Kanhai holed out, got caught in the covers. Just when things were looking good, little Kalicharran was still there, he was punishing the loose ball, and even with Fredericks gone and Lawrence Rowe out of the match with a broken toe, it was beginning to look like the West Indies might just snatch the Third Cricket Test from the merciless Australians on the last day in Trinidad and everybody in Jamaica was hanging on Rohan Kanhai, the captain—every transistor on the island was tuned to Trinidad, and just about everybody has a transistor in Jamaica or if he doesn’t he’s well within range; they’ve got them strapped to their handlebars, up in the cane fields they dangle from the sugar cane, the keen rudies walk around downtown Kingston with little Sonys held up tight against their ears—all plugged in, the whole island hooked up and listening to the cricket.
After Kanhai went, Clive Lloyd never really hit his stride, Kalicharran missed his century by three or four measly runs, and the team folded between lunch and tea. Australia won again. You could talk all night about it, argue about bringing back Garfield Sobers, the West Indies’ classiest cricketer of the Sixties, about the residual colonial elitism which prevents kids from the streets ever getting within spitting distance of the West Indies selectors, even though any kid playing cricket in the dirt with three twigs and a broken paling will tell you he could devastate the Australians single-handed. …
But they can take a loss in Jamaica and shrug it off; they’re used to it, they’ve been let down and shut out all their lives. Anybody on the street will tell you it’s been that way for 400 years, they’ve been pushed and shoved and left to their own dangerous devices, and there’s a lot of menacing talk going around shantytown about the pressure. About how you can push a man just so far, lean on him for just so long, slam too many doors in his face and then the pressure’s going to peak and short—circuit and a man is going to have to turn around and cut somebody’s throat. Everybody down here in paradise is carrying a knife, everybody, even the kids.
But as soon as the cricket winds down, Bulldog the Rude Boy lights up a splif the size of a sno-cone and the music comes on again, the reggae, something by Bang Hugh and the Lionaires called “Rasta No Born Yah,” Number Ten this week, and everybody all over the island’s plugged into the same shuffle, the same stutter guitar and choppy drums and, most of all, the bass. All over the island windows are shifting in their sills and cups are rattling in their saucers and the gold fillings are humming in Bulldog’s teeth, and one way or another everybody from the two-year-olds crawling in the garbage in Ghost Town to the 135-year-old Rasta out at the beach awaiting the imminent apocalypse, everybody’s got the beat, the upbeat, everybody’s all hooked up to the common throb.
Nearly two-thirds of the people in Jamaica can’t read or write, so all they know is what they’re told, what they hear—and they hear it on the radio. Tell a farmer up in the Cockpit Country that there are men riding ’round in golf carts on the surface of the moon, and he’ll laugh. He’s no fool, he’s not about to credit such a rash and ignorant blasphemy. But if it’s on the charts, if he can hear Big Youth or The Scorpion fussing and hollering and skanking over the bass line, telling about the moon—shots, then it goes down easy. If it’s on the charts in Jamaica, it exists. If it isn’t, then it’s just hearsay—some alien, suspicious, irrelevant and hostile reality fraught with shameful deceptions like birth control which any street Jamaican knows is a lot of rass disguising a barbaric plot to kill off the black race—and he isn’t falling for it.
The music, the reggae you’ve been hearing here and there when a loose one slipped through customs and showed up in Cashbox, the kind of feel Johnny Nash gets close to but never quite grasps belly to belly—the music is the root language of the Jamaican poor, and just about everybody in Jamaica is dirt poor and downtrodden.
It’s what the besieged Jamaican middle class used to write off as a raggamuffin music—”reggae,” Bulldog says, is just an uptown way of saying ragga, and ragga is just a lazy way of saying raggamuffin, or rather not saying it, flinging it back rude. Which sounds OK and may or may not be strictly true because there are no facts in Jamaica, everybody has his own version of everything. But whatever it’s been called, ska, bluebeat, rocksteady, reggae—it comes redraw, rude and ragged out of the shanty—towns of West Kingston. Wretched little ghettoes like Ghost Town and Trench Town and Greenwich Farm and the Dungle, where all the pressures threatening to hemorrhage Jamaican society meet and combust in a slow burn that might any day boil over into riot and revolution and slaughter in the streets.
So far though, mostly what happens is a couple of Rude Boys get ripped on Red Stripe beer and too much ganja and the pressure starts to nag and one of them turns nasty and they start cutting each other. Or else they go cut somebody’s uncle, some Chinaman who runs a bar, anybody, it’s pure free-form desperado violence and mad-dog anarchy. Just the other night some Johnny Too Bad came through Ghost Town doing 90 down a one-way street, and the police gave chase and the kid spun the car into somebody’s living room, seized a sleeping two-year-old as a shield and came out shooting everything that moved. He shot six cops before they mowed him down. The pressure got him.