Word of mouth (March/April 2014)

Discover the joys of partying in the cricket stands, and the significance of Trinidad’s spicy pichakaree music

  • Illustration by Darren Cheewah
  • Illustration by Darren Cheewah

Take a stand

At West Indies cricket grounds, the game is only half the fun. Denise Chin enjoys the party at Port of Spain’s Queens’ Park Oval

The camaraderie in the stands at any West Indies cricket ground is legendary. But at the Queens’ Park Oval in Port of Spain — home of the famous Trini Posse — you’ll find the biggest cricket lime of them all. Back in the day, before the Oval was refurbished to include corporate boxes and private stands, spectators had a simple choice: covered or uncovered stands, and if you were an Oval member, you could hang out in the pavilion. The covered stands were for those who wanted to watch cricket with some measure of comfort, and, well, silence. The uncovered stands, while also very appealing to serious-minded cricket fanatics, were for the limers.

Illustration by Darren Cheewah

Many fantastic cricket days were had in the old Republic Bank stand, which boasted a view comparable to the pavilion’s on the opposite side. If you wanted a special spot, you had to get there early. Coolers the size of small bedrooms would be there from 6 am. And sitting on your cooler was not an option — you’d be asking for a severe cussout from whoever was behind you.

For the foodies, the best matches were the ones against Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and India, when all our Indian friends we met the year before would return with extra helpings of sada roti, bhagi, melongene, buljol, and sometimes curry duck and goat to pass around. For other international matches, there was plenty of pelau, pies, bake, and saltfish, sometimes even a proper Sunday lunch.

Test match or One Day International, win, lose, or draw — it was a party in the stands for days, with some cricket-watching thrown in. But don’t think any part of the match escaped unnoticed. You could walk into the stand at 3 pm and ask the most intoxicated-looking person for the score, and you’d get it — plus a ball-by-ball commentary on the day’s play so far, together with historical stats. Make no mistake: we are serious about our cricket.

Fast forward to 2014. All the Oval’s concrete stands have been broken down, and a lot of the older crew are now ensconced in their corporate boxes. But the partying options are vast. Many of the stands around the Oval still allow small coolers, so large posses come out in their numbers, mainly for the shortened versions of the game. The Test and ODI matches are still immensely popular, but twenty-over games have now taken the cricket world by storm. Young people come for the adrenalin rush, and to maybe learn a thing or two about the game. Also worth mentioning is the undeniable fact that the players are getting better- and better-looking by the second, so the young ladies are eager to check out the action.

The popular Trini Posse stand is the best option for hassle-free entertainment. While the tickets aren’t cheap, the fun is limitless. Lunchtimes turn into mini fetes. The bars are full of everything you could want. There’s usually a few local celebrities ducking in to check out the scene, and the media box keeps their cameras trained on the stand, so make sure you look amazing.

After the first few hours, you’ll know everything about the people you’re sitting next to, no matter which side they’re supporting. The DJ cranks it out at every opportunity. Although half of the Trini Posse stand is uncovered, no one feels the heat — and when the rains come, no one is upset. For any fun-loving cricket fan, the experience is not one to miss. You’ll reminisce about it over and over until your next party — umm, cricket match.


Ready, aim . . .

In Trinidad, pichakaree is the name for the big syringes that Phagwah celebrants use to squirt each other with brightly coloured water — and also a kind of spicy social commentary through song. Attillah Springer explains

I got my first pichakaree from two daughters of the Hindu Prachar Kendra, who happily obliged my request for the bit of PVC technology that makes it possible to go from pristine white to a deep wet purple in a matter of minutes at Phagwah.

In past years, I’d thrown my fair share of gulal, the coloured powder that Phagwah celebrants sprinkle and smear on each other, but was happy to subject myself to the precision of pichakaree shooters.

The pichakaree — a long syringe, made of bamboo in the old days but PVC plastic today — is a key part of Trinidad’s Phagwah celebration, known in other parts of the world as Holi, the Hindu spring festival (and celebrated this year on 17 March). Filled from buckets of purple liquid, the pichakaree makes for mass wetting of Phagwah celebrants. No one is safe, and at Phagwah, who would want to be?

Illustration by Darren Cheewah

At the Hindu Prachar Kendra, headquartered in Enterprise, central Trinidad, the word pichakaree has another distinct but related meaning. It refers to that device of mass colourisation, yes, but it is also the name given to a kind of social commentary sung in a mix of Standard English, Trinidad Creole, and remnants of Bhojpuri, the language of north India spoken by many of the Indians who were brought to Trinidad as indentured workers.

Pichakaree as an artform challenges a lot of things. It challenges the feeling of exclusion that many Indians feel from mainstream culture in Trinidad, particularly Carnival, which at least at a traditional level reflects West African masking traditions in the same way that calypso at its root draws on the griot tradition. It also challenges orthodox approaches to the celebration of a Hindu festival. Alongside chowtal (folksong) singing and the traditional instruments brought from India, pichakaree is a chance for a different kind of engagement with Trinidad’s Indian cultural landscape. It is celebratory, but like calypso it asks in public the difficult sorts of question that many feel have no place in the national conversation. (Chutney, the older hybrid of calypso with Bollywood film music, has become as problematic as soca because of its commercialisation, which seems to put limits on the range of topics that people are apparently willing to hear.)

Now in its twenty-third year, the Kendra’s pichakaree competition seeks to publicly address and also add another voice to the one-sided conversations that take place in the calypso tents and competitions during Carnival season. And by choosing a theme for each year’s celebrations, the Kendra gives their community a chance to take aim at some serious issues like domestic violence, political representation, and the environment.

On Phagwah’s bonfire night, the burning of the effigy of Holika recounts the story of the demon goddess who attempted to kill Prahalad, the boy whose devotion to Lord Vishnu protected him from fire. Another story tells of Lord Krishna’s mother advising her son to cover his lover’s face in the colours of spring, so he is less conscious of the difference between his darkness and her lightness. Pichakaree is an opportunity to recount and give contemporary interpretations of these stories. That interplay between mythology and present-day reality is part of what makes pichakaree such an interesting part of the music being produced in Trinidad right now.

The 2014 theme is focused on the future: Will we rock or ’reck the cradle? It’s a hard question, and I look forward to hearing the answers from this year’s pichakaree contestants.