Friday, 28 February 2014

FIGHTING CHANCE: The Dallas Buyers' Club is a harrowing portrait of addiction and resilience

SCREEN TEST: Leto (left) and McConaughey give two of the year's most high-calibre performances.

Any actor worth his salt hopes for that role to come along that will more or less define his career and catapult him into the orbit of Great Cinematic Performances. Al Pacino had Scarface, Charlize Theron had Monster, and Denzel had his Training Day

Starring in The Dallas Buyers' Club, Matthew McConaughey subjects himself to incredible weight loss and assumes a spot-on Texan accent to embody Ron Woodroof, a rodeo gambler whose freewheeling lifestyle of booze and casual sex is brought to a screeching halt when he is diagnosed with HIV and given 30 days to live. (His T-cell count has dipped below 10.) 

It's the 1980s, and the FDA has imposed strict restrictions on pharmaceutical drugs. But being a man who never shies from going his own way, Woodroof hits the road tracking down alternative treatments and establishing a buyers club that earns him the ire of the authorities but brings colourful new folks into his life, including Jennifer Garner's good-natured Dr. Eve Saks and the film's most sympathetic character in HIV-and-drug-addles transvestite Rayon, played to amusing perfection by Jared Leto. 

Shining the spotlight on the weighty themes of activism, addiction, homophobia and the scourge of the AIDS pandemic, director Jean-Marc VallĂ©e reels in his audience with scenes that cut deep to the bone while steeped in incisive dialogue and harsh realities that bear striking resonance for today's modern world. Above all, though, it's McConaughey (this year's shoo-in for Best Actor) who gives the movie it's riveting centre, portraying a man who finds purpose and a new lease on life under the grimmest of circumstances and fights for a cause very initially believed in. He shares a winsome chemistry with Leto, who deftly conveys Rayon's sweet mix of sass and vulnerability. 

Thought-provoking and deeply affecting but absolutely essential viewing, The Dallas Buyers' Club squarely puts the focus on a vicious disease and the never-ending fight to mitigate its harmful effects on human life, even as it elucidates an arresting portrait of a man on a life-and-death mission. Tyrone's Verdict: A- 

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WEEKEND SCREENING ROOM: Terrific viewing/listening/reading options from TALLAWAH's archive

ISLAND TALES: Olive Senior's Arrival of the Snake-Woman and Other Stories
First published in 1989, this magical volume of stories, several of which are narrated from a child's perspective, chronicles life in towns and villages across Jamaica. As ever, Senior moves with relative ease between the past and present, conveying the disillusionment of characters that tend to feature prominently in her writing. In short, these are seven Jamaican tales ("The Tenantry of Birds", "Tears of the Sea") mired in wistfulness, wit and wisdom. 

>> LET'S JAM: The Roots' How I Got Over 
The venerable hip-hop band's first effort since joining NBC's late-night lineup delivers all the funk/soul/jazz vibes fans have come to expect. What's more, the album (spawning such hits as "Right On" and "Dear God 2.0") features their successful debut foray into the word of indie rock. 

>> QUEEN OF COMEDY: Joan Rivers' A Piece of Work
She's well-known for her biting red-carpet commentary, but in this vivid R-rated documentary, vibrant new light is shed on Rivers' lifelong commitment to comedy and just how she managed to blaze a trail for today's generation of stand-up comics. 

>> WORLD BEAT: Herbie Hancock's The Imagine Project 
The Grammy-winning jazz-piano maestro joins forces with an international roster of guest collaborators to cover such spirited anthems as "A Change is Gonna Come" and "Imagine." Though the tracks don't all score a home run, more often than not Hancock hits the spot. Best of all, his interpretation of Bob Marley's "Exodus" (featuring Somalia's K'Naan and Los Lobos), which takes you on a global odyssey. 
AUTHOR, AUTHOR: Christopher Hitchens' Hitch 22 
"Electric and electrifying" is how the New York Times aptly describes the late British-American journalist and essayist's internationally praised memoir, in which he presents (in trademark wit and keen observations) the candid personal history of a complicated man, stalwartly bohemian and rigorously intellectual. Hitch, who died a couple of years ago from lung cancer, had quite a life. And Hitch 22 entertainingly opens a window into its most private dimensions with prose that's as robust and cunning as it gets. Hitch will make you a believer.

