of the roar of the crowds, a dutiful slave would have whispered in his ear, “ Remember you are only human’.   The advice is not necessarily about scornful pride, but possibly about the confines of humanness and human clairvoyance.

Upon concluding the book, one should again glance at the cover to refocus on Garvey’s eyes, not his hat. Those solemn eyes seemingly gaze at the inevitable unfolding of history, some of which he prophesied, even in his flawed way, and some of which may still come to pass as he foresaw.

(Patricia Sellers is an international criminal lawyer.)


Bridges is a remarkable compilation of 45 stories by writers from more than 15 countries, many of whom are renowned internationally, and all of whom have a passion for the short story. Edited by Maurice Lee, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Central Arkansas, the anthology represents diverse cultures and is aimed at a global audience.

Lee says that the anthology began as a “family affair” to support the writers attending the 12th International Conference on the short Story in English that took place in Little Rock, Arkansas, in June of this year. But once he began collecting the stories, Lee realized that the anthology would be “one of a kind”, with writers representing the United States, Caribbean islands, France, China, Indonesia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and other countries.

The stories underline that we are in a “global society, and we now have to become global citizens”, Lee says. He hopes that the book will assist readers in “embracing that reality”, and with such an engaging, wide-ranging collection of stories, his wish just may be fulfilled.

For more information: www.temenospublishing.com.

Black Paris Profiles is an e-book written by Monique Wells, an African-American professional who has lived in Paris for 20 years. The collection of articles provides an up-close and personal view of what life is like for people who have left the United States and the Caribbean to settle in the French capital, with all the challenges of being a "foreigner". 

The book profiles 24 contemporary African-American and Afro-Caribbean expatriates (including SWAN's editor Alecia McKenzie) who have launched and developed careers, started families and shaped lives and communities in France, in their homelands, and in other countries as well. 

So, how do you give an e-book as a present? All you need to do is go to Amazon.com and click on the button that says “Give as a gift” in the box at the top of the right sidebar.  Then, follow the instructions on the gift purchase page.

Wells says that it’s not necessary to own a Kindle device, as free apps are available from Amazon that allow you to read Kindle books on major types of computer, tablet, or smartphone.  You can download the app that you need.


Snapshots from Instanbul, by Jaqueline Bishop, the Twelve-Foot Neon Woman, by Loretta Collins Klobah (see sidebar), and Jubilation!, edited by Kwame Dawes, are just some of the poetry collections we've also enjoyed this year. Check them out at: peepaltreepress.com.

Tuesday 27 November 2012


The acclaimed Panamanian pianist and jazz composer Danilo Pérez has been appointed UNESCO Artist for Peace “in recognition of his efforts to provide outreach music programmes to children living in extreme poverty in Panama and his dedication to the ideals and aims” of the United Nations cultural organization.

The musician, known for his distinctive Pan-American jazz style, has received many awards for his social work in Panama. He is the president of the Danilo Pérez Foundation which provides outreach music programmes to children living in extreme poverty in the country.

Pérez with UNESCO's director-general Irina Bokova
“It’s an incredible honour to be named Artist for Peace, and I take it with a lot of pride,” Pérez told SWAN after giving a lively concert at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris on Nov. 20.

“I’ll do my best to expose youth to the music, the values of the music and what it can teach about how we relate to other people and to our environment,” he added.

Born in Panama in 1965,  Pérez currently directs the Berklee Global Jazz Institute at Berklee College of Music, in Boston, Massachusetts. He has developed an educational curriculum based on what he calls “inter-connective learning”, which allows students to experience and practice ideas linked to social change through music.

Pérez  also serves as the Artistic Director for the Panama Jazz Festival, an annual event that attracts thousands of jazz fans and provides auditions, admissions and scholarships for Latin American music students and professionals. The tenth edition of the Festival takes place January 14-19, 2013, in Panama City.

The jam session
American jazz legend Herbie Hancock, who will be among the performers, has called Pérez one of the “most exciting” pianists of today, and the Panamanian lived up to that billing with his performance in Paris. He did a jam session with local musicians and even got the be-suited officials present to snap their fingers and shout their appreciation.

Pérez draws on his Latin American roots, be-bop, and Caribbean and world music to create his own individual blend. “He’s just great,” said one Mexican staffer who attended the concert.

