What the Caribbean is talking about this month (November/December 2004)

Watch out, Spike: Jamaican director Ras Kassa is an up-and-comer in the music video business, but his sights are set even higher • Buzzworthy: Rheann

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  • Illustration by Marlon Griffith
  • Haitian band RAM. Photograph courtesy Mary Rahman Public Relations
  • Rising from the flames. Photograph courtesy Mary Rahman Public Relations
  • Ras Kassa. Photograph courtesy Ras Kassa
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  • Imani in Jessica Ogden. Photograph courtesy Pulse Investments
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  • Sophie Meyer (left) and Dominique Le Grendre (right) right with parandero Cristo Adonis at the premiere of Salt of the Earth. Photograph by George Popplewell
  • Illustration by Marlon Griffith
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  • Sheryl Lee Ralph. Photograph courtesy the Jamerican Film Festival
  • Miguel de la Bastide. Photograph courtesy Miguel de la Bastide
  • Joelle Jean- Fontaine. Photograph courtesy Alluringlooks.com
  • KID SITE (CALYPSO). Photograph by Charles Grant
  • Rheann Chang. Photograph by Anthony Harris
  • book cover
  • book cover
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The Buzz

Watch out, Spike

Young, determined, and fiercely proud of his roots, Jamaican Ras Kassa is one of the music video world’s hottest new directors. Recently signed to California-based Clever Films, and now able to command near-Hollywood-size budgets, he’s turned heads on the US video scene with his distinctive style and definite ideas.

After directing many of dancehall’s best — including Vybz Cartel, TOK, Lady Saw, Bounty Killa, and Elephant Man — Kassa’s crossover moment came when his Beenie Man Dude “Remix” video achieved heavy rotation on US TV.

“That called for Caribbean culture,” says Kassa. “The song was already big in the States, but I didn’t want it to get lost in hip-hop culture — it was Jamaican. I submitted my ideas, which they liked. Then with a smallish budget I needed to create something to stop it getting lost in American images. I took a Jamaican city bus ride. Boy sees girl in town, wants to meet her, but it wasn’t the States, it was Jamaica. They’re talking about my culture, and I wanted to make sure I represent that.”

And, if Ras Kassa has his way, audiences around the world will be seeing a lot more of that culture. “I have two short films written and ideas for a feature film,” he says. “I’d love to be the Spike Lee of the Caribbean.”

Dylan Kerrigan


Ras Kassa speaks

On his dream artist collaboration:“I love Burning Spear, they’re the kings of reggae. Sparrow and Arrow — they’re the kings of calypso. In terms of hip-hop, Jay-Z — I love his style, his business sense. I’d love to do a rock video. I’d love to create something not bling bling. Marilyn Manson, and Outkast — I love them too.”

On his Caribbean identity:“I was born here, I grew up here, its not like my parents are from somewhere else or I was born somewhere else. I know what the US did to us, I know what went down in Haiti. I want to represent for the Caribbean.”

On Kevin Lyttle’s recent international success:“His song was pretty old, three years I think, but good luck to him. Dancehall is speaking for the Caribbean right now. Kevin Lyttle might be soca, but it still has a dancehall flavour.”

On the difficulties for Caribbean directors trying to break into the US market:“One of the main things is infrastructure. In the States, they have agencies and support, we don’t. Their industry is developed, ours is growing. If a Caribbean director was based in the US, he’d get work.”



Golden girl

At the Caribbean Table Tennis Association Championships last August, 19-year-old Rheann Chung became Trinidad and Tobago’s first winner of the women’s singles title since Petal Lee Loy in 1961. Now residing in Bordeaux, France, Chung — ranked 83rd in the world — recently signed a two-year professional contract to play for Camp Bordeaux. At the 2003 Caribbean championships, she won four silver medals, then told the press she hoped to turn them into gold in 2004. One year later she made that dream come true, capturing four golds and the coveted title.

No kidding

It was a good Crop Over season for 2004 Barbados Pic-O-de-Crop calypso champion David “Kid Site” Piggott. A previous winner in 1991, he starred again this year with his clever commentaries about the season-long standoff between the National Cultural Foundation and local calypsonians. His humorous yet scathing lyrics won over both crowd and judges. In the absence of 2003’s champion Red Plastic Bag, Kid Site added, “I’m a warrior. I’m coming to defend my crown. It’s nothing I have to think about. No question about it. There’s no need to take a break.”

