Word of mouth (November/December 2016)

The Gimistory festival tells tales around Cayman, Caribbean writers headline at the Miami Book Fair, soca star Machel Montano makes his big-screen debut — and paranging till it hurts in Trinidad

  • Trading tales at the Gimistory festival. Photo courtesy Cayman National Cultural Foundation
  • Trinidadian-Canadian writer AndrŽ Alexis. Photo by Hannah Zoe Davidson
  • Illustration by James Hackett
  • Photo by Jermaine Cruikshank, courtesy Machel Montano

Get the story

Ray Funk explains how an annual storytelling festival captures the imaginations of Caymanians

At the end of November each year, throughout the Cayman Islands, locals and tourists in the know flock to parks, public beaches, and schoolyards to get the story. Or, rather, for Gimistory, the premier storytelling festival in the Caribbean. Since 1999, the Cayman Cultural Foundation has presented this week-long series of free events across the islands. Running from 26 November to 3 December this year, the 2016 Gimistory programme will feature Guyanese storytelling elder Ken Corsbie and theatre legend Claudette “Cookie” Allens from the Bahamas, as well as extempo champ Black Sage from Trinidad and traditional calypso presenter David Bereaux and friends.

From one end of the big island, Grand Cayman, to the other, and in the Sister Island, Cayman Brac, Gimistory offers high-calibre storytelling through speech and music (usually folk, calypso, and country), with free fish and fritters on the side. While it was created with Caymanians in mind, it’s also become an important event in the Cayman tourism calendar. During the day, performers visit local schools, where students are delighted to get a chance to hear various stories and interact with the tellers. Nightly shows are presented on beaches and other public spots, so locals are encouraged to come out. The last night of the festival is traditionally held at Smith Cove, and has come to be designated as Duppie Story Night, with an emphasis on ghost stories from all over the world.

From the beginning, Henry Muttoo, foundation director and Gimistory creator, was very clear that he did not want it to be an indoor affair, held in the CCF’s first-class Harquail Theatre. He wanted the shows to be for the whole family: kid-friendly events that would reach a wide audience. Muttoo remembered the early street theatre efforts he was involved in, growing up in Guyana, when he and his friends would do short skits on dories (horse- and donkey-drawn carts) under street lamps. He wanted Gimistory to be similarly accessible to everyone. So the task was to find beaches and schoolyards where stages could be quickly set up to reach audiences that might not come into town.

In 2004, just eight weeks after Hurricane Ivan devastated Cayman, Gimistory still went on, and drew record audiences. More than at other times, the need to lift people’s spirits was imperative, and Gimistory gave proof that Caymanian life was returning to normal. The festival highlights a variety of international styles, while offering a chance for local Caymanian tellers to perform. Over the years, workshops have been held in connection with Gimistory to help local tellers improve their craft, and the festival has led to regular radio broadcasts of local storytelling.

Gimistory is just one of the annual events presented by the Cayman Cultural Foundation, which was set up to develop, preserve, and celebrate the arts and culture of the Cayman Islands. But it’s definitely the one with the best stories.


Writers at the crossroads

Nixon Nelson previews the 2016 Miami Book Fair, where Caribbean writers will join North America’s biggest celebration of books and literature 

That the city with North America’s biggest literary festival is also home to one of the continent’s biggest Caribbean diaspora populations may be simply a coincidence. But it means that over the three decades since the Miami Book Fair started in 1984, Caribbean writers and readers have always been on the festival stage and in the audience. And this year, Caribbean writing will be moving decidedly into the spotlight, with the launch of a new programme stream called Read Caribbean: a series of reading and discussion panels featuring Caribbean writers of all genres and styles and even languages.

Perhaps you can thank the “Marlon James effect,” as some literati have dubbed a newly resurgent international interest in Caribbean literature, following on the Jamaican author’s Man Booker Prize win last year. And James is indeed a Miami Book Fair favourite and regular. He’ll be back in 2016, still riding high on the success of his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. But he’s far from alone. And to ramp up their Caribbean programming, the Miami Book Fair has enlisted the help of a few literary organisations working with the region’s authors at grassroots level: the Miami-based Haitian cultural group Sosyete Koukouy, Trinidad and Tobago’s Bocas Lit Fest, and Read Jamaica, a collaborative of independent publishers based in Kingston. Recommendations from the three partners — supplemented by the MBF’s already strong links with Maimi-based Caribbean writers — have fed a rich programme of Caribbean-related events for 2016 audiences to look forward to.

