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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 323.

Could Carnival produce less garbage?

Somewhere, in the midst of all the music and coming together, is it possible for the right people to commit in the right way to make it happen?

No one cares once feteing starts until crossing the stage culminates, but a little leadership in the lead up could change our whole country. Carnival, after all, could be so collective, so representative of who we are, if only we see who our best could be.

I’ve walked around with Ziya or accompanied her through Kiddies’ Carnival thinking that, no matter how I’d like to teach her what responsibility means, the landscape socializes her to not care, to not even notice, to assume that discarding any and everything is without consequence, and to think that this is a privilege she should take for granted.

She’s simultaneously learning to selectively see who her people are and what her culture condones – an all too common problem whether in relation to garbage, violence or corruption.

I’d blame government for their lack of leadership and for sitting in the audience to hear calypso like its 1968, reproducing a tradition of nothing changing while the garbage piles up around them, but I’m convinced not seat in Cabinet, or in Opposition, actually cares about such blame. Imagine, not one national initiative or effort has successfully transformed our Carnival footprint in all these years.

Where does everyone think all that excessive plastic and Styrofoam goes on a small island that dumps it in our neighbour’s backyard, in rivers or in the ocean? This isn’t just about our global impact, it’s also about our pride in and care of our one twin-island home.

Every Styrofoam box that held fries and every cup that briefly contained corn soup will be poisoning our ecosystem after we are all dead, and our great grandchildren are left to suffer from the carelessness of our mess.

If the government decided that it would work with the private sector to coordinate availability of and emphasis on paper plates and cups to transform our social practices, and if they collaborated with the big profit-making bands and all-inclusive fetes to significantly reduce their footprint, then Carnival could fulfill the potential for not only its own beauty, but also as a maker of history on the anthropocene’s world stage.

The garbage we leave behind in the fete and on the road gets cleaned up and disappears from our immediate view and our short-term memory. However, it ends up somewhere and it remains the responsibility of each of us to catch up with a planet that needs us to no longer culturally celebrate an out-of-timing backwardness.

Every single one of us could demand better from our band, from the NCC, and from the Cabinet. All it takes is will, coordination, alternatives, and a little investment beyond the individual into an idea of a collective, and transformations that seem impossible can happen overnight.

As you jump up in the next week, take a second to look around at your feet, and at the garbage surrounding you. It’s such a different sight from the emphasis on dressing up and looking good, from playing a beautiful mas and playing your sequined and colourful body, but it’s where our real self – under the make-up and masquerade – is most visible.

How does it look? How do you think its looks to another generation learning that this is our greatest show on earth?

Every year, I wonder when Carnival will do it differently from the year before. I wonder if maybe we will do it out of love for our country or for the little children.

This year, as I walked through the space that means so much to so many, I wondered if, buoyed by music and spirit, we might chip away from our past and do it for something so close to our heart as our beloved Savannah grass.

 

Post 322.

Sunday’s semi-finals provided annual bliss of sweet pan. As night fell, I rolled up on the dusty asphalt of the track, loving the tradition of rich and poor rubbing shoulders.

This is always my favorite place to be. As the bands move toward the savannah, all and sundry stand up close and in between the pans, holding on and swaying in suspension of tensions of sex, race, class and creed just for those minutes of high mas, and watching the players practice like anointed spirits that descend back into ordinary life once the last note is played.

You could close your eyes and safely get lost right there, for around you others also seem lifted by sounds of iron and steel dissecting and combining and jumping up into the air.

Wandering toward the stage, I meandered through children and babies playing amidst families and friends drinking, eating, talking and leaning back against muted sounds of soca from food vendors, for this wasn’t a fete in here, with its distorted bass and its bawling DJs, this was social space for communities of pan players and lovers to congregate over finer points of music.

To see the police walk through, maybe twenty strong and parting the crowd the way Two Face Crew once – a long time ago – used to, showed an approach at odds with its own cultural context.

People are happy for policing that makes society safe, but that effort doesn’t always have to appear more badjohn than the bandits. There’s an embeddedness in the local rather than a separation from people, that if conveyed, would make police presence more welcomed, and more respected.

