By Mark Jones
The Nobel Laureate clears his throat and reads from his latest best-selling novel, holding us spellbound with lyrical and evocative imagery; clearly a work of genius. Around the corner, three of the most accomplished and visionary poets writing today are engaged in an active discussion about living a life of art and thought. Next up, an interview with Ronnie Kasrils, an event highlighted in the program notes as “a free flowing talk with this South African freedom fighter, lover and artist—a man of pure humanity and generosity of spirit”.
Where have these artists, musicians, and literary superstars assembled? An upper East-side salon in New York City? A concert hall in London or Berlin? Perhaps, but wait—the mingling patrons are not walking with white wine and nibbling at cheese plates; the drink of choice seems to be coconut water, ice-cold and drunk directly from the green coconut shell, and plates are heaped with curried goat, callaloo, and roasted breadfruit!
Welcome to the 11th annual staging of the Calabash Festival at Jakes Treasure Beach, Jamaica—an event the Boston Globe described as “one of the most improbable, beloved literary-musical-human gatherings in the world– a yearly get-together of some of the world’s most famous artists reading their most important works.”
We’ve driven two-and-a-half hours from Kingston along the quiet South Coast of Jamaica, a short fast stretch on the new toll road outside town, then an abrupt down-shift to traditional Jamaican country lanes. Twisting roads, heavy with overhanging foliage are punctuated with ramshackle roadside rum bars and fruit stands. Leisurely driving is the order of the day, with an eye-out for bicycles, push carts, pedestrians and goats.
As we approach Treasure Beach, the vistas open up. We’re in the Parish of St. Elizabeth, the “bread-basket” of Jamaica. Paradoxically, though this is a relatively arid part of Jamaica and water must be carefully husbanded, St. Elizabeth provides over 60% of Jamaica’s locally grown produce—melons, potatoes, beans, tomatoes, and corn. Small farms are carefully tended and one can see the discipline and caretaking that small scale farming imposes upon its practitioners.
A final turn and we’re directed into a small pasture converted into a makeshift car-park. We emerge into the soft evening air, laced equally with the pungent smell of jerk pit pimento smoke and the languid off-beat syncopation of a nearby reggae band. It’s official; we are now immediately and completely present—all else is forgotten.
How does one describe magic? Underneath a spreading Poinciana tree in full scarlet orange bloom, an intimate stage is set with sofas and comfortable arm chairs. Immediately behind—Calabash Bay—that expansive, gentle bit of the Caribbean Sea, waters lapping to within 50 feet of the presenters. We sit facing the stage and the sea, a privileged audience, and simply let the art and intelligence wash over us. For the next two days and nights, a progression of thinkers–authors, poets, humorists, professors and musicians– explore universal themes of family, freedom, human rights, and political activism. The content is at once earthy, inspirational, daring and diverse; brain food, served up in a most wonderful, if unlikely setting.
Late Sunday afternoon, as the wind freshens and whitecaps kick up across Calabash Bay, we reluctantly turn for home, warmed and nourished by the incredible offerings of the past forty-eight hours. Yes, client scorecards and performance metrics await us, but not until tomorrow. For now, a quiet, contemplative journey back to Kingston, and a heartfelt vow to return next year.
Mark Jones is Chairman of Global Gateway Solutions, Inc., one of Jamaica’s leading Contact Centers and BPO Providers. He lives with his family in Kingston, Jamaica.