Word of mouth (January/February 2015)

Trinidad’s stickfighting season, a new film about the history of steel pan, and St Lucia’s week of Nobel celebrations

  • Photograph by Maria Nunes
  • Rafy Photography, courtesy Pan: Our Music Odyssey
  • Derek Walcott. Photograph by Danielle Devaux, courtesy Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The beauty of the battle

Attillah Springer on the traditions and power of stickfighting, Trinidad’s homegrown martial art

Forget the big fetes in town. Weekends before Carnival are for back roads and far-flung villages. Late nights driving across the country in search of bois, the elegant but dangerous wooden weapon of the stickfighter.

In a moment of insanity, I decided that I didn’t just want to be an observer of stickfighting. To understand the art, you have to practice it.

Between Acid, Keegan, and Benji, who are the front line of the Bois Academy of Trinidad and Tobago, I am being schooled in everything from physiology to the complexities of the Caribbean body in motion. And how all civilisations have the mental and physical discipline of martial arts so that untapped warrior energy doesn’t manifest itself elsewhere. They teach me the martial tradition of their Moruga elders: the pretty stick style in which the strategy is to dazzle the opponent with the beauty of your dancing, and then strike with light but precise brutality.

The learning is not just in the training, the hours spent memorising the lavways and the steps and the pain that comes when you lose concentration and you get hit with a stick on your little finger. The journeys to the gayelles are full of songs and anecdotes of past battles. Acid sings into the night, to dark roads that disappear suddenly off crumbling precipices: “Ah living alone, ah living alone in the jungle.”

Bois season is a time of fasting, from alcohol and meat and conjugal relations. From anything that distracts from the battle. The battle is waged in the mind long before the stickfighter enters the ring.

On junctions and crossroads there are open gayelles, the unregulated fight clubs where the crowds determine the prize by throwing money into the ring. But these have dwindled in the past decade, even as stickfighting has become more visible to Trinidad’s wider society, who hardly ever venture too far east or south — down south where the stickfighters are a mix of aging saga boys and a small but steady stream of younger men, drawn to the warrior’s circle by the sound of the drums.

Meanwhile, the National Carnival Commission’s Regional Carnival Committee has done much to ensure that more people know about the art of stickfighting, through an official competition. Venues are ram-crammed, as much with longtime bois enthusiasts as with international film crews and hip Instagrammers from town. But where the lights are bright, in the well-organised fights with government monies for the winning gayelle and the king bois man, some of the fire is gone. The blood doesn’t flow as readily, and the disagreements echo the bacchanal that haunts most if not all other parts of the Carnival. Why can’t the stickfighters get the same kind of money as the chutney and soca artists?

Sometimes the women who come to support their men raise up their clothes and let forth the most beautifully profane verses. Sometimes the drummers refuse to play. And the chantwells go silent in protest at some real or imagined insult.

The judges’ final decisions are controversial. The police have to be called. The crowd is shouting for blood and the old stickfighters roll their eyes at how these young boys are too afraid of their own power.

In the gayelle they still sing the lavwey for Joe Talmana, the infamous stickfighter who in 1881 struck the blow to Captain John Baker in the Canboulay Riots, and then disappeared down the Spanish Main. They call on stickfighters who are long dead, but whose spirits still stalk gayelles, appearing in flashes of inspiration. In the chantwell’s high and hoarse call. In the crowd’s united response.

After the battle, the fighters embrace. They inspect each other’s injuries with surprising tenderness and concern. The learning is not just in training. The fight is not just about the busshead.

It is in the understanding of the necessity of safe spaces for confrontation. And a reminder to stay beautiful and honourable in battle.


Heart of steel

Judy Raymond on a new docudrama that tells the story of the birth and flourishing of the steel pan

The steel pan was invented, according to the prevailing myth, by one man in John John, in east Port of Spain, memorably described by V.S. Naipaul as the worst slum in the West Indies. But in a new docudrama about Trinidad and Tobago’s national instrument, the most striking scenes, and the genesis of pan, don’t take place in the city at all. Instead, under the wide-flung branches of a samaan tree, its birth heralded by the African drums of an Orisha feast, the pan is forged with fire and water, emerging scorched and steaming in the fertile green depths of a rural valley.

“A Steelband Story” is the less clunky and clichéd subtitle of the film PAN! Our Music Odyssey. Bearing that subtitle in mind might quell some of the squabbling among the pedants and purists who will dispute the authenticity of these dramatised interludes. This isn’t the story of pan, it’s a story. Except that it isn’t a story either, but many stories.

Technical, sociological, and historical aspects of the steelband movement are spelled out by pan veterans and experts: virtuoso composers and arrangers “Boogsie” Sharpe, Ray Holman, and Andy Narell; and steelband historian Kim Johnson, who also wrote the script and was one of the film’s producers.