Rebel style

At her New York Fashion Week debut, Haitian designer Joelle Jean-Fontaine merged fashion and politics into a captivating red-and-black-only line of clothing called Révolté. With its funky, eye-catching lines, and sexy, sophisticated style, the collection countered negative stereotypes of her homeland. “Révolté in itself is rebelling against government or authority — the very act that led Haiti to revolt against the French and become the first black independent nation,” Jean-Fontaine says. “With all that’s going on in Haiti today, I think that it’s extremely important to commemorate my homeland in a positive light.”

Lo siento

When he was 18, Trinidadian Miguel de la Bastide moved to Canada, where he intensified his study of flamenco guitar. Today his modern take on flamenco puro has won the respect of critics and the adulation of audiences. He was featured on the Flamenco Fire and Grace album with some of Spain’s most respected flamenco artists, has produced a exceptional second solo album titled Siento, and joined forces with world-renowned dancer Carmen Romero in the production of the theatrical smash The Carmen Complex. The San Fernando native is also a member of staff at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.

Movie inna yard

Raised in both New York City and Jamaica, TV actress Sheryl Lee Ralph has never forgotten her roots, and this year she again hosts the Jamerican Film and Music Festival in Montego Bay. As creator and director of the event, Ralph continues to use her passion and obvious star pull to ensure many of the industry’s best come to offer wisdom and advice to budding filmmakers. “The festival is not just about watching movies,” she says. “It’s also where you can learn the real ins and outs of the industry, make connections with Hollywood insiders, and take steps towards solid success.”

Dylan Kerrigan


Help Grenada

Last September, Hurricane Ivan wreaked havoc and took lives across a 2,000-mile path stretching from Tobago all the way to Virginia. Butthe toll was heaviest in Grenada, where 90 per cent of the island’sbuildings were damaged, leaving more than 80,000 people homeless, withno water or electricity, crops destroyed and communications shut down,and the economy in shambles.The people of Grenada are still in great need of assistance,both for short-term survival and long-term recovery. Many organisationsin the Caribbean and elsewhere have set up relief efforts, and there isstill much that individuals can do to help. Please contact the nearestGrenadian embassy or consulate to find out what you can do, or check CaribbeanBeat’s website,www.caribbean-beat.com, for information on relief efforts.



Book Buzz

Could she be loved

No Woman, No Cry Rita Marley, with Hettie Jones (Sidgwick & Jackson, ISBN 0-283-07364-0)

Perhaps the old Patsy Cline number Stand By Your Man might have lent a better title. In her new memoir, Rita Marley lays claim to the title of reggae’s longest-suffering wife, chronicling her 13 years with superstar Bob Marley. The book traces Bob and Rita’s life from their early days in Trench Town to the pinnacle of his success, to their last days together as Bob lay dying of cancer in 1981. It’s a personal story of talent and tenacity, intimacy and infidelity, and the challenge of sharing your greatest love with the world.

Readers might expect a more compelling portrait of Bob from the woman who shared his stage, his bed, and his life. But this slight memoir, co-written by poet and novelist Hettie Jones, reads like a draft: a breezy conversation with a girlfriend too polite to interrupt with probing questions. Marley tosses out even the most painful memories with the casualness of a pebble skimming a pond’s surface, seemingly reluctant to disturb her husband’s memory or his legacy.

No Woman, No Cry works best when Rita tells her own story — her life before and after Bob, attempts to have her own career, and her unquestionable commitment to her children. But even in telling this story she seems unwilling or unable to rouse herself to really make a connection with the reader. Die-hard Marley fans will appreciate the few new glimpses of Bob’s life the book provides. But No Woman No Cry leaves you wanting to know more both about Bob and about the woman who loved him best.

Kellie Magnus


“Keep singing”

People ask what it’s like when I’m somewhere and suddenly Bob’s voice comes on the radio. But the thing about Bob is so deep, it is as if he’s always with me, there’s always something to remind me. So I don’t wait for his voice.And he did promise me, before he finally closed his eyes, that he’d be here. It was May 11, 1981, and the doctors said he was dying of cancer and that there was no hope. But Bob was hanging on, he wouldn’t let go.I had put his head in my arm, and I was singing God Will Take Care of You. But then I started to cry and said, “Bob, please, don’t leave me.”

And he looked up and said, “Leave you, go where? What are you crying for? Forget crying, Rita! Just keep singing. Sing! Sing!”

