Today, March 20, is World Storytelling Day, and it’s the perfect time to reflect on Jamaica’s strong legacy of enigmatic storytellers. Jamaicans are often described as “colourful.” It’s not just that we tell stories, it’s how we tell them. Our entire bodies are a part of the narrative. The widened eyes, the dramatic and powerful gesticulations and the emphatic tones are all elements of our storytelling. It’s not something that is learned or practised – it’s just the way we express ourselves naturally. Imaginative minds and a tendency toward the dramatic make most Jamaicans natural at storytelling. So much so, that you are often hard-pressed to distinguish fantasy from reality.
You could attribute this storytelling-inclination and even prowess to our history of slavery on the island. Slaves would gather at the end of the day to play music, talk about plantation life, or the lives they once knew. Their music and stories served as a fleeting diversion from the drudgery and sting of enslavement. These tools allowed them to express the fears and pains of leaving what they knew, their anger at being dehumanised and their hope for redemption.
Slaves were brought to the island from different countries and regions. Our rich dialect, patois, is the result of the blending of their various languages. It was perhaps this mixture that was fodder for storytelling, as each group had experiences and cultural nuances that they wanted to share — all of which interwove to create new experiences and a new culture.
A Cultural Evolution
This outcome is not exclusive to Jamaica and serves as a backdrop in other regions with a history of enslavement or an influx of various nationalities. However, what differentiates us, and makes this a Jamaican story, is the way in which this particular mix evolved.
The works of these master raconteurs gave us fascinating cultural gems like Brer Anansi (Anancy) and Big Boy. Storytelling simply became a Jamaican way of life. From radio to television to the front stoop, there was always a story to be heard.
Elements of a Jamaican Tale
Apart from the way we become involved physically, there are certain key components to our stories:
- Exaggeration – You have to take stories from some Jamaicans with a “grain of salt.” Most stories inevitably take on a new life.
- Repetition – This appears to be the best way to express extent or degree. One can’t just be ugly. Instead: “‘im is a ugly ugly man.”
- Dialect – One fascinating aspect of Jamaican storytelling is that it is best communicated in patois. Using our dialect not only lends to the effectiveness of the story but also to its authenticity. Somehow, “Then, the man slapped him across the face,” just doesn’t seem to carry as much weight as, “Nex ting mi kno’ di man shot im a box right crass im face.”
- Word Choice – Jamaicans use random words to express emotions. How “box cover” ever came to express shock or surprise defies logic.
- Extremes and melodrama – You know there is absolutely no way you can doubt someone who says, “Kill mi dead,” since it indicates unarguable honesty.
In Every Aspect of Our Culture
The elements of storytelling are infused in practically everything we do and is certainly reflected in our music. What better depiction than the indomitable Prince Buster’s, Hard Man Fe Dead: “Dem seh di cat got nine life, but this man got 99 life cause, dem pick ‘im up dem lick ‘im dung ‘im bounce right back, what a haad man fi dead.”
Remember Lovindeer’s, Wild Gilbert? Where else could a song about a destructive hurricane bring joy and laughter? Typical of Jamaicans – “tek bad tings mek laugh.” Mainly, it reflects our resilience and refusal to give in to our circumstances.
You can’t get more colourful than the stories, dramatizations and musical performances that comprise the Jamaican Pantomime. This phenomenal cultural staple, along with our Reggae and Dancehall music are just another reflection of our storytelling abilities set to music.
Whatever form our storytelling takes, for those who get it, it is a treat. Whether you are home or abroad, whenever you watch a Jamaican play or hear a Jamaican story, don’t be surprised if in the midst of laughter, there are tears or a certain sense of sadness. It is the recognition of our history, of times gone by, a yearning for what could have been, and an appreciation of what it truly means to be Jamaican.
So on this day, it’s a good idea to take a break, curl up with your favourite National snack, and “tek in” some good ole’ Jamaican stories. And in the words of our most renowned storyteller, the indomitable Louise Bennett Coverley — “Walk good.”
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