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.

Chipping down the road of understanding.

Last summer in London I taught a few wining classes, and one of the moves I started off with was the chip.
Wining, as I told my students, is much more than a movement of the waist. Like most other rituals associated with Carnival, dancing in Carnival is not given any critical thought, and especially because of the continued dismissal of its African origins, we overlook its subtleties and ultimately it’s real purpose. Part of my real disgust with soca is the ‘instructional’ nature of many of the songs, which create a template for movement, but also to a certain extent, disempower women from really freeing up and expressing themselves and their bodies outside of the approval of the male gaze.
Anyway, now that I’m back in Trinidad and getting ready for Carnival, I’m reading and researching and arming myself with information.
I found this excellent quote in Under the Mas – Resistance and Rebellion in the Trinidad Masquerade written by dancer, Choreographer and scholar Prof Jeff Henry.

The basic calypso dance, ‘the chip’ is executed with a relaxed forward shuffle of the feet, knees slightly bent, with the balls of the feet and the heels continuously flat on the ground, as the weight is shifted from one leg to the other.
The body sways loosely from side to side in response to the change of weight in relationship to the shift of the body. This fundamental rhythmic forward propelling movement comes out of the Shouter Baptist rhythms as part of the physical expression and from the circular movement of the Orisha.
The movement is most noteworthy during the opening ceremony of a Shango meeting which usually begins with a salutation to Eshu. In the Spiritual/Shouter Baptist ceremonies, the movement back and forth accompanied by vocal sounds referred to as ‘doption’ also recalls the ‘chip’. The shuffle of feet flat on the ground has always been the signature of the Calypso dance and is still unconsciously done by masqueraders when they are moving from one place to another or are slowing down to contain their energy.

Ogun and the Jouvay Warriors.

jab

Doing research for a piece I’m writing about African retentions in Trinidad Carnival, I came across this.

The procession referred to as sagun (literally, “to run Ogun’s race”) derives its name from the fast tempo of the music and warlike-dance. Each individual or group parade is referred to as
Ologun(“Ogun bearer”)…. Every conceivable professional group in Ondo, except for the civil service and white-collar workers, participates in the celebration.
Most are dressed in rags and parade through the town with their bodies smeared with blue, white, and black paint.
They sing in praise of the deity and of their procession. The festival is an occasion to celebrate Ogun’s deeds and to display human workmanship.
The ceremony becomes an opportunity for a show of force by the individual medicine-Ologun and often creates a temptation for them to test their medicinal power in public and to confirm their superiority.
This aptly illustrates Ogun’s attributes as “the embodiment of challenge, the Promethean instinct in man, constantly at the service of society for its full self-realization.

Olopuna, J.K Kingship, religion and rituals in a Nigerian Community   Sweden, Almquist & Wiksell

Sound familiar?
We’ve been hinting at the links between Africa and Trinidad Carnival for a long time, but in the spirit of denial and prettification we’ve chosen to erase rather than celebrate what are some glaring and wonderful similarities between our Carnival and the masking rituals of West Africa, specifically the Yoruba.
And I get vex every time I hear the same recycled story about Carnival being a French thing that the Africans then used to imitate their masters. It never go so and it’s about time we start to explode those myths.
The truth is that the jouvay that got included in the two day Carnival celebration was initially an Emancipation celebration celebrated on August 1st. The procession started at midnight, was a mixture of solemnity, ritual, celebration and defiance.
It makes sense that the Canboulay was always a source of confrontation between the jamettes and the colonial authorities. And it makes sense that we should even as we confront the colossal stupidity and ongoing assness of this government, previous governments and I guess future governments, find new ways to use this still existing ritual to do the same confrontation with the authorities that needs to happen.
In light of all that is going on politically and socially in Trinidad right now, I am inclined to ask, for Jouvay 2013 what would Ogun do?

