Notting Hill Carnival
Trinidad and Tobago? Flags up. Jamaica? Free up. Everybody? Dance up. And on it goes during the last weekend in August, as the spirit of London’s Notting Hill Carnival returns. Last year, forced by COVID-19 to call off Europe’s biggest street party, Notting Hill Carnival organisers went virtual, with a packed weekend-long programme of performances, interviews, archival videos, and more, streamed via four distinct YouTube channels, and accessible to Carnival jumbies around the world. For the 2021 lineup — scheduled for 29 to 30 August — organisers are exploring a return to in-person events, but the virtual components will also be big in the mix. Visit nhcarnival.org closer to the festival for details, and plan to join the virtual bacchanal from your very own living room.
Life and Times
José Raúl Capablanca
The Caribbean’s first international chess superstar, nicknamed “the Human Chess Machine,” inspired generations of Cuban players
Imagine a battle between two kingdoms. To become victorious, a king must surrender — or worse. Action, strategy, and competitiveness transcend borders in the game of chess. International Chess Day on 20 July is an opportunity for rookies to try their skills against seasoned players, as thousands of chess players around the world convene online and in-person to participate in events and tournaments organised by the International Chess Federation.
In Cuba, chess is revered like cricket or football elsewhere the region — it’s a cultural institution. Havana-born José Raúl Capablanca — world champion from 1921 to 1927 — was one of the most extraordinary players in history. Called “the Human Chess Machine,” due to his speed, accuracy, and endgame mastery, Capablanca inspired generations of Cubans to study chess and become internationally ranked players. It’s only natural that Cuba would become the matrix of Caribbean grandmasters, but Capablanca’s style also influenced world champions Mikhail Botvinnik and Anatoly Karpov of Russia, and Bobby Fischer of the United States. Here’s a glimpse at this icon’s career, one century after he first took the world title:
- José Raúl Capablanca (19 November, 1888–8 March, 1942) learned to play chess at the age of four, by watching his father and his friends. Just shy of his thirteenth birthday, he beat Cuba’s then national champion Juan Corzo in a match in Havana.
- Capablanca moved to New York City in 1905 to study engineering and play baseball at Columbia University — as well as joining the Manhattan Chess Club. Two years after he enrolled at Columbia, he dropped out to pursue chess.
- Being challenged as an unknown participant sweetened Capablanca’s win in a major tournament in San Sebastián, Spain, in 1911. It was only the second time someone won a major tournament at their first attempt.
- His San Sebastián victory was the catalyst for title match negotiations with world champion Emanuel Lasker of Germany. Capablanca lost to Lasker in 1914, then the First World War brought international chess to a halt. Capablanca finally faced and beat Lasker in a tournament in 1921, played in Havana. Capablanca won after fourteen games, without losing a single time.
- In 1922, Capablanca set the record for the highest percentage of wins (99.5 per cent) in a large simultaneous exhibition. He won 102 games with one draw.
- He lost a simultaneous exhibition in 1925 against twelve-year-old Mikhail Botvinnik in Leningrad, after winning all his other games. He predicted Botvinnik would be a champion one day.
- Capablanca — though he entered the tournament as the clear favourite — lost the world championship to Russian Alexander Alekhine at a 1927 tournament in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The thirty-four-game match held the record for longest world championship until 1984.
- Capablanca died of a stroke in New York in 1942, and was buried in Havana. “I have known many chess players,” said his rival Lasker, “but only one chess genius: Capablanca.” Since 1962 an annual Capablanca memorial tournament has been held in Havana.
Time seems to stand still while you enjoy the sweet Tobago jawbreaker known as a benne ball — a traditional recipe handed down from West Africa, made from sesame seeds (called benne in the Maninka language of Guinea, Mali, and Senegal), plus molasses and sugar. Some say benne balls are best savoured while you take in the cultural traditions of the Tobago Heritage Festival, which usually runs from mid-July to August. Others recommend it as a seaside snack. Either way, these treats are a homemade temptation that makes visitors’ cars stop at scenic lookouts, beach stalls, and airport and seaport vendors to purchase some. The aroma of the roasted sesame seeds triggers your appetite, and your stomach forgets the meal you just devoured. There’s nothing like enjoying benne balls under the Tobago sun, but the next best thing is to make them yourself at home. Try this recipe passed down from generation to generation.
