On Culture, CARIFESTA, and the Bahamian Economy, Part I

It came to my attention last month that our government was planning to postpone, once again, the hosting of the Caribbean Festival of Arts, if it had not yet done so. Announcements to that effect would be made very soon, I was told. The fact that such announcements have not yet been made may make this post obsolete. I rather doubt it, however.It should be no surprise to anyone at all that I think this is a terrible idea. It's not just because I would like to write for a living and make that living in the country in which I grew up. It's also because it's flying in the face of what international agencies focussed on development economics suggest is the place of culture in that development.For those of us who don't know, or who haven't noticed, the world has changed. As I write, indeed, at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, the US President is opening the door for negotiations with Cuba, which, as we all know, is the only viable competitor for The Bahamas' prosperity in the Caribbean region. In fact, it's possible to argue that the only reason The Bahamas has maintained its supreme position in the region has been because the fifty-year long US embargo of Cuba, has coincided with the latest Bahamian boom. But now, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is visiting Cuba, and the Obama administration is making very clear noises that the embargo will soon be lifted.At the same time, for the first time in almost twenty years, the Bahamian government's plan for prosperity -- foreign investment, foreign investment, foreign investment -- is not bearing fruit. Why not? The reasons are various. Perhaps the biggest is the reason Barack Obama himself gave for changing the way the USA has done business for the past generation or so -- that trickle-down economics, or the spreading of the wealth accumulated by the rich and mighty -- does not work. It no longer works in the USA, which is the greatest nation in the world; and it has not worked in The Bahamas as an engine of development for a country that has not yet invested in itself.  Oh, it has done well in providing a couple of decades' worth of get-rich-quick money for a smattering of people. But as we are noticing, where the sharing of wealth is dependent on the goodwill of the greedy, little gets shared. And so our current "wealth" is almost wholly dependent on the goodwill of the foreign investor, who is interested in the people of this nation only as workers -- as block-layers, lifeguards, toilet-cleaners, cooks, drivers, or middle managers who have no ability to affect or shape company policy.It is not foreign investment that economists and development agencies are suggesting is the engine of economic development in the 21st century; it's culture. If you don't believe me, go and look it up. Culture is no longer regarded as peripheral to development. It has been recognized as a viable, resilient, sustainable and renewable source of economic gain. A quick look at any international economic arrangement negotiated since 2002 will illustrate this truth. International agencies everywhere, from the European Union to the Organization of American States to the United Nations to the World Trade Organization, are recognizing the place of culture on the economic agenda.But here, in The Bahamas, for a generation and a half -- the entire time since Independence -- our national policies have been shaped by a group of men and a handful of women whose actions and behaviour cumulatively suggest that they would rather erase Bahamian culture than invest in it.Despite our so-called prosperity, we are the only Caribbean nation that cannot demonstrate our government's pride in what makes us us. Part of this is because Government policy since 1992 has focussed on conning foreign investors to put in infrastructure that (we are told) the government cannot afford. The result? Despite soaring tourist arrivals (and, presumably, soaring demand for authentic Bahamian cultural products), the cultural industries are in effective decline. Those foreign investors in whom we've placed our trust? They don't care whose culture visitors consume, as long as the profits flow to into their coffers.  What we should have learned by now is that no people -- or their representatives -- can depend on someone else to develop their own cultural resources. We have to do that job for ourselves.But we don't. The recurrent budget allotted by our goverment to culture, despite all the fussing about a so-called Ministry of Culture and the appointment of Ministers of State, only crossed the $2 million line in the 2008-2009 budget year. The government agency charged with the development of Bahamian culture is not a Ministry, nor is it a Department; it is a Division, which means that even that $2 million is not administered by anybody in that Division. (It isn't administered by the Minister, either, for anyone who remains fooled into thinking that this may be so.)  