This time next week, I’ll be in the midst of the bacchanal that is Jouvay. Jouvay is truth in a way that nothing else can be.
So as I get my heart and mind ready for this week, I’m reflecting on my Jouvay truths. My love for Trinidad and Carnival and art.

On Becoming a Warrior of Huaracan

You eh see nothing until you see a man pull feathers from a dead cobo. That trip to Icacos on Sunday was a lot more than I had bargained for. 
About two years now I’ve been singing a song about how I want to play a Black Indian mas big big on Tuesday, because sometimes youse have to go back to the root to move forward. Anyway it so happen in the way that only Esu could manage that powers align and next thing you know it having a band called Black I and we wanted to link up with ‘real’ Black Indian to get a sense of the tradition to build on that and help inform the mas we, the Vulgar Fraction, going to play.
It was a rough journey. Andy who responsible for the band Warriors of Huaracan talk for the whole road. And I listen with a mixture of horror and fascination as he would be talking and then scream from a place that has no name and then break into a chant and then go back into a story about the clash of Indigenous beliefs, Congo magic and Orisa practice that then came to live in this Black Indian masquerade.
I had to walk away as he pull out the cobo feathers. And it took me a few days to realize that mas, like life is about ability to take even death and make it beautiful.
Mas is beauty and horror. Mas as a whole can’t and shouldn’t be a version of reality that edits out the blood and pain. 
I real excited to be becoming this mas this year. I real excited that this evening at 6 in Belmont I get to listen to the great Nari Approo talk about mas and all that it could possibly be. Come nah, if you able. 

What Caricom did next….

It is especially repugnant that the ruling ignores the 2005 judgement made by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR) that the Dominican Republic adapt its immigration laws and practices in accordance with the provisions of the American Convention on Human Rights. The ruling also violates the Dominican Republic’s international human rights obligations. Furthermore, the ruling has created an environment where, with the abrogation of rights that flow from citizenship, arbitrariness can flourish as illustrated by recent media reports of the forced deportation to Haiti of persons claiming to be Dominican and with no linguistic or familial ties to that country.

 - Caricom Statement on Dominican Republic’s citizenship ruling.

Last night I attended an impromptu audience with Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines Ralph Gonsalves who was in Trinidad for the Heads of Government Meeting at which they finally made their statement condemning the shocking and racist court ruling in the Dominican Republic against Haitian descended Dominicans.

The meeting was hosted by Jouvay Ayiti – a Trinidad based collective dedicated to addressing the question of Haiti through what Rawle Gibbons described last night as the ‘mechanism of mas’.

Jouvay – the opening of Carnival celebrated in several islands across the Caribbean- has always been a point of protest and social commentary in Trinidad.

So the choice to use mas as a means of confronting our past, present and future engagement with Haiti is not only valid it is vital.

Jouvay Ayiti first responded to the DR question on November 6, with a mas action in Port of Spain. This was followed up with a petition sent to Caricom.

Meanwhile it’s taken over two months for a statement to come from Caricom and it is largely, I am inclined to believe after last night’s audience with the SVG PM, due to his agitations. He even joked about the similarity in the language of the Caricom’s statement and the letters he sent to the DR’s  on October 11 and another on November 11 (neither of which has received a response to date).

As Angelique V Nixon points out in her article on Groundation Grenada, Haitians are also regularly discriminated against and deported from the Bahamas.

The Bahamas — somewhat like the DR’s new ruling — also denies rights to the children of migrants, the difference being that children of migrants do have access to birth citizenship rights, which they have to apply for at 18. However, this process can take years, especially if one does not have access to legal assistance. Unlike the DR, Haitian Bahamians do have the right to stay in the country until they turn 18. However, many Haitian Bahamians remain stateless after 18 because of the difficulty in securing their status. On top of the legal challenges that Haitians and Haitian Bahamians deal with, they are socially stigmatized — from slurs and stereotypes to poor treatment at public clinics and hospitals, Haitian people bear much blame for a variety of social ills in Bahamian society. When times are rough, tourism is down, crime is on the rise, or people get laid off, Haitians are the scapegoats for everyone’s troubles and strapped resources. This resonates eerily with what has happened in the Dominican Republic, and I offer this comparison to remind us of the vulnerable position in which many Haitian migrants find themselves — not only in the DR but also elsewhere in the region.