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ON REFLECTION: Presenting the 2014 Philip Sherlock Lecture, Lilieth Nelson brings the creative arts into focus

THE READER: "It's amazing how much Jamaicans are in tune with the traditional."

"I think we are streets and lanes in terms of our creativity and putting our creative arts on stage," observes Lilieth Nelson, reflecting on the state of Jamaica's creative arts industry in an interview with TALLAWAH, following her presentation of the 2014 Philip Sherlock Lecture at UWI Mona on Tuesday. "And it's amazing how much we are in tune with the traditional as well as being creative in terms of taking it to the modern day." 

Nelson, who chairs the Traditional Folk Forms Committee of the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC) and is a University Singers living legend, says she opted to base her lecture on the concept of "Aesthetics Strengthening through the Creative Arts," a topic she knows all too well and one that is rooted in a piece of Caribbean history having to do with Sir Errol Hill recalling a famous quote by Sir Philip. "It's been 20 years since that Errol Hill moment, and I think it just goes to show how much the university has been strengthening students academically, aesthetically, and in their personal lives since then." 

To wit, Nelson's lecture also drew on student perspectives concerning the arts, and particularly the ongoing work of the University Singers, who consistently excel "using space and the various musical forms to present choral theatre" while bringing their loyal audiences into the act. "Students who participate in the creative arts at the university," notes Nelson, "have been strengthened themselves, and in turn in the wider Caribbean." 

Asked to share her view on present-day appreciation for the legacy of such late luminaries as Sherlock and Rex Nettleford, who launched her collection of poems, Angles of Reflection, in 2009, Nelson told TALLAWAH, "I think those of us who have spent a lot of our time working to preserve the creative arts in Jamaica have a special appreciation for their contributions. But I think the rank and file of students aren't cognizant of the importance of their work and integrating the arts with the academics." 

Meantime, when it comes to her own creative life, lyrically setting her thoughts down on paper remains something for which she is immensely passionate. "Now and again I manage to get a new one done," she smilingly says of her poetry writing these days. "But I guess I should really work towards publishing another book."

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CULTURE VULTURE: Audra McDonald as Billie Holliday; Oscar presenters announced; 'Black Stars' for Carnegie Hall; Razz & Biggy drop Red Tam Riddim

LADY SINGS THE BLUES: Who doesn't love Audra McDonald? The American Theatre Wing has bestowed her with five acting Tony Awards (a female record) and Broadway producers line up to work with her, including the team bringing to the New York stage the musical drama Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill (opening in a month's time), in which the singer-actress will portray another megawatt diva, the late great Billie Holliday. "One wonderful thing for me is there are tons of recordings of Billie that I've been listening to and watching," McDonald, last seen in the Gershwins' Porgy & Bess, tells the New York Times, "even audio of her talking about certain songs. So I have a lot to draw on." Performances will begin March 25, with opening night slated for April 13. It's a limited engagement scheduled to do 70 performances in 10 weeks. 

IN THE PICTURE: With only a few days to go before the big dance, the Academy of Motion Pictures has unveiled this year's list of presenters for the Oscars ceremony taking over Hollywood on Sunday. (Ellen DeGeneres will assume hosting duties.) It's a lengthy roster featuring some of cinema's brightest stars, namely Amy Adams (a Best Actress nominee for American Hustle), Glenn Close, Zac Efron, Goldie Hawn, her daughter Kate Hudson, Samuel L. Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, Angelina Jolie, Andrew Garfield and last year's Best Supporting Actress Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables). 

TIME TO REFLECT: Spotlighting the work and impact of great African-American men on Broadway, the annual "Black Stars of the Great White Way" is headed to one of Manhattan's most storied landmarks, Carnegie Hall, on June 23, where tribute will be paid to such forebears as Langston Hughes (above), Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Paul Robeson with performances by a who's-who of outstanding contemporary talents hailing from the Black community in and around New York. 

