I thought I was in heaven when I heard the Marionettes Chorale sing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, accompanied by the Neal and Massy Trinidad All Stars Steel Orchestra. Nobody could top that. All those fancy opera people could keep their Pavarotti and their Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This is the way to feel the passion, the Trini way.
When I saw Geraldine Connor’s folk opera Carnival Messiah, something different happened. I thought: “I want to go home.” I want to go and see Green Corner, where all the steelbands used to clash, in the chill of the dawn on J’Ouvert. I want to go back to my childhood and peep through tightly shut eyelids at our neighbour, Mr Frank, who used to transform himself into a terrifying Midnight Robber. I could hear the silver whistle blowing; I could see the skeletons and the mini-graveyard on top of his huge black-and-silver sombrero. I could hear the Robber’s sinister threats of mass murder and his menacing alliteration and rhyme, bellowed out in a voice Mr Frank certainly didn’t have in everyday life. This is the J’Ouvert I remember. This is the J’Ouvert that Carnival Messiah wanted to reproduce.
So how come Carnival Messiah begins with J’Ouvert? What do pierrot grenades, moko jumbies (stilt walkers) and red devils have to do with Handel? Say “Handel” and you think of a German guy in a curly wig. When he wrote his Messiah, it was called an “oratorio”, to be performed at Easter, in the style we now refer to as “classical music”. The idea of the Messiah was to celebrate the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Christian belief of redemption, in a most joyous fashion. You might wonder what possessed Geraldine Connor not only to do a cover version of Messiah in Carnival style, but to take the performance to Leeds, in West Yorkshire. Yorkshire! (You think of Geoff Boycott, I know, but there is more to the place than bad-tempered ex-cricketers and salt-of-the-earth farmhouse stereotypes.)
Our Geraldine decided to use a Trini J’Ouvert as the overture, to introduce the story of Messiah. Now, if you’re talking about celebrating in a joyous fashion, it would have to be J’Ouvert, not so? It makes perfect sense to West Indians, but would it baffle the English audience? What would they make of the Orisha worshippers, catching power and beating up on the floor? Wayne Berkeley, famous for “pretty mas’” costumes, made the presentation unscary for the English people. No threatening animal sacrifices, bell-ringing or burning candles. The J’Ouvert morning overture didn’t have a whiff of tala grease or a smear of black mud, blue dye or sailor powder. And since they don’t beat rusty hubcaps and Crix biscuit tins in Leeds, Geraldine gave the audience the more recognisable ethnic music of Indian tassa and tabla and African drums.
The West Yorkshire Playhouse was packed with spectators who had come from as far as London just for the performance. The man behind me had come from his estate in Glastonbury. There were dignified, elegant spectators everywhere, commenting in their Leeds accent. If they were baffled or bewildered, they shrugged it off and lost themselves in the performance. And what a spectacular performance it was! The massive, twirling butterfly wings of the Dark Angel and the Dove of Peace brought back memories of Peter Minshall (apologies to Wayne Berkeley). Who can forget Peter Samuel in the Papillon costume? Geraldine had her own Peter Samuel there on stage, along with Trinidadian opera singers, a classical Indian dancer (Kathak style) and an African musician in traditional dress, playing the kora. As if that wasn’t enough of a callaloo, the story was told in a mixture of styles: old-time calypso, raga, rap, gospel, jazz, funk, nearly anything you could imagine as well as those you couldn’t. Even the bele dancers seemed majestic, swishing away as gracefully as any company of ballerinas. By the time the Hallelujah Chorus came, the Leeds audience were clapping their hands and singing along with the callaloo music. What they thought was “the epilogue” was a real Trini Las’ Lap that went on and on, but nobody seemed to mind at all.
The verdict from the ladies’ room, the lobby, the café and the bar was summed up by the eloquent gentleman sitting next to me. This interpretation of The Messiah is “legitimate theatre”, he said. It is every bit “as valid as the numerous interpretations of Shakespeare.” The only difference was that Carnival Messiah leaves you exhausted, emotionally drained and astonished at what a handful of Trinidadians could do. I want the whole world to see this, but even more than that, I want Trinidadians to see this. I want them to feel the pride, the sense of accomplishment that you could borrow from the performers, as if it were your own. In a way, it is your own.