According to UNESCO, Artists for Peace are “internationally-renowned personalities who use their influence, charisma and prestige to help promote UNESCO’s message and programmes”. The agency works with them in order to “heighten public awareness regarding key development issues” and to inform the public about UNESCO’s action is in these fields.

(Images courtesy of UNESCO)

Friday 23 November 2012


Standing figure
PARIS - Awe and surprise were probably the most common expressions on viewers' faces during the recent opening of “Central Nigeria Unmasked: Arts of the Benue River Valley”, a wide-ranging exhibition that has traveled from the United States to the Quai Branly Museum here.

Through stunning objects, the show takes museum-goers on a “journey” up the 650-mile-long Benue River and introduces the “major artistic genres and styles associated with more than 25 ethnic groups” living along the river’s lower, middle and upper reaches.

The Benue River Valley is an immense region that stretches from the heart of Nigeria to the eastern frontier with Cameroon, and its ethnic groups have long produced remarkable and varied sculptures that collectors have snapped up over time. The current exhibition is derived from both public and private collections in Europe and the United States.

The pieces on display range from objects that look quite post-modern in their abstract forms to sculptures that are so perfectly balanced and intricately designed that they nearly seem to breathe.

Viewers get to admire towering wood statues, maternity figures, helmet masks with “naturalistic human faces”, horizontal masks that seem to fuse human and animal forms, and elaborately forged iron vessels, among other items.

The materials used include wood, metal and ceramic, and all the objects reflect certain meanings and uses. The show makes a point of highlighting community traditions and how current events influenced the pieces produced.

Masks in the exhibition
“Artworks could be made by one group and used by another where meanings might change; stylistic traits could be shared across cultures; and the places where objects were collected may not have been where they were created,” according to the curators.

Some of the most distinctive items in the exhibition are the ceramic artworks from the previously remote upper Benue region. The relative isolation of this area meant that local traditional practices lasted into the late 20th century, and their ceramic vessels served different ritual functions, such as safeguarding hunters and healing the sick.

The curators say that every effort has been made to ensure that the collections were attained by legitimate means, but some viewers will naturally wonder why so many spectacular African works of art “reside” in the West.

“The works of art … displayed in this exhibition were selected with great care and precision by a small group of eminent specialists, who benefited from a lengthy period of intense dialogue and deliberation followed by exhaustive efforts to secure appropriate works of art and to provide documentation,” said Stephane Martin, president of the Quai Branly Museum.

The poster
The exhibition grew out of a special interest by researchers at the Fowler Museum, at the University of California. Marla C. Berns, head of the curatorial team, said the show is a tribute to the work done by art historian Arnold Rubin who did extensive fieldwork in the Benue River Valley in the Sixties and early Seventies.  Rubin wanted to curate a major exhibition but died before he could achieve his dream.

“As Rubin’s literary executor, I had always intended that the project be completed, both as a tribute to him and his groundbreaking scholarship and observations and because I believed, as he did, that the region’s arts were deserving of such comprehensive treatment,” Berns said.

The Fowler Museum first hosted the exhibition in 2011, and since then it has travelled to Washington and Stanford. The Paris show is a result of a partnership between the Quai Branly and the Fowler Museum’s curators.

"Although much remains to be unmasked in our study of the peoples, arts and cultures of Central Nigeria, it is our hope that our efforts to expose new audiences to the artistic wealth of this region will arouse a wider interest and provoke further scholarly investigation," Berns noted.
The exhibition runs until 27 January, 2013.

Wednesday 31 October 2012


Ambassador McNish and the chefs

Lovers of the culinary arts got a treat in October when a “Taste of Jamaica” hit Brussels, Belgium, as part of the celebration of Jamaica's 50th anniversary of independence.

Two of the Caribbean island's top executive chefs, Mark Cole of the Pegasus Hotel and Dennis McIntosh of the Cardiff Hotel and the Spa Runaway Bay, brought their gastronomic expertise to the Belgian capital from October 15-19, Jamaican Heritage Week.

The chefs served up dishes such as “sun kissed scallion potato and codfish cake”, “Fe weh” Walkers Wood jerk pork loin with pineapple chutney and plantains, and St. Mary’s pineapple bread pudding with aged Appleton Rum and sorrel sauce. The names alone were enough to delight patrons at the BE Restaurant at the 5-star Sofitel Hotel in Brussels. Jamaica’s famous Blue Mountain Coffee naturally topped off the memorable meals.

