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Owen Blakka Ellis Revels in 'Riddim & Riddles' With New Collection

Ian 'Ity' Ellis and Owen Blakka Ellis at the launch of Riddim and Riddles

What a time to be a Jamaican. Although the country might be failing in many areas, the creative industries are in their prime and have been brewing a cultural paradigm shift that could change the common perspective on Jamaican art.  It’s fitting that Owen Blakka Ellis' Riddim & Riddles should be launched during this time as part of the 2015 Kingston Book Festival. The festival, which runs from March 1-8, has been celebrating and showcasing the best of Jamaican literature and Riddim & Riddles is completely deserving of that prestige. 

Riddim & Riddles is a collection of poetry penned by Jamaican actor, writer, educator and now published poet, Owen Blakka Ellis. Ellis has had an illustrious career spanning decades. The comedian is already considered a luminary among Jamaica’s theatrical vanguard but seems to be lending his talents to new accomplishments in new spheres as he revealed at the launch that Riddim & Riddles might just be the first of many literary works to come.

Owen Blakka Ellis' former students read from his collection

The launch took place on March 3 at Redbones Blues Cafe - a fitting venue to mark the, occasion - and Ellis received much support from peers and fans alike. The event kicked-off promptly after 7pm and the atmosphere was already buzzing with live music cutting through gay chatter. In attendance were some prominent cultural figures including Poet Laureate Mervyn Morris, West Indian author and Professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of The West Indies Dr. Caroline Cooper. Ellis’ brother and fellow comedian, Ian “Ity” Ellis, played host for the night. 

The launch opened with a  performance by a troupe of Edna Manley College graduates who were once under Ellis’ tutelage. Their captivating performance of Ellis' 'Anansi Story' set the tone for the rest of the night which featured a series of tributes to Ellis of select pieces from the book, by some of the Jamaica’s  theatrical luminaries, each of whom read two pieces.

Leonie ForbesActress extraordinaire Leonie Forbes brought her theatrical prowess to the stage for her reading and Donald “Iceman” Anderson added some dramatic flair to his performance that both entertained and impressed.

Veteran media personality Fae Ellington also delivered a striking performance but perhaps the most memorable rendition of the night was by longtime comedian Tony “Pale Face” Hendriks. The piece painted a vivid picture of Ellis’ relationship with his deceased aunt that struck a tone of bitterness mixed with his innate sense of humour.  

Ellis later regaled with some stories of his childhood growing up with his aunt, often in that same tone. Dub-poet Oku Onuora also paid homage with a reading done in his distinct rhythmic style.

The night was filled with laughter and esteem and the poet expressed that hearing his words being read with such passion by his peers was cathartic. Humbled and gracious, he was coerced into giving a performance of the poem 'Gate Man', one of his most popular and treasured poetic works.

From the response of the audience at the launch, it is clear that Riddim & Riddles will no doubt join Gate Man as a gem in Jamaica’s poetic treasury. In her introduction to the collection, Dr. Sonjah Stanley-Niaah, delivered a short, insightful and witty speech in which she likened Ellis as one of the new manifestations of the "man of words" in the Caribbean, further comparing him to musicians like Protoje and Damian Marley whom she cited as fellow wordsmiths who capture Jamaican culture through their creative lens.

Tony 'Paleface' HendriksThe collection is being praised as an outstanding accomplishment by Ellis and contains poems that any Jamaican could relate to. Although he takes a serious tone in some pieces, the collection overall is imbued with his distinct, guffaw-inducing sense of humour.

“I think one of the interesting and intriguing things about Riddim & Riddles is the diversity of the collection. It carries within it a lot of the things that interests the poet. He has so many voices and embodies so many characters. It is particularly concerned with sexuality, masculinity and femininity. It even speaks about feminine pain at the hands of a man,” Tanya Batson-Savage, Blue Moon Publishing’s head honcho, shared her view on the collection.

“He’s also very concerned about the environment. It’s amazing how the poems move from the Blue Mountains to the streets of Kingston. It’s very evocative and vibrant and it paints keen, interesting and recognisable images in both the characters and the scenery,” Batson-Savage added.

Dr. Sonjah Stanley NiaahRiddim & Riddles is the publishing house’s fifth release to date, and the third under its imprint Blouse and Skirt Book. Lit-lover Batson-Savage revealed her excitement for Ellis as well as for Jamaican literature, as she views Riddim & Riddles as an excellent addition to Jamaica’s cultural archives.

During his speech just before the closing remarks by Batson-Savage, Ellis also highlighted the importance of encouraging children to develop an intimate relationship with reading. The comedian mentioned his obsession with reading as a child and expressed that he would read anything he could find...even sardine tins. He also recalled reading The Star to his aunt and her friends and stressed the important role this played in developing his academic character and his career as a writer. You might already know that Ellis is now a columnist with The Star.