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Loving Miss Lou

Kavelle Anglin-Christie, Staff Reporter

Louise Bennett - Norman Grindley

Remember: "Clap Dem! Clap Dem! Clap Dem!", or, "Jackmandora, mi nuh choose none"?

It's undeniable that Jamaican theatre and music have been shaped and moulded by the work of 'Miss Lou'.

The Honourable Mrs. Louise Bennett-Coverly, 88, affectionately called 'Miss Lou', died yesterday morning at the Scarborough Grace Hospital, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

The passing of Miss Lou, signals not only another closed chapter in Jamaican history, but the passing of a hero for many in entertainment.

Actor and Comedian, Owen "Blakka" Ellis, says he has been performing Miss Lou's poems since he was a child and it seemed 'uncool' to do so. He continued, nonetheless, and hasn't regretted his love for the performing arts.

"I've been performing her work since I was in primary school, then I entered the JCDC speech festival and won a gold medal doing "Love Letter" in 1978. Her work is all-encompassing, it's not just about her poems ... but she was the first black woman, or person to own a radio show on BBC. She inspired a lot of people from Harry Belafonte, young actors, to young children ... "

"She was also an inspiration to young actors and young children - Just the way she found a way to rhyme and still have the content make sense. The country will never be able to understand the loss," said Ellis.

The theatre isn't the only place missing Miss Lou. Dancehall artistes who grew up watching Miss Lou and performing her pieces say she inspired them when they were children.

Dancehall artiste, Lady Saw, who loved to recite Miss Lou's poems as a child says people thought she was going to become a comedian.

"I remember back when I was going to school and reading a lot of her stories. I loved performing her work in school and people thought that I would grow up to become a comedian. Back then we were all about Miss Lou ... My condolences to the family ... She was a talented, brilliant and dramatic woman - just all the good words to describe her," she said.

Lady Saw says she doesn't know if young artistes and young children know about Miss Lou because most have lost a sense of their heritage.

"I don't know about that part. When I was growing up I was into school plays, drama and dinki mini, and when I was growing up in St. Mary we were into Ring Ding. Dem pickney yah not into anything like that, them into doing the dutty wine. We have definitely lost a significant part of our culture," she said.

Though Lady Saw was doubtful about what young artistes know of Miss Lou, it's good to know at least two have some knowledge of the Jamaican icon.

Dancehall artiste, Assassin isn't old enough to remember the days of Miss Lou's show "Ring Ding" but says as a past member of the drama club, he loved performing her work.

"I remember going through primary school and performing the pieces and knowing that it was a great part of our culture. I know that Miss Lou represented the history in terms of culture and the dub poetry kind of vibe," he said.

Assassin says though his work was not directly inspired by Miss Lou's, he admired what she stood for: "It was a big part of what we used to do as kids and back then reciting the poems was a form of entertainment for us and it was better than reciting some Shakespeare. That was the time that we could hear the teachers teach something in patois, because back then patois was deemed as something bad and to be kept out of the education system."

He says though Miss Lou has died, her work transcends her presence: "In Miss Lou's case, as long as her work is around, then her work shouldn't be judged by her mortality because you become immortal through your work. For example, I wasn't around when Bob Marley was around yet his influence was still so great."

Freddy McGreggor's son and newcomer to dancehall, Chino, says he does not know much of Miss Lou, but he views her as one of the early deejays.

"I know that she basically made patois acceptable in the corporate world. I think I can safely say that she was one of the early deejays, in my view - just the way she used to rhyme over the rhythms steadily. I would also say that she was an ambassador for our country," he said.

It seems almost insignificant to argue who knew the most of Miss Lou, but it seems more meaningful that she lived a life that inspired others and refused to conform to the 'you're low class if you use patois' stereotype. Ellis says it is for these reasons that she could never be replaced.

"She will never be replaced - never. Not in the ways she has carved her thing. Joan Andrea Hutchinson's, writing in some ways is an echo of Miss Lou's writing though she doesn't do it purposely. But Miss Lou is untouchable and has made a name as a comedian, teacher, folklorist, writer and social activist and there will never be another," he said.

July 27, 2006

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