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 272.

Typical of Carnival for every one of her seven years, Ziya has been falling asleep hearing soca on loop through day and night, as loud as the chorus of crickets, frogs and barking dogs outside, but drifting through and from under the studio door across the hall.

Before roadmixes hit airwaves and all-inclusives, she’s heard them produced from beginning to end; the experiments with hooks, cowbells and synths, and their ability to add dramatic crescendo, breaks and pace. For weeks, she’d been going to sleep with ‘hello’, ‘hello’, ‘hello’ on repeat. This past week, it was ‘start’, ‘start’, ‘start’, rolling over added drums and vocals.

I’m thinking of the soundtracks to her childhood memories and how she’s inherited an experience I’ve had for almost half my life. Stone began to invent Carnival roadmixes twenty years ago, before producers started regularly sending a tune for something extra and more extended than needed for fetes and radio.

I’d go to sleep while he moved coloured lines and bars around on a computer screen, fixing vocals, pulling out buried horns, sweeps and strums, and re-arranging pan notes. Turning over in the night, I’d hear a section of sound being moved back and forth, back and forth, as he edited songs the way a DJ would, with breