Reviews (May/June 2009)

The new music and books that are reflecting the region right now

  • Beenie Man, at the launch of his biography in Jamaica last year. Photograph courtesy Great House Omnimedia Ltd
  • Sandra Gift. Photograph courtesy Ian Randle Publishers
  • Cuban Currency
  • Mauri K Hall, aka KeKeRe. Photograph courtesy Mauri K Hall


Beenie there, done that

David Katz

One of the icons of contemporary dancehall music, Beenie Man is a superstar whose flamboyant lifestyle and controversial lyrics have long made him a favourite of the Jamaican tabloid press. Thankfully, this timely biography avoids salacious gossip and hero worship, but is instead a surprisingly detailed account of the man’s rags-to-riches tale that is heavy on social context.

Author Milton Wray hails from the same streets as Beenie Man and even tried to make it as a dancehall performer before becoming involved in journalism. Such first-hand knowledge gives him an intrinsic understanding of his subject and lends the book an unquestionable authenticity. It also features some of the most accurate rendering of spoken patois I have ever encountered in a music book. Beginning the project with Beenie’s blessing, Wray was also given unprecedented access to the dancehall star, his family, peers and love interests, meaning that no stone is left unturned in the captivating tale.

Wray is particularly strong on the singer’s early years, describing with frightening clarity a neglected youth marked by the harshness of poverty and the ever-present threat of ghetto violence. In charting Beenie’s slow rise to fame, he sheds light on the way dancehall was propagated during the early 1980s and further evolved in the 1990s, with Beenie eventually emerging as a chief architect. Later chapters cover a volatile feud with Bounty Killer, many short-lived relationships with beauty queens, and public speculation on his sexuality, painting a complex portrait of a talented and often contradictory individual.

Who Am I? The Untold Story of Beenie Man
Milton Wray
(Great House Omnimedia, ISBN 978-976-95199-3-0, 398 pp)



Slavery and stereotypes

Kevin Baldeosingh

Maroon Teachers, which is based on the author’s PhD thesis, deals with teaching teenage students about the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans (TTEA). The title, she explains, is because teachers who teach this subject have to free themselves of the restrictions of the education systems they work in. “In their efforts to do, they could be said to engage in ‘educational marronage’,” Gift writes. ‘They are therefore, in the eyes of this author, 21st-century ‘maroon teachers’.”

Most of the arguments in the book are similarly stretched. “Teaching the TTEA is important since education for peace and sustainable human development relies on improving shared understandings,” Gift asserts, adding that: “Educational leaders must accept the responsibility, as adults and caregivers, to address the healing of the psyches of black youths by enlightening them about the violations wrought against their ancestors…”

Neither of these assumptions is backed up by data or research, and Gift’s opening chapter parrots all the usual shibboleths of Caribbean Afrocentrism: that the slave system within African nations was benign, that Europe underdeveloped Africa, that slavery was a key factor in England’s progress. The alternative views offered by Hugh Thomas (1997), Niall Ferguson (2002) or Lawrence Harrison (2006) form no part of her perspective.

The three main chapters of the book are simply extracts from reports by teachers from various countries in Europe, Africa and the Caribbean on their approach and experiences in teaching about the slave trade. But these extracts are too sketchy to provide the reader with useful paedagogical information, so the book fails even on this level.

Maroon Teachers Sandra Gift
(Ian Randle, ISBN 978-976-637-340-5, 197pp)



Redlegs and dark deeds

Lisa Allen-Agostini

Redlegs – the poor white descendants of Irish and Scottish indentured labourers in Barbados – are the subject of the new novel Trouble Tree, by John Hill Porter. Porter himself, neither Barbadian nor a redleg, is a retired PR superstar. He co-founded the US firm Porter Novelli, which pioneered “social marketing”, the use of advertising and marketing techniques for social and public-health issues.

His first fiction book is a crime story set in New York and Barbados, with a protagonist who is the black grandson of a redleg family caught up in a conspiracy involving land, money and murder.