The Chief Financial Officer in any government agency is the Permanent Secretary, or the Director of any Department that has a budget head; and the Cultural Affairs Division is so far away from having a budget head that it would be laughable if it were not so frightening. That $2 million is inscribed in a single line item under whatever budget head the Division is attached to (Office of the Prime Minister (Head 14) one year, Education (Head 38) the next, Youth, Sports and Culture (Head 47) the next). And that $2 million is expected to support festivals throughout The Bahamas, maintain a "national theatre" (which is so far from being either thing that it demonstrates the depth of the contempt that our governments have for us) run a National Arts Festival, finance sundry cultural events throughout the year, and run the $1.5 million festival of Junkanoo.Stand this up against the over $91 million we allot to the Ministry of Tourism, much of which is spent outside The Bahamas. I was once told, laughingly, by a senior official in that Ministry that the budget I was given to work with (that was back in 2004, when the budget was maybe $1.2 million, give or take) was what Tourism managers were given to make mistakes with. We can afford Miss Universe, which will benefit Atlantis; but we cannot, it appears, afford CARIFESTA, which will benefit us all.But it is not Miss Universe, which is a cultural brand developed elsewhere, with economic returns for the owners of the brand that will develop the Bahamian economy.According to international agencies and economists the world around, it is our culture.This is why the planned postponement of CARIFESTA, if it is indeed so planned (and if it isn't, the lack of any progress towards the hosting of that festival in 2010 indicates that a decision has already been made, if not announced), is the terrible idea that it is.I have yet to be convinced that Miss Universe will benefit the Bahamian economy substantially, other than in the collection of departure taxes, which will be funnelled into agencies that spend their monies outside the nation anyway. I am sure it will keep the Kerzners happy. I know, however, that I and mine will certainly not benefit in any way from Miss Universe; nor, I imagine, will most other people in the cultural industries, unless their name be Ronnie Butler or K.B. and unless they be set to open for whatever international giant that comes to perform. I do not think that food vendors or writers or poets or improv performers or even the broad Junkanoo community will benefit in any substantial way from Miss Universe, not to mention the car rental agencies, the restaurants and watering holes on the Bahamian side of the bridge, the small hotels and guest houses, the vast majority of taxi drivers and the tour bus companies not sanctioned by Atlantis, the street cleaners, the road-repairers, the marching bands, the graphic designers, the t-shirt makers, or the film community.These are the people who will benefit from CARIFESTA, however, which is unsuited to be housed at Atlantis, that most inauthentic institution, that theme park for the unsuspecting, which only resides among us, but is not of us.  The influx of visitors, and the type of visitors that will make up that influx, will be interested in us, who we are, what we do, and will spend money on what is most Bahamian, will not be conned into overspending on what is fictional at best.And yet (I'm told) our leaders believe that to host the Festival will be a waste of money in the end.I know this much. Economic evidence from around the world exists which proves our leaders wrong. And common sense suggests it too. Our development will not happen at the hands of foreigners; it is in our own hands, and the hands of the governments we elect to lead us. We can read the reports for ourselves, and accept the idea that culture is the economic sector in which to invest for nations that are still developing; or we can share the delusions of our politicians, which confuse the grandeur of the monstrosities the foreign investors build (and usually protect behind gates and bridges and visitor passes) with development of a nation and of a people. We need to make up our own minds. From here on in, it's up to us.

On Self-Publication (a Meditation)

Note: I took the blog entry I wrote last week and turned it into a proper essay for The Guardian. Here it is, for archival purposes. It's been edited here and there for publication.I'm pleased to announce that I'm working preparing Essays on Life for publication in a series of books. The first one, featuring the first fifty essays published, is almost ready to go to print. In a week or so, I hope, if all goes well, it'll be available online. Within the month, again if all goes well, I'm hoping it can be available in local bookstores.Sound too good to be true? Well it is, sort of. The process of publication never used to be so quick and easy in the past. And easy doesn't always mean good. But here's the raw truth. After plenty of thought (and some trepidation), and after considering things like time and cost and bulk and other stuff, I decided to self-publish. And I've chosen an online service that will print and bind and ship the book for me.Self-publication isn't anything new around here. There are several options: local publishers, who would edit, lay out, set up, and distribute the book for me (Media Enterprises, Guanima Press); local printers, like the Nassau Guardian, who would do basically what my online service is doing, taking the book I give them and printing it as is; or regional publishers, like Ian Randle, who would do what the local ones would do but with a far wider distribution reach. There are even international vanity presses, which design the book for a price and then provide me with a print run of a size of my choice (sort of).But there were problems with all of the above. One was time; the turn-around time for traditional publishing services is pretty long. This is because, of course, the legitimate publisher doesn't take on every project that comes across his desk, and when a project is signed it has to be edited, laid out, proofed, and then printed. Though the result is undoubtedly of good quality, it wasn't what I wanted for a collection of essays that are pretty topical in nature. Even when one self-publishes the old way, sending the manuscript to the printers and waiting for them to lay out, typeset, and produce galleys is a long, arduous process. And the result isn't always that great.The second one was bulk. Traditional print runs require somebody — the publisher, if you're doing it the most respectable way, or the author, if you're going with self-publishing — to pay for the production of a sizeable bunch of books. These can sit around, getting dusty and (in this climate) growing mould, while you scramble to recoup your costs. If the publisher bears those, you have to wait years to get paid, because the publisher has to work to recoup its costs. All in all, not what I wanted for this book.So I decided to try going with Print-on-Demand (POD) — the practice of publishing that desktop publishing and the internet has made possible.I'd first heard of POD publishers on the internet (where else?). I checked out a couple of services and thought what they offered was interesting, but wasn't sure about the quality of the product, or about its reach. Since then, though, I've seen books produced through online POD publishers, and have held at least two of them in my hands — one of them Bahamian Rupert Missick Jr's Dreams and Other Whispers. Getting hold of them is easy and convenient; they can be ordered online through Amazon or Barnes and Noble. And I can tell you that the product is as attractive as any that a walk-in, concrete, face-to-face printer can produce.There are disadvantages to self-publishing; any serious writer will tell you that. The main one is that for anyone who wants to make a career for themselves as a writer, with all the attachments, like advances and royalties and other trappings of the publishing economy, self-publishing, especially through vanity presses, appears to many serious publishers as a mark of inexperience, desperation, mediocrity, or all of the above. For many of them vanity presses are scammers par excellence; and it's true that if you're not careful, you'll pay far more for a print run of so-so product than the thing is worth. Self-publication also suggests that the writer isn't committed enough to face the hurdles that surround the publishing industry, hurdles whose conquest can produce fairy tales like J. K. Rowling. People who are impatient are often careless, sloppy, rushed, and the quality of the work suffers. And they're not unjustified in that concept; a lot of what is self-published isn't all that good.But self-publishing has its place. One of those places is when you live in small countries with small readerships, as we do. It's generally not economically viable for a big publisher to invest in a Bahamian publication; the cost of production can't be recouped. The market is simply too small. For this reason, hundreds of Bahamians and Bahamian residents — some of them very good writers, some of them not so good, and some of them admittedly pretty bad — have chosen to go with self-publishing simply to meet the demand that exists for their work. Among them are big-name Bahamian writers, like Gail Saunders and Winston Saunders and Obediah Michael Smith and Keith Russell and Michael Pintard. Not bad company to keep at all.And then there are serious advantages to print-on-demand. The main one is that the desktop revolution, coupled with the new global world of business offered by cyberspace, has created a completely new way of publishing. Print-on-demand is just that; you can write and create a book that exists only in digital form until somebody's ready to buy it. That keeps the cost down, keeps the waste to a minimum, and makes the whole process easier and simpler.And what would I lose anyway? Collecting Essays on Life is more an exercise in convenience than a full-scale launch of myself as a published writer. The complete set are already available on Blogworld, my personal blog, are still searchable (presumably) in the archives of the Nassau Guardian, where they were first published, and several of them appear on Bahama Pundit. The trouble is, if people want to walk around with them away from the computer, they still have to go through the hassle of downloading and printing them out on plain paper. Why not make it a whole lot easier by printing through the internet so that people can order the books themselves, or so that local bookstores can buy them as they need them?You be the judge.---Local websites referenced in this article:Nicolette Bethel's Blogworldhttp://www.nicobethel.net/blogworld/Bahama Pundithttp://www.bahamapundit.comNassau Guardian Onlinehttp://thenassauguardian.com

On Making a Living Doing What You Love

When I was a child and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would invariably answer, "A writer". The responses I got were various. “Oh, that’s nice,” some people said. They didn’t mean it one bit. Others laughed as though I’d told the greatest joke this side of Vegas. Others stared at me as though I’d just said something foreign, as though my tongue had not formed words that were English at all. And one person – my geography teacher – told me, “Oh, no, you’re too good for that. Writing will never earn you any money. Why don’t you think about being a lawyer or something like that?”But a writer I wanted to be.And here I am, all grown up, my answer still the same. What do I want to be when I grow up? A writer. But. Time is running out for me. Writing is a jealous hobby, difficult to do well, arduous when you want to make the right point, time-consuming, greedy. It’s too selfish to be a part-time thing, and I have to make a living.And making a living writing is something that is impossible in this country — at least for those who choose not to settle for journalism as the next best thing — no offence to journalists. I needn’t list the reasons that it’s impossible; I’m sure you can think of several yourselves. It’s the rare writer who can survive off his or her earnings, unless they are in advertising or journalism or the law. For those of us who simply love the language and The Bahamas, there is very little choice indeed.And so I teach others how to write. You know the saying: those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. I have always fought it; it suggests that teachers are failures, second-rate beings who can’t succeed at what they want, and so they teach. But more and more the saying rings true. It’s not that I am not capable of writing. But I cannot make a living doing what I love — doing what, I dare say, God called me to do — in the land in which I was born. And so, because I cannot (through no good fault of my own) write for a living, I teach.And I am not alone. I speak as a writer, because that is what and who I am. But there are hundreds of us, perhaps thousands, Bahamians, who have been gifted with the ability to create new realities out of thin air — people touched with the need to express themselves in movement, in colour, in line, in song, in film, in music, in performance, in the assumption of another character, in illusion, in the written or the spoken word. Only a tiny handful of us can do it, and that handful is struggling. The rest of us have to labour in jobs that are second best for people who do not understand us or what we do and squeeze our talents around the edges of our lives.And so what? You wonder. Why should this matter? Why should being able to make a living doing what you love be at all important?Well, first of all, because you love it, and because it’s not frivolous. Despite what many people imagine, the arts — which begin in self-expression, develop through social commentary, and conclude by illuminating the human condition — are really the foundation, and not the frill, of human civilization. A society that does not express itself artistically is simply a conglomeration of people who live side by side. Because there is nothing concrete to link one to another, they are simply a group of individuals walking down the same road together, but they could as easily be enemies as friends, and there is nothing at all to stop them from killing one another.And second of all, because it is the creative impulse that makes us human. I’ve said it before, but I’m not sure that we have fully grasped the concept yet; we’re too busy consuming what others have produced, and we don’t value either the process or the product of our own artists and innovators. As a result, the humanity of the Bahamian citizen has been compromised. We allow ourselves and our reality to be defined by other people, because we have made it difficult, if not impossible, for our creative artists to make a living doing what they love.In order for us to create a society out of this population we have living within our borders, art, self-expression and creation cannot be regarded as luxuries that can be sacrificed whenever the subject of money is raised. Every civilization worth remembering has made a place for its artists. It has supported them, by commissioning individuals to write or paint or sing for a living and for the state, or by allowing them to support themselves. We do not recall the greatness of Greece or Italy or Great Britain for their lawyers, for their newspapers, or for the number of items their factories turned out in a given year; rather, we remember them for their architecture, their literature, and their art.From Sophocles to Shakespeare, from Michelangelo to Picasso, from Confucius to Soyinka, from Homer to Walcott, the greatness of a civilization has far less to do with the apparently “necessary” professions than we imagine. Without the works of artists, teachers have nothing to teach, construction workers will have nothing to build, and retailers will have nothing to sell. You may counter by saying that others have already done the work for us, and that we don’t have to produce anything original of our own. But that is how we have built our society already, and what we have built is coming apart at the seams. The clothes we have put on were designed for other people, and we should not be surprised when what we have borrowed doesn’t fit us all that well.The time has come, I believe, for our society to place emphasis on allowing Bahamians like me to make a living doing what they love. Of course, this will mean starting to pay one another for their art. It will mean understanding that when we approach a writer to ask for a play to be written, or a director to produce a show for a purpose, or a musician to play somewhere, we will have to pay them for their action; but when we do, we will discover far more about ourselves than we knew before. And we will begin to create a community out of this group of individuals all walking along the same road together; and maybe, after some time, ours may become a civilization to remember.

