Word of mouth (Jan/Feb 2018)

It’s Carnival time! Come on a panyard lime with Barbara Jenkins, experience the thrilling, shape-shifting ritual of J’Ouvert in a poem by Shivanee Ramlochan, and discover Carriacou’s unique Shakespeare mas. Meanwhile, Jamaica celebrates its musical heritage at Reggae Month

  • Desperadoes, 2016 Panorama champions, rehearsing for the finals. Photo by Maria Nunes
  • Illustration by Shalini Seereeram
  • Shakespeare mas in Hillsborough. Photo by Paul Crask
  • Photo by Peeterv/iStock.com

Pan jumbie

In T&T, Carnival is the season of steelpan music, and the truest devotees — like Barbara Jenkins — haunt the panyards in the weeks before the Panorama competition

Every night I lie down in mih bed
Ah hearing a Bass Man in mih head.
— The Mighty Shadow

A bassman. A woman on the bass. Tenor man, double seconds woman, guitar-pan man, cello-pan woman. Engine room. Haunting you, pan jumbie, when you lie down in your bed, in those last weeks before Carnival.

Christmas come. You not taking that on. Itching for New Year’s to hurry up. Because. Next is Epiphany. Feast of Kings. The royalty of your music world come out to play theyself, and you, into a frenzied state of distracted joy.

Gillian B quickens to early summons. You concede a Woodbrook childhood might have some benefit. “Belmont You” already take win for Ken Morris, Jason Griffith, Harold Saldenah, Dixieland, Burrokeets, Wayne Berkeley, Wendell Manwarren, David Rudder . . .

She, camel shawl and Egyptian hat — 22 degrees Celsius is winter here — and you, off to Phase II. Park easy on the narrow gap between modest houses and upscale towers. Next week, week after, is way-way down Taylor Street. Walk slow. The ground don’t remember your foot yet. You hearing something. Ting. Ting. Careful, hesitant notes. Floating beyond. Speed up now. Take sharp right.

Before you, a shallow basin. Staid Fatima College, looming One Woodbrook Place frame distant views of Fort George, Cumberland Hill, Lady Chancellor. Metal pan racks lie scattered. Banners bearing the faded name of last year’s tune. Panyard low buzz. Sprinkle of people. The season early still. You here for the feeling, the vibe — confirmation that you reach where you supposed to be.

Gillian taking a mental roll call. Look Mackie. Short-sleeved shirt, short pants, polished sockless loafers, backwards baseball cap. The feller with the walking stick? Not here yet. Over early weeks, a gradual gathering. Arrivals noted with nods, brief exchanges, the peculiarly Trinidadian nonchalant affirmation of a certain class, a certain generation, who never doubt they belong, be they foreign-based annual Christmas-to-Carnival returnees or us, the never-left.

Early pannists already putting down the tune. Stage side of thirtyish eventually swelling to the Carnival hundred. The Man, legendary Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, Phase II founder, composer, arranger, emerges, circulates, greets. You relish this fleeting time. When practice really begins, the tune rounding, this gentle energy will be gone. Diluted and distracted, amplified and augmented.

Natasha will be drilling down the sections, mannersing them with quiet authority. The Chuckaree boy, the Japanese girls, the brother and sister, still in primary school, the Couva girl, wee hours heading home, asleep as head hit pillow, waking up, doing whole day’s work, coming back, eager to take on this. You bear witness to one of the most adventurous steel orchestras rehearsing, shaping a tune from scratch to polish. “Jump High”. All yours. No questions. No entrance fee. No secret handshake.

Come next week, week after, this yard, every panyard in the country, will be brightly lit, bleachers overflowing, bar open, t-shirts selling, people drifting in and out. Groupies, floaters, musicologists, sightseers, filmmakers. Cognoscenti and ignoranti all giving voluble opinion on music choice, arrangement, level of pannist skill. By the way, where the bearded Alaskan?

Pat Bishop, late great pan icon, used to say that Laventille would not calm down until her Despers, the Desperadoes Steel Orchestra, returns home up Laventille Hill. Now nomadic, its pan racks like clean-picked bones of mastodons, strewn among razor grass fringing the Foreshore, the band temporarily lodged where a recently razed historic church stood. In that hallowed space, Despers builds their visceral music. Dispossessed, itinerant, defiantly brilliant: sell-out performances in international concert halls, eleven Panorama titles, latest 2016, “Different Me”. In the belly of this kind of rebellious beast, pan was conceived. Fire forging hammer with steel.

