“I represent Jamaica and Jamaican culture all day and every day”.. Andrew Clarke
He is probably the youngest of many that are involved in theater and Caribbean culture to reach the plateau where his Braata Productions have reached in its 5 years of existence. Andrew Clarke is unfettered by the laws of logic. Logic says your work becomes iconic over time, nurtured with age and the experiences you gather along the way. Andrew says no, my work is now. My work must nurture, strengthen , entertain, educate and express Caribbean life as we live it. Andrew has taken his vision of Caribbean folklore and heritage to the very place where the Caribbean diaspora needs to constantly express its colorful way of life in the dark and dreary conundrum of North America.
Classically trained singer, Andrew’s work has risen from the spinning surface of a potter’s tray to an iconic theatrical conglomerate in just 5 years. He has one idea and stuck to it, simply to bring Caribbean folk culture, music movement, stories, artists and theatre to the United States. And what better place to take his potpourri of Caribbean essence. The Caribbean diaspora in the New York area is close to 3.5 million souls that need its monthly , daily or weekly dose of its heritage. He created Braata Productions as his medium to reach his market and in just 5 years his work has become synonymous with West Indian culture in the diaspora.
Andrew is a young icon. He continues to devote his life to the preservation of culture and it has become his pilgrim of passionate reverence to the culture. From small beginnings come great things. Born and raised in Montego Bay ,Andrew never imagined his work would manifest itself so vividly in color in the dark confines of the North. Yes it did and his work continues to shine, illuminating the lives of the thousands who have seen his productions and those that are yet to be born will speak the name Braata Productions, even to the end of time.
Mr. Clarke, what rule do you use in your everyday life?
Hmmm…a few come to mind but the one that reverberates is an old Jamaican saying,” de higha monkey climb, the more him expose.” This can have both a positive & negative connotation. Positive in that as you climb higher on the ladder of success folks tend to treat you with respect and you become more of a voice to be heard in the crowd while on the negative side the higher up you go the more you are open to criticism and ridicule. This is sometimes the time when people want to pull out your dirty laundry as well. So with ‘acclaim’ and recognition comes both the good and bad.
Is this how you got Braata Productions started?
Braata was really started out of a need to be the best that we can be as Jamaican and by extension Caribbean artists. I was unhappy with the productions I saw being produced by Caribbean presenters and about the Caribbean experience and I knew from my work and training in Jamaica is that we held high standards for production be it theatre or concerts.
The last time I checked you have launched Braata Folk Singers, Braata Theatre Workshops, Braata Education & Outreach and also managing an Online shop. Judging from your work I have to ask you are you obsessed or possessed with culture?
Lolololol Easily obsessed! This is not just a passing fancy but something that comes from a place of true passion. When I think culture it gets me equally excited as when I think of Broadway (which I have aspirations of doing one day) but for now culture for me carries that same allure. It deserves the same place as does Broadway.
What is the recipe for the work you do with your team?
Discipline, discipline, discipline! No excuses. If you want to create world class work, you have to put in world class work! The greatest of artists continue to find ways to improve themselves and their proficiency in their craft…the work never ends. As is often said in the performing arts, “you are only as good as your last performance” and I absolutely agree. Also, talent is not enough. You have to be willing to work hard to be great at what you do. Good is not enough if you can get better! The late Hon. Dr. Olive Lewin said: “You don’t practise until you get it right; you practise until you can’t get it wrong.” I drill them, my folk singers, like that.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic of Caribbean culture from its early education and presentation to the professional expression?
Pessimistic. Sadly. If you ask the average child to recite a Ms Lou poem or even who Ms Lou is they might not know. I am hoping that I am just disconnected from the school system in Jamaica and that things have changed but it was my time in the JCDC that gave me the most exposure to culture. In the Jamaica curriculum there is no place for culture. We study everything and everyone else but ourselves.
You have taken Caribbean culture to a somewhat vacuous market New York city where sadly some of the very people you are trying to reach are out of touch with their heritage. How do you throw out your line to catch your fish?
Throw and hope they bite. Hope to capitalize on the nostalgia. Of being away from home so long that they yearn for a piece of home. In this age of technology, culture is competing with American pop culture with its flashy lights alluring beats and skimpy costumes that we get relegated to the side show. It is in churches and civic groups that we get the majority of our support and as the word gets around more people see us. Word of mouth has been our best ally.
Is it challenging, frustrating or all of the above?
All of the above. Challenging because nothing worth building ever comes easy and the competition for people’s attention is so big. We are like David fighting Goliath. Frustrating because most times we don’t even get the chance to prove our worth. Culture is giving little regard even on a big stage. We are the ones likely to be the warm up act when no one is yet watching or the filler till the real headliner comes or in some distant place with no technical support or facilities to perform at our best.
You are Jamaican and could have easily chosen Jamaican culture as your product. Why Caribbean?