While the characterisations lean towards wooden, and the dialogue is often stilted and too baldly expository, Trouble Tree’s plot keeps the novel rolling.

The backstory about the fate of the redlegs is also fascinating. Redlegs don’t have a high profile in Caribbean literature and so this book is a welcome contribution to the telling of their story. These families lived in isolation among other poor Barbadians, surviving by subsistence farming in rural areas, intermarrying and suffering genetic- and dietary-related illness as a result. Trouble Tree does a good job of telling all of that through the protagonist’s family history, down to the very real fact that today most of the redlegs have disappeared, migrated or become absorbed into the wider Barbadian society.

Trouble Tree John Hill Porter
(Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 978-1-4050-7105-5, 322pp)



Stealing a glance at real life

Mirissa De Four

An intricate coming-of-age tale of four teenagers from different backgrounds and the events that shape their lives, The Stolen Cascadura is set in Trinidad in 2003. The first novel by Beverley-Ann Scott, it paints a realistic picture.

Eddy, who keeps the fact that he lives at Beetham Gardens – a low-income government-built housing estate – a secret for six years of secondary-school life, is best friends with Brian, son of one of the richest men in Trinidad. They attend a prestigious all-boys’ school, Queen’s Royal College. Best friends Lisa and Jesse go to a female equivalent, St Joseph’s Convent, Port of Spain, and have their own problems. Lisa’s “stepfather” is an abusive drunk, while Jesse, the daughter of Santa Cruz farmers, juggles school and taking care of her siblings, which gets harder after her father dies.

Their lives intersect when they meet at Mr Lee Wen’s extra lessons and start dating: Eddy and Lisa, and Jesse and Brian. When Brian is kidnapped, Eddy’s secret is revealed. During this difficult time, Brian draws even closer to Jesse, but her mother wants her to end their relationship. However, one thing leads to another and three months later Jesse confides in Lisa that she may be pregnant.

Scott touches on a wide range of issues: drugs, homosexuality, kidnapping, vagrancy, HIV/AIDS, poverty, teenage pregnancy and mental illness.

The dialogue between the characters is written primarily in dialect and may be somewhat difficult for foreign readers to understand, though the book contains a glossary. There are many supporting characters who provide background information and context to the various situations and no central character is clearly identifiable.

With the difficulties many authors have in getting published, self-publishing has been invaluable in making good books available. However, problems that crop up as a result (as in this book) are poor editing, misspellings and inconsistencies. Despite this, Stolen Cascadura is enjoyable for its honest look at and relevance to Trinidadian society.

The Stolen Cascadura Beverley-Ann Scott
(AuthorHouse, ISBN 978-1-4343-3287-5, 389pp)



She puts her money where her mouth is 

Kevin Baldeosingh

Cuban Currency appears to be the outcome of a literary scholar is seeking an original trope. Esther Whitfield, an assistant professor of comparative literature, found this in the US dollar and its effect on Cuban fiction in the 12-year period between 1993 and 2005, when the Castro regime allowed US currency into circulation in Cuba. “Through a sustained reflection on the structure of money and of economic relations, I suggest that certain Cuban writers have addressed Cuba’s cultural currency by making the US dollar and other market-driven images – an impoverished but sensual population and architectural ruins that invoke a ruined social project – insistent figures in their work,” Whitfield writes.

This “sustained reflection” covers 155 pages of text, another 32 pages of notes, and 20 pages of works cited. Whitfield seems to be ideologically impartial, and she clinically addresses the suppression, formal and otherwise, the Castro regime has imposed on Cuban writers. Her marriage of economic issues as reflected in her selected texts – works by Zoe Valdez, Pedro Juan Gutierrez, Antonio Jose Ponte, and others – is skilfully done.

But where her argument delves into the nature of money and the market, she is often woolly, or at least writes in long-winded prose which gives that impression. But readers with a special interest in Cuban politics, or Cuban literature, should appreciate Whitfield’s discourse.

