Police and the Pan pushers.

Overseas
We from the West Indies
Anytime we start to party
Dem does run and call police
Well now we come back home
People playing stiff like stone
We does move this party from zone to zone

Savage, Bunji Garlin

 The moon is rising over the hills and the air is alive with the sound of sweet pan music. But police are stalking the perimeter of the stage like a flock of belligerent cobo. Guarding the stage like a La Basse carcass. I start to wonder if this stage is where our culture comes to die. Where the regulation and competition transforms former beauty into a lifeless, embalmed thing. A shadow of its former self.

 I’ve been here before.The last time I remember the police being so hognorant at Panorama was when Papa Patos was at the height of his unpopularity. The Guard and Emergency Branch were on a rampage. One scraped my arm and tried to grab my camera because I was trying to get evidence of his brutality.

 Since then, pan and other people-centred elements of the Carnival have continued to die slow painful deaths. Even as the season gives birth to new children. I do not join the new life in the Greens. The new life that does not have any connection to its past. We are on the track to celebrate the life that once was. Dragging our band’s pans towards the stage.

 The belligerent cobos swoop down. Assault rifles and batons at the ready. The moon shines on. We pull the racks forward, breaking into a run at the bottom of the ramp to get enough momentum to take them up and onto the stage.

It’s not an easy thing to push pan. But I’d rather take my jamming in the pushing than the playing. Spending weeks living in a panyard drilling a song into your brain every night for two months. Living, breathing, eating, dreaming this song. This ten-minute piece of heaven while there is a fete going on just next door where maybe five people out of the 10,000 care about your sacrifices to make it to this point.

 Pan is a community effort. Pan Trinbago, which has instructed the police to move dread with pan lovers, didn’t seem to get that memo. Meanwhile on the Greens: pockets are picked, young women get groped by tusty men over-stimulated by the sight of so much of Trinidad’s finest. Women are being attacked on their way out of the Savannah, by strangers and lovers too. Women getting slapped up by jealous boyfriends.

 The ring of belligerent cobos push us back. Shout at us. I want to spit in their faces for doing their jobs so well.

 Earlier in the evening, my neck craning over a barricade looking for a friend, a police officer told me I couldn’t stand where I was, although I was causing no obstruction. I ignored him and continued to look. The officer’s voice gets more insistent and as he makes as if to physically remove me, I walk away, feeling the mad blood rising. Not wishing to end up in an unnecessary altercation.

 “Family,” the man on the track addressed me. “Family, he doh know who is you or what?” Who is me? A Trinidadian. A Carnival lover. A panatic. It’s hard to keep a sense of humour. It’s hard not to want to pelt a bottle just to see what they will do. Start a riot just out of curiousity to find if they would really use those assault rifles in a crowd.

You shout stupidness at the officers. You know the arrangement your band is playing so you sing it back, you pam pam pa da the song into the officers’ faces. Officer Screw Face is properly scowling at us. Looking damn vex that we were still having a good time. He stretches his arms out to his sides to meet the batons of his fellow Corporal Stupidees.

 He pushes us back more. We resist. We do a Hafizool on them. Except that we have more moral authority to stay on the stage. We are qualified to be here. We know this arrangement already. Like I could whistle you the full eight minutes and 13 seconds of This Feeling Nice. It’s not just now we reach in this thing, officer.

 There is a tiny German woman up in one officer’s face. He keeps his cool, having enough presence of mind to know that a big black badjohn police hitting a little white woman in Carnival is a bad scene. I don’t take that chance. Knowing that Rasta is usual suspect. I stay behind, shouting my insults outside of baton range.

 Boogsie’s arrangement is sweet. But there is a part three-quarter way through, where the pan rumbles menacingly. Like Shango’s thunder self. It is a warning. Phase II gets top marks. Pyrrhic victory. Carnival is a battle that the people are losing more and more every year.

Published in Trinidad Guardian February 2, 2013

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Flag Woman of Class

When yuh see she get that fever
Is plenty trouble
Whether youse a saint or sinner
You bound to wiggle
Aiya yai ayai ayai
—Flag Woman, Lord Kitchenertwflag2

I am standing in the middle of the street. Where the roads make a perfect cross. Marking the spot where I clear a path for Phase II Pan Groove to enter the Savannah. This is a piece of madness that is exceptional even for me. I am neither dancer nor sexy in that heavy T bumper kind of way nor do I possess any recognizable aura of Matador woman.

It is 15 or so minutes since I first held the flag. It is a red satiny one with zig zag letters, announcing the name of the band that I grew up listening to, committing whole arrangements to memory. I never wanted to learn to play but instead to drown myself inside music that is the sweetest pain. It has all happened rather fast. I go from hoping to get a bligh on the track, purely for documentary purposes to clearing a path for the band through the thousands of pan lovers gathered in this sacred space. It’s too late to turn back now.

To flake out or let the doubts that have been shouting at me all day lead me back home, chastened by the prospect of all those people judging my non-existent flag-waving skills. I am standing at the crossroads of fear and insanity trying to make a rational decision about the way to go. The regular flag man has a wild look in his eyes. He is concerned about my path-clearing skills. He shows me once. And then again. I am confused. He shows me again and I think I might have it. We start up the track. I hold the flag high over my head, my long arms coming to good use for once and all those months of warrior salutations finally paying off.

The flag is red, green and gold now. The flap of it in the light breeze is all that I can hear, as if my mind has managed to turn down the volume in the Savannah. I am clearing a path smooth and wide. People read the flag. They decide to stay a little longer. Linger on the track to hear the Panorama champs. Sister-friends hover close by. Offering water and words of encouragement. They still can’t believe that I am going to do this. In a way neither do I.

The truth is, this whole flag woman thing started off as a Facebook status update joke that spiralled wildly out of my own control. My inner jammette is at rest as I walk up the track. All day on Sunday I have been paralysed by various fears. Fears that I have neither the skill nor the gumption to do it. Fears that I will confuse liberation with objectification and end up with some convoluted radical feminist crisis of conscience that will spoil the whole damn thing. Really though, I am most scared that I will fall off the stage, drop the flag or the flag will get wrapped around itself and I won’t be able to get it flying again.

We press on, up the track, the moon full and daring me to keep going. The stage comes into view. NCC officials urge us forward. Next thing you know, I am walking onto the stage. The lights from the hills wink reassuringly. I was born to do this. The mother is somewhere in the audience. I smile as I remember how she likes to relate to me that I walked long after I was supposed to. But when I did, the first place I got lost was in the Savannah at Panorama time. The Boy gives me five and I am glad for the last bit of energy we exchange through our palms.

They are begging supporters to come off the stage. My inner jammette is preening, chipping, rolling up and out of me and I am not sure whether it is still me, me self there or some other woman. Someone surer of herself and her body. Someone more beautiful and poised and graceful. I use my flag-woman influence to push the crowds back. They smile and agree. The lights come up and Boogsie rings out a magic drum timing on the racks. I am pointer woman and path clearer. I am water and light and pure flag woman energy. Sure and strong and so happy to be in this magic moment.

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.