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.

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.

Nobody from a Nothing Place

I rather be a shadow in the dark
Than a big fool in spotlight
I’d rather be a dog without a bark
Than a loud bark without a bite

Shadow in the Dark, Ataklan

Maybe it’s all that peroxide that’s eaten through Nicki Minaj’s scalp and started affecting her brain.
Or maybe it’s just the contempt that all Trinbagonians have for their own. You know, the place that gives you so much, that all you can manage to do is bad talk it at every opportunity.
I’m not, as you might have guessed, a fan of Ms. Minaj. There is a lot of really good hip hop out there and she is not it.
In a moment of empathy, Ms. Minaj reached out to an American Idol competitor – a refugee from Liberia – to say that she was so happy that the two of them had made it alive out of their horrible countries and come to the earthly paradise known as the United States of America to have a shot at being human.
In one fell swoop she perpetuates the myth of the savage Third World and also the streets paved with gold that exist outside of these Third World hell holes.
You really have to wonder if Ms. Minaj has some sort of post traumatic stress disorder. But if she does, if she is yet to deal with the traumas of her childhood, she should see a specialist about it, instead of going on American television and describing her country, my country as ‘nothing’.
Also I am curious about the something that she says that she is now. I suppose having millions of dollars is success. It doesn’t matter if you get this money by acting like Oversexed Barbie. It doesn’t matter if you are part of a media machine that sexualises girlhood, that preaches bamsie shaking as the sure fire way to get attention. And if you’re a black woman of any kind of popularity you start to get progressively whiter the more famous you get.
It fits the mainstream world media agenda for us to continue to think that anywhere in the so-called Third World is backward and savage. Trinidad and Liberia are one and the same, although Trinidad has not had decades of civil war. Far from being an expression of solidarity with a fellow person of colour, she is spewing the same ignorance that lumps us all into one amorphous bunch of black savages who can’t help but kill each other.
Oh and by the way? Violence and poverty do not exist in Queens. Racism is a long past dream and we’re all just getting along and having a big old party.
There’s no space in Ms Minaj’s comments to make so-called First World governments and corporations accountable for the continued roles they play in destabilizing our societies, in the name of the free market. For the legacy of colonialism and enslavement. The suspiciously plantation nature of our society. The people who look like us and sign sweetheart deals with multi-nationals. All the money that passes through like a dose of your Granny salts at the end of the August holidays.
We think we have a democratic government but what we have is a bunch of puppets selling us out to the highest bidder. And sometimes they’re not really the highest. They’re just giving the nicest kick-backs.
The drugs passing through Trinidad are mostly going to satisfy the tastes of hipsters in London and New York but we are killing our own.
That feeling that Trinidad is a nothing place from which one must make all attempts to escape with one’s life has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We’re all looking for a way out. So that we too can have the bling without the accountability to anything or anyone. So we can go home and show off on all the people who never did anything for us.
The sickness that Ms. Minaj is showing signs of, is the same sickness that has police officers driving drunk and killing women and children. The same sickness that has politicians turning up at funerals with their own personal photographer. The same sickness that has us leaving the bodies of old women in cane fields. The same sickness that makes giving the army powers of arrest the worst and most dangerous idea possible.
Trinidad is nothing. Trinidad has no future. And enough of us believe that now to make Ms. Minaj the perfect ambassador for all of us.
We should all aim to escape this murderous nothing of a country and mask ourselves in someone else’s coskel cake. Until we are all like her, shucking, jiving, wining minstrels.
If that is what success looks like, I want no part of it.
I’d rather be a nobody from a nothing place. I’d rather celebrate my grandmother who worked as a domestic to ensure that her children could go to school. I’d rather give thanks for all the Trinbagonians who shine in spite of the dirt. Who see beauty through all the ugliness. Who see a reason to stay. Who love this nothing place like it’s something.

Published in the Trinidad Guardian March 2, 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.

Dancing for Dawn

There I go again, talking about the only thing I love more than starch mangoes…

The glorious morning has come, and I don’t know if to laugh or cry. Because I’ll have to wait another 364 days to feel this way again. J’Ouvert is what happens when someone opens the prison gates. J’Ouvert is the moment of truth in lives of endless fiction.

