Book Reviews – July/August 2010

The new books that are reflecting the region right now

  • Courtesy MacMillan Publishing
  • A young Rex Nettleford in a 1965 portrait. Photograph courtesy Maria Layacona

Lord of the dance

Judy Raymond

“Writing about jazz,” Thelonious Monk once said, “is like dancing about architecture.” Writing about dance is comparable: the complete history of a dance company would require live performances, or at the very least a boxed set of DVDs – in the case of Jamaica’s National Dance Theatre Company, a very large boxed set, dating back to the company’s founding in 1962.

Failing that, there is Rex Nettleford’s Dance Jamaica: Renewal and Continuity.

This is a monument to the company he founded, which is still going strong. He was its principal dancer, main choreographer and, up to the time of his death, its artistic director. His original record of the history of the company, Dance Jamaica, was first published in 1984, and this sequel was issued just before his death in February this year.

As a leading academic, Nettleford gave the NDTC and its work a firm cultural and historical foundation. He and his fellow foundation members set out to create a specifically Jamaican dance theatre, drawing on folk dance and traditions from Africa, Haiti and Cuba as well as modern dance and classical ballet. The result was a distinctive synthesis, a style that produced “something definably Caribbean – no longer purely European, African, East Indian, or Amerindian.”

Nettleford writes about himself as just one of the players in this story, recording, for instance, that: “Aficionados from the Marley camp felt that the Nettleford choreography lacked the muscularity of Marley’s music.” (The company, born at the same time as reggae, has always drawn on contemporary Jamaican popular music: one of its more recent pieces is titled Bujurama.) Nettleford devotes a chapter to critiques and commentaries on the company’s work, adding his own comments in turn – as he notes on a remark by Michael Manley, a keen follower of the NDTC, “The artistic director, as was his wont, was prompted to respond.” Nettleford’s decision to write about himself in this way, in the third person, may have been inspired by modesty, but this degree of dissociation can be jarring; and the fact is that he was the company’s leader, in deed as well as name, not just one among equals.

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This book is a chronicle in a very literal way, listing the NDTC’s performances, dancers, singers, designers, musicians, choreographers, and sponsors, inter alios. Rather like Bruce King’s book on Derek Walcott and the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, it will be most useful as a reference book for writers who come later. The dozens of photographs too are included as part of the historical record rather than for their visual impact: most are small, and make use of stage lighting alone, with no flash, so they are not of the best technical quality, though still evocative.

Dance Jamaica: Renewal and Continuity Rex Nettleford
(Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 978-976-637-392-4, 318pp)

Saving themselves from the slave trade

Zorina Shah

West Indian literature often overlooks the trade which gave rise to the horrors of slavery, and over the centuries has not been able to create a link to the African presence in the three points of the trade. In The Griot’s Tale, Ron Ramdin attempts to do just this with three generations of griots, the first in Africa, the second in the West Indies, and the third on the streets of Regency London.

Mina, the daughter of an African chief, a storyteller, is snatched from her village and brought to the West Indies. She uses the art learned from her father to teach her son, Adamah, the rich tradition of his family, and open his eyes to the world. The great tradition which takes Africa’s “lit’rat’chur, musik and hist’ree, po’tree and filah-safee” forward is used to reveal an untold chapter of history, the involvement of black people in the struggle to end the slave trade.

Trinidad-born Ramdin fills these gaps with strong characters and captures a range of relationships and emotions: the mother and child; the child and other slaves; the child in London, lost and looking to find his place; the young man aware of sexual feelings, and his relations with women, both black and white.

In London, a free Adamah connects with progressive social elements and becomes a trade unionist and a preacher. He joins a readers’ club and improves his English, the language he must use for negotiation. He speaks out against the trade and meets with legislators. He uses his command of language to publish, and distributes to the plantations through the same trade channels.

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London-based Ramdin offers a detailed description of London, its people, style and aspirations. He oversteps somewhat in making Adamah the perfect character, selfless, principled, and full of respect for women and other races, but compensates with an unexpected ending.

The Griot’s Tale Ron Ramdin
(Trafford Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-4251-4806-3, 474pp)

Long walk to womanhood

Guyanne Wilson

In the defiant, daring and determined Estrella Thompson, Colin Channer has created not only a superb protagonist, but also an outstanding young woman. The 14-year-old is expelled from her fishing village on the imaginary Caribbean island of San Carlos, after villagers link empty nets to the teen’s controversial desire to read and write. Too proud, too ambitious, and too hurt to seek another chance, she sets off barefoot to the city of Seville, where she will buy her first pair of shoes, get a job, and eventually leave for Europe.

Channer takes Estrella on a journey through a number of vivid landscapes: her remote fishing village, a bustling marketplace, the banks of a cool river, and finally Seville. By the end of the novella, the reader can navigate the fictional island with ease.

The literal journey is short – a couple of days – but the metaphorical journey is longer and more arduous. It is one of considerable sexual and emotional growth, at the end of which Estrella crosses the threshold from childhood to adulthood. Channer’s close attention to Estrella’s thoughts as she journeys gives the novella an overall contemplative tone.

Channer’s extraordinary language use, alternating between Sancoche, the Spanish and English of the more elite in San Carlos, and the English vernacular of the market vendors, recreates the language situation found throughout the Caribbean.

The novella is short, but dense, and so not always easy to read. But for those who do persevere, it’s an enjoyable and uplifting literary experience.

The Girl with the Golden Shoes
Colin Channer
(Macmillan Caribbean, IBSN 978-0-230-02892-0, 133pp)