Book reviews (July/August 2008)

Reviews of some new Caribbean books

  • Jeffrey Stollmeyer, left, and Andy Ganteaume opening the innings in Jamaica, 1946. Photograph by MEDIANET/ANDY GANTEAUME
  • Image taken from In Search of the Buccaneers. © Göte Göransson. Published by Macmillan Publishers 2007
  • Alaskan trial judge and Carnival researcher Ray Funk. Photograph by Andrea De Silva

More than a one-hit wonder

This is the story of a man who became famous as a Test batsman who made a century on his debut, and then was mysteriously dropped forever from the team. Yet he was much more than a cricketer. Andy Ganteaume was an athlete who had considerable prowess as a footballer, and was an able sports administrator, coach, and selector, serving the fraternity with distinction.

He is a convivial raconteur, and it is this quality that he brings most vividly to his memoir My Story: The Other Side of the Coin. It is an enlightening tale of the vicissitudes of the life of a man born in the West Indies in 1921.

Ganteaume’s story tells much of the conditions facing someone who had talent, but was neither from the elite social grouping, nor willing to offer automatic deference to it. Especially important is his interpretation of the circumstances that led to his renown as the centurion of one Test match, with a batting average of 112, higher than Don Bradman’s.

For nigh on 60 years, it had remained one of cricket’s enigmas why he was never selected again to represent the West Indies team. Jeffrey Stollmeyer, his captain at the time, had complained that the century was too slowly compiled to warrant his place on any future team; and suggested that Ganteaume was not a stroke-player of the genre most idolised by fans of West Indies cricket.

Perhaps that is why the cover of the book shows him delivering a variety of spectacular shots taken from that singular innings in 1948. It would be typical of the man, who was known to be fiercely independent of spirit, but not given to aggressive words, and who preferred to let his actions speak for themselves. It underlies the story he tells with the candour and wisdom of old age, as he finally relates how the tensions surrounding his refusal to embrace his spot on the social ladder influenced the decision to curtail his Test career.

It is an intriguing aspect of the book, and though it is told without rancour, it reveals other dimensions of Stollmeyer and Gerry Gomez. Both men have been upheld as icons of West Indies cricket for so long that Ganteaume must have felt that to have said anything earlier might have been more damaging to him. Yet it is a side worth hearing if one is to truly understand the nature of the environment and the forces that shaped the future of West Indies cricket.

The book, however, is not essentially about cricket. It is really the story of a man who made his way through the world of sport and cultivated many valuable friendships along the way. He paints delightful portraits of his band of comrades: Sir Frank Worrell, Sir Learie Constantine, CLR James, George Headley, Sir Everton Weekes and Sir Clyde Walcott among them.

He also describes his football days at Maple Club, and his affiliation to a Masonic club. What he does best through his reminiscences, though, is to give life to a Trinidad that is fast fading from current memory. His musings on what could have been and his reflections on what was are deeply entrenched in a life that was finely balanced between its physical and intellectual elements.

He was brought up to be a gentleman under any circumstance, and that is what he manages to communicate right through the book. Although he sets the record straight on the undercurrents driving West Indies cricket—and the society—at the time, he makes us understand the environment with the dispassionate air of an historian.

Indeed, if there is one flaw in the book, it is that he does not dig out enough details of his relationships to help us to understand more about the personalities he encountered along his remarkable journey. He is one of few living people who had a close relationship with Frank Worrell, a man whose contribution to West Indian society is immeasurable, but whose personal profile has been largely compiled from his public life. Ganteaume knew him intimately enough to add this vital dimension to public knowledge. Yet he may have felt constrained to protect Worrell’s privacy, and so offers only a glimpse into that personal world. Asking for a little more juice might have only offended his sense of rectitude. At the end of the book, one is so clear about the character of the man that one wistfully understands that Ganteaume could only tell it as a gentleman.

