A Sunday evening reason to love the internet.

It’s Sunday evening and because it’s raining I decide to fight my way through nineteen hundred unread email messages. To lighten the load I’m listening to Don Drummond, like I sometimes do when I’m feeling nostalgic for Kingston and my adventurous youth there. Suddenly the mother bursts into the room. Where you get that song? That’s not the original!! I’m like what, lady?

She insists that African Beat is not an original, and I mildly protest but this woman has a sickeningly amazing memory.

The mother recalls paying their neighbour the slightly more affluent teacher her few pennies for him to play the radio loud enough for her to hear, because her own mother couldn’t afford a radio. This is 1954 so she is less than ten years old at the time. I Google it and I discover that it was a German composer called Bert Kaempfert who did the original Afrikaan Beat which was then re-done ska style by the brilliant and short lived Kingston genius Drummond.

Anyway I get busy and soon I’ve downloaded the Kaempfert. The mother is covered in goosebumps and close to tears. She hasn’t heard this song in fifty or so years and she remembers every nuance of the music. She then starts recalling other songs she hasn’t heard in years. And soon I’m downloading like mad Les Baxter’s Poor People of Paris and Edith Piaf and the mother is waxing nostalgic for easier times, poorer times, family times in Santa Cruz.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that a lot of the music I enjoy now was introduced to me when I was small. Sundays were blast out the sound system days and the mother played everything from Beethoven to Ralph Macdonald to Buddy Miles. When I spent time with the male parental unit he was big on the jazz tip and Lucky Dube and of course Beethoven (he once called me long distance to tell me that he was reading a book that said that the old Ludwig died in the middle of a storm – at the moment of his death he raised himself off the bed and shook his clenched fist at the thundering heavens. ‘Dat is Shango self!’ was the father’s comment).

Anyway, it felt good to be able to provide such a service, given that the mother is an unapologetic techno peasant, it was like magic for her watching me find a piece of her history. But I am also struck by how much about this woman that I’ve known all my life I still don’t know

And also how much of my life now that I take for granted.

So Ashé Ogun for the internet. It’s trickier than Anansi but it’s always possible to learn something.

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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.

Shomari gets a joropo lesson

I’ve been spending the weekend with the mother, on account of her recent self-inflicted while cooking knife adventures. Last night, after the pain killers kicked in she turned up the music. This being the only time of the year that she’s not blasting jazz, she put on one of those restored but still scratchy sounding albums of ‘no teet’ parang. The nephs were there too, dancing around the living room with her, thoroughly enjoying her high spirits, the first time for the week. It’s also a reassurance for them that there will in fact be black cake, sweetbread and sundry other sweetnesses. Usually I’m quite cynical about Christmas, but for some reason I’m enjoying this year’s preparations.

One for Uncle Ellis

I heard the news about Uncle Ellis on Thursday and it struck me again how these people always choose to go in the Carnival season.
It’s as if the other jumbies get restless around that time.  They miss them, the old talk, the jam sessions, the lime.
I only ever knew Uncle Ellis from a distance. From back in the days when I was new to this media thing and his nephew Tony gave me a bligh on his WEFM station.
They came with the territory, Uncle Ellis and his brother Aldwyn who we all called Pa Chow. A soca man and a mas man.
Days playing mas with Minshall.  Pa Chow building kings.  Uncle Ellis steering Charlie’s Roots to be one of those cutting edge kind of bands that you can’t put your finger on just what so different or so special about them.
In a country where we like to put people in boxes, where African people must sing and dance and Chinee people must mind shop and Syrian people must sell clort and Indian must plant garden, Uncle Ellis stood out.
Plenty talk about soca mafia.  Two generations of talk about who sell out to the Chinee.  And I shake my head and laugh because if you don’t know your value who is going to know if for you?
Before soca mafia there were artists dying in poverty.  There were steelband clashes.  There was Spoiler drinking himself to death and pan men losing their minds on coke.
Before Uncle Ellis there was this crippling self-doubt about who we are what talents we have to offer the world.
Now we don’t have young people wanting to be soca artists anymore.  Now we want to be stars.  We want to ride a rhythm and wave a rag play in some nice all inclusives up town.  Do a video and get big up on Synergy and Tempo.  Push a big Lexus like Iwer, pull down some warm advertising dollars.
And I wonder what Uncle Ellis could have done about it.  What his nephew Tony could still do.  If there is anything that can be done.
I wonder if anybody from the Ministry of Culture ever asked Uncle Ellis what he would have wanted in a Performing Arts Academy.
Another Carnival coming on faster than 160 beats per minute. And the same Carnival questions there, unanswered.  The same problems there, unresolved.
And Uncle Ellis gone to the big Carnival of the sky.  He’s managing a band starring Kitchy and Uncle Andre and John Isaacs.  Maestro’s there too and Roaring Lion.  Uncle Ellis holding reasonings with Brian Honore who I see coming with a dreader than dread Smelter Robber mas. Shorty I is trying his best to get them to behave in the Lord’s house.  Clive Bradley is conducting.
I regret that I didn’t think to record some of those late night studio sessions when Blakie or Rudder who pass through.  I regret I didn’t get to ask all the questions that now keep me awake.
I fear that we are losing all these wise people, without first hearing their stories.  Just sit and listen to them for hours and hours.  If we really are serious about forging a civilization, then we do ourselves a disservice by letting Uncle Ellis go before we have a chance to absorb some of his wisdom.
Uncle Ellis gone and I mourn the passing of yet another historian, teacher, keeper of our stories.