JERK AN DORA? A Sobering Tale of Brand Equity Squandered

Not that I'm against the presence of Dora, or of any other foreign icon on Jamaican soil. The best icons, after all, transcend geographical boundaries and indeed, one might say the same for the term jerk. No. My particular pique with this scene is that while its deemed perfectly acceptable, desirable even, to have the image of Dora loom large over an even such as the Boston Jerk Festival, the story of jerk and its cultural significance � especially to that community � was not similarly upheld, and that is a travesty.

dora at jerk fest

dora at jerk fest

At the risk of repeating the oft-quoted phrase about a picture's worth, I'll simply concede that pictures can indeed, say a whole lot. And this picture says a lot about what has gone wrong with our culture, with our perception of entertainment, of brands and of identity.

{gallery}dora-the-explora-at-jerk-fest{/gallery}

Not that I'm against the presence of Dora, or of any other foreign icon on Jamaican soil. The best icons, after all, transcend geographical boundaries and indeed, one might say the same for the term jerk. No. My particular pique with this scene is that while its deemed perfectly acceptable, desirable even, to have the image of Dora loom large over an even such as the Boston Jerk Festival, the story of jerk and its cultural significance especially to that community was not similarly upheld, and that is a travesty.

It's shameful, first of all for the fact that Boston, the acknowledged birthplace of jerk, was seeing an indigenous, self-named festival for the first time in many moons. A number of factors had conspired, too numerous and labyrinthine to enumerate here, to see the annual celebration of the jerk style moved to Port Antonio proper, the event even being renamed the Portland Jerk Festival, thus gouging out the last bit of significance of the original locale in the minds of many. This year's event was to be a grand homecoming, a triumphal procession of sorts.

Instead, it turned out to be the disappointingly prosaic food mart and stage show combo that has long since become tired, even among the more nave show goers. Yes, crowds (smaller than anticipated and steadily dwindling) still converged on the venue to see and hear The Doctor Beenie Man with his stock exhortations (All Beenie Man fans push yuh hands in de air!!) and seemingly inexhaustible catalogue. And yes, the neatly arranged stalls with their cookie-cutter banners proclaiming he name of the proprietor or the specialty (or both) did varying levels of brisk business throughout the period satisfying the cravings for jerk poultry, beef, fish, crustaceans and of course pork.

But amidst all that eating (and drinking, but more on that later) and concert-giving, one was left wondering what's this jerk thing really all about? Could a minimum of four hundred years of history (and even longer if one examines the African links) just be scuttled away, leaving only metal grills and old oil drums? Could not the present-day trappings of multimedia, (big screens, sound systems etc) not have been employed to tell or retell the history of this Afro-Caribbean mode of cooking in a way that would be both relevant and entertaining?

That clearly was not the thought of the organizers, even though in their pre-event speeches to the press they had made much of the cultural significance of jerk to the area, the parish and the country as a whole. Title sponsor WISYNCo was more interested in promoting (read protecting) its suite of mostly imported beverage brands (Ocean Spray, etc). So while there were scarcely any visible queues as to the significance of jerk for anyone, whether familiar or unfamiliar, there was corporate branding aplenty. This in and of itself is not to be totally disdained, but when the sameness of corporate thinking imposes itself on something as personal and idiosyncratic as a Jamaican preparing food for family and friends the results are pretty much what is illustrated: rows of branded stalls with little evidence of the individuality that is long the hallmark of our culture.

I'll revisit in greater detail the impacts and implications of corporate sponsorship on our entertainment and arts in a subsequent piece, but just to reiterate that none of the corporates took it upon themselves to seek to evangelize for the cause of jerk as more than just some pepper-slathered meat off a grill, wrapped in grease paper and presented to patrons who are then dispatched in favour of the next paying party, with cash in hand. Caribbean Broilers (CB) which over the last decade or so has begun to seriously challenge the oligarchy of the more established Jamaica Broilers (Best Dressed Chicken) mounted no visible or tangible promotional exercises beyond plastering the site with its logos.    

Most shameful of all, the public attending the festival seemed none too alarmed and indeed, quite happy to soak up the corporate branding onslaught and the lack of recognition for the jerk cuisine they claim to love and visibly enjoyed. Considering they were charged roughly US$9 merely for admission and with further spending a must to secure food and drink, one can only conclude some kind of masochism has taken hold, but this is not surprising. Years of conditioning via the media have inured them to asking questions, much less exercising their imaginations and ultimately, they were met precisely at the point of their low expectations.

The runaway slaves and hideaway seafarers (pirates, et al) who pioneered the style centuries ago, probably never had the expectation that the method they developed largely out of sheer necessity and practicality would grow into the globally recognized phenomenon it is today. But its arguable that they also would not have allowed it to be reduced to the crass commercial pandering that is now the norm. One hopes that the Maroon spirit has more fire in it than that.

And there ends my tale. As that other cultural icon Anancy (the wily spider) would say jackmandora me nuh choose none 

Photo Credits To Michael Edwards, EMX Group
Michael Edwards is a freelance contributor with MNI Alive