The week-long event was launched on October 15 at a reception hosted by Jamaica’s Ambassador to Belgium and Head of Mission to the European Union, Ambassador Vilma McNish. The food fiesta was one of several cultural events around the world commemorating Jamaica’s independence from Britain in 1962.

The Jamaica Tourist Board, the JAMPRO trade and investment organization, the Jamaica Cultural Development Corporation and Walkerswood Caribbean Foods collaborated with the Embassy in organizing the event.

Wednesday 26 September 2012


A viewer examines a ceramic panel.
PARIS – The Louvre Museum has opened a dazzling new Islamic art section that has been drawing crowds in Paris this week.

The project, which cost nearly 100 million euros and took 11 years to complete, includes priceless artifacts from the 7th to the 19th century. It takes museum-goers on a chronological journey through Islamic art at a time of increased religious tension in the world.

“It’s a very rich collection,” said art historian Agnieszka Kluczewska Wojcik, who viewed the exhibits after the public opening on Sept. 22.

The museum poster
“The museum has done a good job of bringing things together and giving good explanations,” she told SWAN. “There seems to be a kind of competition on now with different museums showcasing Islamic art, and this opening comes at an interesting time with everything that's happening at the moment.”

(The launch was partly overshadowed by media focus on several mocking cartoons published in a French satirical magazine, which added to the furore surrounding an anti-Islam film.)

Wojcik said that the Louvre’s new department could be compared with the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Islamic art collection in London, which comprises more than 19,000 objects from the Middle East and North Africa.

Some of the ceramic items on display.
At the Louvre, the 18,000 or so artifacts represent regions ranging from Spain to India, with some of the most stunning pieces dating from the former Islamic civilization in southern Europe. Iran and Turkey also account for many of the impressive pottery objects on show.

The Louvre’s executive director, Henri Loyrette, said the new wing is a "dream come true" for the museum, which has one of the “most beautiful collections of Islamic art”. He said that creating the new space and integrating the previously scattered collection was an “architectural and cultural challenge”. The Louvre met the challenge by converting one of its courtyards into the Islamic art department.

Architects Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti designed a gauzy, undulating glass-and-metal roof that somehow evokes the feeling of being in a vast tent in the desert or being sheltered by a huge veil. This roof covers the upper, ground-floor level of the space, while the subterranean level is more in line with a conventional museum. Here, carpets, ceramic objects, ornately carved doors and other exhibits are displayed in spacious halls.

Carpets from Islamic countries form part of the collection.
The curators hope that the new wing will promote dialogue and also shine a light on little known aspects of Islamic art. For the next ten months, they have scheduled a series of debates and cultural events around the collection.

Acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk and Lebanese artist Walid Raad are some of the featured speakers who will “illustrate Islam’s diversity”, according to the Louvre. - A.M.

Friday 20 July 2012


Hailee Araya performing in Sweden
The city of Lund in Sweden may seem an unusual place to launch a record titled “Diaspora Blues”, but that’s the town Hailee Araya calls home.

The young Swedish singer has another ancestral home, however - Ethiopia - and her second single is a tribute to Africa and to those of African descent living around the world.

Released this week, “Diaspora Blues” is a song about “love and respect” for Africa, Araya told SWAN.

“I wrote Diaspora Blues with my mother, and it was a way for me to express my passion for Africa,” Araya says. “It shows how much I respect what Africa has survived and gone through. When you grow up in Europe, sometimes it’s not the easiest thing to claim your heritage and show how much you’re proud of it, but I want to do that with my music.”

The 23-year-old singer says that there are so many distractions for people of her generation that it’s sometimes hard to cut through the noise.

“There’s a great deal of pressure to deliver and be quick for people of my age, but we’re still looking for meaningful things,” Araya says. “There’s a lot I want to say in my songs, and if I can give something that people can dance to as well, that is what makes me happy.”

She is already attracting an audience. As the opening act for Stephen Marley in Sweden, on his recent European tour (see article below), she was pleased that many of the spectators knew her songs and could sing along.

