Breadfruit and Bongo Music No-Maddz Style!

Nyabinghi rhythm-infused church stomping, body trumping Revival, with Rock ‘n Roll roaring under Jazz and Jamaican dialect – this is the genre Bongo music on show now at the Theatre Place thanks to the unique acoustic geniuses who call themselves No-Maddz. With a musical repertoire honed in the live music revival that saw weekly performances in sites such as Jamnesia, No-Maddz has carved out a new musical space which is taking not only the airwaves and by storm but also the stages of Kingston’s dramatic arts enterprise under the title ‘Breadfruit is the New Bread…Baby’.

‘Breadfruit’s the new bread, baby, breadfruit is the new bread baby…cook ’em, peel ’em, fry ’em, roast ’em…this guy [called] ‘bread’ been getting ill-deserved fame, don’t know why he’s still ahead of the game.’ Those lines bring to life the rather complex parody which has been staged but could be missed by fans turning up to see the spectacular production which blends elements of drama and comedy with live music and poetry. The parody goes deep, deep in the history and epistemology of what has driven Rastafari to insist on a separation from Babylon, for self sufficiency, alongside sharp awareness of the need to forge one’s own language for expression in a world that is rife with prejudice against difference in all its various forms. It is a parody against apparatuses of the State which is Babylon, but which today takes shape in nation states such as Jamaica, where policemen shave the locks of Rastas, or imprison them for a spliff (marijuana joint used by Rastas as a sacrament; for meditation).

But, let me get back to the staged elements of the production. With space given for solo saxophone and drum improvs, cameo appearances by Anancy the spider (I certainly saw him!!) and the Jolly Boys’ Rumba Box, the production featured a fluid flow across Jazz, Nyabinghi, Rock ‘n Roll, Reggae and Ska rhythms, acoustically speaking the complexity of bread, lambs bread, earning a bread from bread, breadfruit, the New Bread Order, parody and pain, with moments of pure unadulterated laughter.

Set in the Nice Bread Bakery with that guy bread displayed on the shelf for sale fresh from the oven, massive breadfruits flanked the stage on either side serving a dual culinary and transition purpose as they facilitated stage exit and entrance. Beyond the somewhat futuristic technologically appropriate opening with metal masks extolling the virtues of living where mobile technologies in the form of tablets, Blackberry smartphones (BBM), Youtube and such delights run the world, there was ‘Natty get a Bligh’, after which the Deacons and Pastor took centre stage to rock the puritanical moral ethic that decries materialism. That piece had definitive statements embracing but simultaneously complicating our tension over possessing status symbols such as the Mercedes Benz motorcars which group members are known to drive daily in Kingston’s streets.

The humour was amplified when during a set transition the piece uproariously took a self-reflexive stab at itself as the character Fay asked ‘where is the breshayyyyyy???’ Afterall, we’d been sitting there for some time and all we saw was this guy bread, no breshay (Jamaican expression for breadfruit). When the response to Fay’s question came with the well timed rhyming scheme (— ‘I’m trying to watch the playyyyy!!—-) the audience was left with no choice but to lay its anticipation for breadfruit aside under laughter-worn cheeks. Of course the scene would have been incomplete if Fay had not made a remark about how surprised she was that sponsors would have been interested in this breadfruit madness which really contained no breshayyyyy. Jah know, I am still laughing at the brilliance of this scene because the writers had so effectively staged exactly what was on the minds of patrons.

No one could miss the stage setting with visible bakery rules such as “No baking without shirt in the bakery”. But, if you think the reference to clothing in the production was only apparent in the static words painted on set, the ingenious wardrobe changes on stage were all well executed to overpower the words. Shirts, briefs, robes, masks, and more were donned and discarded with ease during the production. Arguably, various states of dress and undress, cross dressing to play females such as Fay, and over dressing in elaborate head pieces added a unique touch to the production as something usually hidden from the audience was brought from ‘behind curtain’ so to speak, as the production unfolded.

Birdeye aka Chris Gordon, Heavy aka Everaldo Creary, Oni P aka Oneil Peart, and Sheldon ‘Don’ Shepherd make up the cast. They have been performing together since Kingston College days. No-Maddz’s dramatic appeal is in the realm of their distinct appearance (Ali Baba shoes, tattered clothing, Rastafari iconography, ‘dreader than dread’ dreadlocks, worn by some of Jamaica’s leanest and fittest men), but this went hand in hand with the carefully crafted and honed word, sound and power in their delivery of musical favourites where characters such as Bongo Clark, Bongo Gyal, and Ms. May came to life. “Ms. May, trouble deh yah…..At least, a so dem seh…”.

‘Corporate Jamaica’ was also well depicted. One song explained the trials of those trying to stay alive’ in the sterile 9-5 work regime, especially Natty. The pressures of the poor – always reaching work late, snoring on the job, turning up in t-shirt and jeans, no jacket and tie – were revealed. The poetry chanting Natty was the one who got the boot however as he was eventually dismissed, caused a scene, kicked over a chair, threatened the boss as a crowd of onlookers gathered.

Social commentary and parody also gave way to love as words such as “when I close my eyes I think of you…when I’m on the road you’re all I see, I carry you in me…” added a certain warmth to the Bongo Music repertoire.

Soon enough, Anancy cleared the stage for ‘cheetah, puma, cougar, and leopard, all introduced in the song ‘Mountain Lion’. “What a young bwoy cocky…!?” was the question which, performed shirtless, had seminal appeal and extraordinary meaning.

Truth be told, I had been out of breath from a full day of marking papers, meetings, even witnessed a motor vehicle accident, after which I tried to regroup in my standard Friday evening yoga class that uncharacteristically left me even more breathless. I was truly in need of fresh air, and It came from ‘Breadfruit is the New Bread….Baby’.

The production could not end without the resounding echo of the now famous lines – Poo Puku Poo Puku Poo Puku Puku Poo (from the song Rise Above Profanity) – which closed the show in the innovative move by an audience member staged to make the request initiating its performance.

‘One more time a system is put to the test’ as in this theatre production, Jamollywood style. I am curious to see what the real theatre critics will write, which Actor Boy nominations they will cop and which if any awards they will take home. It would not be their first at getting any such theatrical award. They were veterans at winning medals in the now famous Jamaica Cultural Development Commission’s Festival competitions for speech and drama while attending the North Street based Kingston College.

Madness unleashed? Some will definitely come away with this thought lingering in their minds. But how does one still born laughter, cautiously attempting to escape in the face of carefully crafted wit and wet-painted sticky ridicule of the system that continues to rape, diss, impose, discipline, sanction, while rewarding only the few, the non-dreadlocked, un-bongo quarters of the society, get released? It is a laughter that never comes from the performers but is elicited from the audience at intervals without effort, without much coercion.

What keeps circulating in my mind is the question – what was intended with this production? Of course the answer hardly matters. The lessons, the meaning, residual categories were certainly rich, least of which were bread and breadfruit. One need not miss the play on breadwinner, food for life, self sustenance, the Babylon system that force feeds a certain kind of junk food to the body, mind and soul… Right now, I n I in a breadfruit mood.

Do go see. Breadfruit runs until mid-June at the Theatre Place on Wednesdays to Saturdays at 8:00pm, and on Sundays at 6:00pm. If only the sound quality in that venue could be improved!