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John Blake’s Caribbean Experience summons jumbies to life on WHUR.
It’s midnight on Saturday, and there’s an open jumbie call. Local soca group Chaos rallies the creatures of the night from Washington to Baltimore, advising them to turn their radios up loud and preparing them for another weekly ritual of possession. “Jumbie posse, allyuh ready?” a voice exhorts over the tassa drum. The music pulses through the airwaves: “If yuh can’t say no to this type of music/Yuh might be a jumbie/If yuh bumpsee start shaking whenever it playing/Yuh might be a jumbie/If yuh lose control and yuh waist start win’ing/Yuh might be a jumbie.”
With jumbies afoot, there will be no sleeping tonight. Six unstoppable hours of Caribbean Experience, hosted by John Blake on WHUR 96.3 FM, means no breaks, no naps, no sleeping for anybody in range of the show.
I turn off the radio at the anthem’s end and stumble out of the car into a shady-looking parking lot on Howard University’s campus. It is an eerily warm night, filled with a thick, dark silence. As I approach WHUR’s strangely peopleless headquarters, I can’t help remembering Tobago nights when tall shadows jumped with the flicker of my grandfather’s pitch-oil lamp.
My grandmother would huddle us uncomfortably around the kitchen table, get that grave look in her eyes, and talk about walking up some dark road and encountering a jumbie. Now, that was not a party—it was serious business. Jumbies are ghosts or spirits of the dead who visit themselves upon the living from time to time, especially at night; like many Caribbean people who grew up in the days before electricity, my grandmother had had personal experiences with them. She talked about soucoyants, people who shed their skin, turn into a ball of fire, and fly off to suck people’s blood at night. And La Diablesse, a pretty woman who appears in the middle of the road to drunken men walking home from parties late at night. Dressed in a long skirt to cover up her cow’s foot, she lures them into a pit, and they are never seen again.
But the jumbies being summoned by Blake aren’t apparitions. They’re a loyal crew of
nocturnal spirits who tune him in week after week. And when Blake appears from some dubious-looking side door that he swears is actually the front, I don’t jump, despite my grandmother’s stories.
Blake sits at the controls, headphones strapped to his ears. His silky inflections make barely a ripple as they head out over the air. Keisha Manderson, his assistant for tonight, runs with a clipboard to a storehouse in the back and returns with piles of CDs. Blake eases down a combination of red, yellow, and black knobs on the console, reaches into a stack of CDs, and keys some buttons to cue up another song. The transition is smooth. “I need the commercial copy,” he says. Manderson hands him a manila folder, and he starts reading: “Is your cargo collecting cobwebs? Sitting? Not going anyplace? Direct Caribbean Shipping. Now you can ship with confidence. It’s a breath of fresh air!” The owner of the company immediately phones in to compliment Blake on how well he read the sponsorship announcement.
As the night wears on, “Lady Myrrh” calls in to find out if Blake has received a CD she sent, somebody else requests the obscure dancehall track “Lethal Batty,” and Vincent is put on hold for 15 minutes because he talks too damn much. By 4 a.m., broadcaster Patrick Moore has answered questions about his new Caribbean television show, Gwen has called to announce that she won the “Tiny Winey” competition at a Byron Lee concert, and dancehall heads have checked in about Buju Banton’s recent performance. In between playing Sanelle Dempster and Blue Ventures’ “River” and Flava’s “J’Ouvert Morning,” Blake encourages people to go to the Crossroads nightclub on Oct. 24 for free food, entertainment, and special jumbie T-shirts to celebrate the show’s 27th anniversary.
The party began back in 1972, when WHUR’s substandard equipment was housed in a makeshift trailer studio. Blake approached program manager Tony Jones with a recording of Byron Lee’s reggae-style “Theme From Shaft” under his arm. Jones was impressed enough to invite Blake to a do a half-hour special on Jamaica’s independence. Blake later did a similar show on Trinidad. The features soon blossomed into a full-fledged program, with an impressive guest bill that included Bob Marley, David Rudder, and Walter Rodney. Today, Blake’s show is the flagship Caribbean radio program of D.C., with a magazine-style format mixing news from the islands with interviews and healthy doses of calypso, reggae, and soca.
As Blake’s listenership grew, so did WHUR, which moved from its trailer to a building located at the center of the campus. And when station administration moved Blake’s program from 3 to 6 p.m. on Saturdays to 2 to 6 p.m. on Sundays, he thought nothing of it. But Blake was dumbfounded when the university station later decided to cancel the show. D.C.’s Caribbean community got the word—and decided to step in.
