It was as if the universe knew that what we needed was an army of cultural workers. That those visionary leaders could not succeed without people to first imagine a region after the colonisers. How were we, without a shot being fired, without our or their blood being spilt, supposed to turn our backs on our colonial mindset and get on with the business of being sovereign?
They could not possibly do it on their own. We, this Trinidad and Tobago, this Caribbean region, needed an army that could wield the word with enough precision that we wouldn’t need to resort to violence to confront our demons.
It was as if the universe knew that this region would not survive without an armour made of the finest mettle of cultural confidence.
We already knew the power of the calypsonian. And poets had walked on the frontline of 1970, making jail along with the leaders of the marches. It fit that theatre was also important. It fit that plays about us became essential, that the theatre director could pivot to the playwright, that the performance could pivot to an idea of a process that centred us, our bodies as instruments of communication.
And if I think now of all the work that Tony Hall and Dennis Hall did, perhaps what they did best was find ways to communicate to us our specialness. That they were expected to do this work of helping us define who we are with minimum support from those who reaped maximum benefit from their efforts is the great tragi-comedy of the arts in the region.
These days, as we try to cut culture down into saleable parts, we cannot possibly imagine what it must have been like to live the lives that Dennis Hall and Tony Hall lived. How they could have done so much of their life’s work without ever being properly compensated.
How they inherited a family business, as if the arts were like a hardware store or a law practice, replacing their father eventually on the stage at Naparima College, where he was a teacher, and backstage working the lights, and in front directing the plays, helping another generation make sense of themselves.
What is important to note is that they were not alone. There were similar efforts at building cultural confidence happening in other parts of the country, all across the region. In other families, people were reconnecting to the skills they grew up seeing. The stickfighting and the drum-making and the storytelling, the rituals involved in staging Ramleela.
For my generation, those of us who were born post–1970 Black Power and pre–1990 coup, there was a decade of awakening that was marked by that army of cultural workers. The Hall brothers were part of that army, appearing on the frontline known as Gayelle. Inside the people TV, with one television station, we watched ourselves every Thursday night. Transfixed that people who looked like us could be the stars.
Consider these two men as excellent communicators, in such similar and radically different ways. Tony with the quiet certainty. Tony the ubiquitous presence, unrepentant scholar without a PhD to make him the official property of any institution. The limer and ole talker, appearing at all hours in all kinds of places. Dennis who played the fool, but everyone knows that the fool is the one who wields the most power: every laugh could be the trigger for a revolution.
Which is not to say that Tony was not a man who could pass by and say something so outrageously funny that you think about it for days and shake your head and laugh. Which is not to say that Dennis was not a scholar, a teacher, a walking encyclopedia.
What both Tony and Dennis Hall did was to place great value in the telling of our own stories. They did not work in a vacuum. They did not work just for town people or South people or African people or intellectuals.
You were as likely to encounter Tony Hall in a panyard as you were to find him in the midst of Phagwah with a gleeful grin as someone sprayed him purple. It didn’t matter where he was, he was always with his people.
You were as likely to laugh at something that Dennis Hall said as you were to weep at how he could exactly pinpoint what was right and wrong with us.
How do you build that kind of strategy for war against cultural insecurity nowadays? Now that there are a thousand channels and us in the middle, still trying to get a little bit of attention for ourselves? When content is king but context isn’t? When everyone has lovely drone footage of sweet T&T, a thousand distant smiling faces, but few make time to zoom in, to explore, to get to the heart of the story?
Now that I look back on what I was too young to understand as a child, I see this army in perspective. Everything was so strategic. The things they read. The elders they spoke with. The yards they arrived at in the dead of night to witness a ritual, a fire pass, an old woman’s body possessed by Shango.
Many years later, while doing my own stint at Gayelle’s television station, I made my own journey to the depths of Moruga and found myself with a camera filming the fire pass at a Kali puja. I understood in that moment what it means to have an archive, to inherit cultural work, to have continuity in purpose and vision. Culture lives, and it is your responsibility as the communicator to remind people that their culture is alive and worthy of their attention.
I am always looking for an army. Trying to force my artist friends to gather the way I saw my mother gather with others like Tony Hall and Dennis Hall and Errol Jones and Christopher Laird and Wilbert Holder and Henk Tjon and Marc Matthews and Earl Lovelace and Errol Sitahal and Devindra Dookie and Rawle Gibbons and Merle Hodge, and so many others whose names we vaguely know or may have forgotten. They could solve all the world’s problems with a plate of pelau and made-up song. They gathered to do the work and also to quarrel about what the work was. They fell out about the work and made back up again. They still did the work even after they grew despondent, even after their health failed and their work went unrecognised and the pappyshow money for culture trickled to an inconstant drip.
Dennis and Tony Hall battled to the very end for us, even when we no longer remembered we were at war.