How Anansi Bring the Drum

Last Saturday at the UNESCO offices in St. Clair I watched the mother for the ten millionth time, mesmerize a group of young people with her stories.  I guess I took her story-telling skills for granted, like I take my mango trees and guava tree and zaboca tree for granted. It’s there, right.  It is expected.

The truth is that not everybody has a mother like Eintou. It’s a matter of privilege really, to grow up in a house where you are routinely, almost ritualistically informed about who you are.  I watch these young people their eyes opening wide at the information being offered to them.  There are immediately noticeable changes.

This is the kind of work that we used to do in at risk schools in Morvant and Laventille. Schools that are allegedly the breeding grounds of future (and some present) criminals.  The work of cultural transformation is no joke. It’s been proven for years

These programmes were stopped by the new Minister of Education Dr. Tim Gopeesingh, pending a review of so-called extra-curricular activities at all schools across the country.  At the launch of a new book on Leroi Clarke last week at NALIS, Dr. Gopeesingh claimed that he was willing to work with people like Eintou to transform the education system.  I hope he calls soon. I really do.  In light of recent developments – Movie Towne, Flugtag, Vybz Kartel – all of which I suppose have their purpose, I hope that cultural workers and community activists get a chance to do the work they need to do.

The forty or so young people who are involved in How Anansi Bring the Drum are a lucky bunch. They get to learn history that is not part of their curriculum.  They get to learn cultural forms that are not part of their curriculum.  And they get to interact with Eintou who, and I’m not even being biased here, is a real national treasure.

On arrival

We know that mankind have one destination
Which is to fly which is soar
High above the trees
Be the king of all he surveys and sees
Mankind pushing out here
Struggling out here
With one breath of life
Searching for higher
Doh mind the road might be rocky or steep
We not going sleep
We not sticking
—Wrong Chord, 12

They call it Arrival Day but do we ever get there? When we get on the boat and cross the waters, leaving behind everything we know and love, what do we meet on the other end? When we arrive are we welcome? Do we have a right to belong here? Who decides that for us? And where here is, anyway? What is the place that we call home? Whose right is it to call here home? What of other Indians who were here long before Columbus got a case of wanderlust? Who celebrates this arrival? Who is happy to see more migrants? Who is willing to share what little they have. Who will learn to eat my food and sing my songs and dance the dance of my gods? Who will believe the hype that the other is bad? Who will go to great lengths to keep from mixing up too much?
We have arrived. At some place where some are more equal than others.
We have arrived at a time when the race paranoia should be dead and gone. Should be. If not for political manoeuvres and hand-outs so meagre that the almost forgotten sting of the $17 million pappyshow Summit opening gala comes back like heartburn from mother-in-law. We have arrived at some kind of purgatory where death stalks the innocent and the guilty with equal ferocity. Where smelter plants grow big and poisonous and those who were lied to about receiving nonexistent jobs come to confront the reality of ecological disaster on their doorsteps. We have arrived at a place of great sadness and shame.
Sadness for those who celebrate a day that others act like they greatly regret. Shame for those who look like me but do not act in my interest.
We have arrived like never-see-come-sees to the top of our interchange, to take pictures at how fast we can get to our uncharted destinations. We have arrived at nirvana. Where a temple would see no problem with cutting down a 184-year-old samaan tree, because not even for the pantheists is the earth sacred anymore. We have arrived at no integrity and no accountability and no solidarity. We have arrived at Presidents and priests close enough to God to absolve themselves. We have arrived at the conclusion that this place is not worth fighting for, so we devote all our energy and attention to far more important things like who wins the Champions League or which big lawyers are fighting over which young attorney.
We have arrived to a place where everyone is unwilling to ask the questions or seek the answers. We have arrived so we think the journey is at an end. That we don’t need to confront the past. The places that we came from, the place that find ourselves in now, what we will leave for children. We have arrived and now we get on with the business of living. Of loving and dreaming, of creating a whole new world. With old ideas that do not fit our present realities. We have arrived at institutionalised racism and a dictatorship that used to creep but must be having a Star Trek moment because by Jah it seems to be hurtling at warp speed.
We have arrived but for some it is time to leave again. To arrive at some other place, to reshape some other identity. We have arrived but don’t know the difference between legacy and longing. Between culture that lives and customs that change to suit the place, the climate. Where bhajans can be played on pan and Mama Osun hails Ganga Mai in the sweet waters that run through these hills. We have arrived but do not yet understand that douglarisation is as much intellectual as it is physical. That we celebrate Arrival Day because at some point we were all brought here. By force or by choice.
Nothing is an accident and perhaps the universe has conspired for these arrivals so that we can confront what we left behind and how we will build what we have here.
We are still arriving. This is not the end of the journey. We still have a long long way to go.