Stephen Marley and Hailee
Araya says she is drawn to reggae because she grew up listening to it, and the music does infuse what she has produced to date. But the album she is currently working on will include Ethio-jazz and R&B, with lyrics that relate stories of the African diaspora.

She grew up hearing these stories from her mother and manager Rahel Haile who fled to Sweden in 1980 after the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie. Rahel told SWAN that she, like many children, was detained at the age of 9 in a community prison just because she was part of a neighbourhood children's football team.

“Times were very turbulent because of the massive killing and terrorising of the Ethiopian people,” Rahel said. “So all who could send their children out did - most to the USA and other English-speaking countries but some to Europe, like me.”

Rahel adapted to Sweden and gave birth to Hailee in Lund on Ethiopian Christmas Eve in 1989, naming her daughter Deborah Araya. Hailee eventually assumed her current artist name by adding an additional “e” to her grandfather’s first name of Haile.

Opening at the Marley show
“I made sure that both my children can speak their language and understand their culture while they also respect and perform well in the country that they were born and raised in, which is Sweden,” Rahel told SWAN.

“I am myself a Pan Africanist and try to make sure that my children understand and respect what people of African descent have gone through and what our continent has gone trough and not be bitter and angry but engage in any way they can to uplift and work and contribute,” she added.

Rahel moved back to Ethiopia when Hailee was 6 years old, and they lived there for four years before returning to Europe. The experience helped Hailee to develop her Amharic language skills and also to gain an appreciation of her ancestral culture, which the singer says she draws on for her music.

“My background and my heritage form who I am as a singer,” she says. “My mother always told me and my brother that if you don’t know where you’re coming from, you can’t get to where you want to go.”

Saturday 7 July 2012


Stephen Marley in concert in Paris
PARIS - The audience may have come partly for the songs of his father, but Stephen Marley did not seem to mind when he performed at a sold-out show in Paris this week. In fact, Bob Marley’s second son sang his father’s greatest hits with pride, as a tribute to the late reggae icon.

Stephen even brought his own son, Jo Mersa, out on stage to join him on songs such as “Could You Be Loved” and “Redemption Song”. The well-known melodies got some of the biggest cheers from the young and diverse crowd, who sang enthusiastically along and waved their arms (and lighters) in the air.

Stephen - a singer, producer, songwriter and talented musician in his own right - mixed the famous Marley standards with material from his Grammy-winning album Revelation Part 1: The Root of Life, for a memorable concert. The audience grooved to “Made in Africa”, “Now I Know” and the very infectious “The Chapel” (sample lyrics: “take your troubles to Selassie, he’s the only king of kings”).

The Paris show was part of a nine-week European tour, as Stephen takes on the responsibility of promoting what many consider to be the best aspects of roots reggae -  the conscious lyrics and mellow, uplifting beats. In an informal interview after the show, he talked with SWAN’s Alecia McKenzie about the music, the message and the motivation.

McKenzie: What is it like performing in France?
Marley: It’s wonderful to be in France. It’s always nice because France has embraced reggae music from my father’s time. It’s really great to be here.

McKenzie: You performed at Reggae Sun Ska (an annual festival near Bordeaux) last year with your brothers. How was that?
Marley: Great vibes. Wonderful vibes. It was a very diverse crowd and it was great to see the different cultures all coming together.

McKenzie: Let’s talk about the “Marley” documentary, which is currently in cinemas in Europe. What do you think of it?
Marley: Great. (Long pause.) What you want me to say?

McKenzie: Well, is this a “correct” picture of your father?
Marley: A correct picture? I’m a man myself. I have many moods. There are different tears to me, and different sides of me. It’s not just what you see on the stage. So, that’s a part of Bob that you’re seeing. You can’t depict Bob in two hours, or an hour and twenty minutes. Take what you want to take from it. What you didn’t know, you learn. If you never know that, then you learn that. That’s Bob, you know what I mean.

The cover of "Revelation Part 1"
McKenzie: Yes. All right. You won a Grammy for the latest album Revelation Part 1. Congratulations. You’re going to do a follow up?
Marley: Yes, Part 2. We were in the studio last night working on it 

McKenzie: When is it scheduled to be released?
Marley: It’s like a tree, you know. It’s growing, and it’s blossoming, but it’s not ready as yet.

