On Parties

Well, it’s that season again — the season of parties. Summer brings with it regattas, festivals, homecomings, and the biggest party of all — the Independence celebrations.

And it’s got me feeling, well, a little uncomfortable.

Don’t get me wrong. I like a good party as much as the next person. But note here: I said a good party. All too often the success of parties are left up to the people who attend them, and the amount of food and drink that they provide for those people. And the food tends to be the same and the drink tends to be the same, and for people who don’t eat or drink all that much the atmosphere tends to become oppressive, rather than happy. The result: a celebration without a really good idea of what or why we’re celebrating.

I grew up with an aunt who was a party queen. Her favourite thing in the world was to throw a good party. When I explain what she did, maybe you’ll get an idea of what I mean when I say a “good” party; I learned it from her. Her idea of a good party was achieving a nice mix of people, a nice range of foods, a nice range of drinks, and ensuring that a great time was had by all. She planned her parties for weeks, cooking and freezing well in advance (or having people, among them her nieces and nephews, cook and freeze for her), playing around with the guest list, choosing the theme, the music, the occasion, the place, the décor, and sparing no expense. When she was finished her parties were works of art. She never had the same people (even her own family members) in the same order twice in a row; she never served the same food at two parties back to back; she never had the same music. Sometimes she had live music, sometimes she played LPs (she’s been dead a little while). But the main thing about her parties was her concern that everyone enjoyed himself or herself, that there was something for everybody at her parties.

Now that’s not the case, it seems, with many of the public parties that we’ve been having, almost obsessively, over the past few years. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that we’ve been partying ever since the last election campaigns back in 2001). It may have been the case, once, back in the day, maybe when the first election campaigns began with their live music and their fireworks; but now we’ve fallen into a pattern that seems to have taken on a life — and a reproductive cycle — of its own. To hold a party, all you need are concession stands selling lots of food, lots of liquor (or, if you’re a born-again teetotaller, lots of upbeat gospel music, which achieves much the same effect), live entertainment, junkanoo groups, or a DJ playing reggae — lots of abandon, some knives and guns, a wide open space somewhere, and, often, a deeply subliminal death wish.

It’s a formula, and it’s a formula that works most of the time. But it’s a formula that really doesn’t do very much for any of us in the long run. Because all the parties end up looking very much the same: the same people, the same music, the same oblivion in the end.

Now. I had the pleasure of attending the Cat Island Rake-n-Scrape Festival over the weekend. Believe me, it was a pleasure. It was a party, but more than a party; there was something for everyone, and it didn’t simply consist of a bunch of people being squeezed into a single place at a single time. The Rake-n-Scrape Festival was a wonderful celebration of local culture. The main focus of the festival was the rake-n-scrape, which featured a Battle of the Bands on both main nights of the Festival. It was a battle in which Cat Island featured very well — four of the six bands that competed had Cat Island roots — but in which Cat Island didn’t ultimately win. But what amazed me was that the announcement of the winners — a band from Long Island — was not accompanied by the now-familiar charge of robbery that the Junkanoo competition has planted in our psyches. What amazed me was that the men on stage, their concertinas and saws and drums in their hands or beside their feet, turned to one another, shook hands, and clapped each other on the back. And this was no fake tennis-pro handshaking either; it was a recognition of genuine respect for good music and good musicians. And in the end, all the winning bands came together and played good solid rake-n-scrape music in the Seventh Annual Rake-n-Scrape Festival Orchestra.

Now that was a party. It was a party because it was a celebration of something other than individual stomachs and other nether regions. There was food, yes, and drink, yes, and music, and everything else that makes parties parties. But all these things were secondary. The primary focus of the Festival was what it said it was: rake-n-scrape. Our culture. Our collective, social selves.

I say all of that to say this. Independence is coming, and we are, once again, planning our parties. What concerns me about this Independence season, though, is that, as usual, we are planning parties without encouraging the nation to think about what it is that we are partying about. In large part, of course, this is because we always start our planning too late; eight weeks, or four, or two, are not long enough to develop a full appreciation of the meaning of Independence among our young people. But perhaps it is also because we are collectively losing our sense of nationhood. After all, we leave our flags hanging in sun and in rain, throughout the night and during hurricanes, and in so doing, we grossly disrespect our premier national symbol. We prefer to get people to sing our national anthem to us rather than sing it ourselves; as a result, there’s a growing generation of people who don’t know what the true words — or the actual tune — of our anthem are. And unless we are teachers and say the Pledge regularly in assembly, chances are we have no idea that we have a Pledge, let alone what its words are.

Partying alone is not going to do it. And partying without a purpose, partying simply to laugh or dance or fill our stomachs, is definitely not going to do it. Now that the Independence season is upon us, we need to be thinking beyond tattoos and fireworks and sweeting-up on the Fort. We’ve started, you know. Proposals have been made to ask Family Islands to forego parties in favour of laying the foundation for Heroes’ parks over this Independence season. These may not be sexy, they may not be fun, but it’s a foundation that’s being laid for our futures. And those futures depend on foundations, not on parties alone.