Post 364.

Carnival is interwoven with our lives, but representations of it tend to focus on the public and performative. Our narratives also emphasize the big Carnival bands and big musical names. However, as we close this season, I’d like to reflect instead on the little stories we don’t see, particularly in relation to children and family.

On Carnival Friday, Ziya won her school Calypso Monarch competition with her entry, ‘Send Parents Back to School’.

The song was produced by her dad, Lyndon ‘Stonez’ Livingstone, who is a long time DJ and producer. Born into Trinidad and Tobago’s spoken word movement through Rapso in 1998, but having moved away from both poetry and performing as work and motherhood took over, I get a connection to the past through writing calypsos for Zi.

Though our marriage has moved on since the days when he would produce for me, when a DJ and a poet have a daughter, we get to nurture an intergenerational love and engagement with local culture. We also get to be better people and parents from having to come together each year to cooperate for her. Through the growing pains of creating new relationships and definitions of ourselves, it’s no small truth to say that calypso has helped to keep our sense of family together.

For a long time, we looked at our shy, cautious and hesitant child, and wondered if she would grow into her confidence. Now in her fifth year of a little school competition, and her second win, I was amazed to see a blossoming nine-year-old command her school stage; her stance powerful, her delivery strong and her performance bold.

She wanted the prize money, to buy Lego and mint gum, she had developed a sense of ambition and competition, and she was increasingly willing to take risks publicly. Other parents may have similar stories of Carnival’s opportunities for confidence-building, and may be able to say this about drama and sports, but it was calypso that did it for Zi.

There may be much to debate about the value and legacy of these last weeks, but this is one quiet and small story that Carnival has left with me. It’s like this around the country, in pan sides filled with youth, in family mas camps where children learn about the spiritedness of masquerade while still at the breast, in musical homes where young bards begin to follow in elders’ footsteps.

In each of these, there are not simply stories of fete and wine and rum. There are also real moments of separated parents sharing common commitment and joy; of little children learning about Carnival as hard work, shared effort and a labour of love; and the awkwardness of self-doubt blooming into new-found capacity to aspire and achieve.

As so many want for their children, we wanted Ziya to learn about what it means to speak up for her generation and to connect to others so that they can see their reality in what she advocates. We wanted her to see that a hook is a clear message which can signify an historical moment. We wanted her to know that the more she knew about her country is the more resonant her voice could be across time. We wanted her to know that social commentary had to be more than a lament, it had to capture imagination while being accessible to anyone willing to listen.

So, we kept the lyrics simple:

Children, what to say? Like Trinbago gone astray. Crime and violence is the rule. Send parents back to school!

Like adults forget all their learned. Set bad example with no concern. We fed up, fed up not being safe. Parents must learn how to behave.

So put on your uniform, shine your shoes. We giving tests and homework too. First class is basic civics, and revision until the country fix.

Ting a ling ling. School bell ring. Too much adults misbehaving. Ting a ling ling. School bell ring. Back to school every morning!

Tell Gary Griffith, we have a plan to fight criminals across the land, teach about the country we should have, put the future in parents’ school bag!

Children, what to say? Like Trinbago gone astray. Crime and violence is the rule. Send parents back to school!

As critics cross swords over what was wasted and gained, this is a story of Carnival’s possibilities for togetherness and growth.  As a grateful mother of a little girl, this is therefore also a small ode to kaiso.

Post 363.

Kes’ 2020 hit, “Boss Lady”, is a catchy representation of men’s current negotiations with sex, labour and power.

It describes a time when our society considers itself in a crisis of masculinity typified by men’s lower enrollment in tertiary schooling, their turn away from the formal economy, and a shrinking, male-dominated industrial and energy sector. “This economy”, Kes sings, “have meh looking for wuk”.

By contrast, over decades, women have capitalized on educational opportunities and, to the extent they are available, secure jobs. They have also mobilized traditionally feminine skills in beauty, catering, sewing, jewelry-making, suitcase trading and childcare to survive in the informal economy in ways that enable greater economic empowerment and more say over their lives.

