On Being a Pagan

Shiva murti at Shango shrine, Block 22, Laventille. 
Attillah Springer, March 2014.

My first awareness of Lord Shiva came from the late Iyalorisha Melvina Rodney. She kept a large framed image of Him in the inner sanctum of her shrine, between Ogun’s cutlass and Yemoja’s wooden boat brought with a Yoruba woman to Trinidad after Emancipation.

Behind the disguises of white saints, she had called on the spirits of her ancestors for strength, for healing and wisdom.

On the days I spent in prayer and meditation in Iya’s shrine, I looked into Shiva’s half-closed eyes, and was drawn to that look, that dream state, the dreadlocks, the crescent shaped moon, the drum.

Iya never explained to me why Lord Shiva was there, and I was too young to ask.

One of the few times I talked at school about African spirituality, there was awkward silence and a similar tone of fear and contempt reserved for when the good and saved were discussing Hindus.   I understood then why so many of my Hindu friends would stay silent when religion was being discussed.

Pagan was a word that got thrown around a lot.

It was just another word for weirdo. The other, the outsider, the misfit. The one who didn’t belong.

As I got older I realised that I was less interested in belonging and more interested in finding a way to define myself on my own terms.

Much of what I saw as a child started to come back to me in visions, in fragments of memory. 

The imperialist imposition of a young white man on a cross continues to dismiss and diminish everyone else’s spiritual consciousness to arbitrary definitions like pagan, heathen, un-saved.

But if to be pagan means to feel connected to nature then I’m okay with that. If to be pagan means to feel a sense of community, a part of a living ecosystem that cycles from unborn to child to elder to ancestor and back to unborn then I’m also okay with that. If to be pagan means looking at the landscape and seeing yourself as part of it, part of shaping it and making it better, then I’m okay with that too.   If to be pagan means to see god in your image and likeness then I’m okay with that. If to be pagan is to understand that your mother is your first notion of what god is, then I am okay with that too.

In 2015, after spending the day playing Black Indian, I went to my first Shivratri and finally understood what Iya saw in those eyes.

I can see now how our ancestors shaped their spiritual reality from dreams, from visions, from fragments of memory.

They danced and sang and prayed themselves into this new existence. It was the only way they knew how to be.

And in the same way that quantum physicists claim they can still hear the echo of that first big bang, it is the same way that Lord Shiva’s drumming of creation and destruction still echoes in our consciousness today.

To be pagan means that you live your spiritual reality daily. It means that every molecule of your being vibrates with a frequency that existed before somebody dreamt up Adam.

To be a pagan is to remember your personal divinity. Remember what it was like before people told us how to believe.

And perhaps more important than what they remembered was what they created with that knowledge.

What only exists in this space and time, in this reality.  To be an example to the world of what civilisation could be. We can only be stronger by understanding each other. The shame and fear that was and still is associated with both African and Indian spiritual beliefs is part of the shared reality of life in a place like this, that can be so freeing in one moment and so imprisoning in the next.

Our ancestors, our Orisas, our Devas would have it no other way.

In these recession times we are suddenly being told go back to our gardens, to go back to our bush medicines, to heal ourselves with yoga, use drumming to heal mental illness.  All the so-called pagan practices have now been repackaged by the west. The neo-pagans are making money from the shame our grandmothers felt for teaching us to make coconut oil.

But there are no accidents in this life. Nothing happens by coincidence or chance and it is not by accident or chance that this place called Trinidad exists. That we are here having this conversation.

That we are learning and remembering our obeah. That we are owning it. Understanding it. Claiming it and ultimately defending it against those who would use our own fears against us.

Presented in April 2016 at Varsha Pratipada Sansad, Chinmaya Ashram, Couva, Trinidad.