Gonsalves openly stated last night that he disagreed with Caricom’s ‘quiet diplomacy’ approach. He read the two strongly worded letters he sent to Medina and also the letter he sent to Venezuela’s  Maduro, calling on him to consider suspending them from the Petrocaribe agreement.

So aside from threats of suspension from Cariforum and CELAC, the Petrocaribe issue is probably going to be a defining factor in the outcome of this regional embarrassment.

Money talks, after all.

And in as much as I am glad that Caricom has finally found  voice and interest enough to make a statement (Norman Girvan in introducing Gonsalves last night said it was the first time he could feel proud of the Community) I’m still concerned about issues of free movement in the Caribbean. 

Since the issuing of this statement, the planned talks between Haitiian President Michel Martelly and a high profile team of officials from the Dominican Republic have fallen through.

So what comes next? Aside from the threat of sanctions and diplomatic snubbing how are we really going to start to address institutional and other types of racism in the Caribbean between nations?

It brings me again back to my concerns with regards to the reparations issue – what is Caricom’s policy position on the complexities of our ethnic and racial interactions?

How are we engaging with these complexities at the level of education, at the level of policy, at the level of government initiatives?

 

Because let’s face it, the reason for our lack of action on Haiti is the fact that in 1804 a bunch of enslaved Africans had the audacity to fight against the French, win and then declare themselves a Republic.

And the question of blackness and/or African ancestry is still a point of shame for far too many Caribbean people of African descent, despite the fact that we have given the world some of the leading luminaries of Pan Africanism (Henry Sylvestre Williams, Marcus Garvey, CLR James, George Padmore, to name a few). And of course one of the major issues plaguing our relationship with Haiti is the continued fear and loathing of African spiritual traditions

One of Gonsalves’ closing observations was the virtual non-existence of any critical thought or action coming from the University of the West Indies.  This is something that has bothered me for years. I’m watching and waiting but I’m not terribly hopeful.

Gonsalves started his speech talking about his days as a student at the University of the West Indies Mona campus when he organised the protest against the banning of the late great Walter Rodney who dared go into the ghettoes of Kingston to ground with his brothers. 

45 years later the issues we are afraid to confront are similar if not exactly the same.  

Put the Mask back in the Mas

Notting Hill Carnival in 2013 Brianna McCarthy Maker + Mender mask.

Notting Hill Carnival in 2013 Brianna McCarthy Maker + Mender mask.

One jouvay morning in Port of Spain a couple years ago, an Egun priest told me that the ancestors were upset because we were playing mas with our faces uncovered. This year for Jouvay I covered my face and at Notting Hill Carnival yesterday I made the transition back to a mask.

I had the pleasure of wearing a piece of art made by Brianna McCarthy, one of Trinidad’s most exciting young mixed media artists.

The politics of beauty in Trinidad is problematic at best. Look at any band launching event and notice that black women, dark skinned Indian or African women are virtually non-existent.

I am really excited about the ways that Brianna’s work confronts this.

Her website says:
‘Her work takes on the intricacies and dynamics of representing Afro-Caribbean women who are portrayed as being strong, long-suffering, exoticised and picturesque beings against a backdrop of poverty, hardship, abuse and/or scorn. McCarthy’s constructions and representations revolt against and subvert the stereotypical trends of representing the black body.’  

Once upon a time Carnival was a space for women to claim power. These days I can’t tell if Carnival is a space of power or – given the size of the costumes, the expense of the make up and increase in gym membership from October to February – a space where women are forced to seek approval under the gaze of a society that is male and judgemental. 