In the documentary segments, the film also follows three players hoping to perform with leading bands in the national steelband competition that takes place every Carnival in Port of Spain. One is a little boy, Jevanni, from Laventille, in the east of the city; two are women, Chihiro from Japan and Eva from France. Chihiro doesn’t speak English; Jevanni has to cope with primary school and homework as well as rehearsing in the panyard until 3 am. The bands they want to join represent the ghetto and the suburbs, tradition and the avant garde. Likewise, these real-life individual stories quietly show how pan also leapfrogs the barriers of age, gender, ethnicity, class, nationality, and language.

The three players’ paths finally converge at Panorama, in the over-whelming sound and sight of bands of one-hundred-plus musicians moving in unison with each other, and the thousands who gather to watch them perform, all at one with the all-engrossing music.

This is a lot to squeeze into an eighty-minute film, whose intended audience is not only overseas viewers but also locals, to whom the hectic scenes from panyards and Panorama are well known. But all these stories are linked by the narrator, the fictional Goldteeth, a pioneer who was there when pan came into being in the aftermath of the Second World War. His story is set in the hills of Laventille and the pastoral valley of Tacarigua, and the warring steelbands of those days are mere handfuls of badjohns, rebels in search of a cause.

These haunting flashbacks to a ramshackle, rustic Trinidad are beautifully photographed and convincingly acted by a cast led by Renaldo Frederick as Goldteeth. In a compelling, understated performance, Frederick makes Goldteeth both a single ghetto youth, a diamond in the rough, and at the same time a symbol of the intelligence, talent, persistence, and love that engendered the steelband movement.
PAN! Our Music Odyssey 

80 minutes

Directed by Jerome Guiot and Thierry Teston

Produced by Jean Michel Gibert and Barthelemy Fougea

Written by Kim Johnson




Nobel occasion

John Robert Lee invites Caribbean lovers of ideas and arts to St Lucia’s annual Nobel Laureates Week celebrations

It began in 1993, the year after Derek Walcott became the second St Lucian to win a Nobel Prize, and has continued with a familiar regularity. Nobel Laureate Week, celebrating the achievements of Walcott (literature, 1992) and Sir Arthur Lewis (economics, 1979), has become one of the most popular and eagerly anticipated fixtures on the St Lucian calendar, organised around 23 January, the common birthdate of both laureates. In 2015, the ten-day “week” runs from 14 to 24 January.

Many regional and international luminaries have been guests of the Nobel Laureate Week Committee, headed since 2000 by Governor General Dame Pearlette Louisy. The programme usually includes music, theatre, and visual arts events, and the popular and prestigious Sir Arthur Lewis and Derek Walcott Lectures are main highlights. The first Lewis Lecture was delivered in 1996 by Dr Andrew S. Downes. The following year, the late Rex Nettleford gave the inaugural Walcott Lecture. The invitation to deliver the annual lecture is a considerable honour, enjoyed in past years by writers and academics such as the late Seamus Heaney, Wole Soyinka, Yousef Koumanyakaa, George Lamming, Edward Baugh, Lorna Goodison, Caryl Phillips, and others. (Just as this magazine went to press, it was announced that 2015’s Lewis and Walcott lecturers, respectively, will be Princeton University historian Robert Tignor and Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck.)

After twenty-two years, celebrations like these draw both critics and admirers. Some feel it is all a bit out of reach of “the masses,” but in reality all Nobel Laureate Week events are open to the public, including the popular lectures. The programme provides an annual opportunity to revel in the intellectual and artistic achievements of St Lucia’s two most famous sons, but also to showcase the talents of their contemporaries and those who have followed.

The 2015 Nobel Laureate Week marks two landmark anniversaries. First, it will remember the centenary of Sir Arthur Lewis’s birth. From Wednesday 14 to Friday 16 January, the University of the West Indies and its Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies together with the Caribbean Development Bank are hosting a major conference, with the theme “Towards Caribbean Prosperity and Happiness in an Equitable and Sustainable World.” Didacus Jules, Director General of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States, and St Lucia Prime Minister
Kenny D. Anthony are scheduled to deliver major addresses.

And this January also brings the eighty-fifth birthday of Derek Walcott, who continues to loom large — in person and through his writing — over the landscape of Caribbean letters. A cohort of celebrated contemporary writers have become regulars at Walcott’s birthday celebrations in recent years, and the anniversary is easily one of St Lucia’s most significant literary events.

Given the many impressive figures who have joined the programme, and the variety of arts and intellectual activities on offer, efforts have been made over the years to garner greater support from the St Lucia Tourist Board to draw in a bigger regional and international audience. The observances are already highly anticipated among St Lucians. And visitors to St Lucia are invited to join in the scheduled activities. Who knows, you may even get to speak to our living Nobel laureate, get one of his books autographed, and rub shoulders with some famous names in the international world of arts and social sciences.

For more information on the Sir Arthur Lewis Centenary Conference, visit www.uwi.edu/salises/Lewis-Centennial.php. For information on Nobel Laureates Week, visit www.governorgeneral.govt.lc/nobel_laureate_week

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.