Reviews (September/October 2009)

The new music, the movies and the books that are reflecting the region right now

  • Oakton Half Way Tree, St Andrew. Photograph courtesy Ian Randle Publishers
  • Photograph courtesy Rivke Jaffe/Wayne Modest
  • Opal Palmer Adisa. Photograph courtesy Peepal Tree Press/Shola Adisa-Farrar
  • Etienne Charles. Photograph courtesy Etienne Charles/Laura Ferreira
  • Cover
  • cover
  • Cover- courtesy



So much things to say

Tracy Assing

Garry Steckles writes Caribbean Beat’s Riddem & Rhyme column, and has been involved with reggae for more than four decades as a writer, concert promoter, broadcaster and fan.

That he’s a fan shines through his Bob Marley: A Life. The author gushes about Marley’s messianic proportions in the introduction: “The true measure of Bob Marley’s greatness isn’t nearly so tangible. It can be found in the far-flung corners of the earth, places many of us have barely heard of but where Bob Marley’s name, Bob Marley’s music and Bob Marley’s message bring joy and inspiration to the lives of millions….”

Steckles makes the reader feel he was actually in the room when things were happening, or lurking in the shadows of Trench Town taking notes, such is the strength of his descriptions.

But there are some quibbles. As a fan, Steckles is sometimes too quick to give his subjects the benefit of the doubt.

He gives a romantic treatment to the coming together of Bob’s parents, Captain Norval Marley and Cedella Malcolm, in the languid “garden parish” of St Anns.

“Despite their considerable age difference – he was around 50, she was in her early to mid-teens – the white overseer soon started showing a less than platonic interest in young Cedella… At first, she teased and frustrated him, telling him yes and meaning no. Then, late one night, her teenage curiosity and yearnings overcoming her better judgement, she decided to visit the persistent and by now strangely attractive white man.”

This “strangely attractive” man would later whip her for refusing him and then marry her when she got pregnant – before promptly leaving for Kingston.

I think there’s a good chance this “romance” was against the law.

Steckles also romanticises Marley’s love life.

“Before listing his known children briefly, it should perhaps be pointed out that Bob’s womanising has seldom, if ever, been put into a rational cultural context. By the standards of Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean, Bob Marley’s myriad affairs and numerous offspring were no more than routine – certainly nothing to provoke as much as a raised eyebrow. The Caribbean is an earthy, sensual part of the world, and it’s not unusual for a man to father ten children, 15 children, or more, by a variety of different women. A classic example is Bob’s great bass player, Family Man Barrett, who is reputed to have fathered 52 children – and who had another on the way as he celebrated his sixtieth birthday. Similarly, it’s equally unremarkable for a woman to have numerous children by a variety of different men.”

It may not be “remarkable”, but it’s unlikely that the woman would be placed on a pedestal for her fertility. It’s a cultural gender inequality that allows men to behave this way. And there are no statistics to support the use of Family Man as a “classic example” of a Caribbean man.

Contrariwise, Steckles dismisses dancehall and rap music out of hand, without stopping to note that they, like reggae, would likely have been exposed to Marley’s message, and influenced by it.

But overall, this well-researched text covers not only Marley’s life, but also the story of music in Jamaica. And it’s an easy read, considering its encyclopaedic wealth of information.

Bob Marley: A Life Garry Steckles
(Macmillan Caribbean/Signal Books/Interlink Publishing,
ISBN 978-1-4050-8143-6, 212pp)



The houses that Jamaica built

Melanie Archer

Hubert H. Humphrey once said, “The moral test of government is how it treats those in the dawn of life…the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.” If you apply this dictum to buildings, Jamaican Houses: A Vanishing Legacy suggests an island where government morality is in flux.The book was first published in 1982, and this 2008 reprint faithfully reproduces Anghelen Phillips’ charming, original pen-and-ink drawings. Their sepia tones underscore the themes of nostalgia and whimsical sentimentality that dominate the book. A common thread – the derivation of a vernacular style that takes its cue from Georgian architecture – unites the 40 landmark houses, some famous (Rosehall) and some a little more obscure, at least to outsiders (where is 21 Duke Street?).