My Story: The Other Side of the Coin Andy Ganteaume
(Medianet Ltd, ISBN 976-951-379-2, 168pp)

Vaneisa Baksh


The Wild West on water

Anthony Gambrill does something that authors of non-fiction don’t always do—he entertains even as he educates. So In Search of the Buccaneers is not just a dry recital of appropriate facts and dates interspersed with speculation, but seeks to provide some context to the events that created the Caribbean. A beautifully bound hard-cover book replete with maps, illustrations and photos on almost every page, In Search of the Buccaneers takes the reader on a tour of the Caribbean during the 1600s, covering 70 years of buccaneering history, when the West Indies was the Wild West on water.

Gambrill is well qualified, academically and otherwise: he’s lived in Jamaica for almost 50 years, and has a master’s in history and heritage from the University of the West Indies. But as he notes, the book was written with the average reader in mind, especially those who love history and seek a better understanding of the Caribbean.

It opens by tracing the transition from simple boucaniers, who lived rough, hunting and smoking cattle, to buccaneers, showing how the treatment meted out to them by the Spanish in Haiti and Tortuga played its part. The boucaniers had little use for money, and set up temporary coastal settlements so that they could barter with passing ships for their daily wants. Some of these settlements became permanent, and since they were not protected or governed by any nation, they were truly independent, driven by capitalism and commerce.

With the Spanish constantly harassing them, and wild cattle and hogs increasingly scarce, the boucaniers began to band together in large numbers. The success with which French pirate Pierre Le Grand commandeered a Spanish ship, using a barely seaworthy vessel and only pistols and cutlasses, may have persuaded the boucaniers to take up buccaneering, targeting trading vessels before moving up to larger ships.

There follows an extensive look at the places made famous or infamous by the buccaneers: Port Royal, Jamaica, known as the wickedest city on earth; Santiago de Cuba, St Eustatius, San Juan River, Providencia, Portobelo, Panama, Vera Cruz, Campeche and Cartagena. Any history buff who wants to tour the places the buccaneers made their own would do well to read this book, since it also mentions what remains still exist.

The book explains what led to the end of this swashbuckling era, such as manpower concerns—a sailor only earned £20 a year in His Majesty’s service, but stood to gain £120 from Morgan’s assault on Portobelo, in Panama. It wasn’t conducive to the development of the young colonies, particularly in commerce and agriculture, if the young, able-bodied men left to join such ventures. Piracy was eclipsed by the signing of treaties between the powerhouses of the day—Spain, England, Holland and France.

In Search of the Buccaneers Anthony Gambrill
(Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 978-0-333-97652-4, 258pp)

Mirissa De Four


Missing the beat

Oh well, people will tell you, in the old days calypso was calypso. The calypsonian was a king. The calypsonian could tell anyone anything and get away with it. Beautiful melodies, witty lyrics, great entertainment. They don’t do that sort of calypso again. That was in the old-time days. Things different now.

Then you get taken to a Carnival fete in Trinidad and you see just how different things are. No more singers in coloured suits and hats called Lord this or Mighty that delivering some devious satire with a gentle beat. Now it’s sexy, raunchy, hyperactive youngsters screeching “wave yuh rag” and “are you ready” and “jump to the right, jump to the left,” and vast crowds following orders as if in a hypnotic trance, the volume thunderous and the speed frenetic, smoke and fire and all the latest stage tricks, and if there are any lyrics you can’t figure out what they are.

That’s what people will tell you, and it’s a common perception. There was calypso, and then suddenly there was soca, and then chutney and chutney soca and ragga soca and rapso, and the music started to sound more like reggae or hip-hop than anything a true calypso fan could recognise. You even started to hear orisha, rock, pop, dancehall, in what was supposed to be calypso. What happened?

Music, Memory, Resistance isn’t entirely sure. It’s a collection of papers delivered at a more-or-less academic conference on calypso held in Miami (of course) in 2005. It represents the familiar, mainstream school of calypso analysis, which studies the art in the context of calypso lyrics as indicators of national and cultural identity, popular resistance and political development.