On Censorship

A couple of months ago, the entire Bahamian community was convulsed by the banning of the movie Brokeback Mountain. All sorts of people weighed in on the issue, but the argument never really got off the ground. The reason for that was that there were really two arguments going on. One was the question of homosexuality. This argument suggested that the Bahamas (government, Christian community or censorship board) was duty-bound to protect the public morality against the evils of same-sex love. The other was the view that adult citizens of a democratic nation should be given the opportunity to choose whether to expose themselves to those evils or not.Now there should be no doubt in my readers’ minds where I stand. I believe that the pulling of the movie was arbitrary, hypocritical and absurd. In all likelihood, it was a knee-jerk reaction on the part of a handful of influential people who assumed that the Bahamian public would not object. But I don’t want to talk about that. Not yet.Quite simply, the existence of the Bahamas Plays and Films Control Board is an anachronism. As many have pointed out before me, it is an organization whose banning of anything is absurd in a society where radio stations play uncensored lyrics on an almost daily basis, where Bahamians are featured – and feature themselves – in homegrown pornography on the World Wide Web, and where any “immorality” can be purchased in the privacy of one’s home by those people willing to pay the price.Now I am not saying this to call for the expansion of the scope of the Board, or of the Act which establishes it. No. What I am saying is that the time has come for Bahamians to recognize the incompatability of such a body with the age in which we live. Information of every kind is all around us, available to anyone with access to a radio, a television, a satellite or a computer. Banning the showing of a movie in this context is ludicrous.But it is more than that. The real problem with the banning of Brokeback Mountain is that it demonstrates that this same handful of anonymous, appointed and unaccountable Bahamians have the ability under the law to control and stifle Bahamian creativity. It’s one thing to talk about a movie set in the American mid-west, made by a Chinese director, featuring a love story that many Bahamians clearly find repugnant. But what happens when a Bahamian wishes to address a topic the Board finds distasteful? Should the law have the right to tell him that he cannot? The banning of a movie may be absurd. But the banning of a play is quite a different matter.It is not inconceivable, especially given the precedent set by the banning of Brokeback Mountain, that such a banning might take place. Indeed, there have been instances in the past where plays produced by Bahamians have been forced to change their presentations or face closure. The fact that, under the terms of the Act that establishes it, the Board has the obligation to vet any production, rate it, recommend changes or close it down has serious implications for the foundations of our democracy.That the Board and the supporters of the Brokeback banning are hypocritical is evident in the fact that The Da Vinci Code, a movie based on the heresy that Christ did not die on the cross, but married Mary Magdalene and sired a line of descendents who exist to this day – is currently showing in the self-same theatres from which Brokeback was pulled. But to focus on this hypocrisy misses the real point. As long as legislation remains on the books that permits an anonymous body to control what Bahamians watch, and worse, what Bahamians write and perform, our culture, and our democracy, are challenged.One final point. The discussion that was generated by the Brokeback affair raised the question of the very constitutionality of the Board. Now our Constitution protects the freedom of expression of the Bahamian citizen (Article 23). But it’s not an absolute protection. There are some limitations designed to protect defence, public safety, public order, public morality and public health, and it is permissible under the Constitution to regulate communications, public exhibitions and public entertainment.On the surface, then, the curtailing of absolute freedom of expression is permissible under the Bahamian constitution. Except here’s where it gets iffy. There’s a caveat to all of this protection of the public, and it’s this: one can regulate things in the interest of public morality, etc, “except so far as … the thing done … is shown not to be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.”It’s iffy because what’s reasonably justifiable in a democratic society changes with time. The goalposts move. This idea makes reference to a global consensus on what is “democratic”, and that changes. Forty years ago it was not undemocratic for the state to put its citizens to death for certain offences; today, however, most democracies consider it undemocratic, even barbaric, to impose the death penalty indiscriminately. Twenty years ago it might have been fine to challenge artwork that was considered indecent, homosexual, or otherwise offensive to public morality; but today in democratic societies that is no longer the case. We are living in a world whose boundaries are not fixed, and we have to be prepared for them to move.I believe that the time has come to admit that the kind of legislation that permits a body of non-elected, faceless individuals to decide what the Bahamian citizen should be able to see is fundamentally obsolete.I believe that the time has come to recognize that the recent actions of the Bahamas Plays and Films Control Board are not reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.I believe that the time has come to revisit the Theatres and Films Act, to consider its place in this era of information, and, ultimately, to amend it to fit the age in which we live.

