Thu | Jun 20, 2019

Lennie Little-White | Jamaican entertainers locked out of some hotels

Published:Sunday | January 27, 2019 | 12:00 AM
Karen Smith, one of Jamaica’s great cabaret singers.

Jamaican entertainers are getting a bad deal in our booming tourism industry. It is no secret that a horde of performers have been imported from nearby Spanish-speaking countries to be the main attractions at nightly cabaret shows in some major hotels.

Just a few weeks ago, the dominant hotel operator in Jamaica announced the expansion and refurbishing of flagship property in Montego Bay without reliance on foreign contractors and workmen. This deserves big bouquets when we consider that this runs contrary to the practice in the last decade of importing construction teams from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and as far away as Spain to build or refurbish our hotels. So now, there is stark evidence that a world-class chain – albeit Jamaican owned and operated – can do great construction using only Jamaican residents.

There was a time when most five-star hotels would never employ a Jamaican executive chef until one of our former all-inclusive chains took a chance on a Jamaican and promoted him to be an executive chef. Foreigners still get work permits to be executive chefs, but many Jamaicans have now climbed the ladder and are holding their own in this the most lucrative job in the hotel trade.

The paradox is that for as far back as I can remember, our local hotels refused to serve Jamaican cuisine except on a weekend when Jamaican guests were in the house. On Sunday mornings, you were sure to get ackee and salt fish, bammy, Johnny cakes, and fried plantain.

The standard excuse was that our foreign visitors never had a liking for Jamaican cuisine. They prefer hamburgers, fish and chips, mac and cheese, bacon and eggs, flaccid omelettes, and well-done steak or lamb chops.

This colonial and parochial denial was thrown out the window with the arrival of the big Spanish hotel operators. Not only did they introduce a range of Jamaican cuisine at all three major dining sessions, but they even created an entirely separate station to display the best of what we used to get from our grandparents. Name it – mackerel rundown, salt fish fritters, curried chicken and goat, oxtail, stewed pork, jerked chicken, dasheen, yam, green bananas, cho-cho, and calaloo are now staples at all the Spanish hotel chains.

It took this culinary Spanish invasion for the Jamaican-owned properties to grudgingly follow suit. Even so, their limited Jamaican menus cannot match the variety of choices in the Spanish hotels.

This overdue offering of Jamaican foods has created a new market for Jamaican farmers who now have a ready alternative to Coronation Market and its cousins in rural towns or villages.

In the midst of this revolutionary menu change, some are still importing Coco-Cola, Pepsi, and even bottled water to satisfy “discriminating” palates.

DRIVING TAXIS, SELLING IN FAST-FOOD STORES

Now, what does all this have to do with entertainment in our big hotels?

The man-in-the-street will be surprised to know that many of our Jamaican entertainers are now driving taxis or selling in fast-food stores, having been displaced by a host of foreigners who occupy centrestage on the cabaret circuit in some of our large hotel chains – foreign and Jamaican.

This is not fiction. The trend was started by one particular Spanish hotel chain when it opened its first property on the north coast. The practice spread like wildfire to nearly all the foreign Spanish hotels, and this has now been copied by some of our own indigenous hotel chains.

So if you do visit one of these all-inclusive properties, prepare for foreigners doing dancehall moves like Ding Dong and wearing false dreadlocks as they pretend to be Bob Marley singing No Woman No Cry. If Marley was alive today, he would probably be at these hotel gates singing his Babylon System is the Vampire.

There are reasons aplenty why the foreign performers have been displacing Jamaicans in our hotels. It started with Government expediency because we wanted to encourage foreign investors who were introducing Spanish culture and practices to Jamaica.

The hotels’ excuse at that time was that they could not find a constant source of local cabaret ensembles. That primary reason is no longer valid.

Despite this, today, imported talent is seen wearing “bleaching masks” while they perform Kartel’s Rampin’ Shop with a Spanish Spice look-alike with imported dreadlocks flashing from side to side in “dancehall stylee”.

WHY DOES IT MATTER?

Many will say, why does it matter if it is a Jamaican singing One Love or an imported wannabe who can barely sing in English? Therein lies the rub. Our politicians and our business leaders love to mouth the shibboleth about “Brand Jamaica” when it suits them, but these same persons show little reverence and scant regard for our own cultural expressions.

Yes, limbo dancing might be passé, fire-eaters might be hastening climate change, and the banjo and the rhumba box with calabash shakers considered antiques, but we are the same people who produce a Dalton Harris, Tessanne Chin, Omi, and Sean Paul.

The complacent hoteliers will quickly say that visitors want diversity and Jamaicans cannot deliver that. “Beat down that lie.”

This deserves a separate column to show the umbilical linkages among the hoteliers, the ministries of tourism and labour, and the passport and immigration agency that combine to emasculate many Jamaican entertainers who are now reduced to singing only at nine-nights and weddings.

It is a crying shame!

Thank God, some Jamaican entertainers can still make a good living working in our hotels.

In 2013, the Tourism Linkages Project was set up to target the “development and strengthening of sustainable linkages between the tourism sector and other productive sectors of the economy – such as agriculture, manufacturing, and entertainment ...”.

So why is the Tourism Linkages Project not doing more to foster development for Jamaicans in the entertainment sector while ignoring our indigenous culture and putting many out of work?

No wonder scamming is so popular on the north coast! After all, “Man haffi eat a food”.

Watch this space for the inside scoop as to why some Jamaican performers in our hospitality industry are having the front door shut in their faces.

- Lennie Little-White, CD, MA, is a Jamaican film-maker and writer. Email feedback to: columns@gleanerjm.com and lennielittle.white@gmail.com.