“Miami has emerged as the unofficial crossroads of the Caribbean,” says MBF director of programmes Lissette Mendez. And writers will be arriving from all directions for a week of literature, 13 to 20 November. From Toronto, for instance — another major Caribbean diaspora city — will come two writers whose books have been major prizewinners of the past year. Trinidadian André Alexis, whose novel Fifteen Dogs won both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Prize, will be joined by Jamaican Olive Senior, whose short story collection The Pain Tree won her the 2016 OCM Bocas Prize. Senior will read alongside Trinidadian writers Rhoda Bharath (The Ten Days Executive) and Sharon Millar (The Whale House and Other Stories), on a panel investigating the enduring place of short stories in Caribbean writing.

The poets will be on hand also. A panel on “new directions in Caribbean poetry” will bring together Guyanese-American Rajiv Mohabir, Haitian-American Danielle Legros Georges, and Trinidadian Shivanee Ramlochan, for readings pushing boundaries of form and subject. Jamaican poets Ishion Hutchinson, Tanya Shirley, and Safiya Sinclair will also feature elsewhere.

Other panels will look at aspects of Caribbean history, religion, cultural cross-fertilisation, and even “the politics of pleasure.” Haitian and Cuban writers will have a specially strong presence — no surprise, given Miami’s population demographics — with readings and discussions in Spanish and Kwéyol. The Caribbean presence extends to the children’s festival too, where two past winners of CODE’s Burt Award for Caribbean Literature — a regional award for writers of Young Adult fiction, administered by the Bocas Lit Fest — will share their work: Ad-Ziko Simba Gegele of Jamaica and Imam Baksh of Guyana.

Of course, Miami Book Fair veterans know it isn’t just about the readings, brilliant as those can be. There’s also the vast outdoor fair, with dozens upon dozens of publishers’ and booksellers’ stalls lining the streets around the Miami Dade College campus. If there’s one thing writers love more than friendly faces in the audience, it’s friendly buyers of their books. The MBF is just a month before Christmas: what better chance to do all your gift-buying for book-loving family and friends?


Soca on screen

Shelly-Ann Inniss, confirmed Machel Montano fan, says the soca star’s screen debut left her dancing in her seat

You can get lost in music. This is how I feel especially when I hear soca — and not just any soca song, but a Machel Montano track. Over the years, Machel has evolved from the talented young boy we met many moons ago to world-class artiste: Mr Fete, Minister of the Road, Monk Monte, and most recently proprietor of Monk Pictures and budding actor. This man really does it like a boss. He marries lyrics of fun, love, unity, Carnival, social issues, and celebration with melodies that command you to move. With hits like “Big Truck” (1999), “It’s Carnival” (his 2001 collaboration with fellow Trinidadian Destra Garcia), “Dance With You” (2005), “One More Time” (2007), and “So High” (2011), Machel’s music makes me feel happy, free, and energised.

I was fortunate enough to see Machel perform live in Barbados at Cohobblopot a few years ago, and since then I’ve been longing for another up-close experience. Anxious and ecstatic — like masqueraders straining against the security line, awaiting their chance to cross the Carnival stage — is how I felt waiting for the release of Machel’s debut film. As fate would have it, I ended up in a Trinidadian cinema watching a movie that promised to cure my tabanca. It left me feeling . . . Bazodee.

The largest screen in the multiplex cinema was reserved for Bazodee. Some people had to resort to sitting in the “breakneck” section at the very front, straining their necks upward to view the screen. The anticipation was building, the mood was light and chipper, and when the lights dimmed, there was merriment on and off the screen. Audience participation is inescapable in Caribbean cinemas. People suddenly become cheerleaders, backup singers, and dancers. Animated directors appear too. “Why she dancing stiff so? Girl, move yuh waist!”

Of course, the music is all Machel. It’s nothing close to his high-energy, dynamic, surprise-filled live concert performances. Instead, the cinema audience got an intimate performance fuelled by crazy love, attitude, and rhythm. The vociferous guardian angels in the audience softly danced and sang along in their seats.