Haha is this a trick question? Lol… Let’s be clear. I rep Jamaica and Jamaican culture all day & every day. There is no escaping it. No matter where I go I am identified as Jamaican before I am Caribbean. Here in the Diaspora there is this need to differentiate and clarify so people don’t get it mixed up. We are all so territorial. So to other Caribbean people I am Jamaican. I couldn’t dare stake claim to knowing more about St. Lucian culture for example than a Lucian. But alas I strive for a Caribbean appeal. I am well aware that to non Caribbean folks we are just the other, all of the us whether Jamaica, Trini, Bajan whatever. So I rep the Caribbean. I am tired of the separation. Why can’t we all get along? So I chose Caribbean because there is strength in numbers. There is enough of each group trying to do their own thing. So I am hoping that Braata in time will be identified yes as Jamaican in name but Caribbean in nature.
There is a quote from Cesar Chavez famous American labor activist and he said “preservation of one’s own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures”. What is your view on that statement?
I agree. We can all get along. I don’t need to down the other man’s culture to make mine look better. I learn this from my time in Car sales at Enterprise. My manager would always tell me, build value in your product don’t spend time tearing down the other guy. That was some of the best advice ever and it has stayed with me since then.
Is this the road you always dreamed of traveling?
Honestly no. I came to New York with dreams of singing on Broadway. My name in bright lights, playing to hundreds of people every night for weeks and weeks but alas it is never that easy to break in. Especially as a Jamaican. Sure I could get accent reduction but then I would be one of hundreds of black actors competing for the few black roles that exist on Broadway. No I never dreamed of being Executive Director of anything. I always had leadership qualities but I never had the desire to lead per say. This thing just became bigger than I imagined and once I got in deep there was no turning back. ha ha..
LOL..of course it is and how are the potholes?
Like the ones in Jamaica…like dutch pots, deep and wide! LOLOLOLOL But, “the hotter the battle, the sweeter the victory!”
Andrew, do you fear failure?
Ahm YES! Like a mother! Ha, ha but that is why I work equally hard never to be faced with that option.
It seems like your work has not gone unnoticed, especially from the Jamaican Government How does that make you feel?
Let me be politically correct here and say I am thankful for the recognition I have received thus far. I have never worked just for that but when it comes it is appreciated and humbling. I just wish though that more support in tangible ways would be given to the organizations like mine. Not in the form of awards, citations and commendation though those are nice, but the government just assisting us with resources. After all we are the link to Jamaica here in the US. One of the few doing work in this specific area and I feel like the performing arts gets the short end of the stick in support. No sponsorship, no official presence and attempt by the government to bolster what we do. The celebrities of Jamaican industry get all the kudos and that is because their work has a broader appeal. But we are the grassroots of Jamaica’s entertainment and we are suffering…the roots are being starved for attention and nourishment.
In 15 years time what do you see in your vision for Braata Productions?
15 years?! Wow I could only hope and pray we make it that far haha.
But I hope that we become a staple in the New York landscape not only in the Caribbean community but beyond. I think Caribbean arts deserves shine beyond the boroughs…like Broadway and just being a part of the mainstream American experience. It is great to share what we have with those that know about what we do but we want to reach those that don’t know and give them a taste , get them hooked on what we do much like they are hooked on reggae and Jamaican rum!
I also hope that Braata, like most American nonprofits pay their artists. For too long in the Caribbean we see the performing arts as a hobby while in America we have companies like the Alvin Ailey dance company that have dancers that work full time. They are paid to come to work from 9-5 like any corporate job and spend time perfecting their art. That is part of my dream for Braata!
At your young age you are considered an icon, a young icon still forging your way. Some icons take ages for their work to mature, your work is maturing before your eyes. What do you credit this to?
A word my minister and principal growing up would always use, “stick-to-it-ive-ness” haha
But seriously, it is that kind of quality that keeps me motivated. I know what I want and I work for it. The saying, “The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.” I am one of those men, toiling over my computer at 3am searching for the best deal on props and set pieces for my next production, researching grants and how to’s and the whole nine yard. I stay motivated because that is the only thing I know. Sure I get down sometimes, so distraught, frustrated and just ready to say forget this! but after I wallow in self pity for a while I get back up and get back at it. Because, “to whom much is given, much is expected.” Yes I hold a lot of these sayings close to me. haha
How do you want to be remembered?
Hahahahahahahaha I hope that the change for me to be remembered doesn’t come any time soon! Lol But if I had a choice I would want to be remembered in part as a dynamic performer. I miss my days of acting and singing up a storm, which I hope to one day pursue again as passionately as I do this work in preservation of culture. But I also want to be remembered as the man who continued the fight for the respect and admiration of culture. Following in the footsteps of greats like Ms Lou, Mass Ran, Dr. Lewin, Professor (Rex Nettleford) to name a few. To have my name mentioned even in the same sentence would be the ultimate remembrance.