I thought about how much more accepted police would appear if they walked through dispersed in smaller groups, acknowledging those around them, rather than seeming at odds with or distrustful of informal cultures of togetherness.

Seeing them, these blue-uniformed women and men who are indeed our own, I didn’t feel safer, I felt criminalized and infantilized, like the relaxed intergenerational joy I had been experiencing was sternly told to keep within bounds of good behavior. I felt like when old school teachers walk into a classroom of talkative students and hush descends as they menacingly take out a hard ruler, and you get frighten even if you haven’t done anything wrong.

Threats are everywhere and police have their job to do, but policing isn’t just swagger, it’s engagement with multiple representations and strategies. It requires an assessment of the present and an understanding of the past.

During Carnival, there are tensions around policing itself for completely valid historical reasons. It was police, in keeping order, who kept oppression in place, and Carnival revitalizes significant memory about why such force should be resisted. At the same time, levels of gun crimes, murders and feelings of insecurity also provide valid reasons for police visibility. Still, the whole country doesn’t need to be intimidated as if it is a criminal gang.

We’d all have felt their presence, and all have appreciated that could mean deterrence of crime and quick response when required, but we would have felt this way even without such a mass show of strong-arm force. There’s skill in asserting the professional authority that connects to what publics expect and what makes people feel reassured without overkill.

In my decades on the track, I’ve seen how spaces of public safety and artistic connection, and family feeling and national togetherness do exist. These are a resource for policing which should be embraced, rather than dismissed.

Part of pan bliss is the collective energy of people pushing steel bands on stage in a powerful metaphor for the idea of taking care of our own, and putting a hand in with beloved and stranger alike to press ahead, in pace with sweetness, ambitious camaraderie, and excitedly beating hearts.

As I crossed with All Stars, the phalanx of police appeared again, burly with stern faces, set jaws, helmets and big guns, to hurry us off stage, for such togetherness has to be kept on time and in order by the threat of a lil rough up for not listening quick enough.

I would have exited just as quickly if such anti-riot assemblage was replaced by nice ladies in bright t-shirts, without guns in competition for power with all that steel. As the band began, I looked on thinking about what Carnival taught us long ago. There’s fear and there’s love, and no power can govern legitimately through the first alone.

 

 

 

 

Post 270.

Last year’s politically-astute megahit touched a deep chord in people’s spinal cord. Ultimate Rejects-MX Prime’s ‘Full Extreme‘ brilliantly called out the disaster that is Port of Spain’s governance of the nation’s treasury and economy. It also celebrated the popular necessity of taking jammin, giving jammin, and jammin still, which is the only way to endure hardship, hold on to an ideal of fulfillment, and experience enough bodily exuberance, however fleeting, to lift the spirit.

What to do in the midst of a recession that, as Terrence Farrell tells us, the government refuses to fix? Doh business; a piece of advice as complex as any proverb or framed verse of Desiderata, rephrased in the grammar of soca.

One year, thousands of lay-offs and hundreds of dead bodies later, we need another refrain to carry us collectively through this season. 2018 Carnival’s expected Road March, ‘Soca Kingdom’, brings the success of Machel’s signature hard pong and invokes the obeah of Super Blue, but provides few of the political layers of last year.

The Boy King offers bare description of ‘wining all in front of the people business place’. There will be wining and it will occur in front of locked and shuttered business places, but there’s no comparable ‘kaiso, kaiso!’ in this line’s lyrical imagining of the dream and dread of sovereignty over our twin-island domain.

Lloyd Best is in my head as I think about this, with his view that none of us yet consider ourselves the owners in this place. Rather, we all understand ourselves as workers and second-class citizens; mere proletarians without capital to be in charge. You only “party like a VIP” if you are not partying as a VIP. If, indeed, you not a VIP. You only wining in front of “the people” business place if those people are others and not you.

I suppose, on reflection, rather than normalizing classist barricades which have invaded fete spaces over the past decade with VVIP sections promising champagne in mauby times, Machel’s instruction actually names the paltry and narrowed terms of our social contract, and distribution of wealth and power in our political-economy.

