Caribbean Bookshelf (March/April 2000)

James Ferguson on The Orchid House, Phyllis Shand Allfrey’s portrayal of a period that marked the decline of the colonial order, and the beginning of

  • Author: Laxmi and Ajai Mansingh
  • Author: Geoffrey MacLean
  • Author: Selwyn Ryan
  • Author: Selwyn Ryan
  • Author: Ken Gordon
  • Author: Rawle Gibbons
  • Authors: Alice and Gerard Besson
  • Author: Louis Regis



The Political Calypso: True Opposition in Trinidad and Tobago 1962-1987

Louis Regis (The Press University of the West Indies 1999, ISBN 976-640-056-3; also University Press of Florida, ISBN 0-8130-1580-4)

It’s hard to over-estimate the importance of calypso to the Trinidadian soul. Back in the late 1960s, the Mighty Duke summed it up: calypso is “an editorial in song of the life we undergo”. The calypsonian is therefore the true Leader of the Opposition, because he articulates the feelings of the people. In politics, and in everything else, he explains what “we” feel about “them”. “As sure as calypso is the culture of this land,” sang Valentino, giving teacher and researcher Louis Regis his title for this book, “the calypsonian is the only true opposition”.

In The Political Calypso, Regis traces what calypso was saying in the 25 years between Independence (1962) and 1987. The earlier history of the art has been well covered; the post-1987 period is another story altogether (Regis himself remarks: “New and different voices articulated artlessly the anger of an intolerant age”). Whoever tries to write the story of calypso in the last years of the 20th century will have to grapple with the question of how and why “true opposition” transformed itself into a soca circus whose frenzied and defiant celebration drowned out almost everything else.

Meanwhile, a salute to Regis’s valuable work, which began life as a M.Phil. thesis for the University of the West Indies. The book traces calypso’s “true opposition” through the many phases of Trinidad and Tobago’s post-independence experience, from the heyday of Sparrow to Gypsy’s Sinking Ship and its aftermath. In these days when politicians and corporate overlords wine to soca like everyone else, it’s good to have the calypsonian’s earlier role documented. Regis’s approach, following Gordon Rohlehr, is to focus on the calypso as text — strangely, in such a musical land, calypso still awaits a writer who can bring the same analytical skills to bear on text and music at the same time.

The book tells a good tale. On the whole, though, it sticks to narrative and shies away from assessment, a challenge that somebody will have to take up sooner or later. You would never guess, for example, that there could be such a thing as bad calypso: that the art could be crude or crass, racist or sexist, stale or derivative, using its status as “the people’s voice” to justify any artistic lapse. That’s a nettle still to be grasped. (JT)


Wayne Berkeley: Costume Design, Vol. I

Alice and Gérard Besson (Port of Spain 1999, ISBN 976-8157-78-X)

In terms of competition wins, Wayne Berkeley is the most successful Carnival designer ever. This book is not a methodical record of his Carnival design over the years, nor does it show his costumes as worn on street or stage. The 98 full-page pictures, preceded by an 18-page biographical sketch and followed by notes, are the designer’s drawings for a selection of favourite costumes. They were done for carnivals in Trinidad, Barbados, St Maarten, St Vincent and London; for stage shows, including cabaret revues in Las Vegas; even for a film (Avatar). They range from the 1973 band Secrets of the Sky to last year’s Trapeze in Trinidad and Fireworks in St Maarten. The book does not try to be a systematic record of a top designer’s work; but it’s a step in that direction. (JT)


A Calypso Trilogy

Rawle Gibbons (Ian Randle Publishers, 1999; ISBN 976-8123-83-4; Canboulay Productions, ISBN 976-8056-47-9)

In 1991, Rawle Gibbons — who heads UWI’s Creative Arts Centre in Trinidad — came up with a brilliant idea to enrich the Carnival season. Assembling some of the greatest vintage calypsos of the 1930s and 1940s, he wove around them a story-line and staged them as a musical, Sing de Chorus (the CD is still available). It was a massive success, and Gibbons followed it up with Ah Wanna Fall and Ten to One, taking the story up to the end of the 1960s. The three texts are published here as A Calypso Trilogy. It’s not quite the same without the music and the theatre of course, but with the lyrics of 132 calypso classics and three entertaining plays, the book is the next best thing. (JT)


Getting It Write: Winning Caribbean Press Freedom

Ken Gordon (Ian Randle Publishers 1999, ISBN 976-8123-97-4)

If the Caribbean has press barons, Ken Gordon is certainly one of them. He is the architect of the CCN media group in Trinidad (press, television, radio), he has nurtured young newspapers across the Caribbean, and he is always ready to plunge into battle against anyone who tries to subdue the press. He has always been a highly successful business operator, and has served as a government minister. In his autobiography, though, he casts himself mainly as a tireless warrior for press freedom, which he regards as an absolute and fundamental right — no truck here with any “new information order”, “development journalism” or the Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister’s scepticism about the right to publish “lies, half-truths and innuendo”. The book is always eager to put things on the record — letters, press statements, aides-memoires, documents of all sorts, old controversies — and in some ways it would have been wise to hold back a few more years until things were more fully digested. But that would not be the journalist’s way. (JT)


Home Away from Home: 150 Years of Indian Presence in Jamaica, 1845-1995

Laxmi and Ajai Mansingh (Ian Randle Publishers 1999; ISBN 976-8123-38-9 paperback, 976-8123-39-7 hardcover)

Jamaica’s Indian community is less well documented than Trinidad’s or Guyana’s. The Mansinghs — respectively Medical Librarian and Professor of Entomology at the Jamaica campus of the University of the West Indies — patiently describe the religious, economic and social milieu out of which 36,000 indentured immigrants emerged, and the Jamaican plantation life into which they stepped. The work is based on extensive interviews, and adds up to an interesting, informative and never abstract look at a presence which has been ignored and unexplored for too long. (VB)