So I kept singing, and then I realised, wow, that’s exactly what the song was saying: “I will never leave you, wherever you are I will be . . .”

So if I hear his voice now, it’s only confirming that he’s always around, everywhere. Because you do really hear his voice wherever you go. All over the world.

And one interesting thing about it, to me, is that most people only hear him. But I hear more, because I’m on almost all of the songs. So I also hear my voice, I also hear me. From the prologue to No Woman, No Cry

From the prologue to No Woman, No Cry


Rumble in the jungle

Our Lady of Demerara David Dabydeen (Dido Press 2004, ISBN 1-902-115-44-9)

Can a person be radically, suddenly transformed from one state into another? From sinner to saint, drifter to struggler, eagle to cockroach? In their different ways, Christians think so, Hinduism says so, and the Arawaks of Guyana thought so. In David Dabydeen’s fifth novel, a rather unpleasant English hack writer, overcome with the squalor of his wretched life, thinks so too, and journeys to the interior of Guyana to rid himself of his wicked ways and become a struggler for wholeness and transfiguration. It is left to the reader to assess how successful his transformation is. This is not an easy task, because most of the evidence is presented by the hack writer himself, and Dabydeen is not a man for telling a story straight and simple. Here we have plenty of mystification: multiple narrators, shifting names and identities, a mysterious journal, an Indian girl’s corpse, the skull of a murdered priest, an Arawak woman with no underwear, a ragged Hindu philosopher, and sinister black rocks which speak of sanctity and violence. The Englishman thinks he has become something new; his ex-wife snorts with derision. Don’t ask what really happens or who to believe: what matters is the way self and identity shift and transform themselves like dark currents, deep beneath the surface.

Jeremy Taylor


The gospel according to Mais

Brother Man Roger Mais (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 1-4050-6296-7)

In his introduction to this 50th-anniversary edition of the seminal Jamaican novel Brother Man, the poet Kwame Dawes retells the story of Roger Mais’s legendary “Road to Damascus” experience. It was 1938; Kingston was racked by the social unrest that was spreading across the British West Indies in that pre-war, pre-independence era. Mais, a middle-class Jamaican, decided to volunteer for the local militia to assist in suppressing the ongoing labour disturbances. But halfway to the recruiting office “it occurred to him that his loyalty should have been with the people”. Thereafter, his life was characterised by resistance to colonial authority and solidarity with the working class.

Brother Manwas the second of Mais’s three published novels (five more are yet to see the light of publication), and perhaps the most immediately controversial, because of its sympathetic presentation of the Rastafarian way of life at a time when the faith was barely 20 years old and its dreadlocked practitioners were widely considered violent, deranged, unhygienic, and sometimes worse. The world’s image of the Rastaman changed radically in the 1970s, thanks to Bob Marley (with a little help from Chris Blackwell), but even today in many corners of the Caribbean Rastafarianism is viewed with suspicion (as demonstrated, for instance, by a recent controversy in Trinidad over a 12-year-old schoolgirl’s dreadlocks). So while the mid-50s Kingston depicted in Brother Manhas changed in some crucial ways, the fear of the “bearded men” that drives the novel’s shocking climactic event remains potent.

The character of Brother Man — given name John Power, a Rastafarian cobbler with a mystic gift for healing — is the Christ-figure in what amounts to Mais’s reworking of the New Testament, set in the slums of West Kingston. Distinguished by his appearance and behaviour, Brother Man earns a reputation as a holy man, settling disputes with Solomonic calm, dispensing parables, healing the sick, and attracting a flock of disciples. Various events in the life of the biblical Christ — from the 40 days and 40 nights in the desert to the three days in the tomb — are paralleled in Brother Man’s story. But just as the man from Galilee roused the resentment of the Jerusalem Pharisees, the unworldly Brother Man’s popularity breeds enemies as well as believers, and when a horrible crime is blamed on a mysterious “black man, wild, unkempt . . . wearing a beard”, he endures his own version of Calvary.

The violence of this scene remains shocking, even if the reader knows its equivalent has been repeated over and again in West Kingston, through decades of election campaigns and gang wars. But — like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — Mais ends his story with redemptive hope. Brother Man rises from his sickbed and looks out at “a great light” glowing over the city. “He saw all things that lay before him in a vision of certitude, and he was no longer alone.” If only the people would listen to his message of “peace and love”, Mais implies, Kingston might give birth to the kingdom of heaven. Fifty years later, the people of Jamaica — and the world — are yet to truly listen.