Cheerleaders in Cricket

Cheerleaders. With pompoms. It is too scandalous to believe. There I was on the Cycle Track—now a grassy knoll—asking the gods not to send the rain. Feeling happy to be in the Oval yet another time, calling down damnation on the heads of the England cricket team. I was waving my T&T flag in the gentle Oval breeze, trying to channel Tantie Merle in my movements. I was scanning the grounds, looking at the masses of my people, cricket people on their feet cheering on the West Indies team as they came out to take up their positions across the field. And there, like a big meggie in the middle of the cricket, were the cheerleaders. I thought for a second I was hallucinating. Like I think I’m hallucinating when I hear some wild rumour that Papa Patos wants to invoke the Terrorism Act during the Summit of the Americas to stop people from protesting. I mean it can’t be, can it? Cheerleaders in cricket? Why, that’s like making Trinidad mas in sweat shops in China. I guess in the whole scheme of things, pompom-toting cheerleaders are not that terrible. I mean, it could be worse. We could be kidnapping homeless people and hiding them away where the all the foreign press can’t see them. Oh no, we’re already doing that. I guess we still have culture. We still have a film industry. It’s not as if the Government has cut the funding to the T&T Film Company by 50 per cent. Oh no, they’ve done that too. I have to admit that the cheerleaders with pompoms upset me a lot. Not to the point where I couldn’t enjoy the royal cut backside England got from the West Indies. But I have to admit that half of the hoarseness and the pain in my throat came from my scandalised exclamations of rage at the sight of the pompom-toting cheerleaders. I don’t know whose idea it was. And I don’t particularly care to know either. But I suppose if you pay $600 for a sporting experience then you expect to have something completely devoid of any connection to the sport at all. Like premium-ish liquor and girls with pom poms. At least they were red, black and silvery. From what I could see on the other side of the Oval they were doing their job cheering the team on. At least somebody could learn a thing or too from their commitment and professionalism. Still, I wondered if they were being prompted when to jump up and dance and shake their pompoms for our boys. I mean I though Caribbean women didn’t need pompoms because we had bam bams? I must have it all wrong. I must be just jealous because I am not a pompom-shaking cheerleader in the $600 stand with all the beautiful people. I must be the outsider looking in. Wanting to be shiny and beautiful too. My flag sags in the dipping Oval breeze. But I refuse to be defeated by shiny cheerleaders with their Visa tot tots and designer batty riders. The woman to my right who, like a prime ministerial prophetess, declared that England would make no more than 120 runs, feeds me plantain and callaloo and buss-up shut and watercress to cool my righteous pompom indignation. I mean, seeing those cheerleaders with pompoms in cricket makes as much sense to me as the day before when I was at Phagwa celebrations at the Divali Nagar and Geeta Ramsingh of the Hindu Prachar Kendra announced that they had received a cheque of $5,000 from the Ministry of Culture for this year’s Phagwa celebrations, which includes the staging of the Pichakaree competition, among other things. Tantie Merle wherever you are, I’m so sorry. Uncle Ravi Ji, for all your work and effort to make this place a more livable place, I am so sorry. I try not to let the cheerleaders get me down. But this is hard, because they are right in my line of sight. The image of them is permanently etched in my consciousness. This is progress, yes. This is priorities and productivity. This is us being more than we could ever be. We have reached the summit of our national potential for the small fee of $600 million. And I wonder if cheerleaders with pompoms at cricket matches also feel like the country—stuck at silly point.

Macoing but not seeing

Giving your heart and soul to vanity, yeah
Makes your life filled with pain and misery
While life goes on everyone’s got to stand strong
You can’t surrender

—Sitting and Watching, Dennis Brown

Ceaseless chatter ricochets around these islands. Chatter about everything but mostly about nothing.  In this nation of talkers, big talkers, robber talkers, too-too talkers, no one can seem to find anything sensible to say. Reading the newspapers becomes a chore, but mostly a bore. Nightly newscasts send you to sleep.  It is then that you have to conclude that Trinidad is annoyingly small. Small to the point of causing claustrophobia. Small to the point where if one person sneezes the whole country catches a cold, gives it a name, laughs about it. One thing bothers me. And it is how come in a country of macos, gossips, mamaguy and mauvais langue is it possible for the people who took a little girl to be so hard to find?

How come children still manage to disappear? In a nation of macos, where people seem to derive so much pleasure from minding other people’s business, they can’t find children who go missing. But perhaps it is because of our highly developed macoing skills that some of us have developed the capacity to hide, to disguise ourselves as whatever is acceptable at the moment. To be horners or paedophiles or in public office and unapologetically commit fraud. Perhaps these people are the real heroes of Trinidad. Those who have escaped our scrutiny as we obsess with inanities. Trinidad is so small that we can’t find criminals. We can’t find missing children. We can’t find a functional government or a serious opposition. We concoct whole stories about a container full of missing children. 

