The Senate debates the Constitution Amendment Bill tomorrow and from tonight we’re going to be outside the Parliament keeping watch over what is left of our democracy.
It’s not about activists. It’s not about protestors. It’s not about who talking the loudest. It’s not about red jersey or yellow jersey. It’s not about rum or roti or pelau or the same colonialist Afro vs Indo bullshit that they keep trying to divide us with.
It’s about the teachers who will share what they learn in the classroom. It’s about lawyers who could help bail out anybody that get lock up. It’s about yogis who help people stretch out a night’s worth of standing on a cold wet pavement. It’s about the snow cone man who turns up in the heat of the day. It’s about the lady who sends the pack of water and the sweetbread. It’s about fluid leadership, anybody on the side could pick up the lavwey. It’s about the drummer who turns up at midnight to lift dampened spirits. It is about all of us. Standing up together. It’s about defying the defeatist agenda. It’s about doing what you can with whatever you have. It is about finally claiming what is yours.

Beautiful, brutal people’s justice

One more, officer, one more
Before we go down the road and fight with we brother
One more 
Run the music man or we will come out and burn this town
Stop the music
You got to be mad
Listen, Inspector, we doh want to have to shake you down
This ain’t the Gaza Strip
This is Trinidad.

One More, Officer, 
David Rudder

The big joke last Saturday on the social media was that San Fernando stores were experiencing a toilet-paper shortage. I imagine that Sugar Aloes and De Fosto were not themselves finding this situation as funny as the rest of us watching on. But a calypsonian is like a stickfighter. He or she knows the risks involved in going into the ring. Such are the perils of the job description and if you can’t deal with the jamming, then don’t be trying to eat a food and then attempt to display moral rectitude.

You can’t legislate that kind of beautiful anarchy. You can’t predetermine that kind of ugly and brutal people’s justice. Even in the midst of an over-regulated celebration, branded and cosseted by people who don’t seem to really have a grasp of what this festival is. Even in the midst of a Carnival that is overshadowed by so much of what is wrong with here, the wastage, the unnecessary spending, the elevation of frills and frivolity into the main show.

Moments like that are the truth. The off-key, jacked-up, belligerent truth of Carnival. The side where the people get their revenge on those who they perceive as traitors. The placards are no less crude and cringe-worthy than anything that has ever come out of the Minister of National Security’s mouth. But these placards have a kind of exactness. The surgeon’s slicing motion. The bitterness of aloes on your tongue.

I am not sure if there is catharsis. But the evidence is clear that people are vex. It is not the kind of vexation that is at risk of ever going away. This is a centuries-old anger. This is the forever confrontation between the jammettes and the planter class. We still sing for someone else’s amusement. We are still the laughing, angry men and women who will fete and fete and then mash up everything, santimanitay. We love this ritual of beauty and destruction that we are constantly engaged in. 

In the finals of the NCC stick fight competition on Wednesday night, the blood flowed freely. In a cramped space with hundreds on the outside trying to get in. Because I mean, it’s only our indigenous martial tradition. It’s not special or significant enough to warrant a space that is properly equipped.

For the participants and the supporters, it is more than buss head. It is the beauty and the terror and the way the drums match your heartbeat and the skin on the back of your neck stands at attention when the tip of a bois connects at lightning speed with the forehead of an opponent. The chantwells are shouting: “If yuh lose a finger, if yuh lose yuh eye,”  and the chorus responds, “Doh cry.”

Fight on. In spite of what you have lost. Fight on because you stand to lose a lot more than your pride. In this never ending tragicomedy called Trinidad there are certain characters who will always exist.  Carnival is the time when some of us try to redress the imbalances. Some of us try to use the opportunity to show our great beauty while asking how come we don’t notice it for the rest of the year.

The Carnival-haters. The racists. The Christians who think Carnival is some kind of deepest heart-of-Africa devil worship. The Ariapita Avenuers who take loans to look affluent in all-inclusives. The ones who cah get over the tabanca they get from some sweet woman who give them a taste and then disappear like a Carnival stranger into the beckoning darkness.

 

Carnival always will be a fight. Between those who have and those who don’t. Between the arrogant young contender and the elder attempting his last stand. Between the people for a voice to adequately reflect their pain and the bard who wants to eat a food.

 

Carnival is when we play a bigger version of the same mas we are playing all year round. Except at Carnival we tend to over-exaggerate. Shout louder and more dotish than everybody. An endless confronting of difference. Even if it is to celebrate it. An endless confronting of what we love and what we hate and what we don’t mind losing and what we are prepared to preserve.