Nicholas Laughlin


Fiction roundup

As the prospect of Christmas shopping looms nearer, don’t forget that books make super presents; and, if you choose the right title for your intended recipient, a book offers the possibility of hours if not days of enjoyment. Fiction is often a good bet — everyone likes a good story. Those with a taste for the historical may enjoy Trinidadian Michael Anthony’s latest novel, Butler, Till the Final Bell (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 1-4050-2269-8), a retelling of the story of labour leader Uriah “Buzz” Butler through the eyes of a young prizefighter, Kid Fearless. • Anthony Kellman’s second novel, The Houses of Alphonso (Peepal Tree, ISBN 1-900715-82-1), is a family drama in which a Barbadian man living in the US is forced to confront family guilt, racial resentment, and the complications of his personal history when he returns to his home island after an absence of 16 years. • In Dancing Nude in the Moonlight (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 1-4050-1269-2), Joanne Hillhouse weaves a love story into a narrative of the challenges facing a young family of emigrants from the Dominican Republic to Antigua, exploring themes like the difficulty of trust and the individual’s longing to be at home in the world. • Kirk Budhooram is 25 years old, but the young Trinidadian has already published his second novel, Ibis Agents (PublishAmerica, ISBN 1-59286-521-6), a spy thriller set in the Caribbean, complete with assassinations, karate-fights, shoot-outs, mafiosos, and sinister plans for global — or, at least, regional — domination. The eminence of Tom Clancy and Sidney Sheldon is in no danger, but if you’re going to indulge in a spot of pulp reading on Boxing Day — a tradition in my household — mightn’t it as well be Caribbean?

Philip Sander


Music Buzz

Prayers answered

Trinidadian rock band jointpop are to the Orange Sky what the Rolling Stones were to the Beatles — or perhaps the other way around. In September, just about the time the Sky were coming back from recording their first international album for Pyramid records in Atlanta, jointpop released their third album, a five-track mini-CD simply titled Jointpop, on their own Little 2 Tune Records.

The fans are likely to name the album after its biggest song, Let’s Pray for Rock ‘n’ Roll. If a Caribbean song is ever going to become a real international rock anthem, it will be this one. Let’s Pray for Rock ‘n’ Roll would sound perfectly in place alongside (and, frankly, better than many of) the massive, fist-pumping stadium songs headbangers and rock-and-rollers alike love so well. An American DJ could slip it in anywhere between Should I Stay or Should I Go, Wild Thing, I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Back in Black (though jointpop frontman Gary Hector’s voice is far richer than Joe Strummer’s, Reg Presley’s, Joan Jett’s, or Brian Johnson’s).

The lyrics are neither politically correct nor polite — they pray that, inter alia, a saviour comes along and that Kid Rock never sings another song, and they pray for the Hollywood fashion mile and all those girls gone wild — but, hey, ain’t that what rock and roll is meant to be?

If they could only somehow get hold of the recording, American listeners would beat Let’s Pray for Rock ‘n’ Roll silly. In Trinidad, given the contempt in which local DJs hold local rock bands — perhaps they might feel too fake introducing a Trinidad rock song in an American accent — it is unlikely to get any airplay at all. There is the built-in excuse of a four-letter word (a mild one, quite close to the word “hit” itself) in the first verse.

Singer/songwriter Hector’s own favourite of the five songs on the 24-minute mini-CD is the ballad The Water Supreme. The other songs are Radio Luxembourg, Voodoo vs Voodoo, and Monsta Me. They are all as good as Let’s Pray for Rock ‘n’ Roll.

B.C. Pires


Live and kicking

Prince of Peace: Prince Buster with Determinations Live in Japan (Universal DVD, UPBH-1093)
Morgan Heritage: Live in Europe 2003 (Universal DVD, B0000DCXON)

Prince Buster is one of Jamaica’s living legends. Widely credited as the man who created ska over 40 years ago, Buster has been equally renowned for his energetic live performances and impeccable music productions. Unfortunately, the Prince of Peace stopped producing music in the 70s, and his international tours are few and far between; aside from the occasional festival appearance in the UK, US, or Canada, audiences are pretty unlikely to catch the Prince in action, making the excellent Prince of Peace DVD all the more timely. Adding a note of the surreal is the fact that Buster is backed here by one of Japan’s leading ska bands. Though ska has been neglected in Jamaica for several decades, the Determinations and their loyal audience prove that the form is alive and well in the Far East. Songs like Dance Cleopatra, Al Capone, and Prince of Peace go down a storm, and Buster’s energy levels haven’t dropped one notch, although he was already 65 when these concerts took place. By the end of his Osaka set, a mini-riot ensues as dozens of ecstatic fans storm the stage; Buster’s impressions of Japan are then expounded on in a brief interview. It’s all highly entertaining stuff, and further proof that ska will never die.

