On Belafonte’s “Jack Ass Song”
My first experience with Harry Belafonte was hearing “Day-O” in Beetlejuice some fifteen or twenty years ago. Calypso captured my heart and I began singing island songs from the 1950s to my classmates. We all have our idea of cool music, and Harry Belafonte was mine.
A few years ago, I found myself watching, “How Stella Got Her Grove Back”. And while I’m ashamed to admit I watched that movie, I was intrigued with the thought of going to Jamaica. This magical beautiful island where my soulful Calypso was born. Two months later, I was on a chartered short flight to Montego Bay.
Montego is all about the beaches, easily attainable marijuana and partying. I abstained from the latter, as the beach was my reason for being there. For being. The sea opened up to swallow the sugary beaches. The last drip of sun waned on the horizon, and I was enamored. This was my first vacation in my adult life, and I burrowed my legs into the sand and let the lingering heat of the day soak into my skin.
I traveled with my boyfriend, Sean. He was always working, networking, planning and scheming. As an entrepreneur, everything he consumed, including the beaches, were write-offs, and despite my desire to let go of work, he brought it along with us everywhere, like an annoying younger sibling.
Sean was also a world traveler, and had seen much more than I. And although we were both from the same small city, he grew up in the boondocks, which colored his worldly view. In my mind, world traveler connotes and intrinsic compassion for other cultures, but not in his case. Through his travels, Sean had developed generalized judgments. “Chinese people are oblivious”, “The French are pretentious” and “Brazilians are irresponsible” were some of the statements I’ve heard him use. Yes, what a jerk, and despite Sean’s many foibles, I wanted to be with him to smooth out his rough edges. And being with him in Jamaica was no different and his rough edges had a way of cutting straight through my smoothing and soothing nature.
Every morning we headed to the beach. In the early afternoons, when the sun peaked at its hottest, we would retreat to some café for Blue Mountain coffee and Kalaloo, a mixture of vinegary greens and fava beans. Each day we spent in Montego, we would stroll further from the beach and closer to the downtown center. On our third day, we found the market area, covered in families and children running from fruit vendor to fruit vendor. The stately women smiled as they talked, their thick accents chirped and washed into one cacophonous soliloquy of bargaining prices and bartering goods. My eyes were full of beautiful, dark thin-framed Jamaicans, the ones who gave birth to my beloved Calypso and whose hips were shakers and footsteps, Congo slaps.
Sean, however, was less impressed with the market scene and more interested in purchasing gourds for musical instruments. He darted back and forth between vendors,
“The guy across the alley said he would sell for $5, can you give me a better deal?”
Some vendors shook their heads negatively at Sean, while others played into his game and fueled his dealing scheme. I, on the other hand, was bored. I wanted to be washed in the river of these people. I stood in the middle of the market; arms outstretched and listened to the noisy bustling. It was not a few minutes before Sean, gripping my forearm tightly, pulled me to the side.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m listening.” I replied.
“Someone is going to think that you’re an easy target and grab your purse.” He said coarsely, looking around over my shoulder.
“You have most of the money anyway. Besides, I would hear them coming.” I smiled assured. In that moment I didn’t care. It was broad daylight, and I wasn’t concerned about being robbed.
“All these Jamaicans around are just waiting for their chance to take you. These vendors are all acting like stupid asses thinking that I’m going to pay American prices while I’m in Jamaica. Just look, they’re just sitting there, waiting for their chance.”
I looked around and beyond the passing mothers and children was a small café where a few men were sitting and talking. They stopped talking and looked at us. I smiled at them. Sean grimaced. He was deeply uncomfortable in new settings, ironically, and was highly protective.
I shrugged, and gave into his firm handhold while he led me out of the market. I looked back at the men in the café, still smiling. They smiled back. In that moment, we knew and shared a silent laugh at Sean’s insecurity. It goes without saying, although I’m going to say it anyway: You can take an ass out of the hicks, but you can’t make a hick get his head out of his ass. And I never got to hear my Calypso music live, but the first thing I did when I returned home was crank up the Belafonte.