So the mask is part of that confrontation that needs to take place.  I loved the fear, awe, intrigue, attraction that the mask caused. Men begged me to take it off, children cried, old people smiled and bowed.

Culture should never be fossilized fragments. It should always evolve to serve the needs of the people who practice it. 

But we always need rituals. And performance as ritual – we’ve lost that from our Carnival with the loss of the mask.

And that is what I loved most about about wearing Brianna’s mask – it was a very contemporary take on a very ancient practice of masking – for the purpose of healing, for the purpose of transformation, for the purpose of liberation.

It’s a key part of the obeah that is Carnival and it occurred to me yesterday that half of the reason why the Carnival has lost its power is because of the removal of the mask.

‘Nutting’ Hill Carnival – a lament for Claudia Jones

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Notting Hill Carnival is on this weekend. Whatever the festival reflects and represents now (party and bullshit and party and bullshit) I’d just like to take a moment to remember and celebrate Claudia Jones, who gave England its first taste of Caribbean Carnival in 1959 in response to the Notting Hill race riots of the previous year.

She was born in Belmont, Trinidad in 1915 and moved to the US at age 9 but was deported in 1955 for her involvement in workers rights and the Communist Party.

She was given asylum in England and it was here that she organized the first London Caribbean Carnival and an Afro-Asian Caribbean Conference which then led to the formation of Committee of Afro-Asian and Caribbean Organisations.

She also founded the West Indian Gazette which later became West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News.

She was a journalist, activist, trouble maker, public speaker and allround badass.

She was also the original Jouvayist because she understood the transformative power of culture and the role that Carnival, the carnival of the masses played in defying the boundaries set by a system designed to make migrants invisible and sub-human.

That first Carnival event she organized in January 1959 in Pancras Town Hall featured the Boscoe Holder Dance troupe, the legendary Fitzroy Coleman and Cleo Laine. It was broadcast on the BBC and funds raised from the event went towards court fees and fines of convicted young black men.

I wonder if a penny from any fete, boat cruise, mas band this weekend is going towards addressing any of the many issues in the Black British community….

It’s unfashionable these days to be critical of Carnival. We have earned the right to wine up ourselves in the streets. To pay ridiculous amounts of money to wear the same costume every year. To dress up and go to fete and adopt postures of freedom and wild abandon.

I love to wine as much as anybody else, but I’m looking at least for a bit of irony, for an undertone of menace for even the shadow of a threat. We don’t even understand the significance of all these English in the street essentially giving thanks for the protests and sacrifice of the generations of Africans and Indians who worked to make this country wealthy and then came here after the World Wars as part of the rebuilding effort. 

The ConDem government is telling people to go home  even as we find out just how much David Cameron’s family got in reparations after Emancipation.

I guess it’s the lack of irony that upsets me the most. The total and complete lack of consciousness at how powerful Carnival could be if we weren’t so busy trying to forget the very things that ensured that we have it in the first place.

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Ghana Roadtrip

John1010

Hurtling into Fanti country in a beat-up Benz with a wonky gear box, the potholed roads make us zig zag, narrowly missing kamikaze goats and African versions of maxi taxis. Women walking between villages with loads on their heads and babies on their backs and cutlasses in their hands. I’m on the way to a clinic in the middle of nowhere with a Trini warrior named Dr Susan Alfred from Matelot who trains young village women to become dental technicians.
Our young driver Sammy swerves in time to the Bunji I am blasting. What is this music? I say soca…He says ahhhhhh and nods his head.
Different vibe, same energy. Keeping us moving forward.

