Caribbean Beat Magazine

The comic, the thief and the Commissioner of Police

Simon Lee learns that comedy can be dead serious

  • Illustration by Gregory St Bernard

I wasn’t too pleased when I found out I’d have to share my guesthouse room in Dominica. I was there to cover the World Creole Music Festival and continue research into jing ping music and Caribbean rumshops.

It’s true I’d been spoilt by the luxury of solitude I’d grown accustomed to on these working trips in the islands. I didn’t have anything against guesthouses or even humbler billets. Certainly not.

The five days I spent in a mud cottage on the Plain of Gonaïves in Haiti remain one of my fondest memories, but perhaps the ancient voodoo ceremony conducted on my doorstep helped.

But all this is beside the point. Or maybe not. When I heard my roommate was Trinidad’s stand-up comic, the inimitable Sprangalang, my irritation evaporated. I’d just spent a morning of surreal banter with him and an Immigration officer on Vigie beach in St Lucia, while we waited for our connecting flight. So the Creole Music Festival would just be a continuation, I thought, a sort of continuous comedy show with musical interludes of bouyon, kadans, compas, jing ping, soukous and zouk and plenty Kubuli beers thrown in. Yes papi, I for dat.

The festival launch at Fort Young Hotel that night was a frog leg fiesta, with Sprang getting his first taste of “mountain chicken”, one of Dominica’s choice creole dishes. In fine fêteing fettle, I tumbled down the hill from Fort Young, negotiating Roseau’s narrow cobbled streets to cap the night at Symzie’s bar where there was a jam session of local musicians inside and a pavement party outside.

When I rolled into the guesthouse in the wee hours, Sprang was semi-comatose on his bed, schoolmaster glasses propped over the local papers. I haven’t heard a rhinoceros snoring, but I think Sprang was giving a fair imitation. I feared for the windows, I trembled for the door jamb; I dozed off with a pillow over my head, dreaming of a gigantic freight train approaching.

I awoke to a roar: “Stop tief! Hold de tief!” The door was open and Sprang was half-way towards it, his Einstein tussle standing on end, arm outstretched like Moses pointing the way. I admire dedication to art but is the pre-dawn any time for rehearsing, I thought grumpily? Sprang’s big belly quivered in righteous indignation above the invisible waistline of his voluminous shorts and he continued to bellow like a dehydrated water buffalo.

It looked like the old Sprang had finally crossed the genius line, live and direct, into the realm of insanity. By now Miss Chris, the proprietress, had been roused by the uproar. Sprang, it transpired, was no madder than me. For all his snoring, he’s a light sleeper and had been awoken by the sound of the door opening and the sight of a hand snaking out to a shelf to remove his document case with the scripts for his next month’s radio shows.

The Commissioner of Police and his Assistant — two vicious-looking Alsatians — had, unfortunately, been tied up for the night so they wouldn’t snack on late-returning guests like myself.

Sprango is a philosopher as well as a comedian and accepted his loss like a fully-paid-up stoic. At breakfast he had us all choking on our grapefruit with a re-enactment of the nocturnal melodrama. “Oh gord boy, if only ah hadda move faster ah woulda slam he head in de door, ah woulda buss he arm, yes.”

The festival was a marathon, three nights of swirling creole rhythms lasting till eight in the morning. We jinged and pinged and kubulised like born Dominicans. Sprang was a huge success as MC, leaving the crowd wet-eyed with laughter.

On our last night, a jing ping group played at the guest house and a river of beers flowed. I was so taken with the syncopated rhythms of the shallow tambour drum, the metal scraper and the mellifluous melodies of the accordion, I danced till my legs seized.

I didn’t make it as far as the room but folded myself into a chair on the verandah. Pulling the stars over my head I fell blissfully asleep. It was still dark when I awoke to a whisper. “Siyo! Don’t move, boy. Don’t breathe.” With peripheral vision I picked out Sprang, index finger held dramatically to his lips. Was this another of his mad nocturnal pranks or had the thief returned?

Luckily I didn’t glance down at my feet where the Commissioner of Police was licking his fangs with the anticipation of a seasoned gourmet. Neither did I make out the loping form of his Assistant patrolling the yard.

For five minutes I did a fair impression of Rodin’s Thinker, till there was another whisper. “Don’t look; just move slow and come through the door.” Always compliant before the dawn, I fell over the threshold. “Boy you don’t know you nearly get eat,” smiled Sprang reassuringly as the door closed behind me . . .