Bitter Sweet Spirit

No self respecting Caribbean person holds allegiance to any other spirit. It’s the first thing you learn to drink.
After all it is in your blood. Rum flows in the veins like rebellion. It is strong and bitter like cane burnt in anger.
It is what is left after the sweetness is taken out.
But hold on.
Before you take a sip. Before you burn the tip of your tongue and feel your whole inside go golden from the heat of liquor coursing through you.
Before the feeling goes to your head and your tongue gets loose and your waist begins a barely perceptible oscillation.
Open the bottle of rum and pour a libation. Spill three drops on the ground. You do this for those who are not here to part take of the drink themselves. For those who have gone before.
For ancestors whose names we don’t remember.
For Gods whose names we were forced to forget.
For blood spilt and lives lost to make someone else rich.
Rum is the drink of forgetfulness for some. I believe that it started as a drink of remembrance.

That’s just a little piece. I’m reading the whole thing at the Museum of London Docklands on September 26 at the Real Rum Do

Love and Baigan – A Maticoor Meditation

Republic Maticoor

When Gab, my sistren from the year nought jokingly suggested that I organize and host her maticoor at the Republic a month ago it didn’t seem so odd. 

Given that I am a post modern Orisa/Rasta ecofeminist and Gab is a Rapso feminist activist, former Miss Mastana Bahar and her family is actually Muslim Indian via Afghanistan. AND she was getting married to an African man in Christian ceremony.

I engaged in the process the same way I engage in any kind of celebration, with wild abandon and excitement.

This was not to be a regular maticoor by any stretch of our imaginations.  It was less than rites but more than tradition.  But that is the Trinidad experience — creating new interpretations of old things, making culture relevant  and current and alive and vital.  

 It didn’t matter that I’m not Indian or Hindu or a family member.

In our reasonings about what we wanted the maticoor to be, Gab and I agreed that to call it a maticoor was to take the name with its local cultural and social significance specifically to women and make it our own.  

As women confronting this Trinidad landscape, claiming space, expressing views, thoughts, dreams, desires we know the restrictions on this freedom.  The maticoor then becomes that last chance for us to come together and surround our sister friend with all our light, all our hope and all our admonishing that this mouth called marriage doesn’t swallow her up, consume her so totally that she no longer is the person we knew.  A better stronger person perhaps. Because what is love if it doesn’t give you the energy to be an amplified version of yourself?

On the day of the maticoor I ended up in a shop in San Juan market with the mother.  I bought some coconut oil and wicks for the deyas I planned for Gab’s circle of light.  I stood there talking with the female shop owner, asking her about the various puja items on sale.  We chatted for a long time too about the similarities between Hindu rites and practices and Ifa/Orisa rites and practices.  About the late Orisa priest Baba Sam who often said his prayers in Sanskrit, of Ravi Ji who I call Uncle.

An Indian man,  a Jehovah’s Witness tried to engage me and the mother in a conversation about Christianity and why the Bible is the only truth.  There was a lot of snorting and steupsing from us at this point.  A few shoppers stopped their shopping to hear how the conversation was going.  Anyway to cut a long story short, the mother shouted at the man ‘Conversion is the worst crime perpetrated against people like us.  A lot of Indian people had to convert to Christianity, change their names and their way of life to keep their jobs, to send their children to school.  Orisa people used to have to run from police for playing their drums.  Pay respect to your ancestors who sacrificed so much for you to be here!’

In our circle later that night, after Burton had sung his ribald maticoor songs and then orikis to Orisa goddesses Yemoja, Osun and Oya and of course Sparrow’s Maharajin and we sat watching our mehendi’d hands dry, we all dressed as our personal sheroes – I am Phoolan Devi, in a circle of Parvati, Gaia, Winnie Mandela, Artemis, Athena, Yemoja, Osun… 

I spare a thought for the Jehovah Witness man who must still be scratching his head over the encounter with me and the mother.  I spare a thought for his version of the story which can only ever be one way.  That his worldview is limited by his belief system that says there is only one truth.  

We gather there in that circle giving Gab our love and advice.  The melongene comes out and we collapse into giggles.  Love and baigan are things that we all know. Experiences that we all share.  We give our best ideas and advice.

