Caribbean Beat Magazine

Man with a mission

Eve M. Ferguson talks to a man who's energetically promoting Caribbean culture in North America

  • Chandradath Singh and wife with the late Kim Sabeeney (left) and Miss Universe 1998, Wendy Fitzwilliam. Photograph by Kenny Rudd
  • Family portrait: Singh with his wife, Anita, and three sons. Photograph by Kenny Rudd

Chandradath Singh is in Miami on a mission. Not just a professional mission of diplomacy-the pursuit of trade, tourism and investment. This extra mission is personal, and has more to do with tassa-drumming, shango and limbo-dancing than with high-level negotiations. For Singh, Trinidad and Tobago’s Consul General in Miami, is conducting a one-man crusade to present the best of the culture of his homeland to South Florida’s non-Caribbean population.

The Consulate General of Trinidad and Tobago opened its doors in 1997. Singh had been the government’s Chief of Protocol in Port of Spain, after assignments in New Delhi, Canada and the United Kingdom. In Miami, he quickly recognised a void: the Trinidad and Tobago community was staging cultural events in this tropical city, but the work didn’t reach out to the Latino and mainstream American communities.

So in 1998, Singh and his wife Anita created Real Colors, an organisation to promote Trinidad and Tobago’s great contributions to world culture – steelband, calypso, chutney, soca, limbo, and, of course, carnival.

Real Colors grew out of an experience the couple had while cruising the Caribbean. “We were fascinated, and enjoyed the fact that we were greeted on each island by steelbands and calypso,” Singh says. “We said we ought to accept the reality that pan and calypso, limbo and chutney music have now become part of Caribbean life. But all of it is really from Trinidad and Tobago. lt is the mecca, the homeland and the birthplace of these art forms.”

Neither Chandradath nor Anita was a cultural novice when they both decided to use the arts as a means of creating diplomatic inroads. Raised in a large family in a rural Trinidad village, Chandradath was formally trained on the Indian tabla drums, and later learned to play nine other instruments, including his favourites, the harmonica, the flute, the santur and the organ. But percussion is what really makes his heart beat faster.

“I love to drum. The tablas are the most incredible and unique drums in the world, and they are very difficult to learn,” he said. “I picked up music by playing since I was a teenager in different orchestras in Trinidad and Tobago, from pan to Indian orchestras. I played pan by simply playing in a band. I never learned anything formally.” He even plays mandolin for parang, Trinidad’s Spanish-flavoured Christmas music.

Singh was the only one of 11 children to be formally educated beyond secondary level. It was his mother, a widowed farm worker, who taught him multi-ethnic living. By the time he got into university on a Commonwealth scholarship, he had already developed a knack for relating to people from around the world. It was this experience which launched him into the world of international diplomacy.

Anita Singh – referred to by her husband as “the real artist” – is trained in painting, sculpture, Indian dance and guitar. She has produced documentaries on pan music and the Amerindian origins of Trinidad and Tobago. She was born in India and raised in England. Chandradath calls her “phenomenal.”

“We met in India when I was there 30 years ago, but she has lived in Trinidad for a number of years. She is so imbued with Trinidad and Tobago and our people that it is an example to us to see how a foreigner can come to our country and immerse herself in our lifestyle. The way she portrays our culture, it’s difficult to imagine she was not born in Trinidad and Tobago. Whatever it is, Anita gets into it, and she has a way of bringing out the best elements of our creativity.”

The Singhs’ three sons, Keshav, Shayamal and Sharan, have inherited the best from their parents. Each son is musically inclined and academically gifted; the two older ones are enrolled in college and have mastered foreign languages,  while the youngest composes music and runs track competitively. All three sons are avid supporters of their parents’ projects, playing pivotal roles behind the scenes of Real Colors.

Real Colors started as a one day Independence Day event in 1998. It was staged at the Miami Museum of Science in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institute. It has now become a three-day festival. Last year it kicked off during the 1999 Closing Fiesta of the Miami Conference on the Caribbean and Latin America. The landmark Nations Bank building, standing tall over downtown Miami’s scenic cityscape, was lit up in the colours of Trinidad and Tobago’s flag – red, white an black – throughout that December weekend (no small fear in an often culturally- contentious city).

I think the world is beginning to realise, and more governments are practising cultural diplomacy as a very powerful arm,” Singh says. “Culture speaks for itself across national lines, across ethnic lines and across language barriers. When you talk to people through culture, you get the best reception and create the best atmosphere to relate with other people around the world. People are more friendly, more willing to listen and the friendships last longer.”

Real Colors is also meant to encourage the endeavours of Trinidad and Tobago’s South Florida community, who usually like their fetes late and loud. “All of our associates in South Florida stay busy propagatingTrinidad and Tobago’s culture, and they do a good job of it,” Singh says. “Out of that came the idea that we needed to stage Real Colors, because we know that the Consulate is in a position of influence, as the representative of the government, that we can access opportunities and resources that complement what the nationals are doing at their level with their minimal, limited resources. If  you are going to cater to the non-Caribbean community, then you have to package the program differently. We want to attract the wider communities who deserve to know about this incredible cultural heritage that we in Trinidad and Tobago have.”

 

 

The Consul General, who has been to “almost every single thing since 1997” involving Trinidad and Tobago’s culture in South Florida, took a proactive stance in a long- smoldering controversy that divided Miami’s Carnival into two separate activities on the same day, with everyone losing money.

“The Consul General played a role as a catalyst between the factions,” said Marlon Hill, spokesperson for the United Miami Carnival Commission. “He was one of the people, along with the organisers, who opened communications that led to negotiations and unification. He jumped right into the fray, no holds barred, irrespective of the costs.”

Last year’s Miami Carnival saw its largest crowd attendance ever, with more than 80,000 people by official count (unofficially, crowds swelled into the hundreds of thousands). Today it is considered one of the premier North American carnivals for the quality of its costumes. As one of the top three West Indian carnivals outside Trinidad and Tobago, the Columbus Day weekend event, to be held on October 7 and 8 this year, attracts visitors from the north as well as from the islands. This is the last major event before the mother of all carnivals in Trinidad.

Chandradath Singh has also made it a personal project to display the work of artists from Trinidad and Tobago in the sleek, modern spaces of the consulate in downtown Miami. Last year, six exhibitions were mounted, the first showing of works by T&T artists in South Florida. It all culminated in a collaborative showing at the Miami Conference. Singh doesn’t plan to wait until Real Colors 2000 to bring more artwork up from the Caribbean “in a big way.”

He’s already hatching ideas for Real Colors 2000. “It’s going to explore a new area within the cultural landscape of Trinidad and Tobago, and it’ll be ever changing.” But eventually, Singh hopes the T&T community will take over the programme and make it their own.

“By the time we finish we hope that we will have touched different areas of the cultural scene here to make Trinidad and Tobago’s presence felt, which is my ultimate goal.” •