Johnnie Walker and The Disappointers


A Love Affair with Portland…Not me!

For as long as I’ve known him, H has loved the parish of Portland in Jamaica. My dad too… as a young army officer back in the 60’s when he first came to Jamaica from Grenada, he said he used to go to Portland at any chance he got. Portland reminded him of Grenada, he said. Having lived in Grenada for a bit during my childhood, I understand where he is coming from.  Portland is green, rain-foresty, hilly, humid and has beautiful beaches. My attitude towards Portland though has always been “I can take it or leave it.” Meh. And I had a particularly bad experience when we were just married and had spent a weekend at Goblin Hill. I got the worst ever case of gastroenteritis that put me out of commission, and painfully so for a whole week! I suspect there was an unconscious coupling of Portland with gastro in my mind that didn’t create any yearning within for that parish.

Ambassabeth, Winnifred and Me

So when H announced that he wants to retire there, I pushed back with: “Enjoy! Yuh nah carry me out deh fi drop dead!”. He knew better than to push back. Think Eminem’s line: “…when a tornado meets a volcano…” But he’s also very smart. I have to believe that he hatched a plan to make me fall in love with Portland. It started with him organising a weekend at Ambasabeth cabins in the John Crow Mountains. He KNOWS  that I live for drive outs…anywhere…and that it was somewhere new, in the hills, he had to know that I’d jump at the chance to go. What I didn’t bargain for was a weekend that did more than provide an opportunity to live like a pioneer (sort of) and walk some historic trails.

A cabin at Ambassabeth

In retrospect I can see him smiling smugly and pumping his internal fist when I waxed warm for MONTHS after that weekend about how struck I was by the community that we became part of for those few days. Part Next of his plan included repeat visits to Frenchman’s Cove beach. I am an unrepentant beach baby. My soul re-centers and I feel all the cares of the world slip away, like a shirt slipping off my shoulders with each lap of the waves, each gentle gust of sea breeze… or is that the rum? Whatever! I live for the beach. And Frenchman’s Cove, with its beautiful garden setting, its pristine, blue river with white sandy bottom (not dark and pebbly like other rivers) undulating lazily into the small bay that is Frenchman’s Cove is how I imagine the Garden of Eden.

The river at Frenchman’s Cove

The last visit there was with family and friends and we reluctantly dragged ourselves back to Kingston after a perfect day,but not before I snapped this sunset.

Portand Sunset
I think this marked my turning point. He didn’t have to do much convincing to get me back there a mere 3 days later.  “Just a drive out, me and you alone…” was all he had to say. Hook. Line. Sinker. 
I don’t think even he could have planned what happened next. We ended up, not part of the script at all, at Winifred Beach…. the last piece of beach out of the control of the UDC. I was in for yet another encounter with the people of Portland that would impact me in a very powerful way.  Both the Ambassabeth and Winnifred experiences inspired this article.
Paradise aka Winnifred Beach

A change of Heart
So now I no longer scoff when he reverently and lovingly speaks of Portland. I’m falling in love with her too.  There’s something about Portlanders, be they Maroons or regular folk. They are open, pleasant, independent and friendly. They don’t hustle you, they certainly don’t beg, they don’t wait on government and they have an easy vibe and an apparent ability to self-manage. They are possessed of the traits needed in communities around this island if we are ever to make this rotten, corrupt leadership that we have at the national level redundant and truly answerable to us. I’m serious. 
At his (brilliant!) suggestion, we left the kids at home and just headed east, to Portland. We trampoosed in the hills above St. Margaret’s Bay and enjoyed the magnificent views of the Rio Grande emptying itself into the Caribbean Sea below. We descended and continued to drive east…past San San, past Boston and into Long Bay. The rough emerald sea there always calms me down. We climbed the highlands looking down into that area. How amazingly beautiful! Reluctantly we eventually headed back the way we came, but there was a not-so-short detour up into Nonsuch.  How did we end up there…hmmm… 
How we ended up in Nonsuch that #SundayinPortland

H had come across this bass guitar tutorial video by Devon Bradshaw on YouTube. He actually persuaded me to watch it with him, so taken was he with the magic that is the bass guitar in reggae music. He went on to explain to me that this video was one of about 15 short vignettes on YouTube on the Reggae in The Ruff channel. He was utterly taken by what he saw there and tried to tell me about it. What I heard was that H was impressed with a group of Rasta men up in hills and bush of Portland, in a district called Nonsuch (I had at one time heard of Nonsuch Caves…never been though) that lived off the land and created reggae music. I asked him if they were like the Jolly Boys. I had seen the Jolly Boys live before and I enjoyed them. He was at pains to describe his impression of the music coming from these men at Nonsuch: 

“It’s like mento, but with more soul.”  