Trini men are special enough for us to try to figure out how to love them and demand that they love us in ways that are affirming, empowering, enlightening.

In a place and time when we presume women are disempowered, whether by marriage, religion or just the goddamn competing patriarchies that battle for women’s bodies and minds in this country, the maticoor then is a space of power for women where they can celebrate themselves, their femininity, sexuality freely.

 The maticoor is a moment of woman obeah.  To remind us of our power and how to use it.  That setting of a stage where the bride knows that the women have her back.  

Trinidad is such a subtle, nuanced place.  It’s easy to get it wrong. It’s easy to think that race divides us, which it does in bizarre ways.  That we succumb to the politics of nigger and coolie paranoia, which we do in the worst of times.  No mistake, there are a lot of people in Trinidad for whom that is a reality.  There are a lot of people in Trinidad who fully and committedly engage in the politics of resentment.  Who use difference as a dividing line.  

But it is never that simple.  So it is up to us who have had this upbringing that is all of the above: Indian and African and western and Baptist and Amitabh Bachchan on a Sunday afternoon and Viv Richards and pan to develop the capactity to deal with our cultural schizophrenia rather than try to disentangle it and try to construct some singular identity.  That’s not just impossible, it’s impossibly boring.

Maybe it is up to the women to lead the way to this easier understanding of this country’s complexities.  To an acceptance of how we mix and mingle and our sharp edges become softened by a constant rubbing against the Other. Until the other is yourself and you are the other.  And maybe a dougla maticoor is not the answer to all our problems.

 But surely love and baigan are key ingredients in any effort to bring us all a little closer.

At the crossroads: black eye peas and other new year considerations

It’s almost 1300hrs on New Year’s Eve and I am dithering with various things, while I steel myself for a mad dash to the shop around the corner for black eye peas.

Outside is the kind of cold that is unrelenting even through several formidable layers. Or at least I imagine it is so. In truth I haven’t left the house since Monday, prefering to watch from within the safety of double glazing the London winter go from mild one weekend to nasty the following.

I am considering what misfortunes may befall me if I don’t get my black eye peas on. In spite of my distance from Trinidad and from the mother I woke up this morning knowing that this task had to be completed by the end of today.

Black eye peas being symbols of prosperity we brought a sense of with us through the Middle Passage and beyond. They are also the favourite food of the Orishas who offer protection to the community. It is no accident that old people long time in Trinidad would ring in the New Year standing at crossroads and it was essential for you to eat black eye peas and rice. What led them to know to do this I don’t know. It’s as if Eshu himself, guardian of crossroads, trickster of great repute planted the seed in their heads.

Staying in us like ancestral memory. Like my father’s mother who died when I was two, who I dream every now and then; who dreamt me before I was born with her dead mother in yard of a house in Lucas Street in Grenada that I still haven’t seen.

I can’t say what prompted me to get up this morning with a desire to eat black eye peas. Like I can’t say what prompts my father to speak to me now of things he has never spoken of before. Of his life as a boy, of his father and mother and his childhood friends. Of Maurice Bishop’s father and how he felt the first time he held the pages of a historical record in Grenada documenting all of his ancestors who had been hanged for taking part in Fédon’s slave rebellion in 1795.

It is an interesting note on which to end this year. Going back in order to go forward, knowing what went to know what comes next. I can’t say I am sorry to see the end of this year. I enjoyed it enough to be thankful for all the lessons it taught me. Few tears for big disappointments, many smiles for major joys. For mango dawns and nights of fleeting bliss like pan carried on the breeze that give your dreams sweet rumbling soundtracks. For unsaid words and unspoken prayers for missing ones and found ones and lost friends and found enemies. For music and dancing and jouvay and emails from nephews. For grandmothers who come back to remind me of what is true and valuable. For a mother who brings you messages in dreams full of yellow green rivers. And a father who speaks in rumbling verse.

I laugh at all Eshu’s tricks. I imagine that the lesson the universe is trying to teach me is never ever ever lose your sense of humour. Even when the joke is on you.

But joke is joke, I have black eye peas and rice to cook.

Happy new year.