Play on, Trinidad. You looking sweet too bad.

Published in the Trinidad Guardian February 9, 2013

Finding freedom

I been thinking what is it I can do
All these feelings got me staring back at you
I been talking but you don’t hear me
Can I make it through somehow

—Take Me Away, Medics

Notting Hill is sunny in that innocuous way that sun shines in Babylondon, without the kick and sting that makes you imagine that the melanin in your shoulders is stretching little arms up to the sky and saying yes, yes. But it’s enough to make you smile and the familiar throb of soca reminds you that your heart is still beating, that you are living. That it is jouvay and thank Jah for Trinidad because then how would repressed white people get an opportunity to randomly wine on the streets? You watch the unbaptised, the unfamiliar with the rituals of the Carnival burn out a few streets down. They know nothing of chipping, that clever dance of energy conservation that helps you make it across the miles.

But they keep going because Carnival feels so good. Even though it’s only 13 degrees and the sun is doing a dollar wine with the clouds, coming in and out and in and out and then the rain comes down and it is not the warm sweet rain of home but an icy distant cousin that you’d rather not know. This is cleaner than oil, less smelly than natural gas. This Carnival that we have given the world. This claiming of the streets. And even the several thousand police officers that they put to line the streets, even they have to smile and look away from the sight of boomsies suddenly discovering the defiant joy of going down low, so low that the cold Babylondon asphalt is just centimetres away.

Even the police cannot escape the beat. And you catch those Bobbies trying to bop their funny round hats, that look like a mas themselves, to the beat. The sun comes out, properly. And gives you a little kick and sting and you think it can’t get better than this, then you hear a faint dudups coming up behind you and you turn around and four men are pulling a trailer of a riddim section, with the irons cleverly mounted on an ironing board. This Carnival we have given the world is sweeter than the fake mangoes you buy in Tesco, that have no smell of home.

This Carnival, if only we knew how much it meant, we would market it properly. And there isn’t a feather in sight and there are Sikhs jumping up in the band and a woman shouting to her children in Tagalog and your pardner the Wild Indian from Aranguez get so excited to see a riddim section that he play like if he want them to hear it home and so he buss the Guyanese man djembe. But it’s Carnival so they forgive him. And the rum is flowing and the love is flowing and I am thankful that Babylon’s powers that be didn’t ban the Carnival for fear of the restless natives.

The natives, you see, need the spiritual, emotional release. They need to be wutless and witless and raising their hands above their heads is just them doing yoga to increase the flow of blood to the heart, so that they remember that love is something that we all need sometimes. And you think about home, where the curfew is. Where the guns are. Where the anger is. You dread having to go home to restrictions. You dread having to control yourself. You wonder how come the people aren’t running amok on the streets during the day. You wonder if you can bear someone telling you where you can and can’t go and when.

From your position of watched freedom you wonder at why the only thing that’s being organised is curfew limes, why your friends report that Frankie’s on the Avenue is ram at 5 pm. From your position of freedom, you are thankful that you ran away when you did. So that you can walk the streets freely. With thousands of police. With CCTV cameras watching your every step. They are searching youths. Section 60 they call it. Criminal Justice and Public Order to tackle anti-social behaviour. And doesn’t mean they will charge you for not wanting to wine. The ropes are closing in. You can’t go that way. Your smartphone is suddenly stupid, the conspiracy theorists say the networks are being jammed so that youths can’t organise bacchanal.

It sours your Carnival experience. Reminds you that freedom comes with a high price, when you let somebody else define it for you. At the end of Carnival you walk the streets with your friends. And it’s like some post-Apocalyptic scene. The police blocking your way. The young people bleary-eyed from all the drugs they’ve taken for the past two days. The helicopters circle like mechanic cobos in a slate grey sky. The Carnival is over and the freedom you felt, like the warmth, is gone.

What replaces it is a kind of terror. That someone has allowed you to enjoy yourself. That this was not a joy of your own making. This is an undeclared cur-few. This is monitoring for the sake of it. Big Brother is watch-ing your every move. Like Big Tanty is now watching your news feed waiting for you to say something seditious, like Anand Ramlogan really desperately needs a hug. But the State, whether British or “Trinbagonian,” cannot control the desire for freedom. With fear or guns or cameras. The desire for freedom will win out ultimately. But it’s time to stop waiting for the next Carnival to be free.

