In Grange Hill, Jamaica
Yves Eudes

OLD HARBOUR â€" Jerry and his brother Steve, both in their thirties, thin and gnarled, are farmers without land. They live in Old Harbour, a dusty village in Saint Catherine Parish, an hour west of the capital Kingston, and rent small plots from area landlords and grow fruits and vegetables that they sell on the markets. They also cultivate ganja, the local name for cannabis.

Ganja growing is a widespread activity in Jamaica for the simple reason that the majority of people here consume the product. And yet, until April, it was strictly prohibited.

Jerry talks about his job with pride, explaining that he's been cultivating cannabis since he was 14 years old. "I give it as a gift to my friends and sell it, it helps me feed my family." It also is essential to his faith as a Rastafarian, with the religion requiring him to smoke during every ceremony.

The field is located outside the village, away from prying eyes, at the end of a forest path: hundreds of plants scattered on the sunny slope of a hill. A little further, in a gully, the two brothers grow more than 5,000 shoots that they will replant elsewhere in a few weeks. For the next harvest, some neighbors with give them a helping hand. They will be paid in kind.

Until then, Steve will stay near the field at all times. He sleeps under the stars and cooks with old tins on a wood fire. "I have no choice," he says. "I have to watch out nonstop to scare off robbers, and sound the alarm if there's a police raid. Last year, local police officers and white Americans burst into a nearby field. They burnt everything and arrested the growers. Some of them are still in prison."

Whole new set of rules

Recently, the two brothers heard it said that their lives were going to change, but they’re waiting to see. In April 2015, the government, dominated by the center-left People's National Party, passed a "ganja law" that breaks with the country’s repressive past.

But it’s a somewhat complicated law. For ordinary citizens, marijuana is partly decriminalized: everyone can cultivate up to five plants at home, store away their harvest and consume it, at home, alone or with their friends and family. Transporting the substance, however, is prohibited: if a person carries around less than two ounces (about 56 grams), they can be fined 500 Jamaican dollars (about $4.50), with no legal consequences. Any more than that, however, is considered trafficking and can result in criminal charges.

The legislation contains another revolutionary innovation: it makes an exception for Rastafarians, who will be allowed to grow and transport their marijuana with no limits on quantity, provided they don't sell it and only consume it in their places of worship. For festivals or concerts, they will have to request temporary authorizations.

The government also wants to favor the creation of an industry of cannabis-based medicinal products (pills, oils, inhalations, creams, nutrients), with the hope of exporting them to places like Canada, Israel or Northern Europe, where their curative virtues are acknowledged. To that effect, it has created a state agency in charge of distributing growing permits to private companies, with a one-acre limit (about 4,000 square meters) per permit.

As of July, there were already many candidates, local and foreign, but the agency hadn’t yet begun the selection process. Only local universities obtained permits to carry out pharmacological research. Some investors, nevertheless, are determined to go forward with the idea â€" no matter what.

Organizing into associations

On the morning that we meet Jerry and Steve, in the sweltering heat, the brothers receive two visitors from the city. One is the technical director of the Jamaican company Medicanja, which will produce cannabis-based medicine for various illnesses, from epilepsy to glaucoma. The other is a famous businessman, also a politician, who made a fortune in call centers.

Their idea is simple: transform the illegal recreational ganja fields into legal medicinal cannabis fields. The two men expertly examine the plants and immediately start giving advice. The medical marijuana, they point out, will have to be cultivated according to strict norms.

The meeting was organized by Rupert Walters, a social worker in Old Harbour and the head of the brand new association of marijuana cultivators and producers. Walters hopes the industry will first and foremost benefit local producers and not be taken over by foreign companies.

In the afternoon, the two businessmen explain their projects to a second group of growers, in a community hall in the nearby village of Ewarton. The farmers seem interested and claim they are capable of producing large quantities of the crop. But the head of the group, an old, mischievous Rasta displaying a portrait of King Haile Selassie on his chest, is very clear. "We will ask for a collective permit to cultivate medical ganja, but there is no way we will stop producing the ganja we will smoke," he insists. "We will continue our traditional growing on the hills."