In trying to drum up some interest within I said: 
“Rasta men, in the bush must mean ital food. Find out where they are and let’s go eat up some good ital food.”  Me: forever keeping it 100. Yup. Mi nuh buisness wid no box bass strumming and roots and culture chanting. Me want food. 

So on this excursion sans children, H decided to find these men… Johnnie Walker and the Disappointers was what he told me their name was. I was skeptical. I had never heard of them. Did ER even feature them? Not that I know of. But hey…I wasn’t driving, I had nothing to do but to be present on the drive and it was all good with me! So he located the turn-off to Nonsuch and proceeded up into the hills. He stopped to confirm that we were on the right track with a man working on his car on the side of the road.

“Yean Man. Dis a di way. Just gwaan drive straight up. Yeah man, mi know Johnnie Walker dem. But it far enuh!!” 

HUH? When country people tell you that somewhere is far, BELIEVE THEM! Their standard response is “Naw man…just roun’ di corner!”

I saw H hesitate, but before he could chicken out, the same man said “See da cyar deh ? Follow it. Dem a go straight a Nonsuch. Dem know where fi find Johnnie”  Too. Damned. late. In for a penny, in for a pound. So we drove. We drove some more. And still we drove some more. The silence in the vehicle was punctuated only two times with H declaring: “Mi ah go turn back now”.  I must confess that I found his discomfort amusing, and so I did what any supportive wife would do: I egged him on! H is a very self-contained, self-sufficient, in-control man, that hates uncertainty. So seeing him out of his comfort zone by not knowing where he was going or when he would get there was not something I was ready to see come to an end. 
“But you’ve come so far already. We can’t turn back now. Plus look how beautiful this country is. Drive on! You have gas? Good. Mek wi drive!”

Johnnie Walker and the Disappointers

Finally, the car in front stopped and a Rasta man alighted. A wah dis fadda, I asked myself. He came up to the car with a broad smile and said: “Dis ah where I turn off. But go straight up. You wi find Johnnie.” This is where it gets good. I saw H’s face transform into a smile: 
“You ah Far I?” 

The man replied smiling: “Yes I. A mi dem call Far I.” 

Well H tun Rasta pon me same time. He did that salutation where you make a fist and thump your chest, bowed his head, and with a look of pure reverence on his face said: “Is an honour, My Lord.”
Mi Mumma! Mi nearly faint. But I held it together and looked on as if this was a side of my husband that I saw every day. I shook Far I’s hand and went along with what was unfolding before me. It wasn’t hard to feign amazement. You see, I was indeed amazed. Not with Far I… I didn’t know him from Adam, but who was this man driving me and where was H? He told us where to find Johnnie and we set off up the road again. H explained to me that he was the Disappointer that did the ital cooking according to the videos that he had seen. Shucks. There went my dreams of sharing in a communal ital pot with the Rastas. There was no way he could cook in time for us to eat and return to Kingston at a reasonable hour. Cho.

We stopped every time we saw a human to confirm that we were en route to see Johnnie Walker and the other Disappointers. They all smiled. They all knew him. They all reassured us to keep going. “Johnie up deh, Man.”  By this time, H is leaning forward with a look  of expectancy on his face. Then it happened again.

We stopped to ask yet another person if we were on the right track. Yes, yes, yes. In fact, you just passed Johnnie down ah di shop. Just down deh so. There was that smile appearing on H’s face again:

“A you dem call Cultural, don’t”

And so began again, the whole greeting, chest thumping, steepling of the fingers, head bowing and respect being given and received. Seriously. It was a genuine gesture of joy and respect coming from H and it was returned by Mr. Cultural. Even I joined in. I sure did. I had to. It was the only natural thing to do in response to the respect being given and received.

We turned the vehicle around and came face to face with Johnnie himself.

“Rahtid! Johnnie lose a leg?” This was H’s exclamation as he saw an old, thin Rasta man making his way up the road on crutches, concern mixed with excitement on H’s face. In replaying in my mind what happened in Nonsuch, the only analogy that I can come up with to try to explain and describe H’s reaction to seeing Johnnie and the Disappointers in the flesh is this: He was reacting how I would react were I to come face to face with Michael Jackson. I sat up and started paying attention. H is not by nature a hero worshipper. He doesn’t gush or fawn. Ever.

