Wednesday, June 27, 2018

YARD SISTERS' Authentic Jamaican Tours in Support of Local Enterprise

Jamaica remains one of the top tourist destinations internationally for many reasons: beautiful weather, delicious cuisine, groovy music, breathtaking views, and charming, warm citizens. Year-round, the island is filled with tourists from around the globe who want to listen to reggae music while eating jerk chicken on one of the island's remarkable beaches.

According to the Jamaica Tourist Board, approximately 4.3 million travellers visited the island in the year 2017, which was a great increase from the usual expectation of 1 million annually. The boost in travellers over the years is also bringing a shift in habits as well. 

Earlier this year, the Jamaican Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett noted that visitors are increasingly seeking "authentic experiences" and opting to "immerse themselves in local culture: the food, music, people and communities" beyond the resorts of the north coast.

From Montego Bay to Ocho Rios, and Negril to Kingston, at any given time of year individuals are seeking the comforts and joys of Jamaica. For Calgary native Kym McCulley, it didn't take her long to discover that away from the lavish resorts and expertly managed hotels, that there was so much more to be experienced.

Kym is just one third of the entrepreneurs who founded YARD SISTERS, a Jamaican-based tour company that provides uniquely personalized and authentic experiences for visitors and Jamaican residents. Along with Jamaican residents Sheba Lindo, and Aljernon Wilson, YARD SISTERS is determined to no only provide excellent service to its patrons, but also to positively affect the communities in which they travel.

In 2014, Kym volunteered with the Canadian government within the industry of economic development, visiting Jamaica regularly. Travelling to the island solo, she'd often want to leave the confines of the uptown hotels in Kingston and instead explore the hills and valleys of the picturesque terrain around her.

Provided with a driver--Aljernon--Kym became more and more interested in branching out across Jamaica, and found herself expanding past the boundaries of her work, and into locales off the beaten trail. A genuine trust developed with Aljernon, and it soon blossomed into a partnership. While working in Portmore (just outside of Kingston), she became acquainted with Sheba (who worked training tour guides in Trenchtown), and the concept of  YARD SISTERS quickly became a reality.

Kym now travels between Jamaica and Canada many times for the year, and just returned from a 4-month stay on the island. Responsible for the photography and online maintenance of the company, she looks forward to organizing YARD SISTERS bookings, helping to plan itineraries, and also to develop what she believes is a necessary type of service for both the Jamaicans and the international visitors.

Aljernon takes care of airport pickups and driving, providing expert knowledge and awareness of the various tour stops and routes. Sheba's black caster oil farm is an unofficial home base and tour favourite, where visitors can witness the local enterprise and actively be a part of the community's development as a result.

"Come See Our Jamaica" is the slogan for the YARD SISTERS, because visitors can see the day-to-day operation of the farm and even dine under the stars. They can chat with Al about his young children and life in Jamaica while he drives across the country. By showing visitors "their" Jamaica, the YARD SISTERS hope to open up vacations to include unique and memorable experiences, as well help to build up the local economy through supporting the farm workers, community designers, and other patrons that they like to endorse.

"One of the biggest misconceptions about Jamaica is that it isn't safe," said Kym, when asked about the apprehensions that the YARD SISTERS hope to help visitors to Jamaica overcome. News stories and natural panic help to contribute to these fears, but she understands that some may be hesitant to step outside of the resort gates and unofficially explore. "Crime is everywhere, however. There are places in Calgary that I won't even travel to in the day time, let alone night!" said Kym. "Like many other major cities, I believe that most of the crime in Jamaica takes place with gang activities and being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. But my experience overall has been that Jamaica is very safe, and it would be a shame to not see everything that the island has to offer because of these misconceptions."

Describing her relationship with Sheba and Al as familial, Kym says that Sheba is like a sister to her, and Al like a little brother. "What I love about Jamaica is that when a Jamaican adopts you into their world, you are a friend for life. The acceptance comes from the soul, and from the heart."

While her travels originally brought her to Kingston for work, Kym was grateful to be introduced to the island through this vibrant city. "Kingston is such an exciting city. Such an interesting, dynamic city filled with some of the most incredible performing and visual artists, and a vibrant arts and culture scene. We often encourage people to fly there, and at least stay for a couple of nights."

A part of the tour's service includes helping visitors to find accommodations, including guest houses and hotels outside of the city's core. The YARD SISTERS encourage their guests to explore, and talk with the locals to learn about their passions, beliefs, and views on life.

