Guantanamo Bay US Naval Station

A REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: The touring party of 18 headed by Jam Roc Records & Entertainment CEO, Earl Lyn Junior, consisted of the Ruff Stuff Band, singer I-Karl, Jam Roc artistes reggae singer Donovan Banzana and R&B singer Al Cruz, DJ Shawnie Ranks, a photographer, sound system Downbeat the ruler with selector Fingaz, a video production staff and myself, reporter Stan Evan Smith.

After a sumptuous feast of jerk and fried chicken with rice & peas and ital stew, we left New York for Norfolk Air Base in Virginia en route to the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for the 34th annual Jamaica Independence celebration to commemorate Jamaica’s 43rd anniversary. The event was put on by the Jamaica Independence Day Committee.

When we arrived at the U.S. air base we experienced homeland security measures up close and personal. However, we were treated with royal military hospitality. From the moment we boarded the new air force C-40A, 130-seat plane for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, we realized we were the only party on the flight, save the crew members. We were treated by Captain Drucker and his crew as chartered guests. The pilot, much to our amusement, joked, “you will be landing in Kuwait in 8 hours.”

Guantanamo Bay US Naval StationWhen we deplaned at Guantanamo Naval Base, the weather was sweltering hot. We were greeted on the tarmac by Craig Basel, director of morale welfare & recreation and manager, Andre Gordon, a Jamaican, and a large, but curious iguana lizard, who caught everyone’s attention.

The Jamaican workers on the base acknowledged us with shouts of ‘respect’ and ‘big-up’. The 30-minute ferry ride to the navy base, while scenic, a la Black River minus the alligators, seemed far less so because of choppy waves and salty head winds. It didn’t help that the others of our party left us in their water tracks because they rode a speed boat. Our Jamaican ferry driver gave history lessons about the Jamaicans on the island.

After clearing security and settling in, The Jamaica Independence Day Committee hosted a reception for us at Bay View Restaurant located next to the Jerk Hut Restaurant. The restaurant staff, which was predominantly Jamaican, provided first class service. We were served mouth-watering appetizers, and later, we dined on sumptuous dishes including jerk chicken, jerk pork, lobster, salmon, and baked chicken with Red Stripe Beer to wash it down.

All this as we rocked and grooved to reggae music blasting from the restaurant’s sound system. Gerald Keane, the chairman of the JIDC and secretary Joy Connage-Johnson met with us. He explained that this was the 34th year of Jamaica’s Independence celebration on the naval base. The event suffered from some setbacks in the past and had to be reinvigorated this year to get the support of the community. The venue was moved to a new location at Coopers Field because of its location next to Gold Hill, providing convenient and easy access.

Andre Gordon, who was our chaperone for three days, took us on a guided tour of the facility and made a stop at Gold Hill, the housing complex where the majority of the 900 Jamaicans on the naval base reside. The presence of Jamaican culture and language was everywhere. As we drove around the facility, reggae music could be heard blasting, Jamaican flags were flying and we could hear the patois everywhere.

Day two for our party was spent at Coopers Field, preparing for the independence celebration concert. There was also a cricket match on the field next door.

Colours were presented to the U.S Naval Hospital Color Guard to begin the programme. Then the singing of the both national anthems for the United States and Jamaica.

After dinner was served, Junior Lyn, CEO of Jam Roc Entertainment, morphed into Earl Lyn Junior as he served as master of ceremonies for the opening of the formal proceedings. There was a tribute by Mr. Igor Burkett, past president of the Jamaica Employee Committee.

After brief remarks by chairman Keane, the guest of honour Brig. General Jay Hood spoke. The welcome was given by the commander of Guantanamo Naval Base, Captain Lawrence Cotton.

Mr. Thomas Tighe, charge de affairs, U.S. Embassy in Kingston, Jamaica, gave the ambassador’s message. He talked about the common bond between Jamaica and the United States, that of the love of freedom and their willingness to fight and die for freedom.

The guest speaker Dr. Blossom O’Meally-Nelson is the pro-chancellor and chairman of the Council for the University of Technology and also Post Master General of Jamaica. Dr. O’Meally spoke of the great accomplishments of Jamaica and addressed the current problems facing the island.

After outlining the historical traditions that made Jamaicans great, she criticized the lack of leadership and role models in Jamaican society for today’s youth. Dr. O’Meally was careful to note that the problem of values and leadership was global and not just affecting Jamaica.

The formal proceedings closed with the presentation of awards, trophies and letters to Jamaicans who have contributed to the enrichment of life on Guantanamo Bay Naval Base over the last 45 years.

This reporter was the MC for the evening’s entertainment. Selector Finger, from Downbeat International, had the crowd rocking to some classic Bob Marley and Dennis Brown tunes. The audience of over 1,500 raced to the front of the stage as the Ruff Stuff band kicked off the live portion of the evening’s entertainment with some reggae classics; Dennis Brown’s ‘Should I’ and ‘Ragamuffin’. Ruff Stuff invited singer I Karl to join them in a Ken Boothe medley. The crowd loved it.

Next up was Jam Roc recording artiste R&B crooner Al Cruz. Smooth and easy, Cruz brought the vibes down as he serenaded the females with his brand of love songs. As if to prove that he could be a ruff neck, he invited dancehall DJ Shawnie Ranks on stage. They rocked the house with a dancehall number. The Ranks, Shawnie that is, hyped up the crowd with songs from his new CD ‘The Return’.

I Karl returned to the stage to sing some Jamaican classics; ‘Mr. Fix It’, ‘Loving Pauper’ and ‘Love I Can Feel’. The audience then began requesting tunes.

The star of the evening was Donovan Banzana. Physically imposing as he is intense, Banzana is a reggae singer whose whisper willow tenor has grit, verve and a slight edge. With songs from his forthcoming Jam Roc Records CD, ‘Life’s Code of Ethics’, he lowered the hype and got the audience’s attention. On ‘Hail Abbaba Jahnoi’, he gave hail to the King, then asked ‘Where will the children play?’

In keeping with the theme of independence, he launched into ‘Freedom Came My Way’, as he prayed that the “Angels watch over me” (to cover me). The irony was not lost, because, as Banzana pleaded for ‘World Peace’ I wondered if the terrorists housed within earshot heard his message.

Donovan closed his set with his biggest hit from the Island Records days, ‘Banzani’. There were also performances by locals on the base, the most noteworthy being Cindy Lyon with a rendition of ‘Redemption Song’.

Special thanks to Jam Roc Entertainment for inviting me on the junket, the U.S. navy base personnel especially, Craig Baisel and Andre Gordon, and all the Jamaicans who made me feel welcome.