An elite some get to be “the people”, an aspiring some get near enough to act “like”, and the rest must make the most of wining over countless road pothole, the most obvious and common symbol of how smartmen in a contractocracy become VVIP.

A major problem, any economist will tell you, is that business in Trinidad and Tobago is often dependent on state funds or on imports, and with oil and gas production and prices low, neither does the state have funds nor are we earning enough to sustain a model premised on imports, not even a Carnival model masquerading as local when premised on imports.

Back to champagne and mauby. The Trinidad and Tobago Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (TTEITI) released a report on our “new normal” in January, showing that we are spending more than we are earning, and it’s clear that the management of our resources, investments, and plans for sustainable revenue generation have been and continue to be poor.

So, unfortunately, when the wining is done, somebody is going to have to business about the people business place, which is the government and nation, and start business places that create rather than lay off jobs, bringing in rather than spending foreign exchange.

Otherwise, the biggest business in the place will be crime, and the gangs will run communities like they own them, murdering whomever they choose, which is how de facto sovereign power works when the social contract meant to protect the People’s business fails.

In this Soca Kingdom, we have to rule from inside, rather than being in front and locked out. To quote Growling Tiger, money is King, and we are set to find out if it’s really true, that when you are broken, a dog is better off than you.

Post 238.

Mas may have mostly left the masses now that bikini and beads revelry runs the road, but the public still comes out in the hope of seeing art take to the streets, to come to them as witnesses, and in homage.

For, mas must come to people and be for them, exciting something in spectators’ waiting and watching hearts in their next intake of observation and breath.

Anyone who has ever played mas that embodies design, skill and character knows this public love for mas portrayals which turn ordinary materials such as chicken wire and cloth or nondescript beads sewn into intricate patterns into otherworldly representations. People are hungry for public creativity and Carnival is when they line sidewalks and crowd corners hoping to catch sight of a moving figure that releases all our pent-up imaginations.

Tuesday found me amidst revelers and spectators, carrying on my shoulders a swollen white skull, connected to dragging tendrils, its mouth open in silent screaming horror. As our small swarm of post-apocalyptic sailors moved through the streets, people repeatedly stopped us and asked, ‘Which band dis is?’, nodding knowledgeably when we told them it was a Minshall mas with Exodus Steel Orchestra. Minshall had said as much in an earlier interview, hoping that this mas would “make a lot of old folk feel very good inside with a sort of satisfying sigh. ‘Ah, yes, well at least I see that again before I dead’”.

Just outside the hospital in town, a woman named Germaine with her little boy, Harmony, stopped to instruct us to play our mas on the stage for her. People were appreciative and discerning, evaluating our portrayal as they stood in front of us, mobilizing familiarity with art history and technique as it has appeared again and again in mas making.

‘Are you a ghost?’, one little girl asked as we waited interminably in Memorial Square as rain fell, sun shone and rain fell again. Indeed, as dystopian ghosts, or spirits of an imagined place of unhappiness, fear and injustice, our towering figures combined sailor mas with robber mas in a band of the dead. We could only be described as a dread mas for dread times, whether because of economic despair, ecological devastation or the recent election of Donald Trump to global dominance.

As we walked, our cloth trails became muddied and stringy, and lengthened out into disgusting tentacles navigating the endless garbage of every kind. I kept wanting to cut them off and return my costume to its opaque whiteness.

Just as I was about to ask veteran mas maker and one of the band’s leaders, Kathryn Chan, she turned to me and said that she loved how soiled they had become and wished she had made them longer. I kept quiet and recommitted to carrying the mas with the authenticity its makers had envisioned. After all, we were rising from the grave, stained by the detritus of humanity, to show an “ominous, empty, vaporized future passing you by” in the present.

Called ‘Spiritus Mundi’ or world spirits, we moved like a whisper of truth through the noise, like a collective soul of the universe containing the memories of all time, somehow both ethereal and material, light and white, yet sodden and unclean.

“No jumping up and dancing on the stage”, Kathryn shouted at us above the cacophony of trucks as she directed the children moko jumbies and flag bearers. We were to properly play our collective character in this theatre, and to show the sobering suffering of the world as a giant mesh representation of the planet rolled ahead of us and a rainbow crowned the hills of Laventille behind.