"Those are the real moments," said Kym. "Sometimes I like to hang out in the small bars on the roadside, have a beer, and converse with the locals who wander in and out throughout the day for a quick drink. Some of the best stories of my life, I've heard while in Jamaica."

Many of the recommendations made from the YARD SISTERS are based on experiences they themselves enjoy and cherish. From having moonlight meals at the caster oil farm, to sitting under a tribal tree in the Maroon Village, enjoying drumming and dancing. Visiting the Trenchtown cultural yard and taking in a musical performance. Eating jelly, fresh from a fallen coconut, or receiving a massage at the bath in St. Thomas.

"It's all about spreading the experience around the island," said Kym. "Even on the tours, there are particular spots that we prefer, but we ask visitors to give us an idea of what they would like to do, and we work around it. From art, to photography, coffee, or music: everything is so individualized, and we work within their budget as well. We know some places that we love to share, but we also don't force our preferences on the visitors either. We help them to plan and provide as much information and advice that we can, as we put together the itinerary."

Of utmost importance to Kym, Al, and Sheba is keeping relationships and partnerships with the local Jamaican entrepreneurs intact and thriving. The individuals working on the black caster oil farms, and those who prepare meals are all members of the local communities that contribute to the authenticity of the experiences, but also help to boost their local economy--outside of the regular tourist industry's activity. Tourism is definitely evolving on the island, and the YARD SISTERS want to stay connected to the trends and changes.

"I believe Jamaica is a natural attractor, with its rich heritage," said Jamaican Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett in an address earlier this year, noting that 55,000 tourists visiting Jamaica in 2017 booked an Air BnB, which was up from 35,000 in the previous year. "We have added over 20,000 new visitors with a different type of demand for experiences in our space."

Kym believes that along with following trends (like those taking place with accommodations), it's important to be socially responsible and socially uplifting with their service.

"I love the Jamaican people, the Jamaican culture, and I love to continuously learn about it," she said. "Jamaica is a beautiful country, and the people of Jamaica work hard." She is dedicated to introducing people to Jamaica through YARD SISTERS, and hoping that they walk away from their personalized tour experience with the same joy, first-hand knowledge, and inspiration that she did during her introduction to the the island. "Sheba, Al, and I want to invite everyone to experience YARD, and we are committed to showing them the beauty of the island in a memorable way."

HOW TO BOOK A TOUR OF JAMAICA WITH "YARD SISTERS"

1) Visit the YARD SISTERS online on Instagram: send a DM to say hello, and get started!
2) Send an email to kym.mcculley@gmail.com to start planning your excursions!
3) Exchange phone numbers, and chat live or via video to get familiar with your tour elements!
4) Get ready to experience the culture, beauty, and community that makes Jamaica rich!

YARD SISTERS: Come See Our Jamaica
Affordable Custom Experience Trips Now Available




Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Nas Still Reigns // "Nasir" Album Review

The first album from Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones--"Illmatic"-- was released on my 16th birthday, in 1994, and it remains my favourite hip hop album of all times. In fact, Nas remains my favourite rapper of all times. As far as I'm concerned, he'll always reign in that genre of music because of who he was to me growing up, and who he continues to be in the industry. An intellectual, yet humble, yet powerful musical soul.

Yesterday the hip hop community lost two of its young contributors: Miami's XXXTentacion and Pittsburgh's Jimmy Wapo. My dedication to keeping up with hip hop has waned over the years so I'm unfamiliar with the music of the 20 and 21 year olds, respectively. Regardless, I hate to see the words "rapper killed" or "rapper shot" and know that it automatically casts negativity and doubt throughout the industry. Paranoia. Social unrest. Internal evaluation.

Hardly an expert in the genre and barely a seasoned purveyor of hip hop lyrics, I am a complete fan of music as a whole and I can always appreciate sounds that make me feel something. Now while I issued a self-imposed Kanye West boycott the other day (due to his Trump foolishness), I didn't mind taking in this Kanye-produced masterpiece. And it definitely made me feel something. Kanye is good again in my world, on a musical genius pass, and I've recommitted myself to listening to more hip hop on a daily basis. It felt that good!

I wish I could have heard this album for the first time in New York, underneath the Queensboro Bridge on June 14 with Nas and the gang. It was the perfect setting for these majestic choral arrangements and classic Nas grooves. And as much as I want to bun out Kanye indefinitely, I think the tracks would have sang out beautifully that night during the outdoor release...even with him and Kim around.