Cuban Currency
Esther Whitfield
(University of Minnesota Press, ISBN 978-0-8166-5037-8, 217pp)




New Generation

Tracy Assing

I first saw KeKeRe at the 3Canal Show JAB in the Box, at the Little Carib Theatre in 2005. He gave a passionate performance then and his lyrics were good, but his voice lacked the melody to project his feelings.

Today, performers apply computer software where vocals fail, but on the album New Generation KeKeRe does not apply any of the technology.

Ten of the 17 tracks on the album were produced by KeKeRe (Mauri K Hall) at his home studio, Vengeance Media, in Carnbee, Tobago. Producers $hel-$hok, Calliston Pantor, Kenny Phillips and even music video producer Gotti chip in.

Hall says the title of the album came from one of the tracks, a tribute to US President Barack Obama.

“I want this album to introduce me to the public in a way that has not been done before. I also hope that it can act as a catalyst for the Tobago music scene, where people will see it is possible to release an album from Tobago, as a Tobagonian, and have it sold around the country, the region and the world.”

The album includes “Sense and Understanding”, recorded when the singer was ten; a cover of Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy” and “Lady Sheila (New Generation Remix)”, from the Brand New Lucky Diamond Horseshoe Club soundtrack.

Interestingly, David Rudder carries the main vocal on “Lady Sheila”, and KeKeRe is just a featured performer along with Khafra Rudder and Bunji Garlin. (The Brand New Lucky Diamond Horseshoe Club is a calypso musical written and produced by Tony Hall, KeKeRe’s father.)

If you can read the fuzzy white type against a black background used for the liner notes, you might notice there’s no listing for track 11. That track, “I Am KeKeRe”, is the song I heard him perform at Jab in the Box in 2005.

My favourite song on the album is “Jab Jab on the Road (And Iron Ringing)”, which was co-produced with Kenny Phillips. The remix featuring KeKeRe’s uncle, comedian Dennis “Sprangalang” Hall, is pretty good too. Live horns were the perfect choice for this track, which has the great swing of ole-time kaiso.

For more of KeKeRe:




Crazy (Crazy2k9)
Essiba Small

For 2009 the man dubbed the lovable lunatic offers fans Crazylicious – a 15-song set that runs the gamut of social commentary, songs for the pan, and soca.

Of course, this being Crazy, the disc is not without the singer’s signature double-entendre tracks, namely “Bruising” and “It Hard”.

You may snicker a little bit to hear the veteran calypsonian assume a Casanova role with calypso ballad “Tonite”. Hear him laying down the lyrics for the lady of his affections: “For with every squeeze I am on my bending k nees/Oh sugar sugar…. I’ll never leave you tonight.”

“In Time To Come”, a past hit for the wild-haired singer, is also featured on this disc as a bonus track – perhaps since the lyrics in it – “In time to come America would have its first black President” – have now come true. US President Barack Obama’s photo is also pasted on the jacket.

Other tracks include “Ahead of Time”, a remake of the John Lennon/Paul Mc Cartney classic “Ob-La-Di” and “Pan Wisdom”.



A Tropical Journey in Percussion and Steel

The Rainmakers (Sanch)
Essiba Small

This is a cleverly put-together CD from the Golden Hands Steel Ensemble and the UWI Percussion Ensemble.

Incorporating music and narration, the disc follows the story of the Rainmakers, who defeat the king of drought to bring rain to the thirsty land. The “Rainmakers Suite” was scripted by Franka Hills-Headley with music composed by Dr Jeannine Remy.

Listeners will delight in how accurately the music matches the storyline, as in the feeling of despair one gets in listening to “The Thirsty Earth”, when the music hits a swell following a slow build-up in “The Burst of Heaven” and the festive “Coronation”.

CDs courtesy Cleve’s One Stop Record Shop, Frederick Street, Port of Spain, Trinidad

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.