Morgan Heritage are currently known as the “first family of reggae,” and this lengthy Live in Europe DVD shows them entirely worthy of the epithet. The five siblings, born in the US of Jamaican parentage, and residents of the island since 1995, all play their own instruments and write their own material. Exposure to a wide range of styles has broadened their international appeal, but what the DVD really makes clear is that the band thrives on positive energy: their lyrics are uplifting and spiritually motivated, and each member obviously loves what he does. Being part of a tight family unit seems to make the experience all the more joyous. The DVD begins with an intimate concert in Amsterdam, while part two is drawn from huge European festival dates; a brief interview provides context for their work. If you’ve ever caught the Morgans in live action, you will already know how strong their sets can be. If not, this DVD is ample evidence of their dedicated professionalism.

David Katz


Parang for everybody

On wrapping up what she calls “the best job in the world” — writing the music for a series of audio recordings of Shakespeare’s complete works — Dominque Le Gendre started looking around for another inspiring gig. “For a long time, I’d had parang in the back of my mind,” says the London-based, Trinidad-born composer, “because when you live in a place like England where people are constantly defining you as a Caribbean person, you’re forced into a position where you have to reflect on who you are.”

In collaboration with a French colleague, Le Gendre came up with the idea to compose music for a dance suite inspired by parang, the Spanish-language traditional music played in Trinidad at Christmas time. The project plan also included a short film that would be screened before performances to give audiences some context. To help with the research, Le Gendre recruited journalist and producer Sophie Meyer, who, on meeting people and filming interviews with the likes of parang promoter Holly Betaudier and paranderos such as Cristo Adonis, discovered that there was material here for a longer documentary. Meyer returned to Trinidad for the 2002 parang season to film with professional equipment, and Salt of the Earth was born.

The 52-minute film explores the origins of the art-form, which was brought to Trinidad in the 19th century by Venezuelan cocoa workers, and includes fine performances by some of the country’s top performers, including the Lara Brothers and the Granger and Guererro families. “These people are passionate about what they do, and they’re willing to share it with you and make you love it,” says Meyer, who ended up filming 28 hours of footage. “But what was really interesting for me to discover is that parang is where everybody meets up. If you go to a Lara Brothers concert, you can run into anybody, from any walk of life.”

Georgia Popplewell


Rhythm roundup

The award-winning Los Parranderos de UWI offer a well-chosen sampling of Trinidad’s traditional Christmas music on their debut CD, Mi Parranda. The group, renowned for their commitment to the preservation of the art-form, pays tribute to past greats with compositions by Daisy Voisin, Sylvestre Mata, and Gloria Alcazar, while showcasing newer compositions by group members and others. Los Parranderos shows its linguistic range on La Bonne Nouvelle, a crèche (parang’s French créole cousin) number popularised by Theresa Montano. Kudos as well for the clear and comprehensive liner notes. • Anybody who expected Kevin Lyttle’s self-titled international debut to be a towering example of soca authenticity is either in serious denial or hasn’t been following the music business for the past 50 years. The song which brought Lyttle to the attention of Atlantic Records — and which went on to become a international hit of sorts — was the treacly crossover number Turn Me On, so the man was hardly going to turn into David Rudder overnight. (Nor will you find the line “promotion and preservation of indigenous Caribbean art-forms” in the Atlantic mission statement). On Kevin Lyttle, the young Vincentian crooner serves up a stew of crossover synth-soca, seasoned with dancehall beats, Miami-style techno, and mainstream R&B. It’s a true-and-tried formula, and one which may well appeal to those who find Lyttle’s voice sweet and sexy rather than cloying. Power to him for getting this far — though one hopes his cover of R&B flash-in-the-pan Terence Trent D’Arby’s Sign Your Name isn’t the writing on the wall. • Overtones, a five-song EP by the promising Caribbean pop/jazz quartet 12, features some good songwriting and fine instrumentation from Natasha Joseph, Makesi Joseph, and Andy Adams. The production is slightly raw, but the group has a loungy, easygoing groove shaded with nu-jazz, electronica, bossa nova, and soca. The standout track is Carnival, co-written by bandleader and lead vocalist Sheldon Holder and multi-talented visual artist Christopher Cozier. There’s a noteworthy movement afoot among young Trinidadian bands to break the strictures imposed on the local music business by the annual Carnival festivities, and 12 is one to watch.