The Vengeance of Moko

Dear Mr. Eustace
In 2015 I had the opportunity to work with Trini/British artist Zak Ové to install two eight foot moko jumbie sculptures in the Great Court of the British Museum.
It was the culmination of years of negotiations with the museum, which had nothing in their vast collection to reflect Caribbean civilisation.
It was thought that the masquerade traditions of Trinidad and Tobago would be the ultimate symbol of the survival of African culture in the Caribbean.
In writing about moko jumbies and traditional mas for the museum I had to do extensive research. It’s what anyone who values their work should do. Read, read, read and write and talk to people who know better.
You clearly have done none of these. Your comments showed such a shocking lack of knowledge and were delivered with such hubris I wondered who had died and made you an authority on anything else but how to drag an ugly lump of shiny empty nothingness across the Savannah stage.
I read things about masquerade that the likes of you would probably never see because apparently you don’t know that the moko jumbie is in fact one of the most ubiquitous forms of African masquerade on the continent.
Every single time we encountered someone from either the continent or the African diaspora they gave another explanation of what the mas meant to them. Masquerade is of course a central part of the lives of people all over the continent, as it is to us, in case you didn’t know.
I stood and watched hundreds, thousands of people from all over the world express wonder at this mas.
Additionally we had a day of performances which included Stephanie Kanhai, the 2015 Queen of Carnival doing her moko jumbie portrayal.
Full disclosure, Mr. Uncle Minsh’s presentation was not my favourite in his long and amazing career of mas making. I have also since wondered why we always need to see non-Western artforms through a Western prism to fully appreciate their beauty and value.
But the fact that it has made the impact that it has is an indication that you and your cohorts have done absolutely nothing to advance the artform in the past ten years since there was last a Minshall King in the competition. Nobody cares about the mas you make, it is trite, dated, and about as interesting as the Soca Drome. That’s why the stands are empty Mr. Eustace. That’s your fault.
Big and shiny does not a mas make, Mr. Eustace. Your lack of understanding of that is shocking and the ignorance you have for the tradition you inherited is more ugly than that contraption that I had the misfortune to have seen being dragged across the stage on Tuesday. Luckily it was not memorable enough for me to have to consider it beyond the next couple days.
I hope next year every single band plays moko jumbie to trample not just your blinding ignorance but also your pyrotechnic kings under their stilts. That was one of the mythological functions of the moko jumbie – to seek out those in the community who harbour not just evil deeds but evil thoughts. Don’t call down the vengeance of moko on yourself Mr. Eustace. Trust me, you have neither the intelligence nor the humility to deal with that.

Beat It like a Good Friday Bobolee

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A community betrayed is a community undone. It is a neverending story of the human condition played out in Trinidad and Tobago’s own often brutal history, at endless moments when communities have made attempts to stand against injustice. In the absence of armed struggle, right to recall, effective or enforced environmental laws, and other forms of justice for communities, we laugh through our anger and frustration — and beat a bobolee instead.

Like so many other cultural forms in Trinidad and Tobago, the Good Friday bobolee — usually made of simple household materials — is a piece of performance art that goes much deeper than its ragged clothes. A bobolee is a public shaming of those who think that title, position, or social status are any protection from the wrath of the people.

Read the original article in the Current Issue of Caribbean Beat here:

Beauty of the Battle

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The learning is not just in the training, the hours spent memorising the lavways and the steps and the pain that comes when you lose concentration and you get hit with a stick on your little finger. The journeys to the gayelles are full of songs and anecdotes of past battles. Acid sings into the night, to dark roads that disappear suddenly off crumbling precipices: “Ah living alone, ah living alone in the jungle.”

Bois season is a time of fasting, from alcohol and meat and conjugal relations. From anything that distracts from the battle. The battle is waged in the mind long before the stickfighter enters the ring.

From a piece I wrote for the January 2015 issue of Caribbean Beat Magazine.
Read the original article here: http://caribbean-beat.com/issue-131/word-of-mouth#ixzz3OKgtUeuD

The NCC Regional Carnival Committee’s 2015 Stickfight Competition dates are as follows:

23rd Jan – Biche
30th Jan – Cedros
11th Feb – Skinner Park
To book workshops and demos for schools and clubs with the Bois Academy of Trinidad and Tobago call Rondel Benjamin at 498-2609
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All tied up

All tied up

I’ve worn head ties all my life, experimenting with shapes and colours and not just on bad hair days, haha!
In my teen years I was often laughed at for my head ties (the laughers were always as black as me) another manifestation of my outsiderness. The sting of derisive laughter has worn off but I remember it and I know the fear that those who laughed were harbouring.
In Nigeria I submit myself to the superior head wrapping skills of women who are artists of the cloth. Actually there’s a kind of effortless sense of style and awareness of the body that I admired in women both in Naija and Ghana.
But the body confidence exists alongside a paradoxical loathing of dark skin and natural hair. It weirds me out that this self-schism exists and I’ve been thinking of the ways that this affects me as a black woman living in the west.
It’s complicated and part of the uncomfortable conversation we need to keep having. When you see your reflection, are you seeing you or an amalgamation of your racial, historical and social complications?
Style is both personal and political and the negotiations black women constantly have to make are not always what you want to confront when you wake up to get dressed in the morning.

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.