Don’t Miss: Trinidad’s traditional mas
The cracks of the jab-jabs’ whips grab onlookers’ attention. Moko jumbies tower above, and king sailors with their elaborate headpieces show off their fancy footwork. In the moonlight, a mysterious La Diablesse hides her face with a wide-brimmed hat, and a long old-fashioned dress covers her cow hoof. Some of the most electric moments of Trinidad Carnival happen on the Wednesday night before the Carnival climax, in the traditional mas competition at Adam Smith Square (27 February this year). Once considered a dying art form, traditional mas has found a new popularity in recent years, thanks to the energy of younger performers dedicated to keeping these characters alive. Look out too for Pierrot Grenades, Midnight Robbers, Dame Lorraines . . . And if you miss them on Wednesday night, you can catch more of them at noon on Carnival Friday in Victoria Square, and on the road on Carnival Monday and Tuesday.
How to get there? Caribbean Airlines operates numerous flights daily to Piarco International Airport in Trinidad from destinations in the Caribbean and North and South America
Top Three: PAPJAZZ hits
Venues filled to capacity and crowds singing along at the tops of their lungs are typical at the Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival (PAPJAZZ), running this year from 19 to 26 January. Under the stars, the city is rejuvenated with music. Cosy jam sessions are a PAPJAZZ signature, creating a welcoming opportunity to chat with the artistes. Outstanding performances, playful tunes, and daring repertoires are guaranteed from local and international luminaries. Among this overflow of talent, here are three acts to look out for.
Hits such as “Konsa”, “Only For You”, and “My Life Without You”, sung in English, French and Creole, leave audiences smitten. The international career of this Haitian-American singer-songwriter took off when she was just sixteen. Every song she’s written relates to a real-life situation, experience, or feeling, while her vocal style and shifts among multiple languages pay homage to her Haitian roots. Proud to dabble in almost every genre, she weaves traces of soul, R&B, reggae, kompa, and zouk into her compositions.
This Parisian band forms a musical universe of funk, metal, waltz, mazurka, and hip-hop. Listen to “From Paris with Love,” or “Barbes” and you’ll understand why their videos have amassed a social media following in the tens of thousands. Multifaceted drummer and singer Damien Schmitt, with the help of some lifelong friends, created Dam’nco in 2015. Delivering the groove on stage are bassist Swaéli Mbappé, Yann Negrit on guitar, and Michael Lecoq and Nicholas Vella on keyboards. Improvisation is a trademark of the band’s arrangements, so there’ll be many surprises.
Cécile McLorin Salvant
The New York Times lauded her as the finest jazz singer to emerge in the past decade. The two-time Grammy winner is known for carefully curating her repertoire, often unearthing rarely recorded or forgotten songs that tell strong stories. Growing up in Miami with a Haitian father and Guadeloupean mother, Salvant began playing the piano at age five. When she performs, she starts a conversation in song. Her voice comments on lyrics she presents on a platter of diverse tonal shifts, fresh delivery, and sheer soul. She’ll hook you from one note to the next.
Must Try: Treats for Three Kings’ Day
Some people don’t take their Christmas decorations down until after the twelve days of Christmas. And in Puerto Rico, that’s when the festivities happen. Tradition says three kings delivered gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh on the twelfth day after Jesus’ birth. Three Kings’ Day — Dia de Los Tres Reyes Magos, also known as the Epiphany — is on 6 January, celebrated with parades, family gatherings, parties, gifts — and, of course, delicious food. Such as . . .
Rosca de reyes
The top is decorated with slivered nuts, candied fruit, or coloured sweet dough. And on the inside, this sweet, soft yeasted bread (above) is flavoured with hints of almond, citrus, and cinnamon. Sometimes rum-soaked fruits are also in the mix. If you find the baby figurine in your slice, congrats! You’ll become the queen or king of the day, and have the honour of hosting the next party.
A delectable coconut and rum version of eggnog.
Wrapped and boiled in banana leaves, pasteles are cornmeal mixtures with pork in adobo sauce, grated green banana, pumpkin, potato, and some raisins.
Wind fritters — buñuelos de viento — don’t sound very filling, but make the perfect side dish for a meal. When fried, the dough doubles its volume, giving the impression the fritters are filled with air.
Want to try them yourself? Here’s the recipe:
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup sugar
1 cup milk
4 tablespoons butter, melted
oil (for frying)
cinnamon and sugar mixture
In a large bowl, mix flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. In a smaller bowl, beat eggs and milk. Add the flour mixture gradually while beating. Add the melted butter, and continue beating. Place dough on a floured surface and knead until silky and elastic. Roll into balls and flatten with the palm of your hand. Fry in hot oil (at 370° F), or until golden. Drain on paper towels. Toss fritters in the cinnamon and sugar mix.