2 cups sesame seeds
1 cup sugar
¼ cup water
2 tbs molasses
Heat a frying pan on medium low. Add the sesame seeds and let them toast. Stir constantly until golden brown and fragrant. Transfer to a mixing bowl and set aside. Put a saucepan on the stove, set fire to low. Add the water and sugar and let the sugar dissolve until it reaches a syrupy consistency. Add molasses and stir. Turn off the stove. Transfer the toasted sesame seeds back to the frying pan and turn on the stove to a low heat. Pour in the molasses and sugar mixture and stir. Transfer to a tray and allow to cool to the touch. Take a tablespoon and form the mixture into one-inch balls. Store in an airtight container.
The Wedding Album
Nigel A. Campbell talks to soca superstar Machel Montano about his latest album, and the need to go past “crossover”
Caribbean music always needs a ta-dah moment to break onto the global stage. Belafonte in 1956 with his Calypso album, Jimmy Cliff starring in The Harder They Come and Eric Clapton covering Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff” in 1973–74, Ricky Martin igniting a Latin explosion with a single Grammy Awards performance in 1999. In 2021, Puerto Rican and Dominicano musical identity, heritage, and diasporic dreams are reinforced with the releases of movie versions of Broadway hits West Side Story and In the Heights. This year, too, soca music has a golden moment for changing the way audiences everywhere engage with and consume it, with the release of Trinidadian soca superstar Machel Montano’s latest, The Wedding Album.
Delayed by a year, due to Montano’s desire not to celebrate during a time of COVID-19 pandemic uncertainty, this album is a triumph of the cross-cultural appeal and influence of Caribbean music. Unlike much soca, it moves way beyond the idea of “jump and wave” or a post-Carnival album compilation, to create a broad-ranging, globally inspired recording that addresses emotions not tied to festivity on the road. The Wedding Album is a template for the forging of new ways of connecting with an African diaspora and a new world market, and new ways of reinforcing the Caribbean ethos as a starting point for popular music in the Americas.
“The inspiration for this album has always been what we call ‘an elusive goal,’” says Montano — “the goal of creating outside the lines: Carnival and the Carnival season. So for me, not having to produce an album for Carnival fetes or a road parade, but yet still deliver a soca product, meant that we can take these chances in a bigger way. We can colour abstract and go way past the lines.” What might be a limiting factor for others, in the hands of Montano, is an opportunity to innovate the sound with superlative production values and fine songcraft.
Collaborators include a score of producers, DJs, singers, and musicians: the children of Africa born in the diaspora, Afrobeats stars from the continent, the Caribbean music family. And, with modern Black music icons Lauryn Hill and Teddy Riley, a case for going beyond crossover is made. Afrobeats and dancehall fuse with soca, while R&B and rap absorb the power of Caribbean music. Our dance is not frenetic, but glorified. “Production comes first,” suggests Montano. “There is a moment here for us to reflect on what our production would need to become a little more palatable, to be a little more related and streamlined to fit in with some of the genres that are doing well out there.”
The distinction of that production showcases this album’s potential in new markets, including those recently added to music streaming giant Spotify here in the Caribbean and in Africa. Global audiences are listening to new music now. Montano says “there is a natural environment for heavier collaboration, and of course, this will definitely be in our best interest to use these vehicles to share what soca has to offer.”
Machel Montano is cognisant of legacy. Going into the fortieth year of his career, he says this will not be his last album forever, but “the beginnings of some new styles.” He has created an important body of work, forty-nine albums thus far, and The Wedding Album points to a reckoning of a maturity needed to break inured biases that sometimes relegate “world music” to a cult of nostalgia, similar to that which brought fame to the Jolly Boys, Cesária Évora, and Calypso Rose in their golden years. Hits matter in the music business. Ta-dah moments hinge on sensing those opportunities outside. The world is now moving to a Caribbean beat. It’s soca’s time now.