The funny thing about Trinidad is how everybody always has a tanty, some friend, their neighbour outside brother-in-law friend, who knows somebody who was passing through when it happened. Yet no one has a tanty, uncle or nennen that saw when they took Leah away from her school. In broad daylight. Yet no one gives any attention to talk that work is going on up in St Ann’s for containers in which they will house Port-of-Spain’s homeless so that all the Government’s Summit of the Americas guests won’t see our human eyesores. We would rather believe modern folklore about yawning metal mouths eating our children than take note of the soucouyants in the Red House.

Trinidad is so small enough for us to not have a problem with the culture of talking without actually saying anything. We are all about the navel gazing, the status updates, the endless barrage of Trinis on scenes, smiling with a drink in their hands. So obsessed with keeping up with what is happening, with staying connected, plugged in, hooked up that people have forgotten how to communicate. How to warn each other of danger. How to grieve when there is loss. How to look out for our neighbour’s children and expect that they will return the favour. We have dumbed down macoing, like everything else that perhaps was ever good about ourselves. I would like to believe that there was perhaps a time when macoing was a good thing. When we sought each other’s interests and protected each other from real and imagined fears.

Now that our walls are too high to see over, we peer into each other’s lives in other ways but know less. We go to fete not to fete but to see and be seen. We maco, not to look out for each other, but to pass judgment, to have something for discussion. Except when it matters. When it really matters suddenly our maco senses are dulled. In the same way that we don’t want to take responsibility for all the children who are in front of us begging for help and attention and love, we dismiss the things that we really should be macoing. No one is macoing NEC’s presumptuous soil testing for a port for which they have no Certificate of Environmental Clearance.

No one is macoing what is going on in our schools that are breeding grounds for boredom, underachievement and criminality.  No one is minding our collective business, where our money is going. How much money they’re really spending on the summit and what possible benefits it will yield us, aside from being a government wank all over our Treasury. It must be that some of us are okay with children disappearing or with the Treasury being pillaged. It must be that we are willing to not see the things that we do. That sometimes we fight our maco gene. We deny it just when it is needed the most. In this tiny little country of watchers, no one seems capable of seeing clearly.

Celebrating Ourselves in Film

The mangrove did not die in vain, if now we can go and see ourselves on the screen at Movie Towne.
The streets of Woodbrook do not flood in vain now that Derek Chin in his benevolent wisdom has saved us from the wasteland that was there before.
The great thing about having a Film Festival in a place like Trinidad is that it gives us an opportunity to reflect on our lives.
It’s money well spent if we get a moment to reflect on who we are and why we’re here and take time too, to look at other people’s lives, other people’s stories.
What we give up for the good of all.  What we sacrifice in the name of development and advancement.
For so many reasons it’s important to have a Film Festival.  In this land where philistinism runs rampant like unregulated quarries ripping away at our hills, we need a film festival like America needs to not vote for Mc Cain.
Because it’s not just about the entertainment, or the beautiful people or the celebration of such a powerful form of human expression.
It is also a chance to see ourselves, to challenge ourselves.  To honour the murdered mangrove by going to Movie Towne and seeing ourselves staring back at us.
Films about transvestite prostitutes eking out an existence in Curepe and the fate of stray dogs, and Bob Marley and a Venezuelan epic poem where they extempo in a parang style, and the defiant beauty of Haitians and Jamaicans and stickfighters and street children and countless other wondrous scenes that would never be seen by those who frequent this mangrove graveyard or those who aspire to but can’t afford to give half day’s salary to watch a movie.
The Film Festival is potentially our gayelle. Our warring ring where we confront our best and worst attributes.  Where we shout at each other and sing our war songs and weep for all that we are and all that we have forgotten to be.
In the same way that I like going to the Studio Film Club in Laventille because every now and then the nice people who come there for an evening of uplifting film art get a reminding whiff on the wind of the La Basse so if even for a moment they share something of the lives of the people who live in that area and know and understand that even out of the stink you can experience great beauty, if you want to.
There is a feeling perpetuated by the capitalists, the status quo ‘ho’s, the politicians who maximize their power by making small people feel smaller.  The feeling is that people who speak out for the environment are somehow anti-development.  That because I like trees I want to turn the world back to some kind of medieval time when people died from diseases that could be treated.
There is an assumption too, by people like me that people should know better. I naively expect that everyone knows the purpose of mangrove, and even if they don’t they have enough humility to not be dismissive about it.  That people like Derek Chin can’t really believe that the mangrove that stood there before Movie Towne was a wasteland.
There is an assumption by people like me that everyone should feel some kind of emotional attachment to this land.  That they too weep for nineteen year olds found in ditches.  That they too worry about the bleak future we are creating for our children.
But as I get older and hopefully wiser I’m having to accept that some people really don’t care, some people are really dirty capitalists at heart and would destroy anything in their path if it  made them a fast buck.
But surely people like that must know that everything has a price.  And the price we pay everyday for advancement that does not connect all the dots, is a disjointed, distracted society of those who belong and those who are trying to belong.
If nothing else, the government recognizes the need to diversify the economy and has made film one of the ways to achieve this.  But it shouldn’t just be about film as business. What about art for art’s sake?  What about correcting history’s lies and omissions? What about remembrance and reparation? What about beauty because it is beautiful?
Money can’t be the only thing that motivates our capacity to create.  Money shouldn’t be the only thing that motivates our interest in improvement and advancement.
The mangrove did not die in vain if we get a chance to live ourselves bigger and better in a Film Festival. If by just seeing ourselves on those big screens we dare to think that we are more than what is expected of us.
The Film Festival is more than just entertainment, it is our chance  to save that place from being the cultural wasteland of our capital.