Women still experience unemployment at higher rates than men, but the educational trends will eventually shift the income trends. This won’t topple patriarchy, but it will make men contend with their role differently, offering their labour, including sexual labour, to women on renegotiated terms.

We’ve long heard this narrative in UWI principals and prime ministers’ worry that women wouldn’t be able to find suitable husbands. Yet, neither of these authorities considered that women may become more interested in men for sex and labour than marriage, or that sex and labour may ultimately be what men are most able to offer.

This is a fascinating twist, for women, such as secretaries, were the ones historically sexualized by a boss man, and were eroticized in pornographic fantasies of a willing maid providing both domestic and sexual service. What happens when men start offering themselves for such “wuk”?

As early as 1935, Attilla’s calypso, “Women Will Rule the World” warned that, once, women only wanted to be a mother and wife, but now there is “no limit to their ambition”. He lamented that women would become “tyrants” expecting men to scrub floors, wash clothes, and mind the baby when women go out at nights to roam.

By 1987, amidst an economic decline, Tambu’s “Yes Darling” expressed similar dread about changing sexual relations. The song is about Tommy who was once breadwinner, and used to boast about how hard he had his woman working. But, “One day he lost he wuk and end up home/ Now she turn breadwinner, and he become housemaker/Man she have him working, the way he had she doing/Each day as a rule, she have Tommy working like a mule”.

Simultaneously, women seized on the theme of “Woman is Boss” when it comes to excelling at “caring, sharing and achieving”. From Denyse Plummer to Destra’s “Independent Ladies”, this has been a feminist narrative of doing as well as or better than men, but also doing well without them if women had to earn, save and also raise their babies on their own. A “real woman” echoes Patrice, “own house, car and land” and “take charge of yuh man”.

Women also began to respond to men’s anxieties by expressing desire for a worker man; a play on the sexual pleasure of a cocksman, but one who also provides satisfying manual labour. “I want you to take your broom and sweep my yard/You better brush it good or we go fall apart/Don’t give me no shortcut thing, you have all day and night/I had to satisfy, so you better do it right”, thus sings Denise Belfon in the 2001 song, ‘Work It’.

No surprise, then, that Kes offers his physical and sexual labour to a woman boss with a job vacancy, who is looking for a flawless resume, guaranteed proper ‘wuk’, and a #1 employee.

It’s not coincidental that, after decades of apprehension, up to Blackie’s 2009 ‘Ah Hook’ where the fellas considered him a “mook” for doing his lady’s laundry and ironing, men may be re-considering what they offer to well-educated, financially-capable and successful women.

To that end, in a sexual economy with changing relations of gender and power, well-equipped men will always have a job which women want done, whether it involves a broomstick or a hose to water their garden.

What’s fascinating is that the double entendre isn’t simply about sexual suitability, but also about an ability to meet a boss lady’s domestic needs.

Derrick Seales’ 2020 tune, ‘House Husband’, nails this moment by circling back to Attila’s fears. However, man-woman relations have changed so much, he now sings about proudly washing clothes, cleaning the house, vacuuming and making up the bed night and day.

“Put that wuk in front of me” concludes Kes, “and I go come in right away”.

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Post 324.

IT WAS a brief, breath-held moment of unexpected confidence. As a mother, I felt as if I had managed to do something right. This rare feeling wasn’t dependent on her marks or good behaviour. It came as I watched her be brave as if that’s what she was born to do.

Ziya’s typically a little shy and hesitant, but Friday was her fourth calypso monarch competition at her primary school. We never understood how she agreed to go up on stage in the first place. The last thing she wanted was the awkwardness of public performance and attention, what she described as “too many people watching.”

We figured that, somehow, being the daughter of a DJ and a poet maybe had genetic influence. We thought that maybe growing up in a production studio made her edge a little closer to familiarity with music. There isn’t a clear answer, but she was up there when she was five years old expressing a self that seemed unusual for a girl who would still hide behind me when she met strangers. She stood on the school’s auditorium stage then; small, focused and fixed to the spot, remembering her lyrics.