But, although the buildings span some 300 years and the breadth of the island, it would be difficult for the reader to get lost during exploration – a map of Jamaica puts the buildings into geographical context, while the original foreword is reproduced alongside a new one. “Ten Years Later” gives insight into the ongoing struggle of preservation by highlighting building-specific victories and tragic defeats that reinforce the need for preservation, notably at governmental level.

Each building is supported by one of Phillips’ drawings and the words of Geoffrey Pinto. Pinto’s easy text gives a deeper reading of the buildings, providing architectural details and histories both expected and bizarre, such as the tale of a property that was “once ceded to Daniel Blagrove by Oliver Cromwell as a reward for his part in the regicide of King Charles I.”

Although a slim volume, Jamaican Houses is a decent homage to the buildings that have stood quietly in the shadows of the island’s contemporary building and practices. Text and image unite to back up the foreword’s overarching plea: “We must welcome, but with caution, the fact that the tourism industry in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean has come to the realisation that sun and sea are not enough, and that heritage and culture are important in attracting visitors to the island.”

Jamaican Houses: A Vanishing Legacy
Geoffrey De Sola Pinto (text)
and Anghelen Arrington Phillips (illustrations)
(Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 978-9766373122, 90pp)



Big city, bright lights

Lisa Allen-Agostini

As the introduction to The Caribbean City begins, “Caribbean cities are a unique, yet underexposed phenomenon.” In that sentence lies the germ of this collection of 14 scholarly essays on the small and large cities that dot the region’s islands and continental nations.

The essays’ topics include inner-city violence in Jamaica; colonial influences on the shape of Caribbean cities; urban livelihoods in Surinamese and Trinidadian urban households; segregation in Puerto Rican neighbourhoods; and urban space in French-Caribbean crime fiction. It is a pleasing mix of topics, addressing the English-, French-, Dutch- and Spanish-speaking Caribbean, unlike many texts that claim to be “Caribbean.” But, beyond that, the book pays serious attention to one of the most problematic areas of regional development. The city, whether it is New York, San Francisco or Lagos, is its own animal. Its pull has ever lured country folk from the idyllic boondocks to the horrors of overcrowding, unemployment, poor sanitation and other urban nightmares.

The trouble with many Caribbean cities is that they have grown up organically with little planning, resulting in government policy that has forever to play catch-up with swelling populations and their constant needs. This book explores how the Caribbean city is both different from and the same as cities anywhere.

The Caribbean City Ed. Rivke Jaffe
(Ian Randle Publishers/KITLV Press, ISBN 978-90-6718-314-7, 358 pp)


In a class of his own

Kevin Baldeosingh

The blurb on the back cover of Classroom Calypso asserts: “This is an invaluable book for educators, parents, and anyone interested in understanding and facilitating the voice of urban youth.” Which just proves the truth about not judging a book by its cover.

Holder, a Trinidad-born social studies teacher who has taught in New York for the past 20 years, has woven together extracts from a student-written journal and his own anecdotes to show “students standing firm and digging deep within self to discover and release latent strengths”. Which is a worthwhile goal, though many of the anecdotes and some of the extracts seem geared to promote Holder rather than the goal: “[T]his celebrated teacher…commands your attention by bringing a youthful edge to his lesson,” one student writes.

In the book, however, Holder’s attempt to be both conversational and scholarly does not hold attention. More dismally, the students who are supposed to be the focus of the book remain one-dimensional, since they speak only through their writings and Holder’s seemingly miraculous recall of stiffly-rendered dialogues. “As to be expected, over the years students took an avid interest in their education and never shied away from addressing any issue, no matter how contentious,” Holder writes. If there were any students who didn’t contribute, he never mentions them, save when he admits that the boys participated less. Nor does he provide any statistical or even anecdotal proof of how these students did in their exams – though in the epilogue we learn that the school was “unceremoniously” closed down (but not why).

Finally, in case you were wondering, there aren’t actually any calypsoes in the book.