Recipe courtesy geniuskitchen.com
On View: Ebony G. Patterson, . . . while the dew is still on the roses . . .
Born in Jamaica, Ebony G. Patterson divides her time between Lexington, Kentucky, where she teaches, and her hometown Kingston, source of her inspiration, ideas, and visual fuel. The latest stop on her jet-powered international career is the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), where Patterson’s show . . . while the dew is still on the roses . . . opened in November last year and runs through 5 May, 2019.
Patterson transforms one of PAMM’s high-ceilinged galleries into a “night garden,” full of shadows and profusions of tropical vegetation (rendered in plastic and silk), the setting for a series of her ornately embellished tapestry works. Fabrics of every texture with repeated floral imagery, laden with rhinestones and glitter, lace and braids and beads, are the artist’s medium. Patterson’s earlier investigations of Jamaica’s dancehall scene, with its complicated intersections of violence, race, class, and gender, expand here to encompass a broader awareness of injustice and inequality across borders, alongside a fierce claim of dignity on behalf of the disenfranchised. Endangered young black men don elaborate, bejeweled outfits, staring down the viewer, but the occasion seems grim rather than celebratory. The standout work here is a new sculptural installation, in which mounds of red, orange, and white artificial carnations and roses suggest funeral tributes. Ghostly frosted glass blossoms protrude, and among the floral lushness lurk fragments of silent evidence: the sole of a foot, a discarded piece of jewellery.
How You Say: Reggae patwa primer
Reggae is the musical heartbeat of Jamaica, and Reggae Month, celebrated each February, comes with an overflowing programme of performances, seminars, exhibitions, and other events dedicated to the musical genre and its offspring, like dancehall. But reggae’s global popularity doesn’t mean that non-Jamaicans always understand every nuance of the lyrics, usually sung in patwa. Here are some lines from iconic songs you may have failed to understand — and some useful phrases for your next reggae concert.
From “Boombastic” by Shaggy
Naw guh laba laba and a chat pure faat
Translation: Not going to talk excessively and speak pure nonsense
From “Bam Bam” by Sister Nancy
A me seh one thing Nancy cyan understan
Translation: And I say one thing Nancy cannot understand
From “Do It For the Likes” by Chronixx
Gwaan like seh dem deh a studio a voice
Translation: Pretending that they’re at a studio recording
From “Blood Money” by Protoje
Man deh road a carry one wuleepa a felony
Translation: Men with a lot of felonies walk the road freely
Pull up! Dah tune yah bad
Start over! This song is nice
Di party a go slap weh!
The party is going to be awesome!
Yuh need fi tek weh yuself fram yah suh
The party’s over. It’s time to go
Likkle more. Mi ago crush di road
See you later. I’m going on the road
Word of Mouth: Exploring Panama Dreams
Are you an explorer and adventure-seeker? Does the thought of dabbling with dynamite scare you? If guaranteed high wages, would you migrate without your family to toil in the blazing sun for over ten hours daily? More than 100,000 West Indians migrated to Panama between 1880 and 1914 to work on “the greatest engineering feat of its time” — the Panama Canal. In the intriguing docudrama Panama Dreams, Barbadian filmmaker Alison Saunders follows their journey, and explores the influence of the canal on the families and societies left behind. She discovered “well-hidden but serious issues” of shame, racism, classism, and power which descendants of the diaspora still face.
Barbados sent the largest group of labourers. Sixty thousand Barbadians — one-third of the island’s population at the time — voyaged to Panama to build the canal. Saunders, like many of today’s Barbadians, is the descendant of a Panama Canal labourer. In 2011, she travelled to Panama in search of information on her relative Prince Collymore, portrayed in her film by Adrian Green. Saunders didn’t find the leads she expected, and the missing details of Prince’s life were left to her imagination.
Panama Dreams combines dramatic recreations, historical accounts, fiction, and the narrative of Saunders’s own journey to spotlight the significant contributions these West Indian heroes made to one of the engineering marvels of the world. To this day, the Panama Canal earns approximately $2 billion in revenue annually.
Saunders has been writing, directing, and producing TV programmes, documentaries, and narrative films for more than twenty years — her body of work includes the award-winning drama Hit for Six! For Panama Dreams, she left no stone unturned, as she acted as researcher, writer, director, and producer. Her narrative often weaves in interviews with eminent historians such as Professor Sir Woodville Marshall, along with Jamaican writer Olive Senior, whose widely acclaimed book Dying to Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal played an integral role. Current Panama Canal employees, friendly societies in Panama, Panamanians with the surname Collymore, people in search of their ancestry, and many others also contributed to Panama Dreams.
