[I can’t believe I missed yesterday’s deadline (a fact which only occurred to me at about 3am this morning). I’m sorry; work and then dance took up all my headspace.]
Talk show radio. Backstage at theatres. The apartment next door. What do all these places have in common? Well, aside from being spaces you’d probably rather not set foot in, they’re also some of the most common sites of good old-fashioned gossip. Jamaicans have a predilection for getting together fi chat people business. Suss, ‘tory, labrish, call it what you will; I call it preserving our oral history.
I hold to the argument that most of our behaviour as a society stems from the retention of African values, or the imposition of European ones during colonial times. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense. From a sociological perspective, it’s pretty much a dogma.
So when I sat down to figure out the drive behind our chatty-chatty nature, naturally I turned to African oral traditions to find some precursor to our gossip circles. Oral tradition is actually an integral part of all our history. Before the advent of writing, the culture and history of a group would normally be handed down through generations by word of mouth, or oral testimony. I can see where this would lead to traditions like campfire stories and the quintessential storytelling circle. Usually the oldest/wisest person in the tribe would be called upon to recount some proverb or tale that would emphasise their principles. Lots of stories do this, and the examples aren’t limited to African history.
But my research begs the question: how did we get from folktales with positive morals to labrish peppered generously with swearing?
From Ragashanti to the seemingly nice folks who live next door, Jamaicans have a predilection for ‘mix up’. Ragga’s show was removed from public radio because of the nature of his discussions (full on sex talk in the middle of the day), and it wasn’t like he was the one instigating the chats either. People called his show in various compromising situations and positions, eager to let him know exactly what was going on with their man/wifey/brother/woman dem. Conversations usually followed this format.
Ragashanti: Go ahead, caller, you’re live on the radio.
Caller: Mi seh Ragga, mi have wan story fi tell yu.
Ragashanti: Eeh? Gwaan, gimme di mix-up.
Caller: Mi seh Ragga, wan time mi did . . .
But Ragga has found his niche on the internet (which welcomes all its prodigal children), and now he doesn’t even have to censor his callers’ stories for swearing.
Since the time of our most ancient ancestors, sharing personal experiences has been an important part of human interaction. It builds and fosters kinship ties and promotes cohesiveness among members of a social group; oral testimonies would also be important for relaying information – learning. (Don’t eat that bush. I ate it and I almost died). Jamaicans bring it to a different level with their dramatic in-depth discussions of man/woman problems, and it’s almost comical the way we hang onto someone’s every word when they’re telling us how dem man treat dem. But are we learning anything from it?
This source suggests that Africans have been quite vocal as a people throughout their history. Something I interpret as liking to hear the sound of our own voice. But whether it’s the dynamic versatility of our native tongue, or the retention of African oral values and tradition, I doubt we’ll ever stop weaving such colourful stories. After all, everyone loves a good scandal.