IN THE GROOVE: Easily one of the most dynamic and hardworking duos in dancehall, ace producers and sound system selectors Razz & Biggy are the creative force behind the new Red Tam Riddim, a hypnotic groove laden with synths and a slinky bassline that has brought together such hitmakers as Wayne Wonder, Tanya Stephens, Bugle, Delly Ranks and Da'Ville, who contributes the melodic jam "Sweeter," full of appealing vocal work and romantic angst. Take a listen HERE.

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Thursday, 27 February 2014

VOCAL DYNAMICS: With a bright future ahead, the JYC puts shoulder to the wheel

ALL TOGETHER SING: The choristers, with band members, inside the UWI Chapel at Mona.

Although the Jamaica Youth Chorale doesn't put on concert recitals with great regularity, the choir, which turns five this year, remains determined to make its mark, put that initial dent in the cultural psyche, so to speak. "It's growing, slowly but surely," the group's principal director and founder Greg Simms tells TALLAWAH, following a bravura performance which all but lifted the roof off of the University Chapel on Sunday.

To my mind, the 30-member choir is simply sensational (and deserve greater visibility), buoyed by a powerful blend of young voices which harmoniously brings melodies to rousing, full-bodied life. "We have a large rural following already, and right now we have invitations to places like Portland, and we're going to Montego Bay in April," Simms explains, adding that they've also thrilled audiences at a few national events, serving as the official choir for the Jamaica 50 church service, for instance, and have lent their choral dynamics to such regional productions as Caribbean Passport.

Up next is the real acid test, when they compete for top honours against the best in the world at this summer's Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod (July 8 through 13) in Wales. Naturally, the excitement/anticipation quotient is at an all-time high in the JYC camp. "We're all very excited," Simms says, "and we are yet to present the true competition repertoire, which is a lot more complex. But we're getting to work now to really drill and get that going."

As one can imagine, getting the choir to Wales will be no cake-walk, financial-wise in particular. But where there's a will, there's a way. "We have received a grant from the organizers, which is very good for us. They want us to come," the director reveals. "We're trying now to collaborate with funders and see how best we can leverage any sort of network we have to get the ball rolling." 

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WINNING WAYS: Can Usain Bolt make a four-peat at the Laureus World Sports Awards?

REASON TO SMILE: The Jamaican sprint king posing with his 2013 award.

Global accolades are old hat for Usain Bolt, the reigning IAAF Male Athlete of the Year and the RJR Sports Foundation's 2013 Sportsman of the Year, who is constantly making room in his trophy case for new additions to complement his Olympic and World Championships stash. 

The Jamaican track phenom and World's Fastest Man (already a three-time winner) is presently in the running for his fourth lien on the prestigious Laureus World Sportsman of the Year award, nominated alongside some worthy contenders. 

The list includes the likes of LeBron James, Mo Farah, Rafael Nadal, Cristiano Ronaldo and Germany's Sebastian Vettel. Bolt, who put in some serious work on the track last season (and has the gold to prove it!) is the frontrunner for the highly coveted award, but it remains to be seen how the voting will go.

Meantime, another Jamaican could bring home something shiny from the March 26 ceremony (taking place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), as Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who has been impressively keeping pace with Bolt on the awards circuit all season long, is vying for Sportswoman of the Year. The speed queen, a favourite for the prize, is up against Nadine Angerer, Missy Franklin, Yelena Isinbayeva, and Grand Slam champ Serena Williams. 

There are quite a few other categories in the mix this year, bringing the total number of nominated athletes to 42. Established in 1999, the Laureus is awarded annually in recognition of international athletes who gave jaw-dropping performances in their respective sports in the previous year. 

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Wednesday, 26 February 2014

TALLAWAH COOL PICKS: The Best in Pop Culture for March 2014

I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers and the March up Freedom's Highway 
Just in time for Women's History Month, Scribner offers bestselling author Greg Kot's I'll Take You There, a rich musical tapestry that charts the origins of one of gospel's most legendary groups, The Staple Singers, delving into their gradual shift through the genres of folk, soul, pop and the reverberations of their increasingly political songs throughout the civil rights era in America. 