It's the 11th studio album from Nas, and the reviews I've read thus far have been mixed. Some said it fell flat, and others condemned it for being a part of the Kanye Show. As much as I'm a fan of Nas, I admittedly haven't "loved" every one of his albums thus far. Aside from "Illmatic," I've also deeply appreciated "It Was Written" in 1996, and "Stillmatic" in 2001. I really, really loved what he did partnering up with The Firm in 1997 for their self-titled album, and "God's Son" in 2002 was another good one. I recall being slightly disappointed with "Hip Hop is Dead" in 2006, and was too caught up in the deep south hip hop at the time to stay closely connected to Nas.

Now, 24 years after I first fell in love with this legendary lyricist, I feel like "Nasir" is an album that I can ride with in the car, and make an effort to enjoy in a way that I haven't with new Nas music...in years. I'm relieved! I'm happy. It feels like home...like I can again fall into a hip hop trance from an artist that I respect, and know well.

TRACK ONE - NOT FOR RADIO // The deep choral intro is beautiful and majestic, and the history lessons and bold declarations that "they're scared of us" are fitting, coming from an artist who has lived life through various tax brackets, and has the age and financial wisdom to speak about it confidently. It is the wisdom that points out how fortunate he is that God gave him/"us" compassion and forgiveness, and he articulates this instead of bashing his country's forefathers. "F--- your proclamation" was recognition enough. Always great to hear Diddy, keeping it cool.

TRACK TWO - COPS SHOT THE KID // It's repeated indefinitely on a Slick Rick sample..."the cops shot the kid". It's timely, and necessary. I look forward to a poignant video and widespread circulation of these lyrics and most importantly, this important cultural message. Accountability. I'm here for it.

TRACK THREE - WHITE LABEL // What I love about Nas, and also Kanye, is their love for instrumentation. The horns are awesome in this song and highlights Nas' personal history with his jazz musician father, Olu Dara. The song is otherwise steadily mellow, but lyrically strong as can be expected. My favourite line is Nas noting that he knows the consumer behaviour. He has, in essence, created the culture.

TRACK FOUR - BONJOUR // Beautiful contributions from Tony Williams on this track. Of all the songs, this is where Nas gets the most personal speaking metaphorically about women/his ex-girlfriends and experiences, and projecting the best for the growth of his children. His advice is strong with recommendations and warnings.

TRACK FIVE - EVERYTHING // So far, this is my favourite track on the album. It's hauntingly beautiful, and reminds me of the best of both Kanye and Nas, musically. The messages of acceptance and inclusion are most memorable, and the pleading to young black boys not to cry (along with Kanye expressing that if he could change anything, he'd change EVERYTHING) remind us that regardless of the success of these gentlemen (including The Dream, who is featured) that times still get rough. Lyrics I love: "Know your worth, and speak your truth. Let them come to you." and "Inclusion is a hell of a drug."

TRACK SIX - ADAM AND EVE // I know Nas is in the midst of some drama and accusations with his ex. I can appreciate that he didn't drag his thoughts too deeply into the album, and prefers that his private life remains private. I'm definitely not condoning any of the allegations, but I also can't afford to be distracted by the personal life of EVERY artist because let's face it: they've all done some shit. Some made it to TMZ...some never will. So while he raps about Adam and Eve, it's a classic-sounding Nas flow over a beautiful old untuned piano loop. This may be as intense an explanation of his domestic affairs as we'll ever get from Nas, and I'll leave the dissection up to those who will surely read beyond the chorus of Adam and Eve not falling too far from the apple tree. This song also features The Dream.

TRACK SEVEN - SIMPLE THINGS // He concludes the album with a bit of bragging, but well deserved acclaim. Like he says, he drops lines that "prestigious schools read to their students," and the slow jam vibe and easy bounce are a fitting end to this short project. A simple track with a simple message: he's worked hard, he'll teach his children the importance of his journey, and he's already proven to the world that he's a legend of his craft.

I'm happy to still be a hip hop fan, but truth be told: the last decade has been sticky. As a result, I've fallen slightly out of touch with the Migos and Post Malone era. What I love about getting "old" as a music lover is that the artists I grew up with are also getting old...but are still remaining relevant. It's reassuring to know that Nas, Jay, Puffy, and Ye are also getting greys, and getting wise. It's even more reassuring to know that they're still ascending, they're still keeping up, setting trends, and that they're able to bring me (an occasional hip hop skeptic) willingly back into the scene.

I'll patiently wait for his tour to be announced, and will be one of the first to purchase tickets for this iteration of his legacy. Nasir. This album will have a permanent place in my musical rotation: it's officially Escobar Season again!



Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.