When Bob Marley died in 1981 at the age of 36, he was mourned by the millions for whom he had been a musical and political messiah. Revolutionary both in style and in lyrical content, Marley's songs were an accurate reflection of the man: defiant, idiosyncratic, perceptive, and infectious. Marley was the mystic, the rebel king who bared Trenchtown's barbed-wired soul to the rest of the world. He sang about reformation, class struggle, racism, about overcoming a heritage of slavery and colonialism by any means necessary. He was, in a word, dangerous.
On my first visit to St. Maarten several years ago, Marley's music was everywhere. You heard it in taxi cabs, in souvenir shops, blasting from cheap boom boxes inside tin-roofed shacks. The combination of red-yellow-green dominated belts and caps, and Marley's visage was omnipresent, peering out from thousands of posters and T-shirts.
To borrow a phrase from another singing Bob, the times they are a-changin'. While you can still find Marley posters and T-shirts if you look hard enough, his music is no longer the staple of yore. Nowadays when you walk down Front Street, you are more likely to hear Juan Luis Guerra y su Grupo 4.40 singing about la bilirubina. Hundreds of Dominicans have migrated to the island, and the balance of musical power has shifted from reggae to merengue. Spanish has reasserted itself as the language of the street on an island that is officially half-French, half-Dutch. Teen counter workers at the Burger King in Philipsburg routinely speak four languages.
Culture clash, adaption, and coexistence are long-standing traditions on St. Maarten. In the beginning there were the Arawaks, a gentle people unschooled in the grand European traditions of deceit, genocide, and real estate acquisition. Theirs was a relatively low-stress existence except for the occasional run-in with the Caribs, another indigenous race whose penchant for violence has stumped anthropologists for centuries, as the Caribs did not have cable and therefore couldn't have acquired their aggressive behavior from Starsky and Hutch reruns like the rest of us.
Then Columbus arrived on the scene and consummated one of the Western Hemisphere's first big deals - the Arawaks' land and gold in exchange for smallpox and promising careers in the burgeoning international human-chattel industry. Columbus and his merry men got yuks aplenty from the unsuspecting natives, who had this hysterical habit of dropping to the ground in mortal terror every time the Spaniards fired their guns. If only Tom Vu had been an Arawak, they could have let Columbus claim the island and then bought it back from him for no money down.
Today St. Maarten is the smallest island in the world divided between two sovereign powers (Holland and France). Legend has it that a Dutchman and a Frenchman stood back to back on one side of the island and began walking along the shoreline in opposite directions until they ran into each other again on the other side. A line was drawn across the island from starting point to ending point, and that boundary has stood through nearly 300 years of peaceful coexistence. France wound up with 21 square miles while the Dutch came away with only 16, a fact that islanders attribute either to the Dutchman's fondness for gin or to the Frenchman's not wasting valuable time on personal hygiene.
I blew into St. Maarten this year for Carnival, hoping to catch Calypso and soca heavyweights Arrow and the Mighty Sparrow, not to mention the annual competition for Calypso King. Of course, the prospect of slurping a few Heinekens while kicking back and watching the nude sunbathers on Orient Beach did factor into the decision-making process. I had been to St. Maarten before, and I loved the place. Everywhere I went on the island, I was befriended by people for whom race was not an issue. Somehow white and black alike had managed to get beyond the pigment thing (at least as far as I, an ignorant tourist from Miami, could tell).
I was sitting at a blackjack table near the bar in the Rouge et Noir Casino in downtown Philipsburg when news of the Rodney King verdict and the subsequent rioting flashed through. Suddenly the normally boisterous gaming den went eerily quiet. I had never been so aware of my skin color in my entire life, and that includes the two years I lived in L.A.'s South-Central, the very neighborhood in flames. I realized I was one of only three white people in the place. I stared hard at my tiny pile of five-dollar chips, trying to think of anything remotely appropriate to say. I came up with nothing. I felt a hundred eyes boring into my back. Finally someone at my table spoke.
"Dem fucking police in States out of control, man," came a voice from next to the shoe. It was a skinny guy with half an ear, another player. He wasn't confronting me as much as he was putting the ball in my court. He studied my face for a reaction. I nodded. "Hit me!" he commanded the dealer.
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He drew a ten. Busted.
"What for y' hit t'irteen? Dealer got him four. Gon' bust," chided the expert to his left. The game continued. Life, as they say, went on.
I played a while longer before cashing out and heading over to Carnival Village where Jouvert Jump-up - a soca-stoked, 4:00 a.m. street party that highlights Carnival in St. Maarten - was about to reach critical mass and spill out of the Village and onto the streets of Philipsburg. I wolfed down a couple of satays - skewers of pork and goat slathered with peanut sauce - and joined the parade. All around me people of every shade on God's color chart were laughing, drinking, dancing - singing joyously in French, Spanish, Papiamento, English, Dutch. I tried to shake my butt with some semblance of rhythm, but the Anglo contract I signed before I was born strictly prohibits me from successfully engaging in such behavior unless I've poured enough alcohol into the machinery, and even then I've never been really sure if I was actually dancing or was just so loaded I thought I was.
The following day I let a time-share resort try to sell me a condo, in exchange for giving me a free rental car for the balance of my trip. As I listened to the salesman's pitch, my mind couldn't help drifting off to the music piped softly into the sales office.
Bob Marley. "Redemption Song.