Back in the gayelle
Ask any television station operative in the Caribbean about local programming and they’ll tell you one thing: it’s too expensive to produce. Not so, says Christopher Laird, director and co-founder of the Trinidadian production company Banyan Limited. “I’ve always felt that you can do it if you forget what you know about mainstream television, and go back to the place television started,” says Laird. That place would be live TV, as in the early days of the BBC, when a folksy in-studio presenter linked and introduced recorded material. “That way you always have a presence — a live presence. So the station becomes home: the station is a place, it’s not just a jukebox.”
That’s the vision informing Gayelle: The Channel, a community television initiative which was scheduled to begin broadcasting in Trinidad and Tobago last December. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Banyan produced a groundbreaking TV show called Gayelle between 1985 and 1991. The magazine-style programme highlighted the goings-on in communities throughout the country, opening many a Trinbagonian’s eyes to the true breadth of the national culture. As cable TV gained ground, and TV stations started putting forward the familiar arguments about the bottom line, Gayelle stopped production and Banyan gradually scaled back its operations. In 1992, however, the company had made a strategic acquisition: they secured one of the community television licences being offered by the government.
Gayelle: The Channel therefore represents a revival of sorts for Banyan, albeit with fresh talent, and the original members taking more of a mentoring role. It’s taken them 11 years, Laird says, for all sorts of reasons, including personal burnout and lack of funding. Technological developments, such as inexpensive digital camcorders, computer-based editing systems, and the Internet, have also made it a more realistic proposition; as — perhaps ironically — has the existence of the cable network. Gayelle: The Channel will broadcast on its own non-cable channel, on Internet portal HomeviewTNT.com, and on cable channel 2. The format, according to Laird, will be similar to cable channel TechTV, with in-studio presenters linking recorded shows and conducting live interviews. The programming: a mix of material pulled from Banyan’s extensive archive as well as new productions, among them a soap opera, a youth show, a current affairs programme, daily news broadcasts, and a satirical news show. All with an emphasis on the positive. “We must not have anything that makes people feel they have to put on burglar-proofing, or leave the country, and that that’s the only thing they can do to fix their situation. We want to deal with good news, because there is a lot of good news. There are a lot of nice things happening — Gayelle [the TV show] showed that. People are doing things in their own little spheres that no one hears about.”
Visit Gayelle: The Channel on the web at www.pancaribbean.com/gayelle/
“Caribbean people need their own litany, a litany of their own culture, just as everyone else in the so-called developed world and even in other parts of the world have theirs . . . For instance, you see the same cartoon over and over on Disney, but nobody complains: it becomes a part of your reference . . . So we need to do the same thing, and it’s very important that we become over-familiar with C.L.R. James, or a robber speech, or a particular dance from Astor Johnson, or some little piece of Beryl McBurnie, or something. It is absolutely essential that that becomes part of people’s reference.”
— Christopher Laird on one of the roles a community television station can play
Trinidad, Carnival Monday, 2002: The buzz on the street was that Lord Relator (a dangerous extempo warrior) was going up against Gypsy (a major rival) in a private grudge match at the Harvard Club. That was the year Gypsy was trying to re-establish himself as a calypsonian, after an abortive foray into politics, so Relator would be landing serious licks.
But when I got there it wasn’t a grudge match at all — it was a movie shoot! Two North American filmmakers, Geoffrey Dunn and Michael Horne, were filming one of the last scenes for their feature-length celebration of true, true kaiso, Calypso Dreams. Not that that stopped Lord Relator and Lord Superior from firing on Gypsy with full force, or Gypsy from returning fire with his customary deadly skill.
When the war was over, Horne drew me aside and explained that he and Dunn had been shooting their paean of praise to the masters and mistresses of classic calypso for almost three Carnival seasons. As a sometime filmmaker myself, I was a bit skeptical; calypso is complicated, and not easy to explain to outsiders. But of course I wished them the best.
My excitement level jumped a notch when a rough cut of Calypso Dreams walked away with the prize for Best Caribbean Documentary at the 2002 Jamaica Film Festival. And when the final version premiered in October 2003 at the prestigious Mill Valley Film Festival in California, I was on the scene.
The good news is that Calypso Dreams is far and away the best film ever made about calypso. And there’s no bad news. Charmingly narrated by David Rudder and Chalkdust, Dreams does a fantastic job of introducing and celebrating the complex history and unique energy of the art form, through a series of exciting performances and articulate interviews with everyone from Duke, Brigo, Ras Shorty I, and Sparrow to Calypso Rose and Singing Sandra. Not one important person or subject is left out. The sound is excellent, especially in musical sequences like a high-energy duet by Rose and Sparrow at the Mas Camp Pub. And the filmmakers capture the ambience of Port of Spain with incredible accuracy.
Following the Mill Valley Festival screening, Calypso Rose, Relator, Superior, Crazy, and even Bonnie Raitt (who came up from the audience to duet with Rose) tore it apart at Sweetwater, a popular local club, for a mixed audience of visiting Trinis and wealthy Marin County residents — united for the first time in what Rudder calls the Holy Church of Calypso. And the cries of “Kaiso! Kaiso!” were as much for the movie as for the music.
Hi tech mas
On one level, Inside Trinidad & Tobago Carnival 2K3 is a very impressive achievement, and one that was recognised internationally when it made the finals of the 6th Annual DVD Awards last year, in the Educational/Documentary category. The country’s first full-fledged DVD production, it’s a handsome piece, full of bells and whistles, with nice editing and great-looking camerawork. As a marketing tool for a festival that depends to a certain extent on visitor traffic, you couldn’t ask for a more appealing vision of good times, beautiful people, fetes with fancy pyrotechnics and crowds moving in an idyllic sort of unison, catchy music, and charismatic personalities.
All of which is true, of course, about Trinidad Carnival. It’s a bit disappointing, however, that the Inside of the title doesn’t connote any surprising revelations (in fact, I think it simply means that the presenters — local personalities Machel Montano, Maxine Williams, and Michelle Khan — are actually at the events they showcase), and that the snapshots it offers of the various aspects of the festival are so short, and short on information and context. In style and to a certain extent in spirit, Inside Trinidad & Tobago Carnival 2K3 isn’t far from E! Entertainment channel’s Wild On series, and the editing is sometimes needlessly frantic, as though to give the impression that you really can’t take it all in in a single year. (Which, again, is true).
Advance Dynamics, who put the thing together, also draws some strange material from their archives, like the Tropical Angel Harps steel orchestra playing their stylish rendition of Destiny’s Child’s Survivor in front of the Unit Trust building — very nice, and Unit Trust was a sponsor, but how does it fit in? The navigation on the DVD is sometimes awkward as well, and I’d have loved an index showing me what was on each disc.
Who was it that said how sad it would be if Jesus Christ Superstar were a person’s only exposure to the story of Christ? In other words, this DVD is fun and lovely, but it’s targeted at people with MTV-grade attention spans, and tells only a fraction of the story. But perhaps that’s what the producers were aiming at, and don’t get me wrong: Inside Trinidad & Tobago Carnival 2K3 is a great souvenir, offering visitors and others good memories and a quite comprehensive general impression of the 2003 season. Anybody who wanted more would probably look elsewhere anyway.