by Larry Smith
We Bahamians are considered such philistines around the region. They laugh at us for stooping so low as to blow up our own culture, and that's not a joke - it actually happened in 1987, when the government demolished Jumbey Village with explosives.
The village was an offshoot of a community festival launched in 1969 by musician and parliamentarian Ed Moxey. An earlier and more 'cultural' version of the fish fry, it featured music and dance performances as well as displays of arts and crafts, and produce, and was aimed at locals as well as tourists.
In 1971 Moxey persuaded the Pindling government to let the festival take over a former dump site on Blue Hill Road and build a permanent facility. In the period leading up to independence in 1973, there was a lot of buzz about a popular enterprise promoting Bahamian creative arts.
"We put the homestead site up and in '73 we had a meeting with all the teachers. And they agreed right there that all the teachers in the system would donate a half day's pay and every school would have a function...and we came up with $100,000 in the space of three months," Moxey recalled.
"We put up a special cabinet paper, cabinet agreed, and when I pick up the budget, everything was cut out. Everything." Moxey told University of Pennsylvania researcher Tim Rommen in 2007. "That was a little bit too much. Village lingered, lingered...just kept on deteriorating until they came up with this grandiose scheme to put National Insurance there. And when they ready, they blow the whole thing down."
"The lack of support Moxey's project received from the government," he writes, "coupled with the failure of any government since that time to pursue similar projects, has installed Jumbey Village at the heart of regional jokes, but has also had the - no doubt unintended - consequence of creating a symbolic and physical monument to the government's low valuation of Bahamian culture."
Rommen is an assistant professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania and was a Rockefeller Resident Fellow at the Center for Black Music Research in 2004 and 2005. His first book, Mek Some Noise: Gospel Music and the Ethics of Style in Trinidad, won the Society for Ethnomusicology’s 2008 Alan Merriam Prize. Funky Nassau examines the role music has played in the formation of the political and national identity of the Bahamas.
"Put somewhat bluntly, the government has repeatedly made decisions that relegate culture, the arts, musicians and entertainers to a rather low position on the nation's list of priorities," Rommen says. "The struggle over Jumbey Village...stands as a marker of the real challenges faced by the newly independent Bahamas in the cultural realm."
This is a recurring and bitter theme amongst the arts intelligentsia. It was the subject on Island FM's Parliament Street talk show this past Sunday, for example. Host Patti Roker, former director of culture Nicolette Bethel, and retired tourism official James Catalyn talked about how cultural activities could be an engine of economic growth if they were not so disregarded by the political elite.
"The image of God is the urge to create," Bethel said, "which is what artists do. And a society that doesn't revere that urge to create does not know God. When we disrespect creativity, we disrespect the divine within us. Why do we downplay who we are and what we do?"
Others have defined the problem as one of rootlessness and indifference, combined with the pervasive influence of American culture, the impact of millions of foreign tourists, the miniscule size and capacity of our creative community, and the dearth of economic opportunities for the arts.
Here we are almost 40 years after independence, cultural activists say, still dreaming and arguing about things that should have been in place long ago. We are still trying to save what remains of our tattered cultural heritage, and still hoping for the economic freedom to practise the performing and creative arts.
"The government should not do everything for us, but I am not prepared to absolve them of their responsibility," Bethel continued. "Our leaders should be imagining something bigger and better for us, not simply working to provide running water - that should be a given. We can describe the Bahamas today with this phrase: 'if you stand for nothing you will fall for anything'. "
Both she and Catalyn bemoaned the lack of education about things Bahamian in our schools. "We need a Ministry of Culture staffed with people who are interested in culture," Catalyn said. "The Cultural Affairs Division of the Ministry of Youth, Sports & Culture is dead. It has no budget, no responsibility and cannot function."
Bethel, now a lecturer at the College of the Bahamas, agreed. "I ask my students questions about Bahamian history every year. One asks for the name of our first prime minister. This year I got Milo Butler as the answer. Our children do not learn Bahamian history in the schools, and if we are not teaching who we are how can we hope to have any semblance of Bahamian culture."
The current budget for the Ministry of Youth, Sports & Culture is $19.6 milliion, of which the cultural affairs division spends a little more than $2 million - mostly on infrastructure and administrative costs for Junkanoo. This is less than the budget for Bahamas Information Services, which employs some 50 managers, writers and photographers to produce sparse information of dubious value.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education spends more than a quarter of a billion dollars a year on the public school system.
"So what are we teaching our kids if we are not investing in ourselves to generate content?" Bethel asked.
In 2002, the Christie administration appointed a National Commission on Cultural Development, whose 60 members met regularly for several years under the leadership of Charles Carter and the late Winston Saunders.
This body revised an earlier draft law that sought to create a national arts council with a sweeping mandate to raise funds, operate creative facilities, give grants, produce shows and fund research. It was submitted to cabinet in 2004, where it promptly died.
A few years ago, CARICOM produced a document on the region's creative industries. It argued that activities like music, performing and visual arts, broadcasting and publishing can not only create jobs but provide avenues to engage young people in productive pursuits.
According to the CARICOM report, "There is an urgent need to put in place the appropriate regulatory and policy measures to develop the enabling environment for creative industries in this region to realize their full growth potential as viable businesses."
Activists complain that the products of Bahamian culture - our music, theatre, literature, art, buildings and folkways - are under-rated, under-supported and under threat. Yet studies confirm that cultural heritage travellers stay longer and spend more than other kinds of tourists. So we should be able to generate more revenue from our biggest industry by investing in cultural activities and product development.
In most developed economies, for example, cultural industries account for 2-5 per cent of GDP and have generated consistent and stable growth. In some major destinations, cultural tourism is estimated to be as high as 40 per cent of annual visitor arrivals.
But Bahamian artists, musicians, writers, actors, directors, dancers, designers, craftworkers - you name it — have been marginalized, disrespected, and taken for granted for decades, unable to find work in the areas in which they have been gifted.
There are virtually no avenues to enable creative people to develop and hone their talents, or to enable them to make use of them when they are developed. Arguably, our greatest brain drain is in the arts.
As Nico Bethel put it in an earlier discussion, "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. Our cultural industries are in effective decline."
Many older Bahamians look back fondly at the nightclub scene of the 1950s and 60s, when musicians like Ronnie Butler, Freddie Munnings, Ronald Simms and others played to appreciative audiences at a variety of venues.
But the trend of hotels and cruise ships providing their own entertainment for guests led to the demise of local clubs, and by the 1990s, the idea of the full-time professional musician in the Bahamas was effectively dead.
In his book, Rommen recalls the lament of Ronnie Butler - the musician I most identify with my youthful soirees at the Rum Keg Room in the Nassau Beach (now about to be demolished by Chinese workers). "I just think that after giving pretty much the last 50 years to my profession, I have a lot to say in terms of what I have seen...They don't want to know it."
And we pretty much know by now who "they" are. The big mystery is "why?"