John Swaby leading light in entertainment
First person in Jamaica to own a stage receives OD
Over the decades, the name John Swaby has become synonymous with light, stage and sound. In fact, he was the first person to actually own a stage in Jamaica. He can recall a time when the Jamaica Defence Force used to “have to be traipsing all over Jamaica to put up stages for events” until his proposal put an end to that.
For everybody – except perhaps Swaby himself – it was a no-brainer that this entertainment industry pioneer would someday be called to order by the Jamaican Government. Last Monday, on National Heroes Day, John Randolph Swaby walked up to Governor General Sir Patrick Allen to receive his Order of Distinction, Officer Class “for pioneering work in film, technical production, promotion and development of the entertainment sector”.
“It was very emotional. I never thought that they would have considered me. I have never done anything to expect something like this. After I was informed, It took me a while to absorb it ... this is something really good ... and everybody who sent me a text to congratulate me said ‘well deserved’,” Swaby shared.
John Swaby Entertainment, which has led the way on some of the largest international shows and festivals, markets itself as Jamaica’s leading provider of audio-visual and event production needs. However, according to the entrepreneur, “we still consider ourselves a boutique company ... very personalised, very targeted.”
Swaby, who started out very young in the business, notes that at that time, “there wasn’t much lighting, there wasn’t much sound. Everything that we take for granted today was at a very low level. We invested early in a lot of the services that people take for granted today”.
Back in the day, his thought processes centred on having something better than what existed, even if it meant making them from scratch.
“There was a time when if somebody wanted to put on a show, they couldn’t just set a date. You had to go to the KSAC or go to the army to see if the stage was available because no individual could own a stage. I was the first person to own a stage. I walked into KSAC, and I spoke to the mayor, and I said this is what is happening, and I am willing to do it if you guys give me the go-ahead,” he said.
Three months later, Swaby got a call from them asking if he was still interested in building a stage. He said sure.
“Next stop was to go to the army. And I said, ‘Listen, that’s not [what] you are supposed to be doing. A private company is supposed to be putting up stages. I am that person.’ And they said ... well, let us see how that works. And that was it. There were so many of these things ...,” Swaby stated.
He pointed to an upscale bathroom trailer sitting on the grounds of King’s House.
“You see that bathroom trailer, I built the first one here. I was the first person to have one of those, and I built it. I bought a 45-foot container, cut it up, put in the cubicles and was working all across Jamaica with it. I couldn’t take the porta potties. ... the smell. This one was air-conditioned, carpeted, sanitisers ... all these things. And we take these things for granted today. And that’s the way it should be. Nobody needs to monopolise these things,” Swaby noted.
On the surface, going from event to event to set up stage, light and sound equipment and do decor may sound boring, but Swaby has had a rather exciting journey, so much so that he questions what section of the library his autobiography would be placed in.
“I might have to put it in the fiction department because it will make good and exciting reading, but to believe everything is another thing,” he said with a laugh. “I have worked all over the world, and I have been in some unbelievable situations. I was put under house arrest in Ethiopia ... I spent a night with a film crew down in the Eastern Caribbean and was locked up in the military barracks. We stayed there one night, and then the next morning, they came and told us that we were free to go.”
“When I was put under house arrest in Ethiopia, about two days after that, I saw an elderly man who was about 80 years old. He just heard that a Jamaican was staying at the hotel, and he came. He had a story. He got a vision 40 years before to walk from England, where he was living to Ethiopia. He walked down to some place and then took a boat to France and walked all the way down to Tripoli and all them places until him finally reach Ethiopia,” the lighting magnate recalled.
Another Ethiopian experience had to do with music.
“There is a carbon copy of the United Nations in Ethiopia, and the guy who is in charge of it has a little disco, and I was shocked when I went to a party down there, and I was hearing songs that I had almost forgotten existed and these were his number one songs. Some old, old Bob Marley and some old Jimmy Cliff. And people were partying like these were songs that were just released,” Swaby shared, still marvelled.
He could really write a tell-all, but Swaby, unlike some others in the music business, has never been one for drama. “Some things you can’t really talk about because some of these people are still around, and it might be embarrassing for them, and yuh don’t really want to do that. But some of them were really, really funny. When you’ve been in this business for as long as I have been, you hear stories that if you are not there, it would be hard for you to believe,” he said, nodding his head almost in disbelief at some of these memories.