The Face of Love 
Last seen giving a tour-de-force in Mother and Child, Annette Bening (American Beauty, Being Julia) makes her long-anticipated comeback in The Face of Love (opening March 7) as Nikki, a widow who several years after the death of her husband Garrett meets a man named Tom (Ed Harris) who looks exactly like her deceased paramour, sparking a reconciliation with pieces of the past. Directed by Arie Rosin and costarring Robin Williams, the romantic drama offers "reflections on the mysteries of love always surrounding us." 

Nearly five years since her last solo album, Grammy-winning chanteuse Ashanti is set to drop her new 13-track disc, Braveheart (Written Entertainment), on March 4, full of her signature mix of slinky R&B grooves and hip-hop-spiked tracks, not to mention notewrothy appearances from such collaborators as Rick Ross ("I Got It"), Jeremih ("Love Games"), French Montana ("Early in the Morning") and Jamaica's dancehall kingpin Beenie Man, who shows up for the album closer "First Real Love." Soul singer Ledisi, meantime, is set to release her new ten track opus, The Truth (Verve) on March 11. 

Friends Forever
Heralding the arrival of a fresh new voice in Jamaican theatre, playwright Keith Ellis is gearing up to make a splash with his Kingston stage debut Friends Forever, which is scheduled to open at Kingston's Green Gables Theatre on March 5 (through April 6). Exploring the highs and lows of human relationships among other universal themes, the play boasts a cast headlined by fast-rising stage and screen actor Kadeem Wilson (Ghett'a Life, Home Again). 

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FACING FORWARD: After a painful career crisis, Veronica Campbell-Brown is back in stride

HAND IT TO HER: The sprint queenpin photographed at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

Fans of Veronica Campbell-Brown were left baffled when news surfaced last year that the sprint icon had returned a positive result for a banned substance (a diuretic) at the Jamaica International Invitational (JII) held in May at the National Stadium. The veteran sprinter vehemently denied the doping allegations and for eight months fought tooth-and-nail to clear her good name.

Her courageous efforts have borne fruit as the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has upheld the appeal she filed and set aside the decisions of the Doping Review Board of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), which slapped her with a two-year ban in response to the positive test. 

For Campbell-Brown, widely considered the Merlene Ottey of her generation, a huge weight has been lifted off her shoulders, with the culmination of a terrible ordeal that threatened to tarnish her image and thrust her legendary track career into disrepute. A statement from her camp lucidly put things into perspective. "The past several months of my life have brought much pain and suffering," the 31-year-old admits. "However, my faith, family and fans have stood by me as a source of encouragement and reminder that God's word is true in that he will never leave us nor forsake us." 

The stage is now set for the ace athlete to reposition her focus on her twin passions: competing for Jamaica and doing good in the neighbourhood via her eponymous nonprofit foundation. "My legal team and management team will be available to address the media in greater detail, as I now focus on moving forward with my career and philanthropic efforts," she emphasizes. Campbell-Brown won't have to wait for very long to don the black, green and gold once again, as she is among 23 athletes (and six officials) who've been selected to represent the island at the IAAF World Indoor Championships, set for March 7-9 in Sopot, Poland.

She joins the likes of Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Kaliese Spencer, Anneisha McLaughlin, Allodin Fothergill and Nesta Carter on the Team Jamaica squad. "I've been training. I was born to run track-and-field. I love track-and-field," Campbell-Brown, a 16-time Olympic and World Championship medallist, told a radio audience earlier this week. "I've been training hard, and I thank God that he has kept me healthy through this terrible period in my life." 

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Tuesday, 25 February 2014

FEEL THE SPIRIT: Melodic, tuneful gems highlight Jamaica Youth Chorale's Ancestor Voices

SHOW STOPPERS: The choir brought a joyful noise to the UWI Chapel on the weekend.

By the time the Jamaica Youth Chorale gave a pitch-perfect rendition of "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel" (with breathtaking solo work by soprano Sandrie McKnight), the packed audience was well in their thrall inside the University Chapel on Sunday evening, as they presented their fifth annual major recital dubbed Ancestor Voices: Lift Every Voice for Freedom, in observance of Black History Month.

Drawing on a fantastic melange of Negro spirituals and sacreds (some well-known, a few quite obscure) and some local fare, the choir served up a hugely enjoyable performance heavily marked by lush choral harmonies in the tradition of the University Singers, complete with tasteful choreography and intermittent accompaniment with just the right touch of keys and drums.