We sent her up twice more, finding topics that filled a space for children in Carnival and focused on the little ups and downs of their lives. So, her first song, Mosquito, complete with a dance and drawing the interest of the Ministry of Health in their fight against dengue, was followed by a composition about losing her pot hound, Shak Shak, when she ran away one day.

True story: Shak Shak was found a week later far away in Las Cuevas, inexplicably distant from Santa Cruz, and well looked-after. She had, somehow, hopped a drop to the beach and the song found the humour in searching high and low, almost from Tobago to Toco, calling and calling. The chorus, “Where’s Shak Shak?,” got the whole audience to participate in solving this mystery.

Last year, we decided to start experimenting with soca, bringing calypso story-telling to pace and production which children could dance to. Have you ever noticed that there’s no music just for children at Carnival, their own soca genre that draws from the best of call-and-response refrains, and exuberant happiness? We began to aim to create that content.

Though Zi would alternately agree and refuse to compete, as shyness recalibrated with the push of coming second place, in the end she was there singing, Pencil Cases in the Air, a tune about packing your school bag. “Before the school bell rings, every morning check your things: erasers, sharpeners, rulers too, scissors, pencils and your glue,” she listed. Now in her third year, she was bouncing a bit more, tapping her foot on the stage’s wooden floor, but still contained like a child successfully performing what she had rehearsed, not yet able to leap into connecting with an audience.

This year, it’s like she grew up, as children so quickly do, one day more capable at a particular skill than they were before, as if the cumulative effort of years of parenting suddenly met with the right age for another step in life to be conquered.

Singing about the tribulations of having to learn times tables, we wrote lyrics for eight-year-olds, about the pressure of having to know the answer to two times eight, about revising for tests and being up late, and about it being true for every child that, “times tables coming for you.”

It isn’t often that you get to tell a story of Carnival as a space for growing up, whether for children singing, stilt-walking, playing pan or playing mas. On stage this year, she moved like an experienced performer, channelling the humour of Rose and Sparrow, the populism of Iwer and Machel, and the sweetness of Shadow’s horns.

I had never seen her this confident. One day, children grow into a lesson and get it perfect, maybe in English, math, music or sports. Then, if you are a mother who often doubts if she’s making the best decisions or one who quietly regrets her many mistakes, you exhale because such bravery was all you had hoped for, and you give thanks with wonder, rather than pride.

Although this is a story of Carnival, calypso and growing up, and of finally winning through many tries, such momentary magic of together getting it right is one with which parents anywhere in sweet T and T can perhaps identify.

 

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Post 321.

In his 2005 hit tune ‘Ah hook’, Blackie sings about how he and his lady living so nice. In the video, he’s washing and hanging panties on the line, ironing clothes, giving her exaggerated amounts of money for cinema, and hugging her all about town.

The aproned depiction of washing and ironing represents a man publicly losing his manhood in the eyes of other men. Tricked by sweat rice, he tells other men that all the housework he does and all he spends on his woman isn’t their business.

Men say he’s a chupidee, and a mook, but he doesn’t care. He’s ready to do whatever it takes to make his lady happy. He’s so hooked, his feet (and shoelaces) are literally tied and he is unable to leave.

Without having to resort to sweat rice and tied shoelaces, I want a man hooked like that. More importantly, I want him to hook me.

I imagine if he’s looking and cooking the way he does, if he is smart and knows how to spend, and is so good about looking after the children, he could hook me back. He’ll know a hard-working woman wants a man to share, not just the costs, but also the labour and care that goes into everyday living. For, relationships require more than love and lyrics alone.

I want to be hooked because he sees how I’m feeling, and asks me questions and listens so he could try to understand. In his eyes, I’m more fire-hot-empress, more one-and-only than mere trophy, the best in his success story, and his daily inspiration to become a better man.

He’s hooked me through his commitment to giving whatever it takes to the life we are building. He knows apology comes with accountability, and can be trusted to make promises that don’t end in a garbage bin. Because he wants to grow on his own from his, and our, mistakes, he keeps hooking me in.