More than Mad

Kaleidoscope of colours

That you bringing me

You freaking out my energy

I’m losing and you’re making me low low low

Don’t know what to do about it

You and I can’t live without it

All I wanna do is just go go go

You smother my emotions

Now I’m drowning in your oceans

And I’m running and I’m feeling like I don’t care

Penetrate my space

And now I’m looking out of place

You’re making this hard for me

I Need Air, Magnetic Man

It is 3 am and there is a man dancing at the Bus Route traffic lights.  He’s doing what can only be described as the cocaine skank …  a kind of happy sad side-to-side rocking, a shuffling of barefeet on uneven asphalt.  He is singing a mostly incoherent song about Point Fortin.

He is one of a few doing the Croisée cocaine skank at 3 a.m. on a Friday morning.  Looking for the next high alongside the Croisée rats running around the piles of rubbish looking for food.

I wonder who is more mad?  The man dancing at the traffic lights or me for living in a place where we’re not even bothered by these apparitions.

The man doing the cocaine skank follows me home, a memory as potent as the smell of the Croisée’s magnificently stink canals.

Whether or not we add the cocaine, we’re all stuck at a traffic light doing a happy sad dance to a song whose words we have forgotten.

It is a love song for a place called home. That in the midst of the money and the rum and the wining and the crappy Hollywood TV and the bleached out daggerers from Jamaica we have forgotten.

Madness is the glue that holds this place together enough to fool us into thinking it isn’t falling apart.

We must surely all be mad to think that it’s okay for a country to operate like this.

This place is a smorgasbord of crazy.  This is a melting pot of madness. You wonder how long it will take for you to begin to do the dance.

In City Gate at 9 a.m. a man greets exiting passengers with a full body rant. He’s doing his own version of the cocaine skank, with a touch of Christ thrown in for good measure.

There is a woman with no life in her eyes asking you a little help please.

We pass mad every day on our streets, in our offices.

Who wants to admit that they’re crazy?  Certainly not me.  I imagine that this madness is not affecting me.  I imagine that it’s like the cloud over the La Basse that causes you to hold your breath.  You hope the madness will just blow over. That it won’t take root in my lungs and stifle me slowly.

Mad people in the papers killing their wives.  Mad politicians on the television raving about missing pianos. Mad soca men telling to go so and come back so, come up so and go down so.

Madness, though, is gladness.  An acting out of the euphoria of living in a place so wealthy with possibility. We cackle and point at the crazies even as our own minds are stifled by fear and doubt and loathing.

We mad we mad we mad we mad. We more than mad. We are a lot worse off than regular old insanity. We passed mad about 10 years ago and are speeding on the way to I’m really not sure where.

We passed mad ten years ago when we were still convincing ourselves that poor people killing each other wasn’t our business.  We passed mad more than ten years ago when we still thought it was okay to allow politicians to not be held accountable for their actions.

And then here comes the new sheriff in town who seems to have taken over Papa Patos in the megalomania department.  The new sheriff in town is wanting to hide away the physical manifestations of the madness that all of us try not to succumb to everyday.

He collects them like garbage and dumps them in a place where we can’t see. And their madness comes back to haunt us like La Basse fog in the early hours of our fearful night hours.  The stench threatens to stifle you.

Somebody used to refer to Trinidad and Tobago as that crazy colony.  We lost the colony part but the crazy stuck around.

There’s no other explanation for why a place that is so richly blessed could be so tragically messed up.

And even if St. Ann’s were functional there wouldn’t be space enough for hold all of us.  Not to mention treatment. How does a country so thoroughly unconvinced of its potential rise above that kind of endemic self-doubt?

Attillah’s adventures in Manningland.

I got the call on Christmas Eve in the afternoon.  From a sweet voiced young woman with a Christian first name and an Indian Muslim surname.  She said she was calling from the Prime Minister’s Residence to invite me to their New Year’s Day party.  I tried not to burst out laughing. I tried not to drop the phone from its tenuous hold between my ear and shoulder.

It takes the whole week for me to recover from the initial shock. I mean, let’s face it. Me and Papa Patos eh no kinah friends.  I mean, 2009 was the year of the professionl protestor. I’ve never made it a secret how I feel about Manning and the PNM regime.  We’ve pretty much traded insults indirectly for a long time. I consider that this may be an olive branch.  Or a guava whip admonishment. Or an attempt to buy my favour with rum, roti and Brian Macfarlane’s tacky designs.

I ring them back a couple days before to make sure that it was actually me the meant to invite.  The nice voiced young woman reassures me that yes it’s definitely me and that PM and Madame are personally responsible for the list.

