It's a complicated, even troubled relationship between Scotland and Jamaica. As one historian recently noted, there are proportionately more Scottish names in the Jamaican phonebook than even Scotland itself - and let's say, in a post-slavery context, that this is hardly due to external migration. I couldn't suppress these questions when I was asked by the Sunday Times (Scotland) to write a feature piece on Jamaican Burns Night at Glasgow's Celtic Connections festival, with Jamaican rhythm kings Sly and Robbie as its centrepiece.
The Sunday Times December 14, 2008
Between a Skype connection in Scotland, and a shaky mobile in a car in Jamaica, Sly Dunbar (one half of the legendary "riddim twins" Sly and Robbie) is wryly telling me about how he was once mistaken for a Scotsman.
"You see I have a Scottish name? Well, I remember I was coming into London one time, the immigration officer ax me if Aynsley Dunbar and I are related". Aynsley Dunbar is a classic moon-faced seventies rock drummer, born in Liverpool with Scottish parents. "He ax me again, and I say, 'well, I really don't know'." Sly gives a relaxed and, it has to be said, sleekit laugh. "You know?"
Sly and Robbie – reggae superstars who have played with everyone from Mick Jagger to Grace Jones, Black Uhuru to Gwen Stefani - are the centrepieces of Jamaica Burns Night, yet another imaginative leap by the Celtic Connections festival. Described as a "unique mini-carnival of Scottish and reggae sounds", the press release pegs the event to Robert Burns' decision not to leave from Greenock for Jamaica on 20th Sept, 1786, to "take up a position as a book-keeper".
The crucial detail omitted, of course, is the poet was to be a book-keeper on a sugar-plantation near Port Antonio – a position that Burns himself described a year later as that of "a poor Negro-driver". Earlier this year, in The Drouth magazine, the Glasgow University academic Gerard Carruthers accused Burns of "harbouring a private fantasy about emigrating to Jamaica, working as a slave driver and coming home rich, to avenge a slight by a skilled labourer who didn't think he was good enough son-in-law material".
Are these Celtic connections, or Celtic contradictions? Should we shroud the tangled motivations of our national bard in a happy mist of brotherhood-talk? Or is Burns becoming so elastic a cultural icon that he can be stretched to cover a multitude of national sins?
It's difficult not to be affected by the straightforward enthusiasm of Sushil K Dade, the curator of Jamaican Burns Night. Dade, a member of the experimental music collective Future Pilot AKA and original bassist with the Soup Dragons, previously curated the Asian Burns night at the Connections. As a nine-year-old, he remembers "being read Burns poems by my Grandad, and my mind being blown by these amazing words".
Fast-track to the 1990's, and Sushil is living in a suburb – "call it Bearsden" – where his family "seemed to be the only ones in the street celebrating Burns night. And when we have Burns nights, we do the classic Jamaican thing and mash it up. So we're talking haggis biryani, neeps and tatties samosa…" This 'mela' approach – a carnival where food, dance, music and poetry combine – informs what Dade is trying to do with his event.
The Jamaican peg may wobble a little, but Dade – once described as "the true pioneer of Anglo-Asian pop" – sources his passion for reggae-folk fusion in some classic antecedents. "First ever gig I went to was the Specials at Glasgow Apollo. Now there was a band that was totally politicised but they also gave you a good punk-reggae party. You didn't walk out and buy the Morning Star, but you did wake up thinking, 'Wow! This is amazing! I love music and I love people! I don't care if they've got one leg, or what colour their skin is!'" One of the night's star moments will be the Orange Juice Dub Arkestra, where Edwyn Collins and his songs will be suitably "mashed-up" by Dade and chums, paying tribute to the Scottish singer's work with British dub pioneer Dennis Bovell in the eighties.
Dade's other main ambition is to have the young folk hero Corinne Polwart sing Burns's 'The Slave's Lament', with the Taxi Gang, Sly and Robbie's powerhouse band, backing her up. Yet as the house rocks at the Old Fruitmarket venue, in an area (the Merchant City) which "has that whole colonial masters vibe", as Dade admits, will they be exploring the more troubling aspects of Burns' connection to Jamaica?
Dade's is pretty sussed on the history – which is, essentially, that Burns changed his mind about Jamaica as the Kilmarnock edition of his poems became a success: "It's quite good news that his work kept him here – history would have been completely different. Can you imagine?"