He got out of the vehicle and warmly shook Johnnie’s hand. He explained to Johnnie (and by default to me too!… ’cause up until then I didn’t realise just how taken with and impressed by Johnnie and his group he really was) how he had really connected with his music: the soul of it, his lyrics, what he stood for  and represented. He went on to state how his wife wanted ital food (mi shame bad when he outed me and my wanga gut ways) and how he really wanted to meet him. 

Johnnie laughed and said: “You come in like you is one of mi fans!” 
But this was not said with a hint of arrogance. It was more a grateful acknowledgement, a happiness that his message had been heard and had connected with another soul. H wanted to buy his music and Johnnie found a copy of a CD and the transaction was done.
“You have supn you can play it on now?” 
“Yeah man!” H answered quickly. 
“Put it on…track 1 is my message. Dat a my favourite song and it explain who mi be.”
I leaned forward expectantly now. The sweetest, hard core, mixed down in a studio, authentic reggae music hit me in my chest. 
By now, I was beginning to understand H’s interest in the first place. His enthusiasm was infectious. Without knowing the entire back story, I was certain that I was in the middle of an encounter that counted. The authenticity of these men and the people of Nonsuch sucked me in. You see, it is impossible to remain neutral and to maintain mere observer status in the face of such honest human interaction. Specific words came to my mind as we listened to this recording of Johnnie Walker and the Disappointers, while standing there with them, and seeing H reveling in sheer joy and admiration:  “organic…soul…honest…talent…culture…the land…men…LIVITY.” 
I prodded H to ask if we could take pictures. I am always so conscious of not ruining a moment, interrupting a flow by picture taking. I want to record the moment, but I never want people to feel as if they are being reduced to specimens under observation. They happily consented and we took pictures in front of the car they had just purchased. As H indicated that he was going to snap the pic, they shouted “Selassie I, JAH RASTAFARI!” and punched the air laughing! 
From L-R: Cultural, Me and Johnnie Walker
Johnnie wanted to arrange a jam session right there and then. But we had to get going. We parted as friends, planning the next time we’d see each other. We drove off in silence, each of us locked in our own thoughts I suppose. I was trying to work out in my own mind why I was impacted the way I was by this encounter. Afterall, Johnnie and his group aren’t internet sensations nor are they known locally.  The most watched vignette in the series has at best a few thousand hits. A large part of my own experience that #SundayinPortland had to do with H’s own experience as I observed it.  For my part, I was impacted by the authenticity of the interactions and the genuineness of every memeberof the group that we met.  
H eventually explained to me the meaning behind the name. Johnnie insists that what we term as disappointments in life really are not. Once you have life, Johnnie opines, you have everything. This is his and his group’s underlying philosophy: eternal optimism and gratitude for each new day. They live off the land, and live at one with the land. They love music and they choose to spread their message through music.  The song that had touched H, and I when I heard the recording, I remembered H singing constantly over the past week was this:
“Climbing from the bottom, straight to the top, we ah go reach top spot.” A simple song with a very strong, clear, positive message about life and living. 
 USA based saxophonist  Henry Douglas Jr., was also deeply impacted by their music and ended up playing on some of their recordings. He too speaks about their soul, and the organic feel to their music.  They live off and with the land taking only what is needed at the particular point in time. Start here in the Reggae in the Ruff videos for the Johnnie Walker and the Disappointers back story and for more on what they do and why they do it. Visit their Facebook page. This is Jamaica at its best: unspoilt, uninfluenced and authentic. Portland continues to remind me of every single thing that is great about Jamaica, Land we Love.

Language (Music) versus Science

So the other day, en route to school and work, the conversation took a very interesting turn.  The following question was posited: “We accept that the world today is a better place than it was during the era of the Cavemen.  Is it this way because of scientific advances or because of the arts…use of language specifically?”

Little Master and Miss World offered their view points, but none of us was able to offer a definitive answer.  I opened the discussion to the Circle of Truth.  The Circle of Truth consists of my 5 siblings, my parents and depending on the topic, we’ll include my Cousin Robbie, an academic with a wicked sense of humour and very sharp political chops. Anyone makes a comment, asks a question, offers an opinion via email since we are all over the globe, and the Circle of Truth weighs in with the candor and wit that characterizes my beloved family. This particular topic didn’t stimulate a lot of chatter…only about 10 emails.  Other topics have yielded up to 50 emails… sigh.  I love them. But I kept pondering this question.

The other day H and I were discussing Obama and his performance in this second term. That’s a whole other post, and one that I feel ill-equipped to tackle, given my (lack of) proximity to where the action is at and my ignorance of The System in Washington, which has probably contributed to his sub par delivery on our expectations.  The point though is this: Obama is a brilliant orator whose deliverables haven’t matched up to his words.  So the question: Of what use eloquence and pretty language?