Papa yo.

Anyway.

I decide to go.  Curiousity always getting the better of me.  I want to see what happens when I venture down the rabbit hole.

So yesterday afternoon I get dressed and take a leisurely stroll down St. Ann’s main road and in less than ten minutes I’m at La Fantaisie.  And this is the first sign that I’m the biggest freak in the party.  There’s no actual pedestrian entrance.  So I have to go back through to the car park entrance to be searched.  They don’t quite understand that I’ve walked. They keep asking me if I remember where I parked my car.   The security guard asks the man ahead of me in the line if he has a weapon.  Then he waves me through, without looking at his list.

Down the rabbit hole I go.

I spot the Mannings as soon as I get to the tents packed with what looks like a PNM convention.  I head in the opposite direction, trying not to look too bemused.  Everyone is looking at me like I just landed from another planet. I imagine that it’s because I’m wearing a pink sari and purple rubber slippers (in defiance of dress code) and to complete the hippy effect … sprigs of bougainvilla in my hair. People are whispering as I walk past. I have a smile I’ve practiced for moments like this. I wave a lot.  I scan the room for other least likely to have been invited candidates.  I find two and cling to them for dear life.

I sip on coconut water from my corner behind a jar of red gardenias.  Where are all the other dissidents and rabble rousers?  I guess they must be too Indian.  Come to think of it, I haven’t seen this many well dressed black people in one place in Trinidad since, well.  Never.  But then again I’m not part of the accepted black elite so I don’t usually get invited to these sorts of things.

More coconut water.   A few more people I recognise.  I still have no idea what I’m doing here.  Talk about cockroach in fowl party!

There are piles of meat everywhere. Vegetarian options are salad, curry potato and pelau. I pile some salad on a plate and hope for the best.  Silly me, they also have doubles!! The line is so short I’m suspicious, but I’m also loath get doubles juice all over my hot pink sari.

I’m definitely feeling like I’m at a mad tea party.
Especially when the night’s entertainment begins and Malick Folk Performers dance around the room singing Hello! Africa…followed by some blinged out light skinned girls dancing to Jai Ho.  Then they chip around the tent. Indian and African-ish dancers, an Indian belly dancer,  a Chinese dog.  Tassa and steel pan engage in a discordant sound clash.  It is cacophonic. Still, the black elite are having spirited conversations about Carnival and of course Beyoncé tickets.

And then Divine Echoes take centre stage and as Patos sings along to the Chinese love song I am no longer holding back my giggles.

Later in the bathroom as I try to take a picture of myself, against the rules, an older Indian woman comes up to. “I love what you’re wearing,”she gushes.

“I almost wore one like that.”  She doesn’t call it by its name.  As if sari is a bad word.  She has chosen instead the ugliest jersey material animal print contraption I have ever had the misfortune of seeing.  She says in her defense, that she thought ‘one of those’ would have been too cumbersome.  But I wear it so well.  She says she doesn’t even know how to tie one.

I point out to her that in India some women wear saris to do just about everything and that we in the west have to get rid of this notion that ‘ethnic’ wear is somehow more difficult than skinny jeans.  In truth a lot of women with ‘ethnic’ figures should never ever ever wear skinny jeans.

I somehow end up backstage. The stage that cost a few extra million.

I fight the urge to grab the mike from Wendell Constantine and start shouting ‘no smelter!’ at the crowd. I do the math and figure that the security would tackle me to the ground faster than  the Pope’s Swiss Guard.    The dressing rooms are nicer than the ones at Queen’s Hall.  Everything is so shiny and new.

I also get a chance to maco the palace. The place is monstrous in the darkness with the still full moon now rising over the St. Ann’s hills.  I am glad I came to see what is inside these walls.  Being inside makes me feel even more of an outsider in this PNM black elite universe.

It’s time to go.  As we beat a hasty retreat from the madness, we realise that Patos and Madame are at the exit thanking everyone for coming.

He takes my hand. I hold it.  Firm and deliberate. I look him in the eye but he is looking somewhere over my right shoulder.  He says thank you for coming, before moving on to the next person. To whom he says ‘oh this one I recognise!’

I feign shock and distress.  ‘You don’t recognise me?!’ Come now Patos. I know I’m on a list.

Then he says ‘ah yes of course. I recognise you now.’

I laugh. He laughs. Hazel laughs.

Dimples all round.

I escape La Fantaisie.  I wonder if it was real. If every skin teeth is really a smile. Or a baring of fangs.