Nothing fantastic after Carnival

If it’s special
Then with it why aren’t we as careful
As making sure we dress in style
Posing pictures with a smile
Keeping danger from a child

If it’s magic
Why can’t we make it everlasting
Like the lifetime of the sun
It will leave no heart undone
For there’s enough for everyone

If it’s Magic, Stevie Wonder

 

Went for a walk in the city at dawn Ash Wednesday morning. Hopscotching over rubbish piles and discarded wings. Splattered blue paint on the roads. It looks as though the city has been hit by an attack of naughty pixies. The bloodshed is glitter, the casualties bruised and smiling at the encounter. In the early morning light the truth of your Carnival tabanca takes hold.

You see your reflection in the stagnant pools of water blocked from a free passage to the drains by bits of costume. Your old face is there. Not the new one you got on J’Ouvert morning. Post-Carnival you look like the person you remember, although the glow of Carnival catharsis has you feeling sweet.

You are still tired. The ache of Carnival exuberance has not left your body. But if you had to do it all over again tomorrow, you would. You would jump on your bad knee the same way. You would spread your hands and let go of all the hurt you feel about Trinidad. All the vexation at how abjectly dotish certain things and people can make this place.

Which is worse? The Carnival tabanca or the Trinidad tabanca? The heartache that fills you up when you think that Carnival is something to be swept away for another year. Carnival has left you like a lover in the middle of the night. And when you turn at dawn in search for the reassuring warmth of another body, all you find is the crisp coldness of linen.

And you have to depend on your own warmth. Wrap yourself around yourself. Into a tight little ball of self-sufficiency. There is no cure for the loneliness and emptiness that comes after. Leaves you wandering on the streets in the early hours of the morning for some evidence of what happened the night before.

The debris is the only proof that Carnival is not an elaborate fantasy of your own making. In the silence you can hear the ghost of big trucks. In the distance the Savannah shimmers, self-conscious in the haze of a new morning.

But the rumbling of Phase II is still in your ears. And the weight of the flag you carried on the stage still strains the muscles in your upper arm. You know the precise moment when you did that thing to your knee that created this occasional lancing pain that temporarily renders you incapable of putting pressure on your right leg.

Pan disappears again. Aside for the token moments it is trotted out. Panyards that could be the cradle of community development lie fallow or under-utilised. From Ash Wednesday I start counting the hours, months, days it will take to recover from Carnival before I start preparing for the next.

Carnival is successful for those who understand how to package things and make money. Carnival is special for those who create their best work whether or not they get paid.

When Carnival is over where does all of that creativity go? In the hours and months and days between Carnivals who bothers to teach Trinbagonian children about the geometry of making a fancy sailor hat? Or the physics of creating king and queen costumes that can structurally withstand the breeze in the Savannah? Or the obeah of keeping dancing while you try to untie your rolled up flag?

Carnival, aside from being a time of bacchanal and excess, could also be a time for us to explore a less one-dimensional approach to our culture. But of course this is not art and our Carnival artists are not scientists. Cars whizz past the point where mere hours ago the crowds made music with their chipping feet.

I miss that Carnival time. That point when you see your friend and start screaming for no other reason than your euphoria at this moment of Carnival perfection. The problem is that my Carnival tabanca is my Trinidad tabanca. Unfulfilled potential, lacking in vision, beautiful but flawed.

Carnival is everything we could be but can’t be bothered to go through the effort of attempting. This eerie, post-apocalyptic kind of quiet is jarring. Just as jarring as hearing Fantastic Friday now. In the aftermath of the Carnival. When you struggle to find anything fantastic.

First published in the Trinidad Guardian February 16, 2013

Police and the Pan pushers.

Overseas
We from the West Indies
Anytime we start to party
Dem does run and call police
Well now we come back home
People playing stiff like stone
We does move this party from zone to zone

Savage, Bunji Garlin

 The moon is rising over the hills and the air is alive with the sound of sweet pan music. But police are stalking the perimeter of the stage like a flock of belligerent cobo. Guarding the stage like a La Basse carcass. I start to wonder if this stage is where our culture comes to die. Where the regulation and competition transforms former beauty into a lifeless, embalmed thing. A shadow of its former self.