Matikor: The Politics of Identity for Indo-Caribbean Women

Ed. Roseanne Kanhai (UWI, School of Continuing Studies, 1999)

The title of this collection comes from the celebration of female sexuality on the eve of a Hindu wedding. According to editor Roseanne Kanhai, an Associate Professor in English and Women’s Studies Director at Western Washington University, the Indo-Caribbean woman’s experience has scarcely been recorded or analysed; she sees this anthology as a matikor celebration. The 19 essays and narratives — all by women, though not all claim Indo-Caribbean background — are uneven in tone and depth, and some ramble a bit; but the basic message is that Indo-Caribbean women feel their stories have been neglected, and want them told. (VB)

The Jhandi and the Cross

Selwyn Ryan (Institute of Social and Economic Research, 1999; ISBN 976-618-031-8)

Professor Ryan is a tireless sociologist, and this is one of his snappier titles. A jhandi is a Hindu prayer flag, often seen fluttering outside Hindu homes in Trinidad; here, it stands for the 40% of Trinidad and Tobago that is descended from India, as the cross stands for the (mostly Christian) 40% descended from Africa. The book traces the constant friction between the two communities in recent years, especially since Afro-Trinidadian political and cultural dominance was lost in 1995. How (it asks) do you handle these competing claims within the borders of a small state? Do you seek to erase differences and make everybody “Trinidadian”, or do you celebrate differences and encourage people to be “Afro-Trinidadian” and “Indo-Trinidadian”? Ryan concludes that friction is inevitable, and is more likely to lead to “creative change and convergence into a new mainstream” than to “unrestrained conflict”. But what the new mainstream might look like, he doesn’t venture to guess. (JT)


Winner Takes All: The Westminster Experience in the Caribbean

Selwyn Ryan (Institute of Social and Economic Research, 1999; ISBN 976-618-029-6)

It’s high time the British (“Westminster”) political model, and the way it has been adapted and exploited in the Caribbean, received a cool and thorough investigation. Electoral systems, the role of parliaments and MPs, politicised appointments, “cronyism” — all these and more have bedevilled political development in the English-speaking Caribbean. Professor Ryan, Director of ISER at the Trinidad campus of the University of the West Indies, favours larger parliaments with monitoring committees, a hard look at alternative electoral systems (like Germany’s, or the “alternative preference” system), fixed election dates, only two terms for prime ministers, election monitoring by Caricom, and less party politics in local government, among many other things. The detail is exhaustive and often absorbing. (But ISER should think about professional editing and book design.) (JT)


Cazabon: The Harris Collection

Geoffrey MacLean (MacLean Publishing 1999, ISBN 976-8066-16-4)

Interesting detective work here by Trinidadian architect and art writer Geoffrey MacLean: he has unearthed a stash of watercolours and oils by Trinidad’s great 19th-century painter Michel Jean Cazabon, which had been hidden away in the library and attic of Belmont House in Kent, England. Painted between 1849 and 1854 for Lord Harris, then Governor of Trinidad, they had found their way back to the Harris family seat, where they are now on display, a priceless study of the Trinidad of 150 years ago. MacLean’s new coffee-table book reproduces most of them, along with illustrated essays on Cazabon and the Harris family, and is a valuable sequel to his 1986 biography of Cazabon. (JT)


Splashes of the Caribbean Ink

Corey Joseph (Port of Spain, 1999)

Corey Joseph’s first collection of 40 poems reveals an alert and sensitive mind. He views social institutions and practices with scepticism: religion, politics, race, all seem to him more divisive than cohesive. Yet he allows for religious faith, embraces natural bounty and beauty, and implores readers to join hands in building the future. His topics range widely, his language is direct (as if you are reading prose in verse form); he may not be a poets’ poet, but he certainly has things to say. (VB)



If you’d like to dig deeper into the story of calypso, there are several books which will help. Gordon Rohlehr’s Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad (Port of Spain 1990, ISBN 976-8012-52-8) is a thorough history of calypso’s early years; Donald Hill’s Calypso Calaloo: Early West Indian Music in Trinidad (University Press of Florida 1993, ISBN 0-8130-1222-8) covers some of the same ground and has a valuable CD attached. Keith Warner’s The Trinidad Calypso is a general introduction to calypso history and development (Heinemann 1983, ISBN 0-4359-8790-9).

There have been some valuable contributions from calypsonians themselves. Calypso from France to Trinidad by The Roaring Lion (Rafael de Leon) is a charming book, arguing eccentrically that calypso derived, not from Africa, but from 13th-century French troubadours. Atilla’s Kaiso, by Atilla the Hun (Raymond Quevedo) is full of useful comments and insights (UWI 1983, no ISBN), while Kaiso and Society by The Mighty Chalkdust (Hollis Liverpool) is a more scholarly study (Port of Spain 1986, ISBN 0-9374-2700-6).

Researcher Rudolph Ottley has thrown up plenty of basic resource material in Women in Calypso (1992, ISBN 976-8136-24-3) and Calypsonians From Then To Now (Part 1 1995, ISBN 976-8136-63-4; Part 2 1998, ISBN 976-8157-50-X).

Some of the best overviews come in books dealing more generally with Carnival — Errol Hill’s The Trinidad Carnival (revised edition, New Beacon Books 1997, ISBN 1-873-20114-1), Peter Mason’s Bacchanal (Ian Randle Publishers 1998, ISBN 976-8123-65-6), and John Cowley’s Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso (Cambridge University Press 1996, ISBN 0-521-48138-4).

Some of these titles were privately published or self-published in Trinidad, but can still be found in local bookstores.