Relationships are hard, but things don’t mash up just so. He’ll know that if my love is disappearing, many times I’ve already said something, and there’s been reason after reason, each one a little more heart-breaking.

He’ll think for himself about all that I’m feeling so if I’ve decided to leave him, he’ll look into my heart, right where it needs mending, and see how he was taking his woman for granted from long, long ago. He takes responsibility for his choices and his reliance on our relationship inequalities. He knows not to beg to come back without a plan. He won’t force me to have to be so strong that I say no to yet another chance.

I want a man hooked enough to step up and honest enough to step back because being hooked is not enough, and he knows that a woman needs no reason to leave other than that she wants to go. Ending a family is never an easy decision, but a woman can’t stay when she feels better on her own.

Blackie might have been a mook, but he’s not the one put out in the road. It’s not about being unable to leave. It’s about making it worthwhile for someone to stay. It’s about respecting when she’s done with less than she’s worth, and becoming better or walking away. It’s about self-reflecting as a man without relying on a woman to justify and explain. What is remorse if it doesn’t heal hurts? What value is sweet talk if things remain the same?

Without putting panties in a pot, what does it take for him to pay attention to what’s happening before it all falls apart? I could do without the begging. Where’s the man who can hook me everyday with his loving? He’s washing and looking after the children, and we are a partnership with connection and communication where my needs and emotions matter too. Anything else is too lonely and even children suffer in this story while he’s out on the pavement without a clue.

While Kenneth Salick still wondering why Radica left him alone, like a dog without a bone, Farmer Nappy can’t believe the bridges his woman is burning despite his love so true. These songs of men’s heart-break show incomprehension about how women experience men and why they eventually leave them. They show insufficient attention to how and why to keep hooking her so two of you could live nice. I want to be hooked too. Maybe, Blackie could give them some advice.

Post 273.

Minshall mas was an iconic meeting of national colours, the red confined to the band’s massive banners while all else was the white of sailor mas combined with deep blackness of God’s omniscient eye. Who knew that white and black pared down to absolute essentials could feel so epic in a sea of multi-colour? Who knew a Burroquite, derived from the Spanish word burroquito, could play the immortal, winged Pegasus from Greek mythology, as if the little donkey of traditional mas could aspire to be a stallion, like Aldrick and his dragon, just to cross the stage?

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Hurrying from a fete to the Savannah to see Exodus competing at pan finals with moko jumbies and Minshall’s banners hovering overhead, I thought about the headiness of the stage. Hard to define, but like music, when its vortex envelopes you and that wind coming down from the Northern Range hits your skin, it’s like you feel no pain.

If you don’t play Carnival, you don’t realize how much beauty there is to miss. The heart of the moment remains with traditional mas and with small brilliantly creative bands. Like with pan, our best cultural values are practiced in traditional mas making, their outcomes worn on the body like sacred thread.

Mas making involves intense commitment to long hours of hard work, community-building and collective happiness. It involves grounded theorizing as highfalutin as anything found in a museum, and political clap back through direct satire or alternate envisioning for nation, history, ecology and dignity.

It involves immense skill. You might think the same thing is being repeated every year and fail to see the nuanced experiments with weight, beadwork, painting, colour, rope-making, wire and cloth that characterize a lifetime of work with art.

Besides sacred threads, the high mass of jouvay brought its ethereal bliss right when the sun begins to rise over the hills and your pores raise with indescribable gratitude that religious orthodoxy doesn’t have a stranglehold on all that is holy, for the separation between the sacred and profane is merely one form of social order, and it’s possible to feel fully alive and free and God-given while dutty and in old clothes and keenly aware of how much of the world is a hell we should turn upside down. So much is going on as you move through town, you can see how Lovelace couldn’t limit himself to short sentences for a spirit seems to fill the streets like words jumbieing a full stop.

