Wednesday, August 27, 2008

When Me Was a Boy

I know that my uncle Alvin planted the line of apple trees along the river near to my childhood home. I know that my childhood home was carried from one mile up the road (a place called Hillsbourough) on the back of a Leyland truck some time before I was born. I know that my grandfather was a baker and that he baked the best bread for miles around in a brick oven at the front of the yard. I know that when my Aunt Amy died and I asked what had happened to her, my response to Mom's answer that "God took her" was "Tell God sey me want back mi Aunt Amy yah". I know the names and deeds, as well as misdeeds of many relatives up to three generations back. I know all of this from my mother, the family historian.

I like the history you get from scholars, but I like the history you get from the people who were actually there a whole lot better. So when I walked into the Old Harbour library last week and saw the book "When me was a boy" on the West Indian authors shelf, naturally I grabbed it for a second read. Master story teller Charles Hyatt tells what Jamaica was like in the 1930's - when he was a boy. It is a collection of over one hundred stories each about two pages long, each funny, each conjuring a picture of a Jamaica that was. Tramcars, horse and buggy, Bustamante without a shirt. It uses words like creng-creng, brawta, bankra and gig, from a generation before refridgerators, superstores and video games.

It is written soley in Jamaican creole, which is a hodge-podge of English, Spanish, some African languages, and words we made up along the way. Yes, we rearranged the syntax a bit, and added our own rhythm to the morphology, but Any English speaker can understand it, with a little bit of effort. If you are a Jamaican living abroad this book is a nice mosaic of home, and you will probably remember the inimitable voice of Charles Hyatt on radio reading an episode for the radio programme "When me was a boy". If you are a young Jamaican this will a glimpse of your parents and grandparents days in living colour. If you are not a Jamaican but have an interest in Jamaican culture When Me Was a Boy is touchstone.

Here is a little snippet:

When me was a boy-lickle boy- we didn' have nuh television fi watch so you find that other than when you doin' homework round the dining table or readin' comic book pon the veranda we neva used to inna house fac' the house was a punishment area inna the daytime. When them tell yuh.."walk inside go siddown!" that is like jail. ...Of course when it rain is a different story. Everbody haffi stay inside and the jalousie window blind them haffi shut and the door half turn...

Story telling is a strong tradition in Jamaica, both in theater and in the living room (in some cases on the verandah, under the breadfruit tree, under the moon). How is it in your culture? How much of it is legend and myth, how much actual events?

Editing note: I've found a blog post with very nice pictures of the Kingston that Charles Hyatt might have seen the last of. The whole blog is one woman's fascinating journey into her family's history.


Stephen Bess said...

My grandmother was a good storyteller. I'm told that I can tell a good story. Perhaps I inherited it from her. For the most part, it has died off in black American culture. It's still around but mostly in the form of comedy, Hip Hop, or little story telling groups here or there. We have lost the purest form of it trying to assimilate with the larger American culture. Unfortunately, we have lost a great deal of who we are/were in the process.

Rozenkraai said...

thank you for visiting my blog, jacqueline. i have written extensively of my visits to the pringle home for children in carron hall, st mary. i love jamaica and the people i have come to know there over several years, and i hope you and i can keep in contact. i will be following your blog with great interest.

Daisy Soap Girl said...

Hi Jackie,
I love stories like this. A very close friend of mine is from Jamaica and her growing up stories are so like mine. Story telling has become a thing of the past here but I am relating things that I know to my nieces and nephews. We are also having more family gatherings and reunions. I just love that you are able to trace your family roots and I really like your Blog. There is a restuarant here in Brooklyn named BRAWTA, what does it mean?

Jacqueline Smith said...

Our story telling icon Louise Bennette-Coverly died a couple of years ago. What she did was take the folk culture as it existed at the most basic level- families gathering (maybe under the moon) exchanging jokes, stories, songs and games- and made it into a legitimate art form. You see, the Jamaican creole (patois), before her time, was barely ever written or used in "polite" company, or formal contexts. So the stories and poems were largely written in standard English, and were never told on radio or in the theatre. Jamaican creole is our heart language, so our story doesn't make sense in any other language. So thanks to Miss Lou we now have other iconic story tellers like Charles Hyatt and Amina Blackwood Meeks who use the purest form of the genre. But there is a Joan Andrea-Hutchinson, Lloyd Lovindeer and many others who tell a sweet story in poetry or song. (A day or two after Usain Bolt set three records in the Olympics, Joan had a poem out about it) Then there is the vexxed issue of the dancehall. Dancehall is the form in which story telling is most vibrant and prolific, I guess similar to what's happening with Hip-hop in America. It tells the story of the inner-city, which is fine, everyone needs a voice. But I find dancehall music has taken a direction that is mostly uncouth and well, distasteful. And I don't think it represents the majority of Jamaicans or the essence of our story.

