Jeanille Bonterre is Caribbean to the bone
by Sherie Holder-Olutayo
“I can’t even keep up with myself.” These words come from the incredibly busy host of Tempo Caribbean, Jeanille Bonterre, who was recently in Barbados for the Food & Wine and Rum Festival as well as for the shooting of a documentary for Tempo.
“But you know I’m blessed and I’m fortunate and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Jeanille told EASY magazine with her trademark Trinidad lilt. “If I had too much time on my hands I would definitely not be as happy.”
Jeanille’s time has been spent meeting and interviewing Caribbean artists, travelling the region, and trying to infuse that Caribbean style and flavour into the American social consciousness.
Since 2005 when Jeanille was chosen as the host of MTV’s Tempo, the music network that showcases Caribbean music and artistes, she has had plenty to be happy about. She has been able to bring Caribbean music to mainstream television and hold on to her Caribbean roots throughout, without diluting the programming or her vision or, most importantly, herself.
Jeanille, who is now based in New Jersey, has undergone her share of transitions over the past five years. Tempo, which was originally launched by MTV, is no longer part of the Viacom family. The Caribbean show has been bought by Frederick Morton Jr, who is now the chairman of Tempo Network.
“We launched Tempo in the States this year on Cablevision, so it is now available in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania,” Jeanille said. “We’re also launching in Guyana, Suriname in January 2012 and we launch in Haiti next month. I’ll be going down and we will be producing a special documentary in tribute of the earthquake anniversary.”
Love for Caribbean culture
Her excited talk about the upcoming projects for Tempo and her hectic schedule make it clear that her work is truly a labour of love. Then when you factor in her background, it seems almost preordained that she’s in the profession that she’s in.
You see, Jeanille has lived and breathed Caribbean culture from the time she was born.
“Both of my parents were deeply involved in the arts in Trinidad. My father was a dancer, a musician, songwriter and he worked at the Carib Theatre, which is where he met my mother, who was an avid actress. So you could say drama brought them together,” she said, laughing.
“My aunt and uncle pretty much raised me in the Carnival business. They had the largest band in the history of Carnival. He was a designer, bandleader, and a pioneer in the carnival business. Pretty much before I could walk I could wine.”
Jeanille also credits her parents with fashioning in her this love for her culture, the foods, the people, the art, their expressive nature.
“My family were always staunch supporters of local culture,” she said. “My mother was a caterer and food was always in the house, so I was always exposed to the best things of Trinidad and Tobago. I had a wonderful education and was deeply grounded in a very cultural and spiritual upbringing. My father flooded our house with books, and he believed in being self-taught because he is a self-made man.
“He joined the workforce at 14 as an elevator attendant for Johnson & Johnson. He never let us forget where we came from. I grew up in a biracial family, but we were colour-blind, culturally aware and literally astute.”
She revealed that because her father subscribed to many magazines, she found herself travelling through their pages as she became exposed to the worlds beyond her own, those worlds represented in National Geographic.
“A lot of the things I knew about outside of my education were due to my exposure to written content,” Jeanille said. “So it prepared me for a career in media.”
After studying media and broadcasting in Toronto, Jeanille returned to Trinidad to work.
“I had the benefit of studying media in Toronto. So I was able to pick up the sensibilities of the North American standard of broadcasting and content. After I left college I went back to Trinidad because I didn’t want to contribute to the brain drain. But that afforded me the opportunity to take a foreign formula and apply it to the local scene. So within a year of working with TV and radio in Trinidad, MTV came calling.”
Feeling the Tempo
A chance to work with MTV on the Tempo project was on that Jeanille had no intention of passing up.
“When the channel launched through Viacom, I was the only authentic Caribbean person from the Caribbean. Everyone else was second generation from within the Viacom group or left the Caribbean at an early age to pursue their studies. I was coming in fresh off the boat. My accent was as thick as you get. My education was deeply grounded in the Caribbean.”
Jeanille considered herself fortunate to find a career path that allowed for cultural expression.
“My world changed within a short space of time after that initial casting call,” she said. “Whereas they thought playing hip hop videos would be appealing to us in the Caribbean because they were black artists, I had to turn the wheel and say you have to play Machel and Edwin Yearwood and Alison Hinds.”
Jeanille admits that a lot of time she felt like she was doing the black revolution fight, but it was important that the feel of Tempo be authentically Caribbean.
“It was a bit of a challenge initially,” she said. “After two years of working with MTV, I decided to expand my horizon and work with BET on their Caribbean show. It was still part of the Viacom family. At that time Tempo was separating its ties with Viacom and I had a heart to heart with Frederick.”
Frederick listened because when he relaunched Tempo he brought Jeanille back not only to host but to create original content under her own production company.
“I’m proud to say that within the past few months I’ve acquired five new Caribbean programmes from documentaries to series. We’ve even launched Tempo Kids, which is Tempo Kids programme for Caribbean children by Caribbean producers. Our first project is JJ & Friends out of Trinidad, which is like Sesame Street. We’re also acquiring Caribbean films.”