Check out the full piece in this month’s issue of Caribbean Beat Magazine.

Case of the Man called Boy

I done tell mih friends and mih family
Not to worry
Anyone of them interfere with me
It eh easy
Don’t worry to beg the jury
Save the lawyer fee
And if yuh have any mail
Send it to me in the Royal Gaol
Royal Gaol, Mighty Sparrow

It’s the most serious question of the year. More serious than Section 34. More serious than the highway. More serious than whether we are going to hell in a handbasket called corruption. The question is: are they going to send the man called Boy to jail?

The first surprise is that he was found guilty in the first place. That was about as shocking as the fact that Ish and Steve escaped extradition.

Town say, it good for him. They start to wonder who the Golden Grove Soca Monarch will be. If you do the crime and you guilty, you have every right to do the time. All of these law-abiding citizens who have the moral rectitude to cast the first stone. Who never drive drunk and never pay for sex and never smoked a spliff and never got in a fight in a club and never pelt bottle in the Oval.

They glad that he get what coming to him. Because locking up Boy will make up for all the other cases, like Brad Boyce and others, where those who had the power to be above the law escaped the justice that should have been served. Meanwhile, the jokes jook like the waists of these same people who wine their way through endless Carnivals, play mas and dingolay as if there is no tomorrow. The fete will continue whether the Boy is in or out of jail.

The derision flows on social media and the radio stations. Trinis doing what they do best. Disguising their guilt in laughter and relief that they never got caught in whatever ratchifee they were doing. Not understanding that if the Boy is a monster, he is one of our own making. So desirous are we of someone to worship. In this place soca stars and politicians are equally untouchable by the long, selective arm of the law.

In this place soca stars and politicians have a long history of being of questionable moral standing. Pimps and thieves. Gun men and treasury looters. They do it all and then smile sweetly at us. And we like it so. Like we love the husbands who beat us. And the women who horn us. And the children who sell drugs and then build us nice houses.

We turn a blind eye to their sins when it suits us. While we wine. We dismiss the stories of what beasts they can be. We put them up on pedestals until we are ready to kick them down. Because the truth is that we love a messiah but we also love the part where we get to crucify them. We love to make fun of one of our own. Doing like the Boy is said to have done and kicking a man when he is down.

Well, he not that down. Because if you are wealthy or a public figure then you have extra buffer to take jamming. The middle classes who are above reproach and never do anything wrong are particularly pleased with themselves now.

For those of us who follow instructions from everyone, police and politicians and soca artists demanding that we move left, right down to the ground and everywhere else, we are particularly gleeful. We want them to know what it feels like to have their freedom taken away.

I’m not sure how I feel about the man called Boy being found guilty. The prettiest people do the ugliest things, so Kanye says. The prettiest people disappoint us the most. Because they give us so much beauty we don’t want to believe that they are capable of such ugliness.

We want men to be manly. But only to a point. We are ruled by badjohnism but when our best and brightest act like the animals we tell them they must be, we can’t stand it. We want to lose them in jail so that we don’t have to confront our own guilt. We don’t want to confront the way we treat our own women. The way we want to get away with our everyday corruptions and criminalities that if they were ever identified as such we would gasp in horror.

We’re nice people really. Too nice for jail. Jail is for little black boys. Jail is for murderers and picky-head bandits. Jail is not for jacketmen who kill the spirit of the country every day with their absolute contempt for people. The question is not whether the man called Boy will end up in jail. The question is how we begin to rethink what justice means and who we allow to have access to it.

On becoming a stickfighter

Had my first kalinda training session with the Bois Academy on Sunday. Really steep learning curve, given that I’ve always considered myself a pacifist and the least graceful person on the planet. But demystifying this martial tradition from the point of view of a player of stick for me is crucial as is the grounding that taking part in something so physical gives you. My shoulders still hurt and my left little finger is cramped from the terror I felt gripping that bois to protect my head, but here are the two most important things I learned:

1. Stickfighting is a beautifully deadly art that requires technical skill and a heightened consciousness of yourself in your body.

