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Progeny of Air

Written by Dionne St. Hill for The Voice on no date provided

Many artists have been inspired by reggae greats like Bob Marley and Burning Spear - and poet, actor, director, playwright and storyteller Kwame Dawes is no exception. His latest work, Progeny Of Air, a semi-autobiographical collection of poetry, is a coming-of-age lyrical odyssey. The journey to Jamaica, Canada and America it describes is full of pathos, nostalgia and humour.

‘The ’70s did a lot to change poetic sensibilities and generated a kind of social consciousness and a poetic idiom that we are all now thriving off,’ he says, quietly exuding a soft confidence. ‘I’ll always give credit to the work of Burning Spear and Marley and the whole Wailers clan for giving me a vocabulary and freedom to work with.’ Just returned from a four day storytelling stint in Ireland as part of the Ulster American Folk Park, he’s still reeling from the beauty of the country and fondly recalls the similarities he found with his Irish counterparts.

‘I found a strong affinity with the Irish people I met. One of the key things about the trip was that I was going as a storyteller. Because of its traditional elements, storytelling can cross a lot of barriers.’
Often referred to as ‘White West Indians’, Irish people share a legacy of migration and discrimination with the Caribbean, though, as Kwame points out, the cultural similarities can never be universal.
Born in Ghana, his family went to Jamaica when he was ten. It was then that he was first bitten by the reggae bug. He remembers his father, until then a steadfast jazz aficionado, bringing home Bob Marley’s ‘Natty Dread’.

‘Even before we were born we listened to jazz. The house was always full of the sounds of Thelonius Monk and Duke Ellington. So him playing reggae was totally uncharacteristic, but he’d play ‘Natty Dread’ and tell us how important it was.’ The music has since had a lasting impact on his life. Lead singer and lyricist with reggae band Ujamaa, he’s performed throughout Canada, Jamaica and the US. ‘I found a vehicle where I could communicate my poetic sensibilities through music. Musicians like Bob Marley made that seem like a possibility. I listen to Bob Marley’s music and I hear the intense poetic sensibilities that are operating. He has an incredible grasp of how to communicate that to the larger society.’

Storytelling, though, has proved harder to popularise. Even though we listen to stories everyday on TV, most people shy away when confronted with the art form head on. ‘I think it’s my responsibility as a ""Third World writer"" (his quotes) to link our oral tradition with pop culture,’ says Kwame. Because of his strong Christian background, honesty is crucial to him though he admits that the temptation to embellish his tales often gets the better of him. ‘I would tell these anecdotes and as the story would go on I would notice it kind of waning. I’d change the story and I’d lie to make the story work and, true to form, the story, would just explode and do great. But I’d be plagued with guilt, and remorse,’ he laughs.

Resident in South Carolina for the last two years, he is assistant professor in English and chair of the Division of Arts and Letters at the state university. Although he enjoys his work, he reveals that he wants to return with his family (wife Lorna and young daughters Sena, two, and Kekeli, one) to either Jamaica or Ghana. An eclectic talent and a roaming spirit he prefers to roll his attributes up under the simple banner ‘storyteller’. ‘I’m a storyteller, my creativity is developing and evolving and I will tell my story through whatever medium I can find’.

This is a review of Progeny of Air

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