 I’ve been here before.The last time I remember the police being so hognorant at Panorama was when Papa Patos was at the height of his unpopularity. The Guard and Emergency Branch were on a rampage. One scraped my arm and tried to grab my camera because I was trying to get evidence of his brutality.

 Since then, pan and other people-centred elements of the Carnival have continued to die slow painful deaths. Even as the season gives birth to new children. I do not join the new life in the Greens. The new life that does not have any connection to its past. We are on the track to celebrate the life that once was. Dragging our band’s pans towards the stage.

 The belligerent cobos swoop down. Assault rifles and batons at the ready. The moon shines on. We pull the racks forward, breaking into a run at the bottom of the ramp to get enough momentum to take them up and onto the stage.

It’s not an easy thing to push pan. But I’d rather take my jamming in the pushing than the playing. Spending weeks living in a panyard drilling a song into your brain every night for two months. Living, breathing, eating, dreaming this song. This ten-minute piece of heaven while there is a fete going on just next door where maybe five people out of the 10,000 care about your sacrifices to make it to this point.

 Pan is a community effort. Pan Trinbago, which has instructed the police to move dread with pan lovers, didn’t seem to get that memo. Meanwhile on the Greens: pockets are picked, young women get groped by tusty men over-stimulated by the sight of so much of Trinidad’s finest. Women are being attacked on their way out of the Savannah, by strangers and lovers too. Women getting slapped up by jealous boyfriends.

 The ring of belligerent cobos push us back. Shout at us. I want to spit in their faces for doing their jobs so well.

 Earlier in the evening, my neck craning over a barricade looking for a friend, a police officer told me I couldn’t stand where I was, although I was causing no obstruction. I ignored him and continued to look. The officer’s voice gets more insistent and as he makes as if to physically remove me, I walk away, feeling the mad blood rising. Not wishing to end up in an unnecessary altercation.

 “Family,” the man on the track addressed me. “Family, he doh know who is you or what?” Who is me? A Trinidadian. A Carnival lover. A panatic. It’s hard to keep a sense of humour. It’s hard not to want to pelt a bottle just to see what they will do. Start a riot just out of curiousity to find if they would really use those assault rifles in a crowd.

You shout stupidness at the officers. You know the arrangement your band is playing so you sing it back, you pam pam pa da the song into the officers’ faces. Officer Screw Face is properly scowling at us. Looking damn vex that we were still having a good time. He stretches his arms out to his sides to meet the batons of his fellow Corporal Stupidees.

 He pushes us back more. We resist. We do a Hafizool on them. Except that we have more moral authority to stay on the stage. We are qualified to be here. We know this arrangement already. Like I could whistle you the full eight minutes and 13 seconds of This Feeling Nice. It’s not just now we reach in this thing, officer.

 There is a tiny German woman up in one officer’s face. He keeps his cool, having enough presence of mind to know that a big black badjohn police hitting a little white woman in Carnival is a bad scene. I don’t take that chance. Knowing that Rasta is usual suspect. I stay behind, shouting my insults outside of baton range.

 Boogsie’s arrangement is sweet. But there is a part three-quarter way through, where the pan rumbles menacingly. Like Shango’s thunder self. It is a warning. Phase II gets top marks. Pyrrhic victory. Carnival is a battle that the people are losing more and more every year.

Published in Trinidad Guardian February 2, 2013

Singing Super’s Blues

There will be no other super man in town
I an I coming alone to sing I song
Using methods beyond the human knowledge
They will say for sure this is advantage
Because when the music start flowing
I’ll be dancing and singing
Creating pure happiness
Like a torpedo mama
I working under water
But is trouble when I surface
Superman, Super Blue

 Why it is you shaking, you don’t know. Well, you kind of know. You kind of know why you are here in this moment screaming and drenched in sweat, getting on like is your first time in a fete and you never knew it could be this sweet. You kind of know that this is where you are supposed to be. The drums matching your heartbeat, the bass making you do things with your boomsie that defy explanation.