The plot is a classic love triangle. Indo-Trinidadian Anita Ponchouri (played by Natalie Perera) meets singer Lee de Leon (Montano) at the airport, as she waits to collect her wealthy Londoner fiancé Bharat Kumar and his family. Sparks immediately fly, and Anita becomes Lee’s muse. By chance, Lee performs at Anita’s engagement party, strumming his treasured ukulele, and the pair become close friends. Set during Carnival season, the atmosphere of desire, deceit, party, and excitement propels the movie, leaving Anita in a quandary. She must choose between the possibility of love with a struggling musician of another race, and her obligation to marry into a wealthy family, thereby saving her own in-debt relatives. It sounds kind of serious — but it’s hysterically funny. I’m not a film critic, but I’d categorise Bazodee as a musical romance comedy with Bollywood and soca underpinnings.

As usual, Machel makes sweet memories, with vibes that cyah done, especially when he wines on an Indian gyal. I was a bit disenchanted that more of T&T didn’t make it to the screen. I don’t recall anyone eating doubles, a true travesty, in my opinion. And I’m still searching a map of Trinidad to find Pigeon Point, since the film leads us to believe that Tobago is actually in its bigger sister isle. Apart from these quibbles, if you’re a soca lover — Bazodee reach!

As the lights came up in the cinema and the credits rolled, there was applause and everyone wore a grin. Even the crumpled-up popcorn bags were smiling. People danced, clapped, and sang along as they made their way to the exit. Bazodee is the first project from Machel’s newly formed Monk Pictures, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Not many filmmakers can boast about moviegoers singing and chipping out of a cinema like they were following a music truck down the avenue on Carnival Tuesday evening. Pump yuh flag, Machel!


Parang until it hurts

For a young Tracy Assing, the night she was finally allowed to play the tock-tocks in the family parang band was a triumph. But next morning . . .

The tock-tocks are not complicated. They are a pair of smooth, short, thick dowels made of ebony or rosewood. Known also as the claves or clapsticks, we call them tock-tocks because that’s what they sound like when struck together. They are a staple of every Trinidadian parang ensemble, holding the beat for the traditional Christmas-time music.

I was eight years old the Boxing Day I was finally allowed to handle them. All of the instruments we used in the family parang pick-up band had a special air about them. They would always be handled with great care. As children, we were never allowed to touch instruments like the cuatro and the mandolin. We were relegated to backup singing and lively three-step dancing. But my cousins and I felt we were old enough to play more meaningful roles in the family’s ever-evolving band. We were old enough to stay up late. We knew all the songs. We promised not to consume any of the endlessly flowing alcohol.

The adults offered a choice of two instruments to a group of six desperate pre-teen musicians. The options: the tock-tocks or the chac-chac rattles. My great uncle Sonny made chac-chacs, and this was his own special pair. The tock-tocks were oiled regularly and slept in a special box. The good news was the chac-chacs were a pair that could be split in two. That meant three would play for sure. We settled on a rotation. I was on the first rotation to shake one chac-chac, and the second to get my hands on the tock-tocks, which would be a solo gig. I was more excited about getting my hands on the tock-tocks. I couldn’t mess it up. All I had to do was keep time, striking those pieces of wood together. Hurray hurrah!

After paranging at the homes of my neighbouring great-aunts at the foot of the hill where we lived, a dozen of us (with instruments in tow) crowded into my cousin’s old car, which was designed to seat five. The guy playing the box-base sat in the trunk with his instrument and shared space with my uncle and his cuatro.

We rode to the top of the hill in this configuration. It was about eleven at night when we left home. We had the houses of a dozen more family members to cover, but all were within walking distance. Alegria! Alegria!

There was something unnatural about holding only one half of the pair of chac-chacs, and it threw my three-step out of time, but no one complained. Whenever it was my turn with the tock-tocks, I played with concentration, with vigour, a wide smile plastered across my face. I had no trouble keeping time until we played at the last house around three o’clock that morning.

When I woke up a few hours later, I realised my forearms ached and my fingers were in agony. I couldn’t make a fist. If I didn’t keep my fingers splayed out, like I was about to grab someone to frighten them, they hurt. My grandmother massaged my hands with some rosemary and coconut oil, but they didn’t really recover for another day and a half. I’d played for hours, grasping the tock-tocks too firmly, and the sound had vibrated through to my bones, traumatising my thin fingers.

I decided I would get my hands on a tambourine in time for next year.

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