McKenzie: Some of the songs that you performed tonight were very personal …
Marley: All of them.

McKenzie: That continues on the next album?
Marley: Well, this was Part 1: The Root of Life, like the root of a tree. Part 2 is called the Fruit of Life, and we’re talking about how the tree blossoms, and the different colours of the fruit and leaves. So Part 2 is more of an eclectic album. It’s building on the foundations.

McKenzie: You asked the audience if they loved reggae music and they screamed yes. But reggae music is not just Jamaican anymore, it’s global now, with a lot of African musicians, for instance. How do you see this – as competition or as positive development?
Marley: Yeah, man, it’s positive. The Bible tell you … Jah say that if who him choose don’t deal with it, him shall cast stones. So that’s how it’s supposed to be. We who come from the root have to realize that it’s not just us.  So we must maintain the integrity and the essence of where it’s coming from so that the music can be respected at all times. We have to know what we doing as the root. It’s great to see our branches and to come to Paris and to be able to play in front of a diverse audience, with Jamaicans in it too. Yeah, man. A great thing, man.

Marley: "You don't have to have music that degrades."
McKenzie: Okay, so that leads me to the question - what do you think about dancehall music, especially as regards women?
Marley: Oh bwoy! (Takes deep breath.) Well, first of all, dancehall music was always around. It’s a deep part of Jamaican culture. I remember being around my father and seeing Big Youth coming into Hope Road. I also remember Dillinger at Hope Road talking with Bob. So even my father was a great fan of the toasting, you know, the ability to rhyme lyrics and put it together pon a dub. It was great, man. So dancehall is a big part of our heritage. It used to be the voice of the people, it used to be about rebelling against certain things and about the integrity of who we are as Jamaicans, as a struggling people, as a Third World country plagued by politics.

Now, the question is what I think about dancehall. I don’t agree with things that don’t uplift you. Is empty barrel make the most noise, dem say. So all of dem that you see jumping up and a-go on, making the most noise. Is empty barrel that, man, and you confuse the people. I don’t say we mustn’t have fun, or that there mustn’t be fun songs. You must still have simple songs, good songs that make you want to dance and feel good, and don’t have to think bout nothing. But you don’t have to have songs that degrade one.  I don’t agree with it. Woman is the mother of creation. Could not be here without you, Mummy. Man can’t do that, see it? So, all honour to the woman.

Marley with son Jo Mersa (right)
McKenzie: Thanks! Final question. This has been a hectic tour, going from city to city with a concert nearly every day. It hasn’t been too tiring for you?
Marley: I feel good! Some days are better than some. But this is what we signed on for. This is why we are here. So we have no complaints. It’s wonderful to be able to say “the tour is hectic” versus “bwoy, we can’t get enough shows”. So, we’re privileged.

(Copyright SWAN 2012. Thanks to Nicole Webley for technical assistance.)

Monday 2 July 2012


The cover of Melissa James' debut album
British singer-songwriter Melissa James has released a jazzy, insightful debut album, Day Dawns, that is sure to go places.

James, whose parents hailed from St. Kitts, said she grew up around music and always wanted to be a singer, but her family's definition of "real work" made a career in music seem like a dream.

"For my parents, life was tough when they immigrated to England, and so they wanted to push their children into directions where they would have a good solid career," James told SWAN in an interview. "From an early age, I felt that singing wasn't an option. But it was always a secret passion, and in fact, my Dad himself loved singing."

After working in various sectors, such as communications, James finally decided that she had to follow her heart; Day Dawns is the laudable result, with songs that fuse James' love of blues, folk, jazz and soul.

"The album is my life," she says. "I've drawn on different experiences, things that have happened over time. It's what I know and what I've seen."

Stand-out tracks include "Don't You Keep Yourself Down" and "Long Road Travelled" - with self-penned lyrics and snappy arrangements created with music partner Ross Lorraine. Each song seems to have a message for listeners, and James’ strong, expressive voice will delight most audiences.

The album's talented musicians also complement James' passionate style.  On “You Make Me Feel Good”, Larry Bartley’s simple but infectious bass rhythms provide a perfect back-up, for instance

James says she is looking forward to taking the songs on the road, and she has several gigs lined up this summer. For listings, check: http://melissa-james.com/

Thursday 28 June 2012


The backdrop of the Calabash Literary Festival
After a one-year break to take its bearings, Jamaica's Calabash International Literary Festival has returned bigger than ever.