For more information on The Wedding Album, visit www.monkmusic.co
Word of Mouth
Under the volcano
In December 2020, more than three decades after its previous most recent eruption, St Vincent’s La Soufrière volcano rumbled back into action. By 8 April, 2021, La Soufrière’s continued activity resulted in an evacuation order for the northern area of the island, with an explosive eruption imminent. Soon, plumes of ash towered miles above the crater, spread by the wind as far east as Barbados. In the midst of the ashfall, access to water, food, and shelter became difficult and even risky. Two Vincentian photographers, Nekoro Spencer and Stephan Hornsey — both based in the green zone along St Vincent’s south coast — share their experiences, and tell us what life’s been like as the island recovers
Nekoro Spencer: “the emotion inevitably hits”
My friends and I went for a hike up La Soufrière a week before the first eruption. We were scouting and planning to camp inside the crater. It was still dormant, and we joked about the odds of it blowing up. Then the earthquakes started, and no one knew what would happen. The UWI Seismic Centre requested my images for scientific research, and then came on site. The scientists said anything could happen, as it was sporadic and random.
Even after the eruptions people didn’t take precautions. People went to bed with windows open and didn’t consider the ashfall. A few of my cousins have been displaced and are staying at shelters in the orange zone, and with my grandfather in the green zone. Someone gave up their house so people can stay there, too.
We needed to help, so my friends and I compiled lists of shelters, bought groceries, and began distribution. I also volunteered with World Central Kitchen. We carried water and food to the shelters and also took extras in case anyone along the way was in need. I’d always see people who need food and water, and just give them.
I also volunteered with Just Us League. We created a database from the shelters and found out what they needed, and supplied as much as possible. Now people have moved back to the red zone and clean-up efforts are still underway. I haven’t returned to work since the eruptions, except to clean. The government’s memo said if you are doing relief work, continue. So, we continued asking for donations and making deliveries. COVID-19 took a backseat during the eruptions, but I always wore my mask while doing deliveries.
Since the eruptions, I’ve had an emotional breakdown. I was overwhelmed with all the images, a death in my family, and empathy. I’m usually indifferent as a survival tactic, but the emotion inevitably hits. I keep busy and keep helping. I’m proud of my little rock and I will always be here to help.
Stephan Hornsey: “every day yields something so phenomenal”
After the second explosive eruption, the column of ash seemed to hit the roof of the sky. In an upwards avalanche, it pumped outwards in every direction. The atmosphere felt claustrophobic. I jumped on a motorcycle and rode around the island photographing the column from different vantage points. The activity at the top of the ash plume formed wild halo-like shapes as it affected the air around it.
Many people hit the ground with humanitarian gears in motion — it was overwhelming to note the sheer scale of what Vincentians would be facing. Certain local residents weren’t going to be forgotten — the animals. I volunteered with the Vincentian Society for the Protection and Care of Animals (VSPCA) immediately. It’s changed the way I think about Vincentian people and their compassion for animals. In the past, food was already scarce for many stray cats and dogs living day-to-day on scraps provided through kind offerings. During the initial stages of the eruption, many people left communities, creating ghost towns. Even in Kingstown, the capital, pedestrian traffic fell to an uncomfortable count. On top of this, food scraps were covered in ash. This is inedible even for a street dog.
In the northern communities within plain view of La Soufrière, the ash fell so thick that the little paws of dogs and cats kicked up their very own personal clouds. These clouds turned into larger ash plumes with the many packs of dogs or hunting parties roaming the empty streets in search of food. Fowls, goats, dogs and more remaining in these areas fight for survival, while those who are too shy, nice, or weak to fight for food get skinnier and skinnier. The VSPCA established feeding missions to go in and deliver food and water to these animals in dire need.
Some residents in these northern communities had ‘never-left’— a term used for locals who remained in the red-zone since the first explosive eruption and continue to do so. Many of these individuals approached us as we went on feeding missions, eager to help distribute food to help the animals. Their connection to the animals was tangible. They had so much to say about the what, when, and where in relation to the animals’ behaviours. They became very important resources for information on how to strategise feeding for future missions.
The recovery and relief efforts have been amazing, both in the sheer quantity of things which have been donated, and also the number of people who have participated. So many people from around the Caribbean, here in
St Vincent, and the world have been incredible in reacting to the needs of those who were affected. If anyone missed a beat, they knew someone would go hungry, thirsty, naked, without shelter, or have to sleep on a hard-concrete floor. It is a humanitarian war against the challenges caused by La Soufrière.
