John Swaby leading light in entertainment | entertainment

Over the decades, the John Swaby name 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 Defense Force “had to traipse all over Jamaica setting up stages for events” until his proposal put an end to it.

For everyone – except perhaps for Swaby himself – it was child’s play that this pioneer of the entertainment industry would one day be called to order by the Jamaican government. Last Monday, on National Heroes Day, John Randolph Swaby went to Governor-General Sir Patrick Allen to receive his Order of Distinction, Officer Class “for pioneering work in motion picture, technical production, promotion and development of the entertainment sector”.

“It was very emotional. I never thought they would consider me. I’ve 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 everyone who texted me to congratulate me said “well deserved,” Swaby shared.

John Swaby Entertainment, which has been a leader in some of the largest international shows and festivals, markets itself as Jamaica’s premier provider of audiovisual and events production needs. However, according to the entrepreneur, “we still see ourselves as a boutique company … very individual, very targeted.”

Swaby, who started in the business very young, notes that back then “there was little light and little sound. Everything we take for granted today was at a very low level. We invested early on in many services that people now take for granted.”

Back then, his thoughts were focused on having something better than what existed, even if it meant making it from scratch.

“There was a time when someone who wanted to do a show couldn’t just set a date. They had to go to KSAC or the army to see if the stage was available because nobody could own a stage. I was the first person to own a stage. I went to KSAC and spoke to the mayor and said this is happening and I’m willing to do it if you give me the green light,” he said.

Three months later, Swaby got a call from them asking if he was still interested in building a stage. He said sure.

“The next stop was to join the army. And I said, ‘Listen, it’s not that [what] you should do A private company is to set up stages. I’m that person.” And they said…well, let’s see how that works. And that was it. There were so many of those things…” Swaby said.

He pointed to an upscale bathroom trailer that stood in the grounds of King’s House.

“See this bathroom trailer, the first one I built here. I was the first person to have something like this and I built it. I bought a 45 foot container, cut it up, adjusted the cabs and worked with it all over Jamaica. I couldn’t take the porta potties. … the smell. This one was air conditioned, carpeted, sanitizer… all those things. And we take these things for granted today. And that is how it is supposed to be. Nobody has to monopolize these things,” Swaby noted.

On the surface it might sound boring going from event to event setting up stage, lighting and sound equipment and decorations, but Swaby has had quite an exciting journey, so much so that he wonders which section of the library his autobiography is in would be placed in.

“I might have to put it in the fiction department because it’s a good and exciting read, but believing everything is another matter,” he said, laughing. “I’ve worked all over the world and been in some incredible situations. I was placed 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 the next morning they came and told us we could go.”

“When I was placed under house arrest in Ethiopia about two days later, I saw an elderly man who was about 80 years old. He just heard there was a Jamaican staying at the hotel and he came. He had a story. 40 years ago he had a vision to go to Ethiopia from England, where he lived. He went down to one place and then took a boat to France and went all the way down to Tripoli and all those places until he finally reached Ethiopia,” the lighting magnate recalled.

Another Ethiopian experience had to do with music.

“There’s a copy of the United Nations in Ethiopia and the guy who runs it has a little disco and I was shocked when I went to a party down there and I heard songs I almost forgot existed and these were his number one songs. Some old, old Bob Marley and some old Jimmy Cliff. And people celebrated as if these were songs that had just been released,” said Swaby, still puzzled.

He really could tell anything, but unlike some others in the music business, Swaby was never one for drama. “Some things you can’t really talk about because some of those people are still around and it might be embarrassing for them and you really don’t want that. But some of them were really, really funny. When you’ve been in this business as long as I have, you hear stories you wouldn’t believe if you weren’t there,” he said, nodding his head almost in disbelief at some of those memories.

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