Calabash - according to many of the writers, musicians and artists who took part in May - is a fiesta like no other. The combination of literature, music, visual arts and spoken word performances puts the festival in a category of its own.

When one stirs in the spectacular scenery of Jamaica’s southern coast, and the fashionable and welcoming audience, it’s easy to see why attending Calabash is an unforgettable experience. This year, to top things off, the three-day festival was part of the official celebration of Jamaica’s 50th anniversary of independence from Britain.

“Just the number of people listening to you as you read is amazing,” said American writer Victor LaValle, who entertained the audience with lively excerpts from his latest novel. “I’ve never been to any literary festival like this before.”

Victor LaValle
LaValle was one of the international stars at this year’s event, but the festival also played host to many renowned members of Jamaica’s literary diaspora. From the United States came a veritable posse, including famed writer and sociologist Orlando Patterson, innovative novelists Patricia Powell and Marcia Douglas, and the talented and personable poet Shara McCallum.

From Canada, the celebrated multi-genre writer Olive Senior read from her new novel Dancing Lessons, while novelist Garfield Ellis provided an earthy (some said "bawdy") taste of life abroad. From England, author and journalist Colin Grant amused his listeners with tales of trying to track down Bunny Wailer for his book about reggae’s most famous band, and first-time novelist Kerry Young cracked everyone up with her brilliant and energetic reading of Pao.

From her current journalism base in France, writer Alecia McKenzie (SWAN’s editor), returned home to read from her novel Sweetheart, which won the regional 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize.

Kwame Dawes and Justine Henzell
wave goodbye at Calabash's end.
"It was such a joy to bring overseas-based Jamaican writers home to join the celebration for Jamaica's 50th anniversary - the perfect way to expand the Calabash family,” said filmmaker and festival co-director Justine Henzell.

“Sometimes Jamaica's amazing literary talent can get overshadowed by our musical counterparts and this was a chance to shine the light on our wordsmiths," she added.

But as in previous years, music was also an integral part of Calabash 2012. Jamaican reggae icon Ibo Cooper jammed with other musicians on a run-through of 50 years of Jamaican music, while South African MC The Admiral was also on hand with rhythms pounding into the second night of the festival.

Earlier that day, The Admiral’s father – freedom fighter Ronnie Kasrils – had given a moving and inspiring talk about South Africa’s liberation struggle, an account that for many people was one of the highlights of the festival.

On the third and final day, another notable session was hosted by Jacqueline Bishop in which author-artists spoke about the inspiration and motivation for their different genres. Bishop, a university lecturer, writer and artist, brought together writer/painters Earl McKenzie and Ralph Thompson for a memorable exhibition and discussion.

Artist-writers at Calabash, with Bishop (second from right)
“If there was a year that I was glad to be invited to Calabash, it was this year,” Bishop told SWAN. “Some of my favorite people were there, so Calabash came to mean a reaffirmation of community for me. I was glad to celebrate Alecia McKenzie’s Commonwealth prize win for her book Sweetheart. I was delighted to hang out with other writers not on the program, such as Sharon Leach and Diana McCaulay, who, incidentally, won a Commonwealth regional prize this year as well, in the short story category." 

Bishop and other writers also took part in a boat ride organized by Jakes Hotel, the festival’s wonderful hosts; and seeing the extraordinary scenery of the protected areas around Black River will no doubt inspire poetry and art for years to come.

That boat trip, along with the welcome and farewell dinners, and just exchanging jokes with fellow writers (such as the incredibly chic 70-something Velma Pollard, and good-humoured Puerto Rican poet Loretta Collins Klobah) were the elements that made Calabash 2012 particularly special. Also heart-warming was the presence of friends who had come from near and far to support the participants.

University lecturer and writer Carolyn Cooper
Throughout it all, the sessions moved smoothly along, thanks to the composure and wit of renowned author and festival programmer Kwame Dawes, and also of  “don’t mess with me” scholar Carolyn Cooper, who marshaled the talent of the open-mic poets.

“Calabash lights a fire in your heart for the arts,” said New York-based Jamaican broadcaster Francine Chin, who covered the event. "I can't wait for the next one."