With 3 Canal, and against the backdrop of the Laventille Rhythm Section, there’s a haute couture that you’ll never see on any Vogue runway. People paint, weave and sew masks, veils, jackets, dresses, headdresses and produce home-made devil horns of every beautiful kind. Someday someone’s going to build a career on documenting the specific aesthetic of jouvay high fashion.

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Photo: Elliot Francois

As he does every year, Stone made me a standard, this time with the Eye of God, to play a Monday mas, to ironically position it watching police as they watched me, and to remind that mas doesn’t have to be a big production. Just a bamboo stick, box for cardboard and some paint.

Review of the road this year must mention the power of messaging about a culture of consent. I saw the women of Womantra with their signs. I saw a renegotiation of body politics and permission, significant considering how many men come to town ‘for woman’. I watched ‘Bishops’ girls’, sing their school song, now as hardback, jamette-style flag women. Profound shifts everywhere.

Finally, Ziya’s calypso competition song, which earned second place, “Pencil cases in the air!” gave Stone and I chance to experiment; going full Iwer, throwing in a Destra-style bridge and adding memorable hooks for school children everywhere. Calypso will only survive if people can’t stop singing its refrain. Tents may be dying, but in children, calypso traditions may rise again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Post 237.

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On Carnival Friday last year, my sapodilla was on stage singing her calypso competition tune, ‘Mosquito’. Zika was an oncoming threat and we wanted to combine musical commentary on a serious issue with humour, to step away from trends where women and girls are the voices of public lament, while men and boys the kings of humour and word play.

So, her verse, ‘Health Ministry spray/cannot save the day/plus recession biting them too’, was meant to highlight collective responsibility for mosquito-borne diseases, ecological concerns about insecticides used by the state and their impact on insect biodiversity and, at another level, the multiple ways big issues bite both state and society. She came second, promptly putting her prize money in her piggy-bank.

Following this, the song reached the ears of a national park ranger in the US who, just this week, sent Ziya her own Biscayne National Park Junior Ranger badge because her song is going to be introduced into their kids’ camp. In her mailed package, Sapodilla also got a fossilized shark tooth which she proudly put in her treasure box. You never know where calypso can reach.

Today, she’s on stage again, with ‘first-class lyrics for so/ but not about no mosquito’. This time, she’s telling a true story about our dog Shak Shak who, terrified by Old Year’s Night fireworks, ran away and was lost for several days. In the song, she looks for Shak Shak everywhere. She goes by the church, all they tell her is that prayer always works. She stops by the shop owner, but he’s only helping his customers. The police are too busy looking for tief. She calls up the Prime Minister, he tells her to put her request in a letter. She goes up Mount Hololo, which is near us, and even Tobago, which is far, but no Shak Shak.

The end of the song finds Shak Shak hopping a drop to the beach for, of all things a vacation, leading to the double-meaning in the punch-line which observes how ‘Shak Shak reach!’, a local turn of phrase for when someone ends up where you don’t expect, whether in terms of geographical extremities or rapidly improved circumstances by opportunistic means.

In reality, our terrified dog was picked up at the side of the road by a nice couple, whose car she jumped into when they stopped to check on her. As they were on their way to Las Cuevas, Shak Shak went with them and spent several days liming, likely happily, on the North Coast with their family, all while we searched and worried. When they returned to Santa Cruz, and saw the posters, Shak Shak was brought home, looking well rested and well refreshed from all the crisp sea and mountain breeze.

A fireworks-terrified lost dog is such a common story, and the beloved pothound so many children grow up with is such a common memory, how could we not turn this escapade into kaiso? Of course, as kaiso must, Shak Shak gets portrayed in the figure of the wayward quick-stepper, successfully breaking biche before order is restored, for isn’t that what the bravado of calypso requires of even the most timid of real-life characters?

Zi herself is a timid character. She’s produced by her dad, Lyndon ‘Stonez’ Livingstone, whose Razorshop roadmix of MX Prime and UR’s ‘Full Extreme’ is now on radio replay. Still, this singing on stage business, though just in her school hall, is a reach for her as well. Might she come first this year? Given where ‘Mosquito’ and Shak Shak ended up, you never can tell.

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