Nine Commandments, Four Pillars–Our Jamaica: Extracts from a lunchtime conversation

It’s the first week of a new year, so it’s not surprising that fresh ideas and energy behind them are in evidence.

I had a long-overdue lunch with a¬†businessman-friend, in Mandeville, yesterday–Kevin O’Brien Chang.

Kevin, as I've never seen him :-)
Kevin, as I’ve never seen him ūüôā

We usually talk for a good two hours, and then he heads back to run his stores and I head back to Kingston. That was in the days when I visited Jamaica. Strangely, since I came back to Jamaica in mid-2013, we have not done that. We’ve talked a bit and exchanged the odd message, but face-to-face, we haven’t managed. As the world goes, I was asked to review his book,¬†Jamaica fi real: beauty, vibes and¬†culture,¬†not long after I came back, and it’s recently been published in the winter issue of Jamaica Journal (vol. 35, nos. 1-2).

Kevin knows much about Jamaican music and has fused that knowledge into what he thinks about this intriguing little island of ours. We agree on many things, and fight for position on many others. He often tries to get me to set Jamaica into a broader context, because he knows I’ve worked or lived in a lot of places and can bring that experience to bear on issues that seem parochial.

We got into a discussion, yesterday, about yet another of Jamaica’s seeming contradictions. Where we agree, often, is that we think that Jamaicans are really rational people, and that what we see is not a surprise, if we understand the incentives to which people respond.

Why doesn’t Jamaica pull itself out of its economic mire? Simple, it’s more downside than upside. Why?

Kevin believes¬†Jamaican life is built on four firm pillars: music, laughter/fun, sex, and religion. When people put up examples, like Singapore, that Jamaica should follow, they put into the mix what it means for the four pillars, and get a big “Nah!” on most. Religion is an odd one, because Singapore is mainly Buddhist¬†(about 1/3), followed by Christian (about 20%), Islam (15%), and Taoism (10%). So, it’s important, but less homogeneous than for Jamaica–if we can call our array of Christian branches homogenous.

To solidify those pillars,¬†Jamaica’s religious beliefs are subsumed by its sex drive, so that it only follows nine of the ten Commandments. ‘Thou shalt not commit’ adultery is left at the starting gate.¬†However, you want to slice your bun, it ends up with someone else eating your cheese.¬†

This perspective puts many issues into clearer view. Music is one way Jamaicans put out their view of the world clearly, if you really listen. We agreed that Jamaica is strange for its popular music to be driven by social commentary. We do not do “She loves you, yeah, yeah!”. We do “She loves you, but times are hard and you’re not home, so she has to find some other satisfaction. Yeah, yeah!”

One thing about Jamaican music that has been well-documented is how it puts out graphically–too much, some say–the Jamaican sex drive. I’ve cited before the excellent¬†Kinky Reggae¬†article by Frederick Dunnaway. Kevin often cites Lady Saw, as one of the best exponents of the Jamaican sex psyche in music. Lady Saw is known for ‘slackness’, but it’s not something that is out-of-order in many people’s lives. Listen to ‘Love Sick’:

One of Kevin’s common ideas about the¬†reason for Jamaica’s poor record of economic productivity¬†is that most people are too busy maximising their opportunities for sex rather than getting on with their jobs. Without naming names, we’ve gone through the issue and how that ‘distraction’ has percolated through all levels of society. This is not unique, and I cited instances I know of high-ranking politicians and officials who seem to forget that the agenda is some policy initiative, not having hanky-panky on their office desk. Read¬†Forbes¬†World of sex scandals.¬†One of my first experiences in the world of work was to knock and enter an office in the midst of¬†in flegrate¬†delicto. Oops!

He may not get full agreement on his propositions, but they go a long way towards explaining certain blockages to our economic progress.

We talked a lot yesterday about whether any country laughs (and has fun) more than Jamaica. I was hard pressed to find any. I cited England, and that’s based on more years living there than anywhere else. We agreed that the English poke fun at themselves a lot–something Americans cannot do, not least because they are always falling foul of some racial or religious sensitivity. For me, English satire is the best. The humour is often dry and self-deprecating, but it’s also very quick and spontaneous. Some of the best humour is found at a football ground. No sooner has something bad befallen a player, than a mocking song or chant is heard around the ground. The words may not win any literary prizes and the tunes are often well-known. The referee misses another easy call¬†can lead to¬†“Is your missus wearing your glasses?” I also cited the English holding onto April Fool’s pranks when most of the world is just (boringly) getting on with another first of the month.

Well, we know that¬†many seemingly normal things are banned in Singapore and it’s hard to see Jamaicans dealing well with the change in lifestyle that would entail. For instance, look at a¬†few tips for business people in Singapore:

  • Being on time is important
  • Handshakes are the traditional form of greeting but traditional Singaporean Malays and Indians might not shake hands of members of the opposite sex; Singaporean Chinese may bow but won’t expect this of foreigners
  • Gifts may be considered bribes
  • Seniority is important‚ÄĒeldest should be greeted first
  • Sometimes “yes” means “no” or “maybe,” because Singaporeans want to avoid conflict

I can see the cringing going on in the Jamaican office, right now. OK, it’s only for illustration. Stand easy.

We touched on sex from another angle, so to speak.¬†Why are Jamaicans so homophobic?¬†It’s because they revere women and want to follow ‘God’s plan’, men having sex with men is a double no-no, in that case. Lesbianism is less of an issue, with women revering each other. I’m still not sold on this argument, but it’s clear that male homosexuality hits Jamaicans hard at their core. We did not get to set Jamaica in the context of other countries where the phobia is as strong and religion is also running well ahead of other things in people’s lives (much of Africa, for example). We may have to go back to that.

We may also have to look again at why Shebada is so popular in Jamaica.

Kevin tells me that his ‘research’ and discussions show that, as far as heterosexual sex goes, anything goes, and the previous dance hall¬†artistes’ aversion to oral sex is now pass√©. I have to take that under advisement, as they say.

Jamaica needs a Desmond Morris (The Naked Ape) or Masters and Johnston to examine it, more than it needs another team from the IMF?

It wouldn’t hurt, I argue.

In the meantime, we still need to have better trained staff and managers who know how to run things. Kevin’s bacon did come as crispy, but not burned, as he requested. My fish (strips) and chips (overcooked fries) was not quite as advertised, but still tasty as a snack.