Similar to our hardworking ancestors, Saunders overcame the obstacles and premiered her film last March in Barbados. Panama Dreams received rave reviews, leading to nominations in six categories and two wins at the Barbados Visual Media Awards. Although not officially released to the public, the film continues to be screened at festivals around the region — including the upcoming Barbados Independent Film Festival.
For many Caribbean viewers, Panama Dreams will awake a sense of pride and nostalgia. As a Barbadian, I felt encouraged to seek out my own roots. One of my biggest regrets is not studying history at school. I had no idea of the West Indian impact on the Panama Canal until young adulthood. Sadly, by that time, my Panamanian great-grandmother had already passed away, and her story is a faint memory among aged relatives. Despite this loss, I’m determined to dig deeper.
The third edition of the Barbados Independent Film Festival (BIFF), running from 11 to 20 January, highlights hidden treasures from the world of independent cinema, with a Caribbean feel and international appeal. The 2019 programme includes outstanding films which embrace the power of storytelling to inform, inspire, and entertain, from filmmakers including Alison Saunders, Stephen Lang (Avatar, Don’t Breathe), Andrew McCarthy (Weekend at Bernie’s, The Black List), and National Geographic director Martin Edstrom. The picturesque Walled Garden Theatre of the Barbados Museum, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the main venue. For more information, visit barbadosfilmfest.org.
On Stage: Nine Night
Following last year’s six-week staging at London’s prestigious National Theatre, Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night is currently enjoying an extended run at Trafalgar Studios in the heart of the city’s theatreland — making Gordon the first black woman playwright to have a play open in the West End. A story of grief, ritual, and identity set within a Caribbean-British family, Nine Night’s plot unfolds in the kitchen of distraught protagonist Lorraine, who is grappling with the loss of her beloved mother Gloria, as conflicting family dynamics take an additional toll. Centred on the Jamaican funerary tradition of celebrating the deceased’s life through an extended wake, the seemingly simple storyline reveals layers of complexity as each new character introduces another problematic element, and the unspoken truths of their hidden lives reveal as much as the play’s plausible dialogue. Delivered with an air of authenticity that can only stem from personal experience, it is an inaugural triumph for Gordon as a playwright, her longstanding career as an actor surely contributing to the drama’s lifelike feel.
Praise for the work has been near-unanimous, an unusual situation for what would normally be deemed a fringe play with a “black” theme. The Guardian saluted its portrayal of an ethnic-minority family at home in multicultural Britain, while the five-star review that appeared in the Evening Standard described Nine Night as a “remarkable debut” for Gordon in playwright mode. The Times, a bastion of the conservative upper-class establishment, gave the play its unreserved recommendation.
Since the noughties, Gordon has gradually carved a niche for herself in the acting world. Appearing in cop-show television dramas, Gordon faced the familiar difficulty of finding meaningful roles of substance as a black actor. In contrast, a particular strength of Nine Night is the realness of its characters, including Robert, the scheming brother at loggerheads with Lorraine; his white wife Sophie, who is embraced by the family despite her parents’ refusal to accept her choice of husband; and long-lost half-sister Trudy, inexplicably left behind in hardscrabble Kingston. Then there’s the seriously old-school Aunt Maggie, whose withering looks and enduring Jamaicanness give the play some of its most humorous interludes. Through the dramatic tussles between these characters in the aftermath of Gloria’s passing, the audience observes a family caught between the traditions of the older island-born generation and the contemporary British way of life.
In the aftermath of the Windrush scandal, which saw scores of British citizens erroneously returned to the Caribbean by force, Nine Night’s ascendancy seems particularly timely, questioning the very nature of Britishness — although the experience of grief is more at centre stage here. Ultimately, Nine Night reveals Gordon as a playwright of considerable skill, whose nuanced work deserves its glowing accolades — which also include the 2018 Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright.
Word of Mouth: Sailor is a state of mind
Poet Vahni Capildeo on her initiation into the performance art of the fancy sailor, one of Trinidad Carnival’s best-loved traditional masquerades
In the dark street, a copper and indigo figure, larger than life, is dancing with magnificence and joy. His trousers flare out. His headpiece is metallised and wide like a constellation. This is a King Sailor.
We have gone into town — Port of Spain at night — for an evening dedicated to “traditional masquerade.” Many people are standing in the street. Others walk through the square. It is not always clear who is in costume, preparing, or undressing, except when serious rituals are performed; for example, when a medicine man and his companions in full feathers ceremonially mark and hallow the tarmac.
As if heedless of taking part in a spectacle, the King Sailor moves lovingly among his spectators. He moves in dance posture: as if an invisible string passes through the top of his head and is pulling him straight up. This is not ballet dance posture. The invisible string is mobile. The King Sailor is often almost off-kilter. The axis of his movement shifts. You can see him dancing in the street as if he is dancing on the deck of a boat that is riding waves. The flat surface seems to be tilting. His feet are super-light. They land changeably, discombobulating the viewer. His steps obey the invisible roll of surf.