But he wants to bracket the issue off: "We won't be that political. It'll be an uplifting celebration, just glorifying music, joy, happiness, life, poetry, food… I don't know if it's the right platform. Some of the songs, including Sly and Robbie's, will have conscious lyrics, we're not going to escape those. But I personally think there's nothing worse than going to these things and you end up suffocating, as if it was a political rally".
From an old Specials fan (present writer included), that's fair comment. Yet at least as far as the wider context for the forthcoming 'Homecoming' is concerned, this is a particular Celtic connection that can't be insulated from critique.
Earlier this week, the Scottish historian Geoff Hunter voiced his objections to the 2009 celebrations, for their ignorance of the Caribbean dimension – where there are more Grants, Reids and McFarlanes in the Jamaican phonebook than in Scotland. Hunter gently reminds us that the Scottish role in slavery, through ownership and management of Carribean colonies, was brutal and direct. “My mother has Scottish blood in her", remarks Hunter pithily, "not because she wanted it, because it was put there.”
Hunter joins a range of historians and academic – like Tom Devine, Steven Mullen, Rev. Iain Whyte and Gerard Carruthers – who are probing the full impact of Scotland's slave-trade legacy. What does this mean for the forthcoming bardolatry? Kofi Annan did indeed deliver the first Robert Burns Memorial Lecture in the UN four years ago, on the theme of universal brotherhood.
But if a man is a man "for 'a that", it seems slightly delusional not to explore the implications of "a' that" – those "coward slaves" included – if we are to maturely reckon with the complex legacy of Robert Burns. Though maybe we should keep that debate for some other night than a top-rankin' January in Candleriggs, where as Dade says, "the biggest factor to remember is this: it'll be cold outside. And it'll be the Notting-hill Carnival in here!"
Back to Sly Dunbar, who's making his way into his studio in Kingston. Dade has told me one of his band members has been researching in the British Museum, and has turfed up some "Jamaican reels" that will somehow find their way into the event. Did folk music ever play a part in Dunbar's upbringing (given that his nickname comes from his devotion to the music of Sly Stone)?
"Yeah man, we grew up with a lotta folk songs, you'd hear them all the time and stuff on the radio. Folk songs had a lot of different emotions, different feeling, a warm feeling. It leaves you with something. You hear them done with guitars, some as vocals alone, some with drums only. And the words always important – like when you listen to folk songs from the San Franscisco hippie days, Crosby Stills and Nash, Joan Baez… Jamaican folk songs all about speaking your mind, getting the message across clearly".
Sly's not too clear on the commission – "it's in celebration of a writer who wrote 'All Long Side", yeah?" (though he nails the timeless melody perfectly). He's looking forward to bringing his "hard-core dub set" to Scotland, and collaborating with the musicians. There's a song he's heard called 'Red Rose', which he thinks will be a perfect Lovers' Rock option for Bitty McLean, the angel-voiced British reggae singer who's album Sly and Robbie has just produced.
Dunbar has a theory about why so many people want to use them as producers and musicians: "It's a sense of being attracted to Jamaica as an island, that Caribbean flavour. We get sunshine about 12 months a year – so we have this aura about us which is very upbeat, you know. And we move that way - like the sun is shining. So I guess that's why everybody comes to Jamaica to get a piece of that kind of feel that is down here. We're listening to music 24 hours here – every block you go to there's music playing, it never stops. Everywhere you walk there's music around you." As for the more troubled Scottish links with Jamaica, he initially demurs: "I don't know about that connection, or whether it’s more about the spirit of our peoples or whatever". But his drummer story comes next, and the implication is obvious.
I catch his bass-playing partner, Robbie Shakespeare, in the midst of a similar musicians' rush between one studio and another on the island. He's a gruffer proposition than his partner, and professionally sensitive to any attempt to put his work into anything other than a musical context. I ask him about the radical artists he's worked with – Black Uhuru, Spearhead, Ian Dury – and he answers: "I don't concern myself with religion and politics. I keep that out of my music, the music is the only thing I ever want to talk about". But as the Skype-and-mobile crackles begin to overwhelm us, I do manage to get my Scotland-Jamaica-and-slavery question in.
There's a few seconds of worrying silence before the masterful riddim-twin answers. "Now, there's only one thing to be said about that. We should let bygones be bygones. What's done… is done". And then he hits his studio door, apologises, and disappears into the great, forgiving groove.
Celtic Connection, Jamaican Burns Night 25th January, 8.30pm, £22 (Jamaican food included) Old Fruitma