I remember the first time I heard Barak Obama.  This young, black senator from Illinois was addressing some democratic convention or other.  My TV was tuned to CNN and I was walking up and down tidying beds and folding laundry.  I think the first thing that got my attention was his cadence…”That’s a black man!”, I thought to myself.  I started to listen to his words. I found myself putting down the clothes and sitting on the edge of my bed.  I was transfixed.  He painted a vision so compelling, he articulated a point so eloquently that I, by the single act of merely listening to him, felt drawn into what he was saying.  I remember declaring to H that evening when he came home that there was a young black Democratic senator from Illinois that we should keep our eye on.  “He’s going places” I declared. The rest, as they say, is history.

 So he sounded good.  He got our attention. Fast forward to January 2009, Obama’s inauguration speech.  The whole world was tuned in I would think.  Here was the first black president of the USA, a country where not a generation earlier, blacks were relegated to the back of the bus. I was no different.  I was in my office, huddled with a few colleagues and one consultant. There was silence as we hung on his every word.  Every hair on my body stood on end as Obama approached the end of his speech and uttered the following:

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:
“Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”
America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

 In that moment, Obama was talking to me. I was at one of the lowest points in my life. I felt as if I had nothing. But like Washington stated, hope and virtue, available from within, were the only resources I had at my disposal, and by God, I was NOT going to be defeated.

During his campaign, Obama ignited the hopes of millions with a simple phrase: “Yes we can.” Americans voted in record numbers because all of a sudden, possibility thinking took hold.  And this started with words. With language.  That he may not have delivered to date as we hoped has nothing to do with what he was able to do with his words.  There are reasons, and we ought not to diminish the impact and utility of his language despite execution challenges.

Throughout the ages, words have inspired, have articulated, have illuminated, have challenged and expressed.  Words are the medium by which we explain and wrangle new insights from the world around us.  Without language, we perhaps would be unable to progress scientifically. There is nothing more beautiful to me that a well articulated thought. Words turn me on.

Which leads me to music. William Congreve, in The Mourning Bride, 1697 declared:

Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.

 We concur. Music has soothed me in troubled times…has stirred faith in uncertain times.. has energised me when I needed it…has expressed my deepest feelings when I’ve felt inarticulate…has given vent to violent emotions of anger and hurt. Music has also simply connected at a very soulish level and allowed me to simply derive absolute pleasure.

There were times when I sang this simple church chorus and got life…strength to progress to the next moment:

“You are not a God created by human hands….
You are God alone…”

There are moments when I feel the need to channel my inner gangster against The Man and in those instances Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “Ain’t Nuthin but a G Thang” becomes my anthem.

And there are songs that express my feelings of love and my need for physical satisfaction way more eloquently than I ever could: Let’s Stay Together, Sexual Healing, Would you Mind, Rock me Tonight….

Is it the lyrics? What role do the melody and the beat play?
One may argue that it is the lyrics (words) that are the agents of hope for tomorrow. Even if this is so, it is melody that provides a vehicle by which we internalise and take on these lyrics that take life within us.  And I cannot ignore the rhythm.  I am no musicologist, but I can certainly declare the effect on my emotions and feelings of certain rhythms, certain beats… the pulsating sexuality of Sexual Healing and Bump and Grind, the bounce of Show and Tell, the slow grind of That’s the Way  Love Goes and the gotta-get-up and dance of Got to be real for example.

Melody, by and of itself, also gives life. Think. There is an almost acoustic version of the Taxi rhythm, with a dominant piano presence that forces me to stop and revel in the rhythmic beat and hypnotic riffs of what is arguably one of the baddest reggae rhythms in life. The first movement of the Sonata Pathetique by Beethoven, which I heard for the first time as as 13 year old doing piano lessons struck, impressed, impassioned me in such a visceral, organic way that I attempted to learn it…Beethoven remains my favourite classical composer. I sense turbulence and passion throbbing beneath his distinct, beautiful melodies that somehow connects with my own deep running undercurrents, almost invisible to passersby in the face of a seemingly together facade on the surface…

I am not qualified to dissect the impact of melody and rhythm and lyrics in the total construct that we define as music and quantify their relative impact. I can only share with you what music as a whole does for me.

So let’s go back to the original question: “We accept that the world today is a better place than it was during the era of the Cavemen.  Is it this way because of scientific advances or because of the arts…use of language specifically?”

