DVD reviews (January/February 2009)

Reviews of some new Caribbean DVDs

Andrew Sanoir, also known as Kootoo, King Devil. Photograph by Alex De VerteuilThe film Soca Power in Trinidad and Tobago

Dancing with the devils

Released in Trinidad and Tobago in late 2006, but with comparatively sparse exposure in the Caribbean since then, the 46-minute documentary Jab! The Blue Devils of Paramin is the work of Trinidadian director/producer Alex de Verteuil and co-producer Elizabeth Cadiz Topp, who is based in Toronto. The film also credits two co-directors, Max Bitzer and Luke Paddington, the former responsible for the camerawork, the latter for sound and editing.

Together, this tight-knit team has created a memorable little film that captures, without quaintness or condescension, the culture of a remote mountain village in rural Trinidad. High in the verdant folds of the Northern Range, on slopes so steep that Land Rovers are needed for access, the people of Paramin cultivate herbs and tend animals. “They say like God rested in Paramin when he was passing through,” says one of the villagers. “Which mean that anything you plant here does (grow).”

Life in the mountains may seem primitive to city dwellers—bucket baths in the backyard; pig-killing for a cook-up—but the message that comes through loud and clear is that the villagers are independent and content.

“Mostly what I have to buy is salt,” says Kootoo, the protagonist. “I really have everything. I have pepper, I have chive, green fig, yam, dasheen; food, plenty food. You could take the dogs, go look for agouti, go look for a lil iguana. It nice, it very nice. I does tell my wife, when I dead, bury me in the garden, because I love my garden.” This is a way of life, in tune with nature, that has endured for centuries; it is rootedness in the truest sense of the word.

De Verteuil’s film, shot with a single camera, revels in the glorious scenery of the area and in the relaxed good nature of its residents. He shows them hard at work planting chives or minding animals, and then relaxing over a few drinks in the evening, as they plan their greatest passion: playing Blue Devil, or Jab, on Carnival Monday.

This, in fact, is the focus of the film, the peg upon which the narrative is hung. Kootoo is the leader of a Jab band, the King Jab himself. His brothers, friends, children are his cohorts, honing their skills for the Monday-night Jab competition. They plot strategy, practise their steps—dancing Jab is a very ritualistic affair, drawing on traditions lost in time—train the youngsters, prepare their costumes.

De Verteuil captures all this without the benefit of an outside narrator. The story unfolds organically, in fragments of conversation voiced by the villagers themselves, in their own unique accents (the subtitles are welcome). Little snatches of life—the village store, the schoolyard, the patois church service—offer a background to Kootoo’s character, and underline the community’s self-sufficiency. It is accompanied by a wonderful soundtrack of traditional folk music, underlining the patois roots of the region.

The climax of Jab!  is, of course, the Carnival Monday competition; and this is where the film is both at its strongest and its weakest. As darkness falls, the devils come out to play, and the scene is powerfully elemental. Muscular bodies greasy and blue, mouths dripping redness, fire spurting towards the black sky, the compelling clattering rhythms of the beaten biscuit tins:  this could really be a rendition of Dante’s Inferno.

Transported into a realm beyond reality, not quite human and not quite animal, the devils writhe and leap, the tight confines of the tiny village square adding to the sense of danger. (I gather the authorities have since forbidden the flambeaux and fire-breathers, which is understandable but a shame. And it’s perhaps the first sign that the Paramin Jab may be a tradition whose days are numbered.)

The sequence is chaotic and cathartic—and much too short, which is where the weakness lies. The viewer is left slightly dissatisfied, wanting more.

Questioned about this, producer Elizabeth Topp explained that they used all possible footage of the Monday-night bacchanalia; but with only one camera—and no possibilities of a re-shoot for another year—they could only capture so much. “The finale was so chaotic,” she says. “The whole Carnival was completely out of control. That’s the nature of a documentary: it’s so organic. You just go with what you have.”

It was a worthwhile effort.

Donna Yawching

Jab! can be ordered online through: trinidadmusicstore.com
In Toronto it is available at A Different Booklist, 746 Bathurst Street


Soca puzzler

The first seconds of the film Soca Power in Trinidad and Tobago show the power of Machel Montano as he commands the crowd at his Rezzarek Alternative Concert 5, held at the National Stadium in 2007.

“Take off your clothes,” he says, and, as the camera scans the crowd of thousands pressed together, prancing, chipping and wining in unison, we see many young men have already removed their shirts.

Now in his early 30s Montano, with a career dotted by success, innovation, controversy and spectacular disaster, has produced a body of work that guarantees crowd frenzy.

He is the most popular and prolific soca performer of his generation, and if you are ever in Trinidad and Tobago for Carnival, you’ll be sure to hear at least one of his hits within half an hour at any venue on Carnival Monday and Tuesday. Even veterans of the art form cannot challenge this position.

But you couldn’t grasp this from watching Soca Power. Without the help of any narration or even identification bars on the screen, with only the packaging blurb for guidance, the purchaser of this DVD may find it difficult to navigate.

Interviews are conducted in close-up frames to convey intimacy and intensity, but again, no context is provided. Montano talks about the thinking behind the Rezzarek show and his feelings about the music: “Soca is the fuel, or the energy, to keep Carnival rolling down the streets, where the people are parading or anywhere.”

Bunji Garlin (Antonio Alvarez), “the master of Ragga Soca,” according to the blurb, talks about where he is from, explains the thinking behind his lyrics, compares himself to the Midnight Robber, and observes: “Soca is a branch off the calypso tree and ragga is a branch off the soca tree.” The director or producer might have found it prudent here to introduce a producer or musician to explain the musical differences between these genres—but did not.

Fay Ann Lyons has done enough in her own career to be included in this film, but is not credited with winning two Road March titles: instead she is described as “daughter of legendary soca artiste Superblue,” and during the film it emerges that she is married to Alvarez. She explains some of the intricacies of wining and a bit about how she believes her father revolutionised soca.

Isaac Blackman, the other principal of the film, “son of Ras Shorty I, the creator of soca” is like the Sesame Street segment that goes, “One of these things is not like the others.” He works the Praise Circuit, while the others work the fetes. A small segment of the film captures his brother’s wedding, a beautiful ceremony—but what is its relevance to the story of soca’s power in Trinidad and Tobago?

This film has a great soundtrack and some of the editing is superb, but it struggles to keep its focus, and it wouldn’t hurt to give viewers a little more guidance. Then they might recognise the work of Peter Minshall on Montano’s concert stage, or understand why Carnival is soca power’s most charged display. I was left feeling Claude Santiago has not created “the best ever film on soca music,” but has only scratched the surface.

Soca Power in Trinidad and Tobago
Directed by Claude Santiago
ADN Productions, Maturity Music and Trace TV

Tracy Assing