When you enter the final dungeon in Elmina Castle the stench is unbearable, as is the noise of millions of ancestors who died in agony or made their final journey out of Africa there. I felt like my head would explode so Eintou gave me guinea pepper and white rum to stabilize my Ori. The doorways are so very narrow, the final insult for those who survive the horrendous conditions to make the crossing is that you have to bend, practically crawl into the last dungeon. Even me with my less than fat self, had to hunch my shoulders in and turn a little sideways to get through the Door of No Return. The sea roared. Yemoja wailing across centuries. Through my tears I notice how much Elmina looks like Manzanilla.
There will be no other super man in town
I an I coming alone to sing I song
Using methods beyond the human knowledge
They will say for sure this is advantage
Because when the music start flowing
I’ll be dancing and singing
Creating pure happiness
Like a torpedo mama
I working under water
But is trouble when I surface
Superman, Super Blue
Why it is you shaking, you don’t know. Well, you kind of know. You kind of know why you are here in this moment screaming and drenched in sweat, getting on like is your first time in a fete and you never knew it could be this sweet. You kind of know that this is where you are supposed to be. The drums matching your heartbeat, the bass making you do things with your boomsie that defy explanation.
In 3 Canal’s Back Yard Jam under a mango tree we are in the Royal Temple of Soca and the High Priest is presiding. The High Priest is back from the wilderness. Thirteen years of wandering. Thirteen years that we missed him and forgot about him and remembered him in moments when Despers would play their mindblowing version of Rebecca.
In the Backyard Jam, this Temple of Soca, everyone here is initiated into the mysteries of mas and the music of this place that could make you jump out of yourself and become part of a living, breathing wave. Look, it’s not like I thought before that moment that the Fantastic Friday song was his best. I have childhood memories haunted by his voice. He tiefed my head—a black Super Man—larger than life and more real than the on-screen flying man. Super Blue soared in my musical soul.
With that kind of grounding, with that kind of brilliance, it is hard to deal with auto-tune and techno-ish beats. But then you realise that these are trappings. And at the root is the voice. At the root is the same Super.
There are young people and old people and in between people like me there. I take myself from the sidelines and end up in the middle of a soca mosh pit. I lose a shoe and a hat and at some point my dress is way above its anticipated hemline. None of these things matter in the moment of contact. Some portal is opening.
This Blue so super he could ward off maljo. He could take us all with him to a place of our collective imaginings. You are elated by the way your spirit soars. You missed the blues he is singing. The wailing in his voice. Like he is calling for something that is buried deep deep down and dragging it out of you. It is the sweetest pain.
It is a triumphant return. After we whispered and laughed aloud at his wandering. We scream with joy at his return. Expect him to solve all our soca problems. We get carried away by the music. We get carried to the place from which we are unsure of the return.
In the midst of the madness, I watch him good. His eyes closed. His brow furrowed. He is travelling and we are following. He is taking us on a painful journey with him. Some of us don’t notice. Some of us are too distracted by the sweetness of the music to hear the pain.
The next day, after I have regained my composure I head back to Woodbrook. In another backyard, are a few hundred Orisha devotees dressed in white singing praises to Obatala. The same reaching for the sky. The same drums grounding you and singing making your spirit levitate. This is the original temple of soca. Some get carried away. Some find the spirit in the dance and the spirit dances in them, weightless, beautiful, magical.
The sun fades and the white clothes glisten in the twilight. I stamp the ground in the rhythm of the drum, re-rooting myself. Reconnecting to the heartbeat, to the things that make me Trinbagonian. The music. The desire to transcend this space we occupy.
Yes this is magic. But I am still thinking of Super Blue. The sweet sadness: I just came to say I love you. Only love can create music like that. Not competitions. Not prize money. Not the soca mafia. Love. The love power takes you. To a place that you are not entirely unfamiliar with. The liminal point between ecstasy and madness. Between the darkness and the dawn.
In backyards. Away from the cameras. Away from the politicians. Away from the brand management and the under-nourished winer girls in beads and feathers. There is salvation in soca. There is healing in wining. There is catharsis in putting your hands over your head. I am thankful for the reminder.
Published in the Trinidad Guardian on January 19, 2013
The received wisdom was that the term Canboulay derived from the French ‘cannes brulees’ or the burning of the cane. The unseasonal burning of fields of immature sugarcane by the enslaved was done as an act of sabotage and groups of enslaved Africans were then forced to go and put out the fires. Along the way they sang songs of defiance and also danced kalenda as their ranks were made up of stickfighters.
However revered Trinidad and Tobago linguist Maureen Warner-Lewis in her seminal work Guinea’s Other Suns – one of the first comprehensive studies on the African presence in Trinidad and Tobago – lists the term kambule as a Kikongo word meaning procession. Africans held kambules throughout the year – as a form of celebration but they were also times when they could re-engage with spiritual and other cultural practices.
Professor Warner-Lewis believes the two terms to have been conflated to create one meaning – the march of defiance by the working class that happened in the pre-dawn hours of Carnival Monday morning.
Today begins the Hindu observance of Navratri, a nine night celebration of the nine incarnations of the warrior mother goddess Durga.
It’s hard not to see the similarities between Durga Mata and Oya the goddess of the wind, whose sacred number is 9, who accompanies Shango in battle, who is the divine assurance of change.
My limited understanding of Hinduism is that the goddess is seen as the active manifestation of the masculine, the feminine is the energy that activates, urges the god into action.
As the wind blows outside my window this morning, I pay homage to all warrior woman energies and I encourage all my sister friends to tap into their Shakti power today and everyday.
Don’t ever apologize for being awesome!
And I’m so bored of all these Western feminists talking about how unnecessary men are. That is a pile of tata and if we don’t have a balance of masculine and feminine energies we will never progress as a civilization.
And to my brothers and male friends and lovers past, present, future, I ask that you not fear the power that women possess. Give us the space and love to embrace our wildest selves when necessary. There are too many other battles to fight for us to be engaged in battles in our romantic relationships.
I can live without a man, but I don’t want to.
We all need to just love each other a little more. Men women and women men. Love without the power tripping. Love of the community and the mission that stops the obsessive focus on one person.
Let’s not forget that the largest demon that Durga slays is the ego.
Durga Mata ki Jai! Iba se Oya!
Ase. Ase. Ase.
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.