“They threatened to put a big ax in the program,” says Caribbean News Agency journalist Roy Assanah. “And a bunch of us wrote letters to the president of the university.” Assanah was among the many people who signed petitions, protested outside WHUR, and plagued the station’s phone lines with a blitz that drove Blake’s supervisors around the bend.
Faced with the onslaught, WHUR’s administrators eventually gave Caribbean Experience a reprieve, but a couple of years later the show was pushed back again—this time into the midnight-to-6 a.m. slot. Blake settled into his new schedule, realizing he had little choice. Some of his listeners wished he had taken a stronger stand. “They thought it was an insult to the community,” Blake says. Blake worked with the hand he was dealt, redesigning Caribbean Experience to suit its later broadcast time, nixing the long interviews and spiffing things up with party mixes, waist-breaking soca jams, and dancehall hits that would appeal to a more nocturnal, younger bunch.
It worked. One night, very late, a young listener called the show and suggested that he must be a jumbie to be listening to the station so deep into the night. Blake co-opted the remark and began forging an identity for his nocturnal listeners. He asked Chaos to create a jumbie theme song and approached WHUR to provide funding for a bunch of jumbie T-shirts promoting the show’s 25th anniversary. The jumbies, real or self-created, had found a home.
The Saturday before the celebration at Crossroads, Assanah sits at the controls, in the same chair Blake remembers him falling asleep in years ago. He has arranged for all the Caribbean ambassadors to the United States to call in to the show to congratulate Blake on the air. Assanah fidgets with the phone, wondering who will call first.
Gordon Holder answers on the first ring, using a phrase he will repeat throughout the show: “Hello? This is not John.” The WPFW 89.3 FM staffer is helping out on Caribbean Experience tonight, taking a call from Odeen Ishmael, the U.S. ambassador from Guyana. Next comes Richard Bernal, ambassador from Jamaica. And while Assanah is deciding whom to cuss out first for not calling, Sonia Johnny from St. Lucia rings in. “It’s going to be an unusual program,” Blake announces as Holder and Assanah smile from the corner. The show’s usual hi-jinks are suspended so people have an opportunity to testify about the anniversary.
Promoter Learie Bruce remembers being marooned in Texas, with nothing on the airwaves but a heaping plate of country music. “I had a strong desire to hear ‘Sugar Bum Bum,’” Bruce says. When he moved to D.C., hearing Caribbean Experience took him back to the islands in a few short hours.
A man who goes by the name of Chris—only Chris—says that the show can keep a person out of jams. “Hanging out at John’s show is the key to the alibi,” he says. On more than a couple of occasions, Chris says, he would pass by the station after leaving a party so that Blake would mention his name on the air. Then he’d dip out, giving his folks at home the impression that he had spent the entire night at the studio.
At 4:44 a.m., former Howard student Judith Howell appears in the doorway, frantically waving a yellow pad. She’s re-enacting one of her many trips to the studio in 1973, when Blake helped her produce a student radio show. “I measure the success of [Caribbean Experience] by how many loads of clothes have been washed, how many steel drums have been repaired, how many tests have been studied for, and how many carnivals have gone by,” Howell says.
At 5 p.m. on Oct. 24, the Crossroads parking lot is practically bare. It is way too early for many jumbies to be up and about. Over the next three hours, they will gravitate to the bar stools at the back of the club’s dance hall and the open buffet table.
Blake enrolls Assanah to be MC for the night, and several people who’ve lived and died by Blake’s program come up to the stage to say so. After all the speeches, Chaos gets on stage, and the crowd inches forward.
Everybody is still just warming up. But eventually Chaos’ lead singer, Dexter Keane, calls the crowd out: “Dis one is fuh John!” Rags out, legs and arms flying, the crowd suddenly explodes into frenetic gyrations, some dancers darting across the front of the stage. Forgetting that there’s work in the morning, the jumbies party well into the next day.
By the time I leave—I won’t say what time—I’m convinced that Blake is right: Jumbies like to dance just like the rest of us. But on the remote chance that it was Granny who was right, that jumbies can scare you out of your own skin, I’m equipped with a what-to-do-in-case-of-jumbie-attack plan: Flick a match—they’re scared of fire. Mark a cross on yourself with blue soap. Say out loud, “I rebuke you, Satan.” Take off your clothes, turn them inside out, and put them on backward. Or I could just turn on the radio really loud and let the sounds of some kickass calypso drive them away. CP