Lennox Barnett has the buttery voice for which Jamaicans are known. His singing voice is even smoother. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, he arrived in Rockford 12 years ago at the age of 16. But that is his story.
Was food an adjustment? I asked. We were at Garretts, where my amazing puff pastry of apricots and brie was served with diced tomatoes and watercress. Lennox enjoyed his small chicken Caesar salad.
I remember my first weeks, he said. I was not able to eat. I just never had an appetite. I was afraid I was not going to keep it down. It was so bad that the doctors put me on Ensure.
His diet in Jamaica was mostly rice and flour dumplings.
Lots of fruits and vegetables? I asked, imagining Caribbean bounty.
You just pick it off of the treemangoes…plantains…whatever you want…pick it fresh, he said.
Lennox and his family also ate fried plantains and dumplings for breakfast, and salted codfish with ackee.
They take dried, salted codfish and boil out as much salt as they can, cut it and fry it with ackee, he said. It looks like scrambled eggs. Theres nothing like that here. Its Jamaicas national fruit.
Lennox grew up with his mother, two siblings and a stepfather. They lived in a one-room house of boards, with an outhouse bathroom and a shack on the back for a kitchen.
What is your earliest memory about loving music? I asked.
My grandma always sang, he said.
His house was next to hers.
If I lay on my grandmas roof, I could stretch across to my moms roof, he added. Im 5 feet, 5 inches tall. I remember my grandma, a dynamic woman of God, would get up on Sunday mornings and warm her voice to lead the singing for church.
Jamaican Christians believe Gods gift is for praise, and they dont sing secular songs.
My mom sang a little bit; so did my aunt, he said. They would get together and sing beautiful three-part harmonies. I was blind, so I would listen. Listening was my way of seeing the world. I always wanted to copy what I heard. There is no hymn in the book that I dont know.
Lennoxs mother contracted measles during a hospital stay when she was seven months pregnant with him. In 1978, Jamaican law required abortion if a pregnancy was endangered so the baby could be deformed or brain-damaged. But doctors didnt find out about her case. His grandmother instructed her daughter not to tell or complain.
Ill go home and talk to God, he said. My grandma prayed…with all the neighbors.
Born Dec. 24, 1978, it was soon clear that Lennox was blind and had glaucoma. When he was 6, the doctors at Kingstons university hospital wanted to explore, to see if there was anything they could learn. His mom was apprehensive.
Lennox explained: My grandma said: What worse could they do? Hes already blind. You let them go. Well talk to God about it. Gods not through with him yet. A few months later, I started to see. To this day, with all the modern technology and medicine, there is no cure for glaucoma. I know it was the prayers.
His sight returned gradually.
It was interesting, he described. I was behind with my eyes, connecting images to my brain. I had to re-learn to look at something instead of feeling for it…going to a door, knowing I should turn the handle, I would still feel for the handle…trying to teach my mind how to see, recognize and respond.
Doctors recommended enrollment at the Salvation Army School for the Blind. They expected his blindness to return in a few years. At the boarding school, he was away from family and friends. But during chapel, he heard the piano each day.
The auditorium for chapel is very sacred, he said. Ladies dont go in there without their heads covered. When there was no chapel, it was off limits for children. But, in the evening, I would go to the chapel, break in, find my way to the stage and punch out notes that I had heard. The piano was covered by a big tarp. I had really bad asthma, but I would go under the tarp, play a few notes, come out and breathe, get under, play a few notes, come out, until I started to put a song together, playing what I had heard.
The principal heard him, pulled him out, gave him a spanking, but told Lennox he was to play in the Sunday service the next week. Lennox was 13.
He sort of encouraged you, I laughed.
Reprimanded, then encouraged, Lennox corrected.
Marjorie Stradinger is a free-lance writer residing in Roscoe. She has covered food, drama, entertainment, health, and business for publications in California and Illinois for the past 25 years. She can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
from the May 2-8, 2007, issue