There are voices, patterns and rhythms that I hear repeatedly in Kingston. Names that return, melodies that ring familiar, poems that speak to a knowing you didn’t know you had – sounds that started as noise and now communicate life. Partly it’s in who I know – few though they may be they are a talented and connected lot. Partly it’s that for a city of 600,00 people, Kingston can be very small.

One of those repeated sounds is the Alpha Boys School. Alpha is a multi-faceted ‘whatever it takes’ institution – founded in 1880 by the Sisters of Mercy, Alpha provides education and livelihood training for young men who once were called “wayward boys”; I’m not sure what the preferred language is now. One of the things Alpha is most famous for is their fantastic music program. It is considered a key story in the rich history of Jamaican music.

 

After several missed opportunities I finally got to hear the Alpha All-Stars (mostly alumni, with a current student now and then) on Saturday evening. This was one of those curious, incredible Kingston events: a fabulous, though small, restaurant commandeers one corner of the shopping plaza parking lot, sets up barricades and tables, and when the music starts it transports you somewhere else – somewhere the honking taxis and impatient Christmas shoppers can’t reach.

Normally the Alpha All-Stars present an instrumental show, but on this evening they had an amazing guest singer Joele for three swoon-worthy songs. Michael Bublé, it is no secret, is my favourite crooner. I’ve heard him perform numerous times and always with the same rapt adoration from start to finish. I would say that Joele’s voice is richer than Bublé’s – he’s a slightly deeper tenor – and with maturity and the right training he could be even better than my beloved BC songman. I guess we’ll see if he gets the breaks he deserves .

This morning I met up with my friend Kate and we headed off to the University of the West Indies for a book launch and reading. As we found seats in the on-campus playhouse, my mind flashed back unpleasantly to other academic book launches and readings I’ve attended. In my commitment to getting out and about and accepting as many invitations as possible, had I booked myself for a Sunday morning of Jamaican formality followed by self-congratulatory mental masturbation? Apparently not so. The unending ‘welcome’ roll call was dispensed with, the room was deemed already appropriately blessed, and the event began with a fantastic pianist and soprano saxophone duo playing “Get Up Stand Up.”  It seems that music is the one ingredient that cannot go missing at a Jamaican event.

The author we’d all gathered to celebrate was Kei Miller. Jamaica born and now living and teaching in Glasgow, Miller was launching two books today – one of essays and one of poetry. If I had to choose just one to buy I don’t think I could.

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The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion was a wonder to me. It is long form poetry. It is history. It is cultural studies. It is music. It is geography of the most human and spiritual kind. Kei and a friend took turns reading the voices of the poem – which takes the shape of a conversation between a cartographer and a Rastaman, and weaves in European and Jamaican folk tales, patwa phrases, and the sounds of this island as it has been fought over for centuries, soaking up blood as a child soaks up stories and bearing fruit both sweet and bitter. I have never bought an audio book, but Miller has the kind of voice and cadence I could listen to forever, and his delivery of selections from Cartographer was the only way I want to experience it. The audio book is being recorded this week – it will be my first.

There is richness here, and soul, and a realisation that in the blank outlines of maps we impose our imaginations, our opinions and our prejudices, and we bring those with us – they greet us at the arrivals gate and accompany us on our journey. Unless we stop, and greet them, and send them on their way so as to make space for actually being in a place, and of a place. I have many more thoughts from the readings … I’ll continue to learn from them for days to come.

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Although Miller himself didn’t read from Writing Down the Vision the snippets shared by the professor launching the book were enough to call me to it. Phrases such as “the cement of semantic conventions” and stories of Miller’s essays riding the waves between humour and tears again turn intelligent insight into something more. As Kate said when we were leaving, Miller is the kind of intimidating writer who makes you want to write better yourself.

The fantastic morning was punctuated with two more great performances by Djenne Greaves and friends, finishing with a fantastic drum and voice medley. I can’t overstate how much I love that everywhere I go in Kingston there is music:

 

Kingston is the kind of city where you can listen to fantastic jazz, support a school doing vital community work, and watch the Spanish ambassador (in blue jeans no less) hold hands with her partner and eat pizza at the next table. It’s also the kind of city where poet philosophers make you see the world and your place in it anew and four voices with drums put you at ease. That all of that can happen in a 24 hour period is what makes this my kind of town.

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