Despers beats pan. Into submission. Music exposing scars. Telling of pain, insults, prohibitions. Hardship endured and overcome. Revelling in the triumphs of recognition, acclaim, the fanatical zeal of community supporters. Turfed out again. Landowner building a mall. Where to find Despers this year? Must call Chantal.

Night before Prelims, Behind the Bridge relaxes its edginess for the season. The navel string of your pan passion buried in All Stars. The Blonde Terror, riding partner, squeezes her jeep into bare air near Hell Yard. Humanity solid in the yard. Crush past Jackie. His sketchbook busy. Come Lent, you will lust after another of his panyard scenes — players, regulars, bar, food booths, merchandise store, Laventille Hills backdrop, moonlight softening precariously perched house clusters. Shove forward. Wedge yourself between man in muscled merino and woman in shape-defying leopard-print leggings.

Ping, ping, ping-ping-ping-ping. The “Full Extreme” tsunami of sound rushes towards you, swallows you alive into its tossing depths, invades every orifice, every pore. You are the sound and the sound is you. This is what you live for. Why you persist in being here. In this complex, crazy, extraordinary little island.


All the dead, all the living

Poet Shivanee Ramlochan on the mystical, carnal, pre-dawn ritual that begins T&T’s Carnival

At Jouvay, it eh matter if you play yourself
or somebody else.

Play your dead eighty-year-old granny,
who had tongue like scorpion pepper,
two foot like twinned fishtail in Caura River,
a smile like a butterknife cutting through hot sada.

Play your living mother,
who made of more parts glitter than flour,
who teach you softness have more than enough space
to leave a cutlass waiting,
glistening between fat folds,
ready to chop yuh from a bed of ample waist.

Play all the dead and all the living in you,
in yuh shortpants,
in yuh badjohn drawers,
in yuh ragged fishnets and curry-gold battyriders,
in yuh half-top, in yuh no-top,
breasts swinging under electric-tape nipples,
panty forgotten in a culvert overflowing with holy water and hell liquor,
your own perspiration sliding between bodies at play
like the wetness from your body is purgatory-unction.

Play yuhself.
Clay yuhself.
Wine en pointe and wine to the four stations of the cross,
dutty angel,
bragadang badting,
St James soucouyant,
deep bush douen come to town
to make a killing in mud and mudder-in-law
on fresh doubles, after.

Play like you eh playing in your public servant office on Ash Wednesday,
calves aching and twitching in sensible slingback heels,
a pulse in your lower back blossoming
each time you bend down to file a papers,
salute a clerk,
say grace before ashes.

You know where you are, really.
Just how you know the clerk is a chantwell,
the office is a concrete antechamber before the final mas,
the pavement is a busshead-convergence,
the parking lot is a gayelle,
the savannah is a arena where paint and abeer might wash,
but spirit does linger.

You eh waiting til next year.
Where you plant yourself this Jouvay
is where your spectral, midnight lagahoo rattling she coffin,
turning wolf
to woman
to wolf again.


Bard vs bard

Paul Crask visits Carriacou and experiences the unusual spectacle of Shakespeare mas

On the morning of Shrove Tuesday, people from two villages on the diminutive island of Carriacou set off on foot towards the main town of Hillsborough. One group meanders down the hillside from the north, the other from the south.

Some of the men and boys in the group are dressed in gaudily patterned flowing cloaks and pantaloons, costumes that are vaguely reminiscent of English medieval court jesters. They also wear hand-painted face masks and wield wooden sticks. On their slow journey to town, they recite passages of Shakespeare’s verse and drop into roadside rumshops for a fortifying drink or two. These incongruous processions are the start of one of the most unusual cultural customs of the entire Caribbean region, Carriacou’s Shakespeare mas.

Celebrations begin the day before at J’Ouvert, the traditional opening of Carnival. By the time the sun rises, Hillsborough’s Main Street is jam-packed with revellers. Many arrive over the preceding weekend from Grenada, filling the Osprey ferry and mail boat, then squeezing into any and every free corner of the island’s budget hotel rooms. J’Ouvert in Hillsborough is bohemian, wild, and sometimes downright bizarre. It’s also great fun.

Covering themselves from top to toe in thick black engine oil, jab-jabs — a name derived from the French patois for devil — often sport a pair of horns on their head and are loosely fettered with chains and shackles. Some jab-jabs carry animal skulls, or drag them around on ropes or in carts. Others spend J’Ouvert with a fish or octopus tentacles held half in, half out of their mouths. For travellers on the morning ferry from the luxury resorts of Grenada, these devilish figures might create a rather unsettling first impression of a tranquil little island.