Style Buzz

Something old, something new “Turn your hand make fashion” the Jamaican saying goes. No one brings the adage to life more successfully than native daughter Jessica Ogden. At fashion events from Kingston to London, Ogden’s been making waves with her unique collections of stylish, distressed clothing, rejuvenating old fabrics with a thoroughly modern sensibility.

Ogden was born in Jamaica to British parents in the late 1960s. Her mother, Annabella Proudlock, is a well-known artist and owner of the Harmony Hall estate. Her father is the late filmmaker David Ogden. Raised both in Jamaica and the United Kingdom, Ogden attended the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design in the United States, then graduated from the Byam Shaw School of Art in London. Her career in fashion began in 1992, as a volunteer for Oxfam’s NoLoGo, the eco-friendly design collective, where she recycled clothes from charity centres into new garments. The following year, she launched her own label, continuing the fascination with old and distressed fabrics that has been a theme in all her collections to date.

Her work with antique fabrics has earned her praise as a pioneer of “salvage fashion”. She’s also been hailed for her use of texture; many of her pieces boast intricate wrapping, hand-printing, layering, and stitching techniques. Ogden makes both unique couture pieces for a growing celebrity clientele and ready-to-wear pieces sold in high-end retail stores worldwide. Her one-off pieces, as well as her growing reputation for unconventionality, have made her a global media darling. (“Her work is individual and personal, the opposite of big brand conglomerates,” wrote the British Independent Magazine. “These are clothes that have the elegance of a woman and the innocence of a young girl.”) And the staging of her presentations in London’s annual Fashion Week have usually been as interesting as the collections themselves, including, most famously, one held in an empty church.

In addition to her Fashion Week forays, Ogden is in the third season of a collaboration with French fashion house APC, customising garments from their line, and designing the APC Enfant line, as well as a new collaborative summer collection, Madras. The latter is a year-round summer collection, including a dress, skirt, tunic, shirt, tank, flip-flops, and bag, all inspired by and produced in madras fabric.

“Every now and then somebody has tried to identify the influence of the Caribbean in my work, and I couldn’t really see it,” said Ogden in a recent interview. “Just before we came [to Caribbean Fashion Week], I was looking at this collection — and I can’t quite put my finger on it — but I couldn’t have made it without this history.”

Kellie Magnus


Kingsley Cooper, head of Caribbean Fashion Week, talks about Jessica Ogden

“Jessica’s Jamaican heritage influences her work in a way that is as subtle and as understated as is her work itself . . . Jessicais highly respected by Jamaica’s fashionistas, both for her remarkabletalent as well as her success and international standing. She got a greatreception at the 2004 Fashion Week, even at the large Emancipation Parkvenue, where her show was beamed live to the ‘masses’. It is true thather clothes are a bit understated for some (in a country that gave theworld the outrageousness of dancehall culture), but Jamaica’s fashionmavens are proud of her success.“We hope that one of the spin-offs of her presentation will be a heightened recognition, internationally, of the talent that existsin the region, and that the way of her success will become a roadmapthat other Jamaican and Caribbean designers can follow.”


Theatre Buzz

Vodou music

The burnished baroque opulence of the recently refurbished Hackney Empire theatre, once one of Edwardian London’s leading music halls, is the perfect setting for the metropolitan debut of Vodou Nation, a magnificently mesmerising multimedia spectacular based on the history of Haiti.

From the moment the lights go up, catching the sheen of the purple bandanas of the band RAM — whose vodou rhythms and spine-melting vocals propel the whole show — the audience is transported to the heart of the most troubled country in the Caribbean. The narrative — from the days of the Taino poet queen Anakaona, through colonisation, genocide, vodou-inspired rebellion, independence, dictatorship, flight, and onto an affirmation of the future — is both Haiti’s own story and a far-reaching metaphor for what South African co-director Brett Bailey calls “a description of any shafted Third World State, and people’s attempts to live on the waste heaps of the global village.”