But the basic form of sitting with family and neighbours is still alive because we Jamaicans talk a lot. The theme and content of the stories have changed, we do not tell a lot of the anancy stories and legends of old, but we love tell about our experiences in very fine, dramatic, juicy detail. Hence when you pass a family sitting on their verandah or out in the yard they are more than likely passing on the history live and direct.

Thanks for coming to my blog, it's great to know my readership has grown by one! I will keep visiting you as I find your story interesting too.

Brawta is one of those pretty Jamaican words that are on the verge of becoming obsolete! It means a little extra. So if you bought two pounds of yam in the market the market woman might give you two and a quarter pounds, or an onion, or or two nutmegs. She gives you a little extra so you will keep coming back to her, or sometimes because there is so much of the particular item around that there is no use being 'stinjy' with it.

Dorothy Kew said...

Jacqueline, I love your blog! And thanks for the referral to my blog, My Jamaican Family. When I was child I used to tell Anancy stories to my Grandmother Smedmore, so I do remember Jack Mandora! It's good to know that the old Jamaican sayings are still around, like brawta!

Keep up the good work. I'm going to put a link to your blog on mine, if that's okay with you.


Jacqueline Smith said...

Thank you Dorothy, I'd love a link from your blog. I'm impressed by the extensive documentation, actual certifiactes and so on; the details, like how your grandma became blind; the pictures, I'm still raving about that one of the Norman Manley Airport taken way back when based on the make of the vehicles in the foreground. You really have quite a treasure there!

On the word "brawta" another blogger had this to say: "I lived in Liberia for a time, and there what you call brawta, we called a dash - that extra yam, the larger portion of rice, the scoop of groundpeas for good measure. It wasn’t just a market custom, as you know. That “little extra” was as much social as economic; it cemented relationships, and helped to bridge the gaps between people. Yes, sometimes there were those who expected their dash, much as waitstaff expect a tip these days -but for the most part, it was graciously given and graciously received."

Take Care.

Fly Girl said...

Thanks so much Jacqueline, for visiting my blog and for creating this treasure! Oh, how I love Jamaican storytelling, whether from Miss Lou, my Jamaican friends or yardies passing on the street. You make so many interesting points about the storytelling tradition in the Diaspora and I think that it has changed but it's still alive. I have never been in contact with any part of the African Disapora, whether in the U.S., Caribbean, Europe or South America, that did not maintain this important African tradition in some form. In the U.S., it may seem to be dying on the surface but I personally know many professional storytellers, similiar to Miss Lou who make a good living at it. There is even an annual storytelling festival in North Carolina. As far as dancehall and hip hop, yes, they have turned vulgar and empty when you only listen to commerical forms. Hip hop and Dancehall are first cousins, the forefathers of hip hop all hailed from Jamaica and Barbados and the two are closely tied. They both reflect the previously unheard stories of struggles in the ghettos. There is still authentic storytelling going on however, listen to Buju or Jahmelody, Stephen, Damian or any young Marley,or Tanya Stephens (Rebelution is a modern classic) and you will hear the essence of traditional African storytelling. In hip hop, Common, Lupe Fiasco, Nas, Immortal Technique and Jean Grae continue the tradition and there are plenty more that never get the visibility. The rest is up to us. I told my children Anansi stories, our tricky pet rabbit is named for him. The traditions live on!

Jacqueline Smith said...

Great to hear from you fly girl.

Unfortunately the bulk of dancehall music that gets the attention is that which promotes lewdness, denigrates women and glorifies violence. There is sparodic debate about censorship here and it looks like the side for trash is winning based on the what is getting the airplay and who is making the money.

I am a fan of Tanya Stephens myself, her lyrics do get hardcore but she is one of the last pundits of subtlety. I am also a lover of Buju- the 90's Buju. I think he spoiled a great career with that recent comeback "Driver", catchy and rhythmic as it is. I agree about the young Marleys; by and large have honoured their father's legacy. And what a legacy it is! I have not heard a Bob Marley tune that I have not loved. Bob not only told our story, but he told the human story in many of his songs.

I have no idea about story telling in the states. I depend on people like you to inform me. A story telling festival in North Carolina-that's great to hear. And it's quite easy for me to picture the yardies- uninhibited- telling their story on the streests of New York or Philly.

Let's continue to pass on the best of who we are to our children.

bonnonnonnos said...

I enjoyed that book but gave away my copy now I can't find one anywhere. Any suggestion?