2. I am not a pacifist.

Vybz Kartel – the new face of freedom

See me, want me, give me, trust me
Feed me, —- me, love me, touch me
This whole world is cold and ugly
What we are is low and lovely
I am the most beautiful boogie man
The most beautiful boogie man
Let me be your favourite nightmare
Close your eyes and I’ll be right there

—The Boogie Man Song, Mos Def

It’s no accident that Vybz Kartel is in T&T to perform this weekend. Of all the weekends in the year, Emancipation weekend. When we allegedly celebrate freedom. When we dress up like Carnival time in costumes that we do not understand, that may or may not reflect who we are. When one group separates itself from the rest and the rest look on, unmoved. Feeling no sense of solidarity or understanding that freedom is a collective investment. I can’t say I’m terribly fond of Kartel. He’s not my generation of music, but I guess I understand why young people would like him. He appears to be the antithesis of everything that the rest of society stands for while not so subtly reinforcing age-old capitalist, sexist, racist notions on irresistible dancehall beats. But this is what freedom is about. The freedom to choose who you are and what you look like. Vybz Kartel is probably the world’s first post-black star, bending our notions of who we are or how we want to look. Because freedom was never only about getting rid of the chains. Freedom was never about one day when somebody else told you you could do whatever you wanted with the life you hadn’t known while you were busy making someone else rich.

Not much has changed and these days most people are still engaged in the act of making other people rich off their endless labour. Thinking that money can buy them freedom engages them more in their enslavement. To clothes, to Courts, to Forres Park, to sex. Kartel is the new face of freedom. Free to bleach. Free to mask himself and I wonder what Franz Fanon would make of him. And I wonder if his ancestors are glad that they worked themselves to death so that he could feel good about making himself look like a permanent minstrel. The truth is, though, that women of Africa, south-Asia, the Caribbean have been lightening their skin for centuries, but women are usually the ones prone to self-mutilation in the quest for acceptance. Kartel represents a kind of new black man. Who is no longer simply confident in the privilege of being both absolutely feared and desired at the same time. This is equal opportunity self-transformation into something more visually appealing. Because if they change the way they look maybe then the rest of the society might change the way they see black people.

The girls love off his bleach-out face, he boasts. With relief that he is finally on equal footing with the red men that run the region. Thank Jah for emancipation. If not we wouldn’t be free to be what we want to be. And at the opening of the Emancipation Village the Minister of Arts and Multiculturalism fumbles over the word decimation. Not remembering perhaps that he sang about this same thing years ago.
Decimation. Decimation. It’s a hard word to say and swallow. It’s what is happening every day to little black boys that Gypsy and his government and the Emancipation Support Committee and anyone else who expresses any interest in saving must face. But Vybz Kartel, who has in the past year become the face of post-Dudus dancehall, part gangsta, part vampire, is a challenge to those of us who think emancipation is just about one kind of freedom. These days with every other cable station carrying its own vampire show and Americans coming to make our folklore real with heat-seeking cameras and white girls boldface enough to ask Count Lopinot why he still jum-bieing the people’s lives, the cult of the undead lives in dancehall. In vocals they kill each other for fun, while their Gaza and Gully neighbours kill each other for real.

Like a ghoul out of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video that used to give me nightmares back in the 80s, Kartel haunts my mind, and I try to resist the desire to dance, because I can hear his words and they are far more terrible than what he has done to his face. It’s kind of funny when you really think about it. Vybz Kartel, the voice of emancipation for young people. In keeping with the level of hilarity that exists in this country. Because if you don’t laugh, the likelihood is that you might spend all your days weeping. Or hiding. Or hiding and weeping. If nothing else Vybz Kartel with his cake soap and his tattoos and his unfathomably banal lyrics represents either the failure or the success of past generations to pass on a sense of what a diaspora African identity is supposed to be. But this is what freedom is about I guess. To be so confident in your blackness that you attempt to erase every trace of it. To be so sure of yourself that you feel no qualms about moving from disguise to disguise. Until there is no difference between you and the mask. The mask is you. The mask is real. The mask is permanent. But that’s okay because it’s white and white’s alright. That is true freedom. That is true emancipation. Because blackness is the prison that black people fear the most.