Classroom Calypso
Winthrop R. Holder
(Peter Lang Publishing Inc, ISBN 978-0-8204-5137-4, 370pp)



How a writer became herself

David Katz

Always writing from a place where the personal and political intertwine, Opal Palmer Adisa has used various literary forms throughout her career to explore complex issues of gender, race, identity and sexuality. I Name Me Name collects poems, essays and tributes to departed peers, joining hard-hitting words of outraged protest with introspective musings on what it means to be a writer, along with vivid recollections of life-changing experiences.

Much of the poetry concerns identity and self-definition, the Rastafari-influenced language of poems such as “I”, “Finding I-Self”, and the patois of “Me” all pointing to her Jamaican origins. Others explore the tragedies of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Iraq, Rwanda and Darfur, or are inspired by historical figures such as Nat Turner and Mary Seacole.

The prose feels more obviously personal, however, consisting largely of evocative tales from Adisa’s Jamaican childhood, followed by glimpses of post-migratory adulthood in New York and California, as well as depictions of the writing process. The emphasis here is on the indelible bonds of family.

Reading these tales of sibling allegiances, schoolyard bullies, predatory neighbours, parental indiscretions, and other such mysteries of childhood will surely conjure images from the reader’s own past.

The tributes at the end to departed fellow writers Toni Cade Bambara, Barbara Christian and June Jordan are equally heartfelt, capturing the essence of these writers as only a friend can.

I Name Me Name Opal Palmer Adisa
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 978-1-8452-3044-9, 222pp)





Etienne Charles

Once you get past his uncanny resemblance to internationally renowned trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, you’ll appreciate the authenticity of Etienne Charles’ brand of jazz.

Charles, who cut his musical teeth in Trinidad, has released an 11-track album with titles inspired by folkloric characters and music that brims with that familiar homegrown goodness.

The title track features vocals by rapso group 3 Canal’s Wendell Manwarren and Roger Roberts, as well as former young calypso star Keith Prescott, aka Designer, on a Yoruba chant that forms the track’s chorus.

Charles then runs through the characters starting with the “Douens”, a track with an old- time calypso feel where the saxophone playing of Jacques Schwarz-Bart features prominently, and ending with “Papa Bois”.

On the track “Mama Malade”, Charles’s trumpet is kept company by tinkling piano keys and hissing drums.

By contrast, “Soucouyant” is a vibrant piece with an air of drama, starring D’Achee’s percussive work. “Santimanité” is an unapologetic ode to that sweet extempore refrain, particularly thanks to the pan, played by no less a musician than Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, with a cameo from Ralph McDonald on percussion.



Rasta Got Soul

Buju Banton

When he’s good he’s really good, but, lyrically, when Buju Banton is bad he’s really bad.

Unfortunate examples of this phenomenon can be found here, on the beloved Jamaican’s latest release.

On some songs listeners will find Banton waxing eloquent, such as “Bedtime Story”, which features Wyclef Jean and addresses gun violence in Jamaica, and “Hurt Us No More”, in which he talks about oppression.

But then you stumble upon the doozies like “Magic City”, with elementary lyrics like “Magic city, magic lights, magic moments, magic heights.”

Or there’s “Make You Mine”, with lyrics like: “I must get you/Make you mine/And I won’t waste no more time/Then you can go tell all your friends and let them know/I said you won’t get away this time I am sure”.

Luckily, the music on the set makes up for what the words lack. Listen out for Third World’s “Sense of Purpose”, featuring a cameo appearance by the group, with some added Banton spunk.




Cornell Phillip

Staying true to the music of his land, Cornell Phillip of Dominica offers tasty musical fare. Here he presents his interpretation of bouyon, the music of his country, given a digital injection by synthesisers.

The dance party gets started on track one, “Milk and Honey”, and the sweet rhythms don’t let up until “Chick Flick”, the disc’s last song. Even when Phillip slows things down, as on “I Dominik” and “Fading Away”, which features Joy Stout, the beat goes on. Listen for the beautiful and refreshing

“Belance” and “Magnificat”, featuring Juanita Prosper and Chad Augustine.

In his liner notes Phillip says he hopes listeners find as much enjoyment in his recording as he did creating Interpretations. It’s a mission he’s accomplished.

Essiba Small

CDs courtesy Cleve’s One Stop Shop, Frederick Street, Port of Spain, Trinidad