Robust acapella renditions (refreshingly arranged) elevated such pieces as the concert opener "Lift Every Voice for Freedom", "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel", the slow-burning "I've Been Buked" and "Wade in the Water." The second half only brought more highlights and rousing solos. Particularly memorable were the sublime, Adaiah Rhoomes-led "I Had a Vision" and "Ise Oluwa" (both wonderfully arranged by Dr. Kathy Brown), which merited the prolonged applause they both received.

The all-female piece "Man from Galilee" got quite the theatrical treatment with props and fancy headgear, while the tenors and baritones made humorous, light work of "Wrong Train," thanks in large part to show choreographer Ricardo McKenzie's charismatic lead. Also thrown into the mix: Dr. Olive Lewin's "Holy Mount Zion," which conductor Greg Simms revived as Nyabinghi Meditation No1 and dressed up with tunes by Tarrus Riley and others, and a sprightly "Freedom Suite" blending vintage and modern melodies. The list goes on.

In the end, it seemed like the concert wrapped all too quickly. (The performance ran for close to two hours.) Still, the Jamaica Youth Chorale, impeccably attired in the black, gold and green, sent home their patrons with a real sense of fulfillment and more than a few soulful gems stuck in their heads.

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MAKING A SCENE: Out and About with Yohan Blake, Marion Bartoli, Lady Allen, Usain Bolt, T.O.K, Warren Weir and Tessanne Chin

BORN TO RUN: Feb. 16, Kingston. Last week's mega-successful Sigma Corporate Run brought out hundreds of civic-minded Jamaicans to the streets of New Kingston to raise funds for the island's needy children. Sharing a photo-op in their track-ready gear, 2014 patrons Tessanne Chin and Lady Patricia Allen were clearly delighted to be in the mix.

BY THE NUMBERS: Feb. 16, Kingston. Days ahead of the inaugural Blue Mountain Music Festival, which they co-organized, the men of T.O.K were out lending their support to the Sigma Corporate Run in New Kingston, trading their mics for running gear. 

MATCH POINT: Feb. 17, St. James. French tennis great Marion Bartoli, who was recently in the island to conduct a clinic with aspiring players, is seen here in the company of Jamaican sprint king Usain Bolt, who joined her for some one-on-one at the Tryall Club. We won't say who emerged victor following their epic battle-of-the-sexes showdown, but it's quite clear they had a ton of fun. 

BUILT FOR SPEED: Feb. 22, Kingston. All eyes were on the nation's top track athletes on Saturday inside the National Stadium for the 2014 iteration of the Gibson Relays, which drew appearances by some of the island's most outstanding high-school talents and Olympians like Racers lions Warren Weir and Yohan Blake, pictured here following their triumph in the Men's sprint relay.

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Monday, 24 February 2014

FLICK OF THE WEEK: Kevin Costner is a man on a mission in McG's Three Days to Kill

A MAN APART: Costner plays a conflicted agent grappling with health and family issues.

That he seems at home starring in everything from Oscar-winning epics (Dances with Wolves) to musical blockbusters (The Bodyguard) to heartfelt comedy-dramas (The Upside of Anger) is testament to Kevin Costner's versatility as a film actor who has his pick of parts. The veteran leading man reveals yet another dimension as he shifts gears to star in Three Days to Kill, a middleweight action drama from noted filmmaker McG (Charlie's Angels) filled with CIA shenanigans and an ever-increasing body count.

Channelling his inner silent-river alpha-male, Costner suits up as assassin Ethan Renner, who is no babe in the woods when it comes to dispatching bad men, sometimes five at a time as one scene confirms. But life is finally catching up with him to force him to reassess his priorities. When he is diagnosed with a terminal form of brain cancer that gives him three months at most, he reaches out to his estranged Paris-based wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) and attempts to forge a connection with his self-possessed teen daughter, Zoe (True Grit's Hailee Steinfeld).

