Reviews – July/August 2011

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

  • Book cover
  • CD cover
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  • Pablo Butcher
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  • Heigh-ho my heart!
  • Poster. Photograph by Laura Ferreira

Solitaire setting for a jewel of T&T

The Solitary Alchemist is a heavily re-edited version of a documentary portrait of the Trinidadian jeweller Barbara Jardine, whose best pieces, by virtue of their unique beauty and the personal narratives with which they’re imbued, transcend the merely decorative to lay claim to the status of works of art.

Featured are some of Jardine’s family members and peers, who give biographical commentary and help put her relative lack of recognition into context. (The darkness of the themes often explored in her work, and the tasteful restraint in the execution, are possible reasons for this obscurity. That Jardine is a woman and white is also mentioned.)

The focus, naturally, is the artist herself. Brown – whose previous documentary, The Insatiable Season, like this film, was a prize-winner at the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival – is not afraid to keep the camera’s gaze fixed on its subject for extended periods, as Jardine quietly goes about creating a piece of work for a show in Scotland. This sets the pace and mood of the film: agreeably unhurried and contemplative, with the judicious use of Chantal Esdelle’s jazzy score serving to enhance the elegant, but never precious, tone.


Haiti: Vodou, vitality and the visual

The cataclysmic earthquake of  January 2010 makes it hard to fathom that life in Haiti entails more than just widespread death and suffering. Urban Vodou: Politics and Popular Street Art in Haiti, by photographer Pablo Butcher, with an introduction by German academic Carl-Hermann Middelanis, is a succinct and elegant reminder that life in Haiti goes on despite the problems.

The book is basically a collection of Butcher’s photographs taken from 1986, the time of the overthrow of the Duvalier regime, to 1995, when the United States intervened to reinstate Jean-Bertrand Aristide as the democratically elected leader. The 120 full-colour photographs occupy 99 of the 120 pages of Urban Vodou, making it a highly visual work.

However, this is not your average coffee-table book. Middelanis puts the images in context by compressing Haiti’s complex 300-year history into less than 20 pages.Within this space he also addresses the sophisticated syncretism, or religious fusion, that is Vodou, a mix of Roman Catholicism and West African religions. The introduction is a challenging read, but it’s required in order to comprehend the diverse iconography depicted in Butcher’s photographs.

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Butcher is a talented and creative photographer. He is capturing the murals by standing directly in front of them, but he creates additional depth by photographing the Haitian people next to the paintings. The people stare back, so the reader is also interrogated and analysed through Haitian eyes. This element makes Butcher’s photographs even more engaging and dynamic. The message conveyed is that just like the Haitian people, the paintings are transient, living records of the tumultuous life of the oldest independent nation in the western hemisphere.

In addressing the paintings themselves, the images of Butcher attest to the sheer diversity of the art. Local heroes like Toussaint Louverture and General Dessalines share the same visual spaces as St Michael the Archangel, Pope John Paul II, Goofy, Batman and helicopter gunships. Vodou has assimilated virtually every image and placed it in a Haitian context; it is a fluid, living, ever-changing belief system.

Urban Vodou Politics and Popular Street Art in Haiti isn’t a sole repository on the subject of Vodou and the history of Haiti. However, the diversity of the images and the explanations provided by the text make an excellent starting point for anyone who wishes to develop a deeper insight into Haiti and its socio-political dynamics. In this impoverished nation, religion and history intertwine to produce something that is both remarkable and perplexing. The reader must also keep in mind that because of last year’s devastating earthquake, most of the art and some of the people depicted in Butcher’s photographs no longer exist.

Nevertheless, the record of their art in this book offers evidence that Haiti has survived a seemingly insurmountable disaster. Vodou is a vital component of Haitian life and it is the source of seemingly unlimited strength. It has got Haiti through the crises of the past and it will see her through the challenges of the future.


Unpalatable truths about food aid for Haiti

Timothy T Schwartz, an American anthropologist who worked in Haiti for ten years, provides  many fascinating anecdotes and significant data in Travesty in Haiti. His prose is solid, if workmanlike, but the reader gets a very good portrait of Haitian society and its people.

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Yet Schwartz apparently could not get a publisher for his book about a country which gets so much international attention, and had to self-publish. Perhaps this is not surprising since he makes the politically incorrect, even shocking, claim that international aid has Haiti in its parlous state.

In the book’s 14 chapters, Schwartz makes a convincing case that aid, especially food aid, has become Haiti’s main industry. Schools and orphanages have been set up, not to educate or care for children, but to access money. One of Haiti’s main schools, according to Schwartz, provides free education for the children of Haiti’s wealthiest citizens. The orphanages have children with parents; little of the money reaches the really poor children.

It is food aid, however, which Schwartz argues has destroyed Haiti’s agrarian economy. His argument is not to stop charity, but to make aid more accountable so poor Haitians can really benefit. This account gives far more important insights into Haiti than books like Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously, even though the latter will be reviewed in major newspapers and literary journals.


Lives of the Natural Mystics

Reggae icon Bob Marley has been the subject of several biographies, written with varying degrees of accuracy and literary skill. Marley rose to fame as a member of the Wailers, a uniquely captivating harmony trio whose other members, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, are also important figures in their own right. I&I: The Natural Mystics, an evocative and richly layered book, seeks to remove Marley from his venerated isolation, offering an alternative view of the Wailers as three more or less equal, yet quite different archetypes.

The British-born son of Jamaican immigrants, independent historian Colin Grant garnered critical acclaim for his Marcus Garvey biography, Negro With A Hat. Here, Grant draws on an impressive range of archival and literary sources, making the historical context particularly strong. His occasional placing of himself within the narrative renders portions closer to a novel.

However, the book is not without its problems, as Grant is weaker when relating the actualities of the Wailers’ musical output, and a lack of first-hand interview material results in an over-reliance on the work of others (though such material is properly credited, and skilfully woven into the text).

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Grant explores the Wailers’ youthful years and the subsequent rocky road that made up their time together, only briefly profiling what happened after Tosh and Wailer left the group. Whether or not one agrees with the archetypes suggested, the book is certainly to be applauded, since it offers new ways of considering Marley and his peers.


Wotless: The Carnival Album


The song “Wotless” will probably motivate buyers to purchase this disc, given that it was a runaway hit at T&T Carnival earlier  this year. The song, written by Kerwin Du Bois and Kes lead man Kees Dieffenthaller, contributed to Dieffenthaller’s Groovy Soca king title, his first.

But there are even more gems to uncover on this CD that are on par with “Wotless” in the danceability category, like “Ah Ting”, written by Du Bois and Kes, “Cock It Back”, and “Where Yuh From” (a soca-meets-dance-music fusion that certainly works).

Kes, the band, made up of brothers Kees, John and Hans Dieffenthaller and Riad Boochoon (affectionately referred to as a “brother from another mother” by the Dieffenthallers), is best known for its rock/pop offerings, but the band also has an equally good handle on soca, adding a fresh new perspective to the Trinidad & Tobago-grown genre.

You’ll love the harmonies that fill the opening bars of “Addicted” and the breezy, laid-back feel of “Waistline Roll”. “We Coming Down” has a rapso feel, while “Fete Hard” is a sweaty little jam that may not be recommended for the faint-hearted.

Kes is expected to release another album soon titled Stereotype.