On Professionals

In The Bahamas, we're really blessed.Now I know it's become commonplace to say that, and the normal response to that kind of statement is "Amen". We claim our blessings for all sorts of reasons. Some of them are rather shallow if we examine them too closely. Why should we invoke blessing, for example, if we are spared the destruction of the same hurricane that's left scores of others dead, or if we happen to win some international prize or another? I'm not sure that it's blessing to be spared when others are not.Still. I'm going to say it again. We’re really blessed.I'm not talking about achievements here. No. I'm not sure that achievements count as blessings. After all, although we may be divinely supplied with the ingredients for our achievements it is up to us to figure out what we do with those ingredients. As Jesus' Parable of the Talents suggests, gifts are not given to us to bury in the ground. The servant who received two talents and invested them and made them four was rewarded with the same words —"Well done, thou good and faithful servant; I will make thee ruler over many things" — as the one who received five and made them ten. But the one who received only one, and placed it in a hole in the ground, was stripped of what he had.The blessings I'm counting are talents, given to us raw, for us to invest and multiply, in the hopes that one day the Lord will say to The Bahamas, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant."Over the past week, the cultural blessings of Bahamians were, happily, on display for all to see. For the first time in many years, audiences in the capital were exposed to the raw talent of Bahamians, young and not-so-young, from the other islands in our family. Thanks to the Independence Committee and to the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture, the E. Clement Bethel National Arts Festival had the luxury for the first time in ages to bring many National Winners from their home islands to Nassau for the Independence season, and they performed for us all.And they blew our socks off.The creative talent that is spread throughout this archipelago boggles the mind. Now this is something that foreigners have often said of us. The thing is, I'm not sure that we have taken them all that seriously. One of the dangers of being blessed with plenty of talent is that we take talent for granted. English and North American music teachers have been passing through the College of The Bahamas and other institutions, glorying in the musical gifts of young Bahamians, and we have ignoring them. Rather than setting about investing and multiplying our talents, we have been systematically digging holes and burying them in the ground.We are a nation of artists, dancers, musicians, actors, and storytellers. We reinvented the Caribbean tradition of John Canoe. But, with the exception of a number of artists and a handful of entertainers, we have virtually no professionals in any of these areas. Our actors and musicians and writers and dancers are all working other jobs to put food on the table and to keep the light on. We are a nation of wicked and slothful servants who seem to believe that talent is enough, that investment in that talent, that focus and skill and multiplication are unnecessary, that there is nothing to be gained by professional training in any of these areas.It seems to me, given the Parable of the Talents, that this is a considerable sin.The difference, you see, between an amateur and a professional is this. An amateur practises until he or she gets it right (and if there isn't enough time to practise, the true amateur hopes that audiences won't notice the difference). But a professional trains until he or she cannot get it wrong.Why we believe that we have no room on our society -- our creative, abundant society -- for people who have developed their talents to the point that they cannot get them wrong I do not know. Why we have turned amateurism into a culture of "all right on the night" I cannot say. I'm not at all certain what it is that makes us think that creative genius is something that shouldn't be developed, that raw talent is all that matters. But I do know that the numbers of Bahamians, young and old, who are willing to allow their talents and the talents of their friends, brothers, sisters and children to languish inside, to remain undeveloped, are far too high. When we do more than allow it -- when we encourage it by proclaiming that there is nothing for anyone with artistic training to do in this country -- we are digging holes for our talents, and setting ourselves up to be stripped of what we have.Let me leave you with just one example.Not so long ago I had the opportunity to hear a young woman -- a college student -- who had one of the purest and most beautiful voices I have heard in a long time. Imagine my surprise a month or so later when I walked into a business establishment to find her working behind the counter! When I asked her what she was doing, she told me that she was working to make money to go back to school. What was she studying? I asked. (I knew enough to sense that it wouldn't be music, but hope sprang eternal.) Computers, she told me. Her parents' wish, because her parents believed that to study music would be a waste of her time.I said a small prayer for her and her parents. Another talent-hole had been dug.