 In 3 Canal’s Back Yard Jam under a mango tree we are in the Royal Temple of Soca and the High Priest is presiding. The High Priest is back from the wilderness. Thirteen years of wandering. Thirteen years that we missed him and forgot about him and remembered him in moments when Despers would play their mindblowing version of Rebecca.

 In the Backyard Jam, this Temple of Soca, everyone here is initiated into the mysteries of mas and the music of this place that could make you jump out of yourself and become part of a living, breathing wave. Look, it’s not like I thought before that moment that the Fantastic Friday song was his best. I have childhood memories haunted by his voice. He tiefed my head—a black Super Man—larger than life and more real than the on-screen flying man. Super Blue soared in my musical soul.

 With that kind of grounding, with that kind of brilliance, it is hard to deal with auto-tune and techno-ish beats. But then you realise that these are trappings. And at the root is the voice. At the root is the same Super.

 There are young people and old people and in between people like me there. I take myself from the sidelines and end up in the middle of a soca mosh pit. I lose a shoe and a hat and at some point my dress is way above its anticipated hemline. None of these things matter in the moment of contact. Some portal is opening.

 This Blue so super he could ward off maljo. He could take us all with him to a place of our collective imaginings. You are elated by the way your spirit soars. You missed the blues he is singing. The wailing in his voice. Like he is calling for something that is buried deep deep down and dragging it out of you. It is the sweetest pain.

 It is a triumphant return. After we whispered and laughed aloud at his wandering. We scream with joy at his return. Expect him to solve all our soca problems. We get carried away by the music. We get carried to the place from which we are unsure of the return.

 In the midst of the madness, I watch him good. His eyes closed. His brow furrowed. He is travelling and we are following. He is taking us on a painful journey with him. Some of us don’t notice. Some of us are too distracted by the sweetness of the music to hear the pain.

 The next day, after I have regained my composure I head back to Woodbrook. In another backyard, are a few hundred Orisha devotees dressed in white singing praises to Obatala. The same reaching for the sky. The same drums grounding you and singing making your spirit levitate. This is the original temple of soca. Some get carried away. Some find the spirit in the dance and the spirit dances in them, weightless, beautiful, magical.

 The sun fades and the white clothes glisten in the twilight. I stamp the ground in the rhythm of the drum, re-rooting myself. Reconnecting to the heartbeat, to the things that make me Trinbagonian. The music. The desire to transcend this space we occupy.

 Yes this is magic. But I am still thinking of Super Blue. The sweet sadness: I just came to say I love you. Only love can create music like that. Not competitions. Not prize money. Not the soca mafia. Love. The love power takes you. To a place that you are not entirely unfamiliar with. The liminal point between ecstasy and madness. Between the darkness and the dawn.

 In backyards. Away from the cameras. Away from the politicians. Away from the brand management and the under-nourished winer girls in beads and feathers. There is salvation in soca. There is healing in wining. There is catharsis in putting your hands over your head. I am thankful for the reminder.

 
 

Published in the Trinidad Guardian on January 19, 2013

Kambule or Canboulay?

The received wisdom was that the term Canboulay derived from the French ‘cannes brulees’ or the burning of the cane. The unseasonal burning of fields of immature sugarcane by the enslaved was done as an act of sabotage and groups of enslaved Africans were then forced to go and put out the fires. Along the way they sang songs of defiance and also danced kalenda as their ranks were made up of stickfighters.
However revered Trinidad and Tobago linguist Maureen Warner-Lewis in her seminal work Guinea’s Other Suns – one of the first comprehensive studies on the African presence in Trinidad and Tobago – lists the term kambule as a Kikongo word meaning procession. Africans held kambules throughout the year – as a form of celebration but they were also times when they could re-engage with spiritual and other cultural practices.
Professor Warner-Lewis believes the two terms to have been conflated to create one meaning – the march of defiance by the working class that happened in the pre-dawn hours of Carnival Monday morning.