The King Sailor is someone I would recognise outside the costume, but in role, he is utterly transformed.
Even if wild and rambunctious behaviour is the norm for all characters let out on shore leave, there are two ways of inhabiting the seafarer. There is a clear and extravagant difference between plain sailor mas, the Carnival costume for white-capped revellers, and the fancy sailor. This has been well documented, for example in the photographs of Maria Nunes. The fancy sailor is a blast of swansdown, glittering epaulettes, and colours. The stick she or he often carries is neither a weapon nor a decoration (though it can be both), but a companion in cleverly reeling routines. There are dances which can be taught, and which stylise actions, such as gamblers just off ship throwing dice, or firemen sweeping past with their long hoses. However, these dances are not fossilised. Individual sailors dance competitively. Each sailor challenges, refines, and expands on what his companions bring to the long routes of Carnival Monday and Tuesday before the off switch is thrown on Ash Wednesday. “You learn on the road,” I was told firmly. Famous for my lack of coordination, I am still learning.
More wisdom from the road: “Sailor is a state of mind.”
Back in 2016, my co-conspirator Andre Bagoo, aware of my desperate desire to meet a fancy sailor, boldly ambushed the super-courteous King of them all, Jason Griffiths, in his Belmont home. Griffiths slowly revealed to us seven decades’ worth of newspaper clippings, a veritable museum of headpieces and sculptural costumes, and the secret history of the sailor’s twentieth-century evolution. He talked about reconceptualising the role, portraying subjects bigger than and different from the ocean but still awash with sea-movement potential: the exploration of histories, of galaxies.
Griffiths’s eyes lit up with mischief as he described “throwing powder” on people who caught his attention (the sailor being armed with talcum powder, or these days the less harmful cornstarch, to imitate gunsmoke). “I woulda throw powder on you,” he teased. That was the moment I knew I had to go on the road. The following year, Andre and I signed up with Belmont Exotic Stylish Sailors, the beginning of my throwing powder on everyone: a policeman, near-nude persons of all genders playing pretty mas, a formidable moko jumbie towering on what looked like seven-foot stilts . . .
On that first Carnival Monday, I did not personally know anyone in the band, though of course one of the kings, Keith Simpson, turned out to be an old family friend. Soon the sailors themselves felt like family. I developed a profound respect for the leader, Ancil McLean, an austere, ferocious, gifted designer whose house seems to be arrayed with costumes in every stage of completion hung at every height, specially mixed, matched, and fitted to each of his band members.
Standout moments for me are the 6 am home-cooked breakfast, served with old-style politeness and simplicity — how finely is that pimiento minced in the sandwiches, and how much fresher can a watermelon be when a machete is taken to it — the way that people’s faces light up when they see the sailors, even or especially those looking from high windows because for whatever reason they cannot be on the road, or those living in areas stereotyped for their deprivation —and taking a rest with bandmates leaning against the wall of the Lapeyrouse Cemetery, perhaps while a scarlet and emerald hummingbird hovers lightly on your headpiece half as high as you again, by the genius of Ancil and the wirebenders.
This is a living art, but the average age of the band is approaching silver. The sailors need new crew. Come and play.
More highlights of January and February across the Caribbean
Spice Island Billfish Tournament, Grenada
21 to 26 January
Anglers from across the Caribbean enjoy three and a half days of fishing plus a day of R&R in Grenada’s capital, St George’s
Placencia Sidewalk Art Festival, Belize
9 to 10 February
Stroll from one end of the resort village’s four-foot-wide main street to the other, enjoying live music, poetry readings, colourful works by local artists and artisans, and more
Under the theme “Celebrate Mash 49 with Victory in Mind,” Guyana’s cultural heritage is showcased with flamboyant float displays, exuberant costumes, diverse contests, and concerts
Trinidad and Tobago Carnival
A “late” Carnival — falling on Monday 4 and Tuesday 5 March this year — means a long season, stretching over the first two months of the year. Here are our must-do picks for your Carnival itinerary
Red Cross Kiddies Carnival
Queen’s Park Savannah, Port of Spain
National Junior Panorama Finals
Queen’s Park Savannah, Port of Spain
National Stick-Fighting Finals
Tobago Calypso Monarch Competition
Scotiabank Junction, Scarborough
Re-enactment of the Canboulay Riots
Piccadilly Greens, Port of Spain
Music Truck Friday
Dwight Yorke Stadium, Tobago
National Panorama Finals
(Medium and Large Conventional Bands)
Queen’s Park Savannah, Port of Spain
Queen’s Park Savannah
Parade of the Bands
Port of Spain and other towns and communities across the country
Carnival Monday and Tuesday, 4 and 5 March