Although some metropolitan reviewers failed to grasp the stage design concept, Caribbean audiences will be immediately familiar with the extravagant carnivalesque costuming. The whole show owes much to the old-mas style tradition of Haiti’s kanaval and other carnivals throughout the region — in which the people are licensed by the bacchanal to criticise, mock, and chastise their masters and oppressors.

But Vodou Nation is more than a dry political critique. In an era when the musical is enjoying unprecedented popularity as a theatrical genre on both sides of the Atlantic, it is a truly unique and innovative production, which the whole Caribbean can be proud of. Probably not since the days of the 1938 production of C.L.R. James’s play Black Jacobins has London witnessed such a spectacle.

The themes of Vodou Nation — Bailey mentions genocide, slavery, rebellion, misrule, isolation, foreign interference, poverty, syncretism, and the suppression of vodou itself — are mostly dark, yet the production bursts with the celebratory energy of vodou ritual, when the spirits and ancestors are called forth by drum, dance, and song to aid, cleanse, and succour the living.

Without sensationalising or stereotyping, this production brings the authentic spirit of vodou to the stage with electrifying effect. The dreamlike quality of Haitian reality is captured in the swirling backscreen lightshows, the choreography by acclaimed Trinidadian dancer Carol La Chapelle (with input from Emerante de Pradines, one of Haiti’s leading singers and folkloric dancers, and mother of RAM leader Richard Morse), and most of all RAM’s compelling music, all combining to bring the lwas or spirits to the stage. Several of the major lwas actually appear in character: Ogou the warrior god as the dictator, and Erzuli Freda, the beautiful goddess of love, as a rape victim.

Vodou Nation owes its genesis to British producer Jan Ryan of UK Arts Productions, who heard RAM playing at one of their regular Thursday night gigs at the Oloffson Hotel, which Richard Morse runs in Port-au-Prince. (The Oloffson is a whole story in itself, having played a major role both in Haitian history and in Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians.) Morse, a Haitian American, studied anthropology at Princeton and played in a garage band before returning to his mother’s country in 1985 to research vodou rhythms. By 1987, he was managing the dilapidated Oloffson, and hired a folkloric group as in-house entertainment. By 1990, the folkloric group had become the vodou roots band RAM, and the lead dancer Lunise became both lead vocalist and Mrs Morse. There is more than a hint of the lwas’ will here. Morse is in fact a third-generation Haitian singer; his grandfather was the great Conjo, whose arrangement of the folk song Chouconne is known throughout the Caribbean as Yellow Bird.

Jan Ryan brought RAM over to the UK in 2000 and 2001, and although audience response was ecstatic, few had a grasp either of Haiti or of vodou, which is central to any understanding of the country. Ryan decided “to make a show that would fill in some of the gaps and present vodou in a way that countered stereotype.” Her deadline was 2004, to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Haitian independence (and, ironically, yet another landmark in the apparently unending saga of civil unrest and political oppression — the ignominious departure of Jean-Bertrand Aristide).

Ryan co-opted Trinidadian Geraldine Connor as co-director, both for her track record with the spectacular Carnival Messiah and for her knowledge of and familiarity with Caribbean popular culture, music, and syncretic African-derived religions. Brett Bailey, the South African playwright, was chosen as the other co-director, both for his writing skills and his previous work dramatising the cultural and spiritual collisions of Africa with a fusion of traditional and modern dance, music, and ritual. It seems entirely apt that when he went to Haiti early this year to audition performers for the show, he got caught in the drama of Aristide’s last days.

As the leaders of the latest coup arrived in Port-au-Prince, the chosen performers for Vodou Nation were arriving for their first English lessons, and Bailey felt vindicated in the positive end he’d written for the show. “Their smiling eager faces brightened my spirits. In a country of so much pain and heaviness, what is needed more than anything is acknowledgement, investment, and opportunity for growth.”

Vodou Nation is a gloriously exuberant expression of Haitian and Caribbean sensibility, given what Richard Morse calls “generational relevance” — a contemporary framework accessible to all.

Simon Lee


Simon Lee talks to RAM’s Richard Morse

Is this the first time you’ve been involved with a project this size?
There’s no Haitian tradition of big shows, and I’ve never worked on something this big before. I tried it at kanaval with a big screen and lasers, but the government thought we were overshadowing them, and since we refused to sing lyrics endorsed by the government we weren’t invited back.