As I contemplated this question I chuckled to myself this afternoon as I made my way home.  Last night we enjoyed the best of R&B music at the Soul in the Sun music festival in Montego Bay, Jamaica.  Peabo Bryon, Jeffery Osbourne and Freddie Jackon stirred my soul. I was literally on my feet from 7pm until 2:30 am when we left. I was the designated driver who did the 3 hour commute back home, windows wide open, radio on to prevent me from falling asleep at the wheel. It was totally worth it. I grooved. I rocked. I felt.  Why was it so important to me to rank art vs science? Isn’t it obvious that they both can and should co-exist as equals? That there is no science without art.. that none is better than the other… That as humans we are indeed multi-dimensional, housers of both the Scientist and the Artist. The Scientist cannot work without the Artist giving him a voice and inspiration. The Artist will not survive without the benefits emanating from the Scientist’s work.

De-stressing in Jamaica

To say that the last 2 weeks have been stressful is an understatement.  So, not one to wallow in unhappiness and stress and strain, I hastily planned a weekend doing some of the things I enjoy best!  The yells of joy when I informed Little Master and Miss World confirmed that I had made the right decision.

ROAD TRIP!  Yep, I absolutely love a good drive out, and the state of our roads notwithstanding, the Jamaican countryside is soooooo beautiful. I decided to head west to my all time favourite place on the island: Negril.  Here’s the thing about Negril: that 7 mile stretch of white sand and clear, blue water and the absence of the more commercial, high-rise complexes and the way Jamaicans and tourists quietly co-exist make Negril’s vibe relaxing and therapeutic.  There is never loud music offending you, but always the quiet, low throbbing of a comfortingly familiar reggae beat, gently lulling your soul into a state of rest.  The beaches are shallow and waters calm, allowing for children to frolic safely and allowing you to paddle and soak and just be.  And when the sun sets, there are no words.  The beach comes to a standstill for a few minutes while everyone basks in the awesome sight of the sun dipping below the horizon. Negril sunsets never, ever get old.

Negril Sunset

 I have been staying at a modest hotel right on the beach for the last decade or so called Negril Treehouse Hotel.  This is where Stella got her groove back!  Well, before she discovered that her groover was bisexual/gay/whadeva…Oh well, Stella aside, I ALWAYS enjoy my stays there.  The rooms are modestly priced and modestly outfitted.  But really and truly, when you are in Negril, you really only need the room to shower and sleep. All waking hours are best spent on the sand which is literally footsteps away from your room.  I walk with my igloo and my beverages of choice (woohoo!!!!) and set up camp under a huge almond tree and happily pass the hours away there.  Negril Treehouse is owned by the Jacksons (Mr. Jackson passed away late last year…may he rest in peace) and you can feel the impact of these owners/managers throughout your stay.  There’s a real family feel there.

But before I got to Negril, I had to drive four hours to get there from Kingston.  We departed at 6:30am, a cool, clear Saturday morning.  It was an uneventful, enjoyable drive.  The ubiquitous speed traps were largely absent and the radio station of choice was on point with their selections.  We enjoyed lots joking and laughter and singing and even some quiet time as at one stage I was the only one awake! 

   Bamboo Avenue, St. Elizabeth

                                                   
I decided to stop in Middle Quarters for “peppa swims” (read: peppered shrimp).  The shrimp are prepared in the shell with lots of salt and a whole heap of hot pepper, stuffed into small plastic bags and sold by the roadside.

 Eating the spicy treats was an adventure, but being the prepared traveller that I am, bottles of Catherine’s Peak spring water were quickly deployed to deal with the burning!  Apart from the spice, beware the spiny claws and other appendages on the shrimp.  They stick…hard!

    Peppered Shrimp from Middle Quarters


Negril was just what the Doctor ordered…the kids played, I relaxed, I napped and I really enjoyed having what I thought was great conversation with Rachie and it was just, well…perfect…

Negril Tree House

I should mention that Negril Tree House serves a great breakfast that is included in the cost of the room!



 Callaloo, ackee & saltfish, johnny cakes, ham & cheese omelette and pineapple

          
Yes…it was a well needed break.  Sometimes you just need to put down the load for a while, regain some strength and then you can take it up again once you’ve rested a while.  I put down my load this weekend for sure!



   The view from between my legs 🙂

                                                
Reluctantly, we packed up midday Sunday morning.  Sigh…back to life, back to reality. Cho man…
It was a great day for driving and at Miss World’s request, I decided to drive back via the North Coast.  That’s a 5 hour hop!

Road Warriors on the move

We stopped for cold coconut water in Trelawny and for soup at Scotchie’s in Drax Hall. 

Thank God for a moment of fun in the middle of living.  Tomorrow is another day.  And we will continue the struggle having rested a while.  “Strength  for today and bright hope for tomorrow”.

                           

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