In stark contrast to the engine oil, bright paint in either powder or liquid form is daubed on face, body, and clothing, and tossed up into the air with abandon. The music is loud, the jump-up is frenzied, and the rum is constantly flowing. Carriacou is an Amerindian word meaning “land of reefs,” and J’Ouvert morning comes to a fitting close with grilled lobster and fish breakfasts, all prepared street-side.

Hillsborough is a small coastal town, and the afternoon costume parade fills up most of it, by the time it’s completed a first circuit of the two thoroughfares. It is a colourful, family occasion that continues into the evening with spontaneous singing, drumming, and the kind of string band performances that are usually associated with the island’s traditional boat launching ceremonies.

By lunchtime on Carnival Tuesday, the two groups of villagers who have been making their way down to Hillsborough finally meet on Main Street, where they face off. Women brandish sticks, ring bells, and bang on pots. Then battle commences. In turn, men from each village square up to each other, stick in hand, and begin quoting passages from Julius Caesar. If their opponent hears a mistake, they receive the swift blow of a stick. Fired up with village pride and local rum, the contest often ends up in a brawl, with sticks and punches flying.

No one seems to have any firm idea about how Shakespeare mas came about, but the most common theory is that English planters of past centuries forced it upon their enslaved labourers as a form of entertainment. Wherever it came from, it has evolved into a unique and unusual custom on an island that is rich in cultural heritage — including a Carnival festival that should be on every Caribbean traveller’s bucket list.


Catch a fire

There’s nothing like hearing reggae music performed live in the island of its birth, says Nazma Muller — and February is the month to celebrate that cultural heritage

The year was 1995, and the place was Priory, St Ann. It was the opening night of Reggae Sunsplash, and my life would be changed forever.

For five nights I listened, spellbound, to the sonic history of the wild child of music — from its birth in the form of mento and its growth and evolution, through the decades, to become ska, rocksteady, lovers’ rock, and conscious reggae. Thousands of devotees, local and foreign, were all united in ecstasy under that star-studded sky, as the high priests of reggae blessed us with hit after hit. There is something magical about hearing reggae performed live in the ganja-perfumed air of Jamaica that cannot be described or replicated. It’s as if the very trees and sky hum along with this mystical vibration.

On 24 January, 2008, the then governor-general of Jamaica, Professor Sir Kenneth Hall, read an official proclamation declaring the month of February as Jamaica’s Reggae Month. It was a signal moment in the history of reggae. The time had come to analyse and reflect on what reggae had done globally and for Jamaica, and for the island that gave the world this most beautiful sound to celebrate its pioneers and progenitors. And February was the ideal month, as two of Jamaica’s most revered musical sons — Dennis Brown, the Crown Prince of Reggae, and Bob Marley, the undisputed King — were born on 1 and 6 February, respectively.

Jamaica’s Ministry of Culture has led the way in marketing Reggae Month and making it an international phenomenon. Activities in that inaugural year, a decade ago, included the hosting of the Reggae Academy Awards, the Bob Marley Photographic Exhibition, an Africa Unite/Smile Jamaica Youth Symposium, the first annual Bob Marley Lecture, an African Film Festival, a Reggae Film Festival, the annual Irie FM Reggae Music Awards, and the Bob Marley Creative Expression Day.

In 2009, under the theme “Reggae to Di Worl,” an NGO called the Jamaica Reggae Industry Association (JaRIA) was given the task of coordinating events and activities for Reggae Month. That year, eleven of Jamaica’s music veterans were honoured and celebrated for their contributions, including Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, who were given a Lifetime Achievement Award. Pam Hall and Dennis Brown were also honoured. Other legends celebrated over the years include John Holt, Gregory Isaacs, Nadine Sutherland, George Nooks, Sugar Minott, Ernie Smith, Pablo Moses, and the Heptones.

The Reggae Month Committee has always emphasised the importance of the reggae music industry to Jamaica’s economy. Education is crucial also: every year the committee organises symposia for high school students in collaboration with the Bob Marley Foundation and the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission, to improve public awareness about the island’s musical heritage. The committee also works with the Ministry of Education to host seminars with fifth- and sixth-formers to educate them about career opportunities available in music, and for musicians and stakeholders to learn where reggae music fits into the global music industry.

Most Reggae Month activities are free. And the proceeds of events with admission fees go towards buying musical instruments for schools, supporting industry players, and setting up a music industry foundation. As Reggae Month hits the ten-year milestone, the 2018 programme — its details being confirmed as this magazine went to press — promises to be spectacular, with the Jamaica Tourist Board and the Ministry of Culture adding their strength to a planned mega-event, which will no doubt bring together some of the biggest names in reggae. And maybe some lucky person in the audience will find her life being changed — as mine was, all those years ago.

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.