Ray Funk: bringing the culture home

Ray Funk is part Sherlock Holmes and part Santa Claus. An expert on pan and calypso, this Alaskan judge combs the Internet in search of valuable info

  • Ray Funk at the National Library of Trinidad and Tobago, surrounded by examples of traditional wild Indian mas. Photograph by Andrea De Silva

I never wanted to be an attorney when I was growing up. I wanted to teach English, at either the high school or university level. After getting two degrees in English, all I was doing for work was stacking hay in a barn. Then I worked as a security guard and after that I was a banquet waiter. I went to law school because it seemed to offer more rewarding work. But once I became an attorney I needed some balance to my life. I needed more than just being a lawyer.

Not long after I started working as a lawyer, I ended up being a volunteer DJ at the public radio station, where I started doing music research. I am still on the air after 29 years and I have had my regular two-hour weekly world music radio show, Funk Roots, every Sunday, which has been going on for 15 years or more.

For research I was first interested in early a capella African-American gospel music, and over several years I worked on many articles and over 40 reissue albums. I always loved a wide range of traditional music from around the world and I got very interested in calypso in the early 1980s. I started buying more records, gathering information, and interviewing the legendary calypsonian Sir Lancelot about his movie career.

In 1986 I got to go to Brooklyn Carnival, where I met [calypsonian] Gypsy and saw Sparrow and the Renegades [steelband] perform. That got me totally hooked on Trinidad Carnival culture.

It wasn’t until several years after I became a lawyer that I got my first chance to come to Trinidad for Carnival. On one vacation we all went to Florida to visit my parents. The children were going to Disneyland and I thought, why don’t I go to Trinidad?

That was about 12 years ago. I came for a week and I was entranced, first by the calypso tents, then by the panyards and then by J’Ouvert and mas. I was overwhelmed with the tents, the length of the shows, taking a break at midnight after a three-hour show, the panyards – and I loved doubles, roti – everything. Peter Minshall’s mas was mindblowing, as were the moko jumbies.

Since that first trip I have tried to come to Trinidad every year and I only missed a couple times.

I still looked forward to the calypso tents and panyards. I am rhythmically challenged and I can’t sing a lick, but I became a Midnight Robber one Carnival. Mas isn’t something you watch. You have to play.

Over time I realised that what I can do is find lost pieces of Trinidad culture. In the breaks I have as a judge I search for pieces of the puzzle. The work has resulted in a series of ten articles on Silver Stars [steelband]. Many of the original members are in Canada and they’re spread out over northern Illinois. Ellie Mannette is in Morgantown, Virginia.

You never know where things will come up when you’re doing research. E-mail makes many things possible – even from Alaska. After I find some lost recordings I transcribe the lyrics and then send them to people who can help me translate the literal translation to the colourful, meaningful one, oftentimes filled with double-entendre. Even after coming to Trinidad for all this time, I don’t always understand the cultural references. Research leads me everywhere – even appearances on TV. I’ll go on a local show in Trinidad and say I’m looking for something, and people always surface with information. Alerts on E-Bay are very helpful too. I can search inside books to see if they have enough information for you to warrant buying them. E-Bay is a great research tool.

My wife thinks of it as an expensive addiction. I get outbid all the time, but I do find great buys. I recently got two original Beryl McBurnie photos using her stage name of La Belle Rosette. Many people don’t know that Beryl McBurnie, an icon of Trinidad and Tobago dance, had a colourful stage life in New York. [Funk’s story on McBurnie appeared in Caribbean Beat’s November-December 2008 issue.]

It all comes together in many different ways. I have written the liner notes for the Ice Records collection of Terror’s recordings, Pan Poetry, and I started doing e-mail notes that became the irregular Kaiso newsletters that can be found at http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/kaiso.htm.

Former Express Features editor Kim Johnson got me to do articles for the Trinidad Express and later the Guardian. I had pieces in Newsday and one in the Mirror and more recently Caribbean Beat.

A major effort was the Calypso: A World Music exhibit which had an online component and a touring one. Check out www.calypsoworld.org. That work resulted in research trips to New York City, London, meetings at the Historic Museum of Southern Florida in Miami, and working closely with Steve Stuempfle, then curator of the museum, who co-curated the exhibit with me. You can see his recent article about it at http://anthurium.miami.edu/volume_6/issue_1/stuempfle-transnational.html. We had a really cool time and had great related conferences in Brooklyn, Miami, Leeds and Port of Spain. Most recently I have been doing a series of lectures, including one on how I conduct research, organised by Ken Ramchand at UTT. One of the first lectures was on the work of actor and playwright Errol John, who wrote Moon on a Rainbow Shawl.

In 2006 I was made an honorary fellow at the Academy at the University of Trinidad and Tobago.

Right now I’m collecting limbo stamps. In the 50s limbo was everywhere. There’s even a film from back in 1957 called Fire Down Below.

The challenge is always finding and recovering information that has been lost. I always consider what an American could bring back to Trinidad. That’s what I see my main job as being, recovering lost pieces of culture and bringing them home. There’s still so much out there to be discovered.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
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