Obituary: Jean “Binta” Breeze spoke for all Jamaican women

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meT HAS BEEN MEETED after her first attack of schizophrenia, when Jean Breese, as she then was, was listening to the radio. The radio was one of the many voices in her head that told her what to do, sometimes fiercely, sometimes kindly. This voice was catchy and catchy, Otis Redding singing “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”. So she did what he said. She took the bus from Patty Hill, her town in northwest Jamaica, to the only bay she knew, Montego Bay, and sat by the sea writing as if to save her life .

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She rarely found meaning in these commands from the voices, but this time a Rasta man walked up to her. His hair was long like hers, and he asked: “Girl, are you a poet?” When she said yes, he asked her to recite a poem in a ceremony. The entertainer was Mutabaruka, who at the time was one of the cleverest men in Jamaica at putting poetic lines over beat-dub reggae poetry, and she was the first and one of the few female actors in the world.

What she carried in her head from then on was the cacophony of the whole island, from the winding streets of Kingston, where she went to drama school, to the swampy, ferny, itchy bush and the cascading rivers, from singing the blackbird at home. in the mango tree, to cry “Who!” in a fight at a rum bar. She held her mother’s voice, reciting poems to her as they rested on her bed in the afternoon sun trap. She saw the preacher proclaiming the day of tribulation, the chained slave on the Middle Way “pressed into a deep well of darkness”, the young blood moving down the road (“a liter in my pocket / a whistle in my theet”) and her grandmother, who pretty much raised her on her farm in the mountains, praising “de simple tings of life, my dear”:

ah ho tha mi corn/an de backache gone
plant me peas / easy arthritis

One by one she wrote them down and spoke them aloud, hectory or wistful or wild, eager to make music out of those words.

The poem that brought her to the attention of people, “Riddym Ravings” in 1988, was written out of her schizophrenia, as she asked the doctors in the hospital to “tek de radio outa mi head” and they also asked her push up the belly. and listen to her unborn child. In “Red Rebel Song” she admitted that she was “raw fire mad”. But this madness also spread to the voice of the field slave, forced down on “Massa’s bed”, and to the resulting half-breed, a brown-skinned rebel like herself, tired of the “black-and-white question” and emphatic. that “mi nah/tek do not abuse from the direction of eida”. She also found her own voice in the wind, the Crafts that blew ancestral echoes and the cries of African slaves, and she kept the name Breeze, only changing the spelling, even after that first marriage ended. . “Binta” she took, in the Rasta years of her 20s, as a West African name meaning “daughter of him”. The daughter of the wind. That’s where she was after death, not with roots and worms.

From 1985 she divided her life between England, world tours, and Jamaica, between patwa (just Jamaican, as she thought of it) and the standard English she had spoken in her middle-class family. But English voices rarely came through, only those of the home, and the women of the home. He felt a duty to record them, as the single woman in a wonderfully macho world. At first she downplayed her femininity, wearing military khakis to play, but not for long. Dub had to adapt to her, not the other way around. She loved that wild, funky reggae beat, along with Rastafarian chants and African drums – which Bob Marley admired, and all that it meant for self-confidence and independence Jamaican – but women’s lives were too fluid and complicated for all that masculine swagger. Reggae could sound as hard as iambic pentameter, so she mixed in rhythms from jazz and mento, Jamaican folk music, and, for quieter contributions, she took blues out of her sleeve.

So she spoke out for all the working class women who lived on her end. The man of the house, her apron “all the greases from … cooking enough greens”, who smells it before she puts it up for the laundry; the wife of “ordinary mawning” who, after sending the children off to school (“wish I’d never begotten but Lawd/mi love dem”), and thought what who cooked for dinner, suddenly bursting out in front of them. frog himself peed on the line; the general condition of men who pass through, but do not stay. The voices spread further, until the whole third world of women was crying in her too. In one of her collections, “Third World Girl”, a defiant black teenager was covered showing off her new young breasts. In the title poem this girl was looking through the bushes as the rich world tourist waved on his fenced beach, reminding him that he didn’t know her, wasn’t supposed to he accepted that he could touch her, and that “the rape was done.”

Life was a burden to these women, as it often was. She had six or seven breakdowns, when she would put herself in the hospital and babysit her mother. But in good times she couldn’t be happier, full of a smiling smile, sitting cheerfully on her verandah and going with the neighbors to drink beer. Women also had compensation for their poems. The housewife in “Spring Cleaning”, for example, is soothed by the 23rd Psalm:

goodness and mercy will surely follow me
she picks up a broom/and she sweeps
all the days of my life / and she sweeps…

As for her sisters in the Caribbean in general, she saw them walking proudly, “making a mountain/wid we foot”, touching their hips, carrying on their heads what looked like a burden but was in the freedom of water, giving life and saving life. “Chile, never forget a sight”, her grandmother had told her: a sight that brightened her eyes and washed through her like a cooling spring. She would not forget. She may be mad, but she wasn’t going to live like Bertha Mason in “Jane Eyre”, sitting in the attic, “my song lock up tight/eena mi troat”, until she set the place on fire. She was going to sing long, loud and now, her voice. His song.

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