Words and Photo by Erin MacLeod—
People tend to have a pile of preconceptions about Jamaica. Whether it’s a dreadlocked, Bob-Marley soundtracked Rastafari image or an all-inclusive beachfront package vacay picture, the island looms large in the world’s imagination. But expectations and assumptions are very different from reality. Sure, reggae and dancehall are popular throughout Jamaica, but there’s a love this nation has for certain performers that tends to shock visitors. Whereas cool kids around the world might shy away from expressing a love for Celine Dion, for instance, in Jamaica it’s accepted that she’s just amazing. And it doesn’t end there.
The best place to witness the passion for what North Americans might call “easy listening” is at the annual Jazz and Blues Festival held on the north coast, about 30 minutes outside of Montego Bay. The fest draws over 20,000 people each year, and is held at the underused Trelawny Multi-purpose stadium, originally built in 2007.
This year, of the big international names—which included Mary J. Blige, Monica, Dionne Warwick and John Legend—none was met with as passionate a reception as Michael Bolton. Yes, Michael Bolton. As the Jamaica Gleaner described it, “Bolton unleashed his hit factory on patrons, who never grew weary of singing along with him.” It’s true. Both men and woman sang every line of every tune, and the adoration of the crowd increased with each of Bolton’s three costume changes.
This isn’t a guilty pleasure, this is a full-on appreciation for Bolton’s singing and his tunes–right alongside a love for dancehall. Queen of Slack Lady Saw was seen throwing up her arms at the front of the crowd, singing along to every lyric. This is the same woman who, a few hours later, made the 45 minute drive down the road to Ocho Rios, where gunman tune king Ninjaman was celebrating his birthday, to perform a raunchy and raucous version of her recent hit “Heels On.”
The Jamaican music industry celebrates singers, from Bob to Beres to Tarrus and Morgan Heritage, whether it’s at a Jazz and Blues fest or a dancehall stageshow. Crooners Tony Curtis, Lukie D and Singing Melody performed at both Trelawny Stadium and Ninjaman’s bash at Turtle River Park in Ochi. Surely there were more than a few fans who enjoyed Michael Bolton and Ninja (who was also joined Capleton, Bounty Killer, Johnny Osborne and scores of others) in the same night.
Though dancehall appears to rule, there’s still a soft spot for sweet love songs in Jamaica. And this love of singing melody extends to North American pop music enough to make the most committed reggae listener take notice. In a country where standards are rather high, when faced with a crowd of adoring Michael Bolton fans, even the most anti-easy listening listener might find themselves revisiting and questioning their disdain. Why not celebrate the man’s whole catalog?