On Performance

The recent visits of the Jabulani South Africa Troupe, which was well received by Bahamians in Nassau, Freeport and Harbour Island, and by the Yangzhou Chinese Puppet Troupe has put me in mind of a fundamental, and often overlooked, reality.Bridges are built by means of performance.Think about it. Here we had two groups of people from lands far away from our own. They mounted productions that they performed in pubic spaces, and the messages that they got across were understood by many in the crowd. In both cases, they were messages of joy, of pride. The Chinese shared with Bahamian audiences, the vast majority of them in Freeport, their ancient and complex culture, while the South Africans communicated their ride and joy in this their tenth year of democracy.And we understood them.Human beings, you see, have a universal language. It's a language that's currently underused here in the Bahamas, but it's rooted so deep within us that we can't escape it. It's the language of performance, and it's the one language that can be understood around the world.The language of performance is the language of human beings standing up before others and communicating their emotions, their thoughts, their philosophies, by the way they move in space, the way they face their audiences, the way they possess the stage they inhabit. Performance is the place where music, art, movement and literature can come together in such a way that together they communicate to large groups of people. To some degree, music and art and literature on their own are merely objects, commodities, unless they are accompanied by a person who delivers them. CDs, books and paintings, divorcable from their contexts, provide some insight into the people, the societies, that surround their creation. But when that message is delivered by living human beings, then it can be appreciated in its fullness.Now we Bahamians come from a society and a culture that is fundamentally rooted in performance. Only one generation has passed since children on the Family Islands would be entertained on a nightly or a weekly basis by ol' story told to them by their elders; not even that long stands between Nassauvians and their traditions of school plays, church hall concerts, recitations and festival performances.One of the greatest benefits of living in a society of performers is that everyone has the chance to demostrate his or her individuality. In performance, no one is anonymous; everyone is given a chance to express himself or herself, to know he or she is alive. Performance provides individuals with a chance to be noticed, an opportunity to be praised.You'd think every society would encourage its children to become involved in perfomance activities. But oddly enough, performance no longer seems a priority for the parents and elders of today.It's not that people are no longer moved by live performance. The recent successes of the Independence celebrations, of Michael Pintard's Woman Talk, and of the Jabulani and the Yangzhou troupes, give the lie to that. Even the fact that people are addicted to church services that feature preachers as riveting in their behaviour as any actor, and, at election time, to political rallies, reveals further that we Bahamians respond on a visceral level to orators, actors, dancers, politicians and other performers. But it is equally true that performance is no longer given pride of place in our everyday lives.This came home to me when the South Africans performed; they often called upon ordinary Bahamians to join them on stage. There was something very remarkable about those who did: they were either Bahamians of a certain age — thirty years old or more — or they were visitors to the islands who came with the intention of leaving inhibitions behind. The few young Bahamians who were pulled into the performance space appeared awkward and shy, and they went through the motions in an agony of self-consciousness that betrayed a longing to return to the anonymity of the crowd.And where, I ask myself, did this come from? How did we, a nation of natural performers, breed a generation of young people who would rather be invisible than face an audience? And even more important, have we begun to appreciate the level of culture loss that this would seem to imply?It's important we recognize that this change is not accidental. First of all, we have closed off all performance arenas. Our churches, which at one time hosted weekly recitations in their halls and required every child to participate, have brought that performance into the sanctuary and have turned services into shows in which only the initiated may participate. Our schools, which once put on regular plays, musicals, talent shows and beauty pageants seem to have deemed such activities frivolous wastes of time and money, and leave them for only special schools to do. Television and electric lights have replaced storytelling ; GameBoy and Nintendo have imposed a world other people imagined onto our youngest and most creative Bahamians. Even Junkanoo has changed. No longer is it acceptable to simply rush in the streets. Instead, young people who want to take part must become parts of large groups where their anonymity and passivity is not challenged.We have closed every door that affords our children the opportunity to face their fears and express themselves in a positive, public, individual way. We have become a nation of spectators. Our children no longer learn how to perform.It's time, I think, for us to reclaim this bit of our culture. It's time to recognize how fundamental performance is to our self-esteem, and to give it the respect it deserves.