Check out details of the Festival here

Perfect submission, perfect delight,
visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
angels descending bring from above
echoes of mercy, whispers of love

Blessed Assurance, Fanny Crosby

It took me a few bars to identify the song. It took the other Phase II fans a while to catch on too. I guess it’s not the kind of song that you identify immediately, unless you are poto l’eglise or remember some older relative singing this sad sweet dirge of a hymn.

The young people had drifted away to Renegades or one of the loud bars lining that sacredly profane stretch of St James being celebrated by We Beat.

And even though I am an avowed pagan hippy type, I couldn’t help myself getting caught up in the nostalgia. I raised my own voice and hands in song even though I wanted to laugh at this sure sign that I am officially neither young nor cool. Our voices rose above the humidity, while I tried to reach through my brain’s cobwebs for the words to the song, substituting liberally with lavwey scats.

On Saturday night, or maybe it was already Sunday morning, I revelled in that moment of sweetness when nothing matters but keeping your feet dragging rhythmically on the asphalt, stepping out of beat, only to skip over a pothole or a piper scouring between our feet for beer bottles.

In that moment you can’t imagine how you ever wanted to leave this magically bizarre wonderful place where on a random Saturday night, or maybe Sunday morning, the streets can turn into a big party and rum-drinking retired matador women could pull off with startling dignity and piety singing in the same warbly old-lady voice of my grandmother.

I looked around at the faces around me—older faces, rich and poor faces, Indian, African, European faces. All sweating in the St James at midnight humidity. A man with his hands in the air turned to me and said Trinidad needs more of this. And I’m not sure if he meant the sweetness of the music that Phase II was giving us or the prayer we were singing into the night air.

Back at home, I couldn’t sleep and for once it wasn’t the now increasingly frequent and much louder crash of suicidal mangoes hitting the galvanise roof. The words of the hymn and the image of all those people and the echo of their voices stayed with me.

At dawn I was heading over the north coast to Blanchisseuse and then into the mountains to a bend in the Marianne River where Uncle Raviji’s Kendra were hosting this year’s edition of the Ganga Dhaaraa festival.

I sat on a rock high on incense and sleep deprivation. And endless old ladies like tiny Indian versions of my own grandmother, passed me by whispering pleasantly surprised Sita Rams, pressing various bits of fruits from their offerings to their Ganga Mai, who bears an astounding metaphysical resemblance to the Oshun of my own ancestors.

I walked through the river thankful for a different kind of sacred space, without the profanities of electric lights and pipers but perhaps with less of a chance of redemption. Because only the converted, the saved and the sanctified venture into the river and offer the fruits and flowers of their labours.

Blessed Assurance keeps playing in my head. I imagine if the man from the night before were here, he would say the same thing. Trinidad needs more of this. More silent days by the river. More cool water poured over our hot tempers. More offerings to the gods of our ancestors. If the technocrats at the EMA were to leave their air-conditioned offices in St Clair and seek out their reflections in the Marianne River, then maybe my grandchildren will be able to come to Marianne River and ponder their place in the world.

I imagine that while the peace of Marianne River with the sun making just the right pattern of light and leaves on your shoulders is where we find our peace, the heat of St James is where we find our humanity. St James is where we have a glimpse of another world being possible. Where Phase II can take us higher than a Bournes Road crack ball and help us transcend the emptiness and ugliness of city-ness.

Truthfully, I haven’t the attention span to be religious. Nor do I have the musical inclination to be a pannist.

And the blessed assurance of living in Trinidad is that you have a chance to experience and participate if you so choose. No boundaries except in your own head. And you can find yourself and your Trinidad in the most diverse of places. To sing your own story and write your own song. And praise your gods of music and rivers and sky wherever you please.