But Renner is so good at his job that the CIA hounds him to keep working, sending a tough-as-nails operative named Vivi (Amber Heard) to offer him a life-lengthening drug in exchange for his continued services. Apparently, "The Albino" and "The Wolf" have been very naughty boys and ought to be taught a lesson pronto. Whether Renner accepts the mission or not spells grave peril for his family, not to mention the extended African clan that took refuge in his apartment while he was away on business. But that's a whole 'nother story-within-a-subplot.

Hollywood has no shortage of butt-kicking action spectacles featuring actors way past their prime (see Reds, The Expendables), but Costner brings a certain charismatic appeal and believability to the screen that makes the whole thing tolerable, especially given Luc Besson's bland script and McG's heavy-handed direction.

Truth be told, there are far better cinematic options out there for killing one's time, but for fans of Jason Statham flicks and the Tom Cruise-led Mission Impossible movies, Three Days to Kill is right up your alley. Tyrone's Verdict: B- 

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CULTURE DIARY: Dispatches from the front-lines of contemporary pop culture

SOUND CLASH: A lively discussion on the evolution of Jamaican sound systems and the challenges they still face ranked among the major talking points of last week's leg of Open University seminars put on by the Jamaica Recording Industry Association (JARIA) at the Louise Bennett Garden Theatre in observance of Reggae Month 2014. "We have a campaign that we launched in 2007 called the Preserve and Protect the Music Campaign because we agreed that payola, to a large extent, has damaged the industry," concluded Charles Campbell, JARIA's First Vice President. "There are two things that has hurt sound systems in Jamaica: payola and the Noise Abatement Act. We are well aware of that." To combat these and other issues, Campbell insists that the industry on a whole get its act together. "JARIA has been going from strength to strength, but we are a members organization, driven by membership. So JARIA is only as strong as the industry itself." 

THE SWELL LIFE: At last week's Arts in the Park at Devon House, Inilek Wilmot, in addition to discussing the emergence of his band From the Deep, brought TALLAWAH up to speed on the state of surfing in his neck of the woods and Jamaica by extension. "It's going good but surfing is still a lifestyle thing. So most surfers are into surfing just because of how much fun it is," explains Wilmot, a prize-winning expert on the subject, who along with his brother Icah and other siblings are considered among the most talented wave runners in the region. "It's not primarily a competitive sport; it's primarily a recreational sport. You would consider it in the same category as yoga and other such activities." As for its future locally: "I don't see surfing stopping in Jamaica, once we make an effort to keep it going," Wilmot predicts. "People are still enthusiastic about it. And right now it's as strong as ever."

>> NEW IN BOOKS: A new release from Kei Miller is always cause for (some) celebration. Just in time for Black History Month, the award-winning Jamaican scribe delivers Writing Down the Vision: Essays and Prophecies. Published by Peepal Tree Press, the 160-page effort finds the poet (The Fear of Stones) and novelist (The Last Warner Woman) chronicling experiences, both personal and otherwise, spanning the gamut from religion/spirituality and homophobia to migration and the fine art of making new connections. Order your copy HERE.

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TALLAWAH MOMENT: Jamaica-China relations head up the garden path

IN FULL BLOOM: A vivid variety of exotic flora currently adorns the St. Andrew-based property.
Every now and again you find that a long-standing relationship could use some sprucing up. And Jamaica's 40-year affair with the Chinese is certainly no exception.

As a symbol to mark our four decades of diplomatic ties, Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller and Chinese Ambassador Dong Xiaojun recently broke ground for the establishment of a Chinese garden at the Hope Botanical Gardens, the perfect spot one could say for such a significant thing.

Although the new garden falls into the larger context of the restoration of Hope Gardens to its former glory, the construction of the facility is in keeping with the Jamaican government's commitment to sustainable development and an appreciation of the value of green acres in cities and urban areas.

"History tells us that by their very nature, Chinese gardens are designed to express the harmony that should exist between man and nature," the prime minister explains. The Chinese garden, which will be constructed over the course of the next 14 months, is being spearheaded by the Nature Preservation Foundation, which currently holds a 49-year lease to manage the entire property. 

As PM Simpson-Miller goes on to emphasize, Jamaica remains committed to "achieving that harmonious balance between the demands of human development and the care and preservation of our environment."

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