Friday, June 28, 2013

"Cool Breeze" and the Lyrical Gangster

You should see it from the top.  "Nancy Drew" fans will know how many steps there are.

"Fire de a Mus Mus tail, him tink a cool breeze". [Or, in American English, "Set a rats tail on fire, he'll think there's a cool breeze."  It's a colloquial comment on the pervasiveness of ignorance.]

There are lichens that grow on the long stairway that connects the main street in the main town on the main island to the island's harbor.  In the daylight, when the tropical sun is full and the air its usual dry 85 degrees, they are mildly adhesive.  During the night, and particularly around the dawn dew, they can be as slippery as ice.

So I discovered on my first morning as I dashed from my small apartment, with its slightly resentful permanent resident, a six foot iguana, to the boat that was to take me to a neighboring island.  In fact, in my only pair of tropic-weight dress pants, I tripped and managed to tear a hole in the knee.  As I slid down those last few steps on my chest and stomach, an elder philosopher of the streets regarded my maladroit progress and intoned, "Mon, that was yardy".

Welcome to the Caribbean.

The other discovery of that morning was that I had been presented with a dread-locked chauffeur, guide, and general bodyguard by the name of St. Louis Johnson, but who introduced himself by the memorable nickname of "Cool Breeze", also known as "Breezy".

Cool Breeze's age was hard to determine, as he had the familiar look of a multi-generation waterman who can appear both youthful and eternal at the same time.  I guessed him to be about 30, but as we made our way from island to island and from household to goat farm to chicken ranch to luxury hotel lobby to small island clinic, I realized that, given the number of children sprinkled about the islands who greeted him as "Daddy", he would have required more than eighteen years or so to build up that small army of progeny.

Three mornings a week, Cool Breeze would meet me in the harbor and take me across to the smaller island so that I could visit those in my care. Along with him would be his ubiquitous and ancient transistor radio, sometimes suspended from his neck by a lanyard, perpetually tuned to WSTA-AM ["Always in stereo"] and his boat, the Lyrical Gangster.

It's actually more buoyant than it looks.  Sorta.

There were two songs that seemed on a perpetual loop on WSTA, both were designed to appeal to the tourists who flooded the island from Saturday to Saturday or on those days when an increasing number of cruise ships were to be found in the harbor.  The first was "Hot, Hot, Hot" by Buster Poindexter, late of the New York Dolls.  You've heard it, even if you don't realize it.  The second was also a favorite with the locals, as it was about a man on the run from the police, something that had been experienced very directly by at least half of the island's male population.  Its title uses the slang term for such a person, and every hour one could expect "Here Comes the Hot-stepper" to be playing.

Breezy knew all the words to the song, as did everyone in the islands who listened to a radio for more than an hour:

Here comes the hotstepper
I’m the lyrical gangster
Pick up the crew in-a de area
Still love you like that
No, no, we don’t die
Yes, we multiply
Anyone test will hear the fat lady sing
Act like you know,
Rico I know what Bo don’t know
Touch them up and go, uh-oh

I taught poetry for twelve years and am still not sure what this song's about, other than a general celebration of the gangster life.  Maybe that's all is needs to be about, as Cool Breeze would sing it on the ninety minute trip across the bay in the morning and the return trip usually in the late afternoon, depending on the tide.  Perhaps "sing" isn't the correct term, but whatever it was that he was doing, he was certainly passionate about it.

One day, if just to pause his twice-daily rendition, I asked him why he named his boat "Lyrical Gangster".  I knew it was a reference from the song, but I wondered if there wasn't some deeper or more interesting meaning.

"Anyone can be gangsta, mon.  All de boys in town be gangstas now.  But to be lyrical, that is the bringing of the jah love to the world, to save it from de Babylon."

Again, I'd taught theology, too, but was lost for a context.  My tutelage took place over subsequent voyages to and from the various bays.  Like many in the islands, especially in those days, the Rastafarian sect provided much of the spiritual appreciation of the world; certainly Rastafari theological terminology, made popular through the reggae music of Bob Marley and others, was of mighty influence and a positive source of cultural identity.  Well, and a rationalization for tremendous marijuana consumption on the part of some.

To over-simplify, the world is a place of natural love that is obscured by the greed and petty authority of corrupt officials and political bodies.  If Jerusalem represents spiritual perfection, then its antithesis is the Mesopotamian city.  As I once informed a young groom about the marriage license and copious amounts of related paperwork necessary for the diocese, he smiled, shook his head, and said, "Babylon, mon."  If paperwork is from Babylon, then the good, and implicit, aspects of life are from a spiritual Jerusalem, represented by all that is of jah, or God.  [Jah is possibly a patois abbreviation of Jehovah or Yahweh, but that might just be the Babylon in me talking.]

Breezy saw all good people as those in revolt against Babylon, not in any militant way, but in a manner that was revealed through service to others and a general happiness with being alive.  I was reminded when speaking with him of something that St. Paul says in the 4th chapter of Philippians:  "I am content whatever my state."  In revolt against the pettiness and other sins of the world, we are a sort of gangster; in awareness of jah love, we are made lyrical.  There is a certain native beauty to that outlook that I've appreciated ever since.

The other aspect of being a lyrical gangster that I appreciated was it's consistency.  No matter the weather [granted, it was usually perfect, but there were some days when it was considerably less so], Cool Breeze was always there, like a heavenly counterpart to Charon, on time [and not "island time", either] to take me, the sacrament I carried and the Gospel I preached, to wherever we needed to go that day.  How perfect it was that our vessel was a representation of lyrical gangster-hood.

For those interested in Rastafarianism, or at least its musical application, there are many sources of further inquiry.  Unfortunately, many of them are poorly written, thus clouding their meaning.  If one can find it, and as its out of print that may be difficult, there is a slim volume simply entitled Dread that is still recognized as the best work on this interesting cult.

Of course, spending an evening listening to the music of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, and others who perform the musical expression of Rastafari known as "reggae" might be more pleasant and efficient.  You may even find yourself dancing to it.