THE syncopated ta-ta-thump of reggae music, born in the sprawling shanty-towns of Kingston, has been a main force in shaping Western popular music over the past decade. Films like The Harder they Come and Jamaican bands like Bob Marley and the Wailers, Toots and the Maytals and Third World have made Jamaica the cultural flagship of the post-independence Caribbean.
The fame is fitting because Jamaica is not only the region's largest English-speaking country, it is also a barometer of the Caribbean's cultural vitality and political ferment. Despite an apparent calm reflected in the international press after the landslide victory of Prime Minister Edward Seaga in the autumn 1980 election, Jamaica is still a political powderkeg.
Even so, the promised economic recovery has yet to make much headway despite, or perhaps because of, the austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund in negotiations with Mr. Seaga.
Some things have improved. Basic consumer goods like toothpaste, soap, detergent, shampoo and toilet paper are now plentiful. And the Kingston airport is no longer plugged with Jamaicans returning from weekend trips to Miami loaded down with boxes of cornflakes, Tide and Crest.
Unfortunately, most Jamaicans aren't any better off. The sudden availability of North American goods hasn't made much difference to Kingston's poor or the small farmers scattered throughout the island. Nor has the promise of more jobs in Kingston as a result of investment by North American and European businessmen.
Sugar cane still covers the most fertile agricultural land, but the sugar industry is in its death throes crippled by government indifference and years of neglect by former multinational owners like Tate and Lyle.
The bauxite industry is not in much better shape. The main ingredient in aluminium production still provides more than half the country's 'official' export earnings but the current world recession has knocked demand for a loop.
The bauxite industry was entirely controlled by six multinational corporations until 1974 when the former government of Michael Manley took over 51 per cent of their operations and imposed a new levy to dramatically increase revenues from the island's chief mineral export.
One export not affected by the ebbs and flows of the world economy is 'ganja' the potent and highly-prized marijuana which is Jamaica's 'unofficial' top foreign exchange earner. Ganja now outstrips both tourism and bauxite. The 'holy herb' of the country's Rastafarian cult is so crucial to the hidden economy that the government turns a blind eye to the crop.
Along the north shore from Ocho Rios to Montego Bay to Negril a paved coastal road links Jamaica's tourist spots where pink-fleshed North Americans quaff Red Stripe beer and paddle in the surf. The big international hotels are only a few hundred kilometres from Kingston but a half a world away from the day-to-day life of most Jamaicans.