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. 

Azonto Lessons

There is a pause when the lights go at 1 a.m. and the fan stops whirring. Until the generator shudders to life and the air returns to the room, the fan whirring reassuringly over your head again. In that pause you hear the world of other sounds that exist outside the electric drone. A neighbour’s child, the thunder of a storm making its way across the night, the dying moments of an evangelical service, a lone dog barking in the distance, insects whose names you do not know. The sounds of nighttime Accra are so familiar that in those seconds when I wake up in the sudden and unbearable stillness I get confused about where I am.

There are many moments of confusion during my time in Ghana. It is déjà vu for something I have not yet seen.

Excerpt from Azonto Lessons, a piece I wrote for this month’s issue of Caribbean Beat.

Read the full piece here

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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Election bell ring, Ms. Democracy

Dem a di don, to di biz we av di key
put di don to di key and turn him inna donkey
—Ting a Ling, Shabba Ranks

The election bell ring. It wake up Democracy from a deep drunken sleep. She sit up and watch the clock and steups. A long watery one. The kind of special steups you save for when you in government office for an hour trying to do something that should take five minutes.
Democracy put on the radio to see who else dead in the night. She listen to the bacchanal. She switch and listen to the fearmongers.
She smile and shake her head at the callers. Near hysterics with the latest piece of stupidness that just get revealed.
She wonder if nothing else going on in this forceripe little island except for badjohns with guns and badjohns with seats in Parliament.
They coming for her just now. They coming to dress her up pretty and loud for a few weeks and parade her about like a trophy wife.
Democracy wish she could say half the things that in her head and heart to say. That could turn things around and make a difference to the lives of those who need it the most.
The ones who depending on the government or the opposition to actually represent them and engage them in creating a brighter future.
Democracy take a sip of her coffee watching the clouds gather on the hills. This is a sweet time of the day when the light is perfect.
The hills used to be so green. But is development, nah. Is development and the need for housing that have less trees on the hills and rivers on mud running down her street.
It had a time when she used to try and make a difference. She used to talk.
They say she is a trouble aker. They say she trying to make confusion. They say she trying to stop people from eating a food.
Democracy, hush yuh firetrucking mouth so I could make a lil kickback.
They don’t know who is me or what? Like they forget the meaning of my name. Like they forget that is because of me they reach anywhere in the first place.
She give up on fighting them now. She give up because the licks starting to take a toll. The emotional abuse starting to make her forget the meaning of her own name.
Democracy is good at hiding the bruises now. She learn how to do that long time. She eat so much licks in her time that she know how to turn her face so that when the lash pass it wouldn’t leave too big a mark. Not too bad.
Democracy go on Facebook. She watch her newsfeed and roll her eyes at the political blogs. She not really sure why she following them in the first place.
A set of idlers who like to hide behind they computer and pontificate about what wrong with Trinidad.
But if she were to call them and ask them to come and help her out, they woulda start to stutter and well, ahm in her ears and tell her how it eh really have nothing she could do.
See? We’re so free here. We give you a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea and you should be grateful for that.
She going to spend the next few weeks wining for rum and roti.
Democracy watch herself long and hard in the mirror. She not looking too bad. She could still smile and convince people that she is beautiful. She could still make a show that she matters and is of value.
The money they paying her to show up, well she could make a good living on that. She could go away every now and again. She could buy nice things and go on the Avenue and lime.
Democracy figure is compensation enough for her pains.
They coming for her just now. They coming to show her off in the papers. On the hustings. She getting some good gigs for the next few weeks.
Is like Carnival time when they does play local music on the radio.
After elections she going to disappear just like soca. Until next time.
The rain falling again.
The sky weeping tears on her behalf. Endless tears. The sky have more water than Wasa, that’s for sure. She can’t cry now. She smile at her face in the mirror. She skin her teeth and practise kissing babies. She swallow hard to get rid of the lump in her throat.
Now that the election bell ring. How it go look if Democracy looking bad?

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.

Sacred Waters

To touch the river is to understand her divinity. You must walk the path of the river to pay your respect. You must experience the shocking coolness of the water in the early dawn, the sharp jab of stones, the yielding softness of mud. The sun barely peeps through the thick forest cover in those early dawn hours when the only noises are forest ones: raucous birds and a whispering river.

 

Excerpt from a short piece I wrote on the Hindu River festival Ganga Dhaaraa in the current issue of Caribbean Beat. 

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

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