So I went to see Celine Dion perform in JA. It was unbelievable. I ended up being interviewed on radio (NewsTalk 93–to be broadcast this Sunday between 9-10am) about the show and writing a piece for the Montreal Mirror. Thought I’d throw up a director’s cut version of the piece here and some more photos.
It’s 2:30am on an average Monday morning. The unmistakeable, song-starting humming of Celine Dion fills the air. Women with their hands over their hearts and heads thrown back belt out the words to “I’m Alive” into the warm evening. Couples dressed to the nines—women in shimmery, sparkling dresses and men sporting bright coloured shirts and well-shined shoes—spin into the street through a huge crowd of dancers. Headlights light up the scene as cars fight their way through the road, which is bookended with huge walls of speakers. This is the Rae Town Old Hits street dance in downtown East Kingston, Jamaica, ground zero for the love this island has for Quebec’s most famous vedette.
If you expect Jamaica to be the home of reggae and dancehall, you’d be right, but it’s also home to one of the most committed groups of smooth adult contemporary and country music fans. If there’s one thing that Jamaicans love, it’s darned good singers singing darned good songs. From bad men to rude bwoys to Rastafari to uptown top ranking folks, Jamaicans are just as, if not more, likely to love Kenny Rogers and Air Supply as they are the Marleys, Buju and Kartel. For Jamaica, Bounty Killer might be the Poor People’s Governor, but Celine is the Commander in Chief.
Given the depth of Jamaican passion for Celine, it’s not surprising that when she was announced as headliner for the Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival, the public thought it too good to be true. Festival founder Walter Elmore had to travel to Miami and beg a picture with Ms. Dion in order to prove that her heart was going to go all the way to JA. Sure, the Temptations, Ceelo Green, Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill, Ralph Trevesant and a weekend’s worth of some of the best reggae artists Jamaica has produced are already a draw, but nothing compared to the excitement surrounding the most well-known Canadian performer in the world.
In the middle of the Caribbean countryside, the Trelawney Multi-Purpose stadium was built for the 2007 World Cup of Cricket, but it’s not seen so many people as Friday, January 27, 2012. The Jamaica Observer newspaper headline screamed “Celine at last!” The two lane highway leading to the show expanded to an adhoc five, but people calmly dealt with the gridlock. Celine is worth waiting for. What would normally be a 30 minute drive from Montego Bay to the venue located just outside the cruise-port town of Falmouth took over two hours. While our taxi driver navigated through the seemingly endless sea of cars, we asked if there was anyone else he would have liked to see at the Jamaica Jazz and Blues festival, his response was, “No, she is better than number one. There is no one better. No one.”
Stepping on the stage in silver jeans and shimmering shirt—the type of outfit that would fit right in at Rae Town—Celine went on to make three costume changes, each more bejeweled than the last. The crowd roared, some women crying, and most holding their blackberries in the air so as to prove that they were actually there, and Celine talked about her excitement about being in Jamaica. “It’s the best place in the world,” she exclaimed, pausing before finishing the sentence with “…to get a plate of jerk chicken!” Wild applause followed, and her bits of banter about rum cake and weather seemed genuine—she’d only arrived that evening, a couple of hours before, so it was pretty impressive. Sure, she’s from Charlemagne, but she might has well have driven up from Kingston given her ability to immediately engage the crowd. Proof? When she sang “I’m your lady, and you are my man”, a fellow next to me yelled out “Yes I am!!”
Being Canadian, hell, being alive means that you’ve probably heard every song in Celine’s catalogue whether it be in a mall or randomly on the radio, and the woman performs ‘em like it’s the first time. It was impossible not to join in the 25,000 person strong singalong. Sure, the crowd couldn’t keep up with “Pour Que Tu M’aimes Encore,” but it didn’t matter. Kicking up the drama, commotion began near the stage in the middle of Dion’s duet with a be-screened Andrea Bocelli as a concert goer took to his knees to propose.
Even Shaggy, who stood at the front of the stage, staring up in awe for every single song, was clearly taken with the power of Celine: “I was very moved,” he said, “Every Jamaican think they’re superstars anyway, so when she came in and was very complimentary about the country and the food and the culture. The crowd was like, ‘You’re a superstar like us now!’” Mr. Boombastic knows that Celine connects.
Carl Wilson, music critic and author of Let’s Talk About Love, a book about loving and hating Celine Dion, admits that her music is “sentimentalized”, but as he puts it, “presents itself in this explicit and over the top way that is easy to identify across language and cultural barriers. There’s not a lot of subtext.” As well, the slight awkwardness of her cutesy jokes, what Wilson calls “a lack of polish within all the polish,” is endearing. And the fact that English is her second language and that she’s from a small town is important: “People understand that she cares about her roots but she has moved on and achieved success.”
Every Jamaican gets this. Back in Kingston, all the people I know were beside themselves when I said I’d seen Celine Dion. When I revealed the fact that Celine doesn’t seem to connect with all Canadians and that there are actually more than a few people in Canada (and the rest of the world) who aren’t big fans of her music, a friend looked at me like I was out of my mind. “You don’t all love Celine?” she said, astonished, “You people all are backwards, seriously.”