Hanging the stuff to dry in Westmoreland, Jamaica â€" Photo: Cannabis Pictures

This scenario is repeated all over the country. Dudley is another farmer with no land. He lives in Saint Thomas Parish, to the east of Kingston, and grows sweet potatoes. He is also head right now of a 400-person association for future marijuana growers. To obtain a permit, he got together with an old landowner who currently grows the weed (in his orchard, between bananas and mangos) for smoking but wants to start growing medical marijuana on the hills next to his sugar cane fields.

Other residents from Saint Thomas hope legal pot will attract tourists, which are still rare in this part of the island. A friend of Dudley’s, who earns a living by baking almond cakes, plans on also baking "cannabis cookies" â€" as effective as a joint, but easier on the lungs.

Ending the "madness"

In the countryside, the new law has been welcomed, but not always well understood. Many people have trouble grasping the difference between decriminalization and legalization, or are confused by the imposed limits: five plants, two ounces, one acre, etc. All still fear the police.

"Some police officers can’t manage to accept the new situation," Rupert Walters says. "Especially regarding the Rastafarians and the youth in the poor neighborhoods. Before admitting defeat, they could launch brutal actions."

In Kingston, political leaders say these are only transitory problems. On this stormy summer day, Mark Golding, the minister of justice, has invited two artists from the Rastafarian community into his office to discuss the implementation of the "religious legislation."

"This law puts an end to an unjustifiable oppression," the minister says. "It was abnormal to treat Rastafarians like criminals, when ganja is an integral part of popular culture. They will finally become citizens in their own rights."

The ministry will establish a list of the co-housing communities and places of worship where growing and storing will be authorized. The minister also says the new law has already unclogged courthouses and prisons.

"The police used to arrest about 15,000 people per year for possessing, especially young and poor men," Golding says. "That represented between 40% and 50% of all arrests. These men were sent to prison for a year-and-a-half. They then drag around a criminal record their whole lives that prevents them from getting a job or obtaining a visa to travel abroad. This madness has stopped."

Ganja tourism?

National Security Minister Peter Bunting agrees that the new law marks a major turning point. "I have given instructions for the police not to be zealous, to not go out and count the number of plants in gardens or weigh reserves in cupboards," he says. Bunting admits, furthermore, that the fine tickets for transporting less than two ounces haven't even been printed yet. Bureaucratic mistake or a deliberate decision? "Let’s just say that printing these tickets isn’t a priority for my ministry,” he says with a smile.

Bunting sees the 2015 law as a first step toward complete legalization, a goal, he says, that is supported by the majority of Jamaican politicians, on both the right and left. So why settle for half measures? Because it's not entirely up to Jamaica to decide, the national security minister acknowledges. For decades, the U.S. government has urged Caribbean countries not to legalize cannabis and kept an eye on local police forces to make sure they remain mobilized in Washington's war on drugs.

“We are a small, poor and vulnerable country," the minister explains. "We need U.S. aid money and loans. We cannot stand up to them.”

That being said, Bunting knows that time is working in Jamaica’s favor. Since 2012, five U.S. states have legalized cannabis. Others may soon follow suit. Some people from the United States â€" pro-cannabis activists, pharmacologists and doctors â€" have even come to help Jamaicans set up their medicinal industry. On the recreational side, a financial company in Seattle has signed a contract with Bob Marley’s estate for the international commercialization of a local variety of marijuana, under the brand "Marley Natural."

In the meantime, Peter Bunting is hoping that loopholes in the law will allow for the development of legal "ganja tourism." The ruse will be about playing on the increasingly blurred boundary between “recreational” and “therapeutic” â€" the idea being that people in good health can also enjoy the benefits of the plant.

"Upon their arrival at the airport, foreigners will be able to buy, for a few dollars, a permit to consume," he says. "If they are ill or come from a country where cannabis is recognized as medicine, they will have to show a prescription from their doctor. Otherwise, a sworn statement will be enough."

Equipped with their permit, tourists will then be able to go and buy marijuana in special shops, or directly from cultivators like Jerry, Steve and the others. In the minds of many Jamaicans, the real money to be made will come not from medicinal salves or supplements, but from the pockets of U.S. tourists.

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Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.

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