What is your relationship with the politicians?
They’re all pretty much the same, although the main difference was the time when Aristide was popular. He had 10 years to work it out, but he didn’t.

Do you consider yourself a political animal?
I do music, I don’t do politics. But the music in a country like Haiti becomes political.

What’s the significance of the show for you?
They say Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. I say it’s the richest in terms of culture and spirituality. I’ve worked with the [vodou] tradition and given it generational reference with the sound systems, etc, but fundamentally the show is based on that tradition. My greatest fear is that the rhythms will be lost. Unlike the folklore of Scandinavia, where the ancient gods like Thor have no relevance today, in Haiti the folklore is still alive.


Web Buzz

Blog on

The trick to a successful Internet effort is to hold your audience — to get them to continue reading. Blogging, which I wrote about in Caribbean Beat a year and a half ago, is no different. The novelty of weblogs — websites where individuals “log” their opinions and discoveries — has largely worn off, despite recent developments such as videologs (which incorporate video footage). The international audiences that were introduced to blogging during the Iraq war last year have trailed off, in many cases, leaving only committed readers. In the Caribbean, it’s no different. Less attention is paid to longstanding bloggers like the Mad Bull (www.madbull4.net/weblog/) and Realmagga (realmagga.blogspot.com/); other blogs, such as Chinee Bizkit (www.chineebizkit.tk/) and Jessie Girl (jessiegirl.blogspot.com/) are apparently no longer being updated. The fate of these and dozens of others may lead some readers to think that blogging in this part of the world was a passing fad. While blogs are an increasingly important element of the US media scene — playing a major role in the presidential election campaign this year, for instance — so far the wider social impact of Caribbean blogs has been limited.

Caribbean blogging is maturing, though, with more serious and regularly updated blogs coming to the forefront as lighter offerings fade. The most notable among these is the West Indies Cricket Blog (caribbeancricket.com/weblog/), where readers can get daily updates on developments in the regional pastime. A Trinidadian expatriate is running CaribPundit (www.carib.us/), to date the only foray into the comprehensive blogging of regional news. The author, known only as Helen, holds strong opinions, not to everyone’s taste; nevertheless, she is providing a service to the region, creating a central focus for regional news.

And blog diarists have come to the forefront. In Jamaica, Yamfoot (www.yamfoot.com/) and Dr D. (www.madbull4.net/testblog/), among others, write personal accounts of life on the island. Chatterbox (chbox.blogspot.com/) in Trinidad is taking notes on efforts at child literacy throughout the Caribbean. Diaries also seem to be a favourite of expatriates. Miami-based Cuban Val Prieto, for example, has just completed a second BlogCuba project (www.babalublog.com/archives/000926.html), with a large number of contributions on conditions in his homeland.

Indeed, when it comes to Caribbean blogging, expatriates seem to lead. A real shift will occur only when island residents come up with ideas capable of attracting new readers by providing content that can’t be found anywhere else. Until then, Caribbean blogs will continue to attract merely an avid few.

Damien Smith


A dot.com for artists

Judged by the size of our landmasses or our population, the Caribbean is an indisputably small corner of the world; but our cultural influence is far out of proportion to the space we occupy on the map. Yet, despite the superpower status of musicians, artists, and writers like Bob Marley, the Mighty Sparrow, Wifredo Lam, Peter Minshall, V.S. Naipaul, and Derek Walcott, the general feeling in the region’s creative circles is that the arts still don’t get the respect and support they deserve.

Hence the reason for caribarts.org, the self-described online “home for Caribbean arts and culture”, based in Barbados but offering information on and resources for artists in all disciplines — visual arts, theatre, music, literature, dance, folk forms — across the region. Here you can find events listings, contact information for artists and arts organisations, an “artists in touch” forum for the exchange of ideas, online galleries, and a monthly newsletter on the Caribbean arts scene. Launched as a monthly publication in 2002, emailed to subscribers in PDF format, caribarts has evolved steadily over the two years of its existence into a full-scale cultural portal, and promises to continue growing in size and usefulness. It even offers artists commercial packages for creating their own sub-sites.

In the 20th century, Caribbean genius infiltrated the world’s bookshops, airwaves, theatres, and galleries, enriching the lives of audiences in the most unexpected places. In the 21st century, the challenge for creative minds is infiltrating the World Wide Web — and caribarts is doing its best to help.

Philip Sander

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.