Minshall himself was sitting in front of his television, impatiently waiting to see another generation of Callaloo Company turn his drawings into life. Just as we stepped on stage, the stations switched to San Fernando, leaving him bereft from an ill-fated director’s decision.

He was inconsolable about missing our enactment and, so, should know that, for those of us that were there, this beautiful and macabre mas was an epic gift, weightless on Tuesday, despite the weight of the world that is our burden now that Carnival has come and gone.

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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.

Post 236.

Over the last three decades, the rise of bikini mas has been considered a sign of Carnival’s loss of politics.  In this view, gone was the costuming skill and performance that defined mas itself, to be replaced by wining skill and body display, with the heyday of top male bandleaders replaced by bottom and ‘Carnival is woman’.

The feminization of Carnival was an unrepentant fall from high mas, and women’s ‘vulgarity’ was obsessively interlocked with the downfall of decency and order in the wider society. This easily fit the misbegotten myth that all the world’s troubles would be solved if only women never misbehave.

Women disagreed by the tens of thousands.

The past thirty or so years of bikini mas, which is now typical for an entire generation of young women, could therefore instead be thought of as a massive women’s movement taking cultural form, indeed ‘taking over’ Carnival, to continue traditions of self-affirmation, resistance to subordination, and renegotiation of the rules of public space.

Observers of the ‘jamette’ tradition point to the fact that women in Carnival always combined the folk politics of ‘playing mas’ with the gender and sexual politics of ‘playing yuhself’ in ways that were typically disallowed to women, and that women took both these politics into their challenges to the state.

What’s evident over the last decades is that such ‘jamette’ performance has crossed racial, religious and class differences amongst women, becoming national, and therefore even more disturbing for men as diverse as Sat Maharaj, Tim Kee, Keith Rowley and Father Harvey, with their patriarchal passion for women’s responsibility, decency, dignity and prayer.

Women’s annual occupation of the nation’s streets over Carnival, to experience sexual control, bodily pleasure and freedom from respectability, predates anti-‘slut shaming’ or ‘slut walk’ marches in the North by decades. Unexpectedly, bikini mas helped powerfully cultivate contemporary women’s opposition to rape culture, or a society where sexual domination of women and their vulnerability to sexual violence is seen as natural and normal. Though globalized, this creative expression of women’s rights is homegrown.

We saw the force of such opposition when Asami Nagakiya was murdered and the groups Womantra and Say Something called for the resignation of the PoS Mayor. We have seen it in continued ‘not asking for it’ campaigns across the region, in a younger generation of women publicly refusing old men’s bad habits of victim-blaming, and in diverse support for #lifeinleggings’ call to break silences about sexual harassment. It’s part of Say Something’s current ‘Leave me alone’, ‘Leave she alone’ campaign, in collaboration with Calypso Rose, which encourages women to share “experiences of street harassment and violence during Carnival and also of positive moments when you felt defended or protected by your Carnival community…whether as revellers or frontline workers and service providers”.

The rise of bikini mas is complex. Women’s increasing income and economic independence are major factors. Desires to be affirmed as beautiful as black and brown women, not just as ascendant students and workers, is another. Expansion of women’s spaces for friendly sexual ribaldry, such as the maticoor, into the public domain is a third, bringing with it challenges to the hypocrisy of male privilege, which allowed men all kinds of license while keeping women in check.

There are also contradictions. Costs of bikini mas participation mean that class shapes access to these moments of freedom. Many women continue to play within ropes, reproducing historical ways that upper classes cut themselves off from others, while signaling the reality of sexual harassment which all classes of women continue to fear. Additionally, the marketing of hypersexuality over these very decades has reinforced hierarchies of beauty and the policing of women’s bodies in ways that complicate the radical potential of bikini mas to throw off pressures women face, embrace self-pleasure without judgment or justification, and defy nation-state commodification.

Against nostalgic anxieties, bikini mas has enabled serious woman politics of all kinds to take up space in Carnival. It is the largest movement of women to take to the streets in the country, bringing diverse aspirations for an equal place as gendered and sexual beings. And, it has cultural capital, empowering anti-violence activists’ demands that both men and the state better behave.