A huge amount of useful work has emerged from this approach. But it has its drawbacks. It largely ignores the fact that calypso is music as well as lyrics; musical analysis is outside the commentators’ comfort zone. And there is a struggle to account for what happened to calypso in the postcolonial era as singers lost their traditional targets, slowly ran out of interesting subjects, and became conservatives instead of subversives.

As a result, even the celebrated Trinidadian novelist Earl Lovelace can’t come to terms with the changes. “Soca of course does not provide the social challenges that calypso has always done…And today you have a new song, I don’t know whether you call it ragga soca or what exactly it is, but it presents a fast-paced frenzied beat, guttural sound, an aggressive tone and a performed militancy—I don’t know that these fellas stand up for anything that I know—and it occurred to me…that this form of music might be mirroring the harshness in the society…There is a lack of humour, lack of balance.”

There is a wide range of erudite contributors in Music, Memory, Resistance—they include Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool, Ray Funk, and Gordon Rohlehr—and they all have an interesting take on the evolution of calypso. There are whole chapters on Jean Rhys, cricket, bacchanal, and the “Fat Black Woman.” American academic Kezia Page thinks that the “sameness” of today’s party music is itself a form of resistance and parody. Michael Eldridge argues that the American embrace of Belafonte-era “calypso” was really a way for Americans to avoid black America—the happy West Indian minstrel easier to accommodate than domestic reality.

But the insistence on calypso as essentially a verbal, literary form doesn’t help anyone to understand what has been happening to the music in the last two or three decades.

The Canadian academic Jocelyne Guilbault, however, is an ethnomusicologist who teaches in the music department at UC Berkeley. Her book contains a CD to demonstrate her musical points. She is very much at home with musical scores, instruments, influences, and the dark arts of arrangers. She understands that the music wants movement as well as verbal analysis (she notes in her academic way that “dancing at numerous events has…provided me with insights about calypso and soca that would not have been otherwise accessible”). All this allows her a very different vision of calypso and its recent evolutionary strides.

Her initial question—what do the new “musics” do for Trinidad that traditional calypso can’t do?—leads her deep into the Trinidadian musical world. She shows how Shorty’s sokah was hijacked and turned into soca, and how chutney music hit back as chutney soca. She can establish in musical terms how arrangers like Frankie Francis and Art de Coteau redirected the music as radically as Sparrow and Shadow had done in terms of lyrical content and presentation. She listens to Machel Montano explaining how the new music is not about commentary but about feeling. She delves into music management, copyright, contract management, and shows how these too have affected the music.

Above all, Guilbault sees the new music in positive terms. She is not blind to its failings (the “floods of banality” that accompany its “gems of creativity”), but she will not buy the idea that the cluster of musical forms comprising today’s party music is merely hedonist, turning its back on familiar responsibilities like commentary and issues of national development. Rather, “what is crucial to soca, chutney soca and ragga soca” is “a celebration of life and pleasure with people” [her italics]. It is a joyous music, and represents a profound psychic shift from “the old time days.”

For all its solid virtues, this is a shift that Music, Memory, Resistance does not really grasp, whether to endorse Guilbault’s optimism or not. To be fair, the book has a different focus—there is only one entry for “soca” in its (extremely bizarre) index. But Governing Sound, with its careful documentation of musical change, opens a new dimension in the debate about calypso.

Music, Memory, Resistance: Calypso and the Caribbean Literary Imagination Eds Sandra Pouchet Paquet, Patricia J Saunders, Stephen Stuempfle
(Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 978-976-637-290-3, 369pp)

Governing Sound: The Cultural Politics of Trinidad’s Carnival Musics
Jocelyne Guilbault
(University of Chicago and Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 978-976-637-332-0, 343 pp)

Jeremy Taylor


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