I fear for the safety and security of St Vincent and its people. We are vulnerable, having already been through so much. Despite this, there is no other place I would rather be. We take it day by day.
Just as the ashes covered the landscape in grey, and then it slowly became greener and lusher than before, we are also experiencing growth within ourselves from what we are going through. I have never interacted with the people and the land on such a regular basis. Every day yields something so phenomenal and personally developmental.
As told to Shelly-Ann Inniss
One Thousand Eyes
In her fifth novel, Jamaica-born, Trinidad-based Barbara Lalla — professor emerita of language and literature at the University of the West Indies — plunges the reader into a near-future version of the Caribbean in the aftermath of a mysterious calamity. Set on an unnamed island that Trinidadians may recognise, One Thousand Eyes follows a band of children prematurely compelled to become self-sufficient, as they search for sanctuary and for answers about their past and possible future — a breathtakingly timely story of resilience and community. An excerpt from chapter one:
The twins had trapped her again, backed up tight with the dull green pads of a prickly pear that bristled with vicious spines inches from one side of her face and a soft fuzz of shorter prickles a breath away from the other cheek. She screamed for Shine.
They had closed in as Myche raced back to the Trust. The twins had grown heavier on whatever they ate out there in the bush, and she would have no chance of fighting her way out once their grubby paws clenched on her. She held her breath as they pressed forward, unwashed as ever, faces too smeared for her to recognise which was which, clothes hanging in filthy shreds and, now they were older, attended by some rank odour she could not place.
The last time they cornered her, she had tricked them with the old ploy of signalling to someone behind them, but that could not work again. She faked a dodge to the right almost onto the long sharp cactus spines and steeled herself. Then when the boy nearest to her shot out a hand she squeezed one eye tight and lunged left, scooping up a cheekful of fine hairlike prickles, and clutched at a low branch. She swung from that onto a sturdier limb, screaming again for Shine, as the other twin grabbed for the first branch.
A rending sound brought a grin to her aching face as the branch beneath broke under his weight and his body thudded to the ground. “Jabmolassi,” she yelled. All the children had adopted Five Cent’s name for the twins. “Shine going give you one cut-tail.” The twins had always been too clumsy to scramble up a tree. Now they could only pound the trunk and hurl abuse. But when they stopped, the one who had fallen stepped back and grinned. And who was he to call anyone crapaud-face? From her perch way above his upturned face he seemed to be only that gaping lipless grin. “Is so?” he shouted between hands cupped around his mouth. “Keep on bawling for Shine. They come for he and he ent cutting nobody tail no more. A good. Quail up in you tree. See how it feel to be mines from now on. Shine gone for good.” That, more than tuft after tuft of needles in her cheek, put an end to any inclination to smile even as the two older boys lumbered away.
“How you mean — gone? You story.” Brand stared at her almost on eye level when she got back to the Trust.
He was tall for his eight years and Myche short for ten. (Nearly eleven perhaps, it occurred to her.) They knew their ages at least roughly because Shine had seen to that, but more urgent things like the meanings of words could be slippery.
Myche was not sure herself what gone meant now, only that she had had an older brother for as long as she could remember but they had not seen him for two nights. At first she had closed that out. She refused to contend with it even though his vanishing should have surprised no one. Shine was tall and broad for fourteen — or more? — bigger than Mitch, although Mitch was older. Shine was too quick and powerful for anything else to have happened to him.
The last time they had spoken, he warned Myche to keep hidden in the Trust, now more than ever. Hurriedly, he had whispered things he wanted her to know, signs she must look out for. Daughts had known, he said.
Myche struggled to remember Daughts, an older girl who had disappeared several years before. As for Shine’s warnings, Myche had been too busy puzzling over a frantic look on his face she had never seen before, and she had hardly taken in what he said. Now, try as she might, she could not connect the instructions he had thrown out while gripping her shoulder and shaking it to keep her attention. All very well him urging her to remember stuff after years of ordering her to forget.
One Thousand Eyes (ISBN 9789766408206, 303 pages) is published by the University of the West Indies Press. For more information, visit www.uwipress.com