On Bahamian Music

Well, Independence is over, and it was a musical celebration. From the performances of Bo Hog and the Rooters to the Bahamas Baptist Mass Choir, the celebration was sung, danced, and played.This is unusual, and not. It was unusual because despite our belief that we celebrate everything with performance, it's not strictly true; for quite a while now Junkanoo has been at the centre of our performing tradition, and other art forms have been peripheral. And it wasn't unusual because music is so deeply embedded into the Bahamian psyche that we don't even notice it.Not long ago, Rex Nettleford, Caribbean cultural guru, confirmed this. What he said was this: the Bahamas has the best singers in the Caribbean.This was something I never knew, or didn't believe, or had forgotten. You see, presumably like many Bahamians, I take singing so very much for granted that I simply assumed that what we do here is normal — if not in the world, at least in our region. Somewhere in the back of my mind I had an idea that music comes naturally to human beings. It comes naturally to everyone I know.And then I thought.When I lived abroad, I discovered that people elsewhere don't take music for granted. People who could sing or play an instrument seemed to be regarded as semi-geniuses; being musical wasn't something that everyone could be, and singing was certainly not something that everyone could do.I didn't think much of this. I just thought the people I had met were underexposed, listened to too much canned music, hadn't learned how easy it was to make music of their own.After listening to Nettleford, though, I began to think that maybe what we consider normal here in the Bahamas — being musical, singing, making music — is not.After all, he was simply echoing what I had been hearing from non-Bahamians over and over again — from British people, Americans, Canadians: that Bahamians are unusually musical people. When Nettleford, a West Indian, said that too, I took notice.I took notice because we really don't care. We take the ability to make music so very much for granted that we don't believe that we can do anything much about it. Instead of celebrating the fact that being musical is a Bahamian thing, and celebrating all forms of music, we do our best to box our music in.We actively seek to label it. Is it Junkanoo? Goombay? Rake-n-scrape? It can't be all of them, can it? We don't know, but we want to find out so we can put it in its box. And so we can exclude those forms that aren't "Bahamian". Reggae isn't. Hip-hop isn't. Classical isn't. Jazz isn't. Folk isn't. Country and western — not even close.We dumb down our complexities. Our Junkanoo rhythms have become more and more unidimensional, our melodies variations on the same basic tune, our most popular harmonies the simplest chords imaginable. We make our music on computers, limiting ourselves to other people's styles, cut up and doled out for us to use.We pigeonhole our performers and our sound, so that many of the most musical are considered "not Bahamian". Such was the case during the ZNS coverage of the National Youth Orchestra that the Orchestra was introduced as playing something unfamiliar, something foreign.And we know next to nothing about the richness and glory of the Bahamian musical history.How many of us know, for instance, that one of the most influential men in American folk music was a Bahamian guitarist by the name of Joseph Spence? That what made Spence famous was the fact that he tuned his guitar differently from the global standard? That the unique Bahamian guitar style is based on a system of chords that may be indigenous to Andros? That Andros is the birthplace of yet another unique form of Bahamian music, rhyming, which is our own particular take on the chant-like storytelling-to-music that manifests itself in rap, hip-hop and dub?That Goombay is a name taken from the specific Bahamian drum made from stretched skin over a barrel, whose use appears to be dying out in Nassau, being replaced by tom-toms made in Japanese and American factories? That the name was given to Bahamian music by a white Bahamian, Charles Lofthouse, some of whose arrangements we still sing today?That country and western singers sing the same songs that we sing, generally at funerals? That we share some spirituals with Black America, but that we sing them completely differently?That some of the best musicians of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s were brass players, members of the big bands who appeared in the Bahamian nightclubs, and that the National Youth Orchestra is the continuation of a tradition that is not only Bahamian, but specifically Nassauvian?I could go on, but I'd run out of space. Let me just say this. For a musical nation, we know far too little about our own musicality. I think it's time for us to celebrate it. For me, any music produced by a Bahamian, no matter what its sound, is Bahamian.It must be. Being Bahamian is music enough.

On Being Human

Imagine this: you wake up one Sunday morning, and you are in a world without art.When you go to church, the building you enter is an ordinary building. Nothing distinguishes it from the buildings around it. Inside, people are clad in uniforms. There are no suits, no hats, no dresses or gloves. The pastor looks like everyone else. Everyone has the same hairstyle, male and female alike.There are no Bibles, for this is a world without literature.There are no hymns or anthems, for this is a world without music.The offerings that are given are plain pieces of metal or paper; coins have no designs on them, nor do dollar bills, for this is a world without art.

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On Art and Truth

Ours is a society of liars.Now before you throw down the paper in disgust and pick up the phone to call your local hit man for me, stop a minute. I'm not talking about the everyday kind of lie, the "my-dog-ate-my-homework" or "no-you-gave-me-a-twenty-not-a-fifty" kind of lie. I'm talking about something far more fundamental than that, something that perhaps we don't think or talk about because we have never been taught to.I'm talking about the fact that ours is a society that places very little real emphasis on the arts.

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On the Passing of Good Men

The death of Brent Malone this week not only shocked me, but shook me. He was too young, for one thing. And for another, he was too special.Those feelings are absurd, of course, and extremely personal. Death is the one thing that does not discriminate. No one is too young, too special, too bad, too good, too black, too white, or too holy to die. The delusions of some North Americans aside, it is the one sure thing.But this isn't going to be about death, per se, but about the goodness of men who do what they were born to do, who recognize the gifts bestowed upon them by the Creator and who respect themselves and those gifts and their Creator enough to sacrifice money, social standing, parental approval, religious recognition, and material security for the exercise of those gifts.Brent Malone was one of them.

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On Theatre

On Saturday past The Landlord closed. The play ran for a month, for sixteen performances, and audiences kept coming. Now this seems to fly in the face of current wisdom about Bahamian theatre. These days, productions are usually put up for what amounts to a flash in the pan, a blink of an eye: two to three days over a weekend. The most ambitious stay open for a week, sometimes two. The Landlord was a leap into the unknown, and it flew.Part of the reason for this was the play itself. It's a very popular comedy, and every time it's performed it draws crowds. Part of it, too, was the buzz that was created by people who saw the play, liked what they saw, and talked about it: a review or two, some letters to the editor, and a fair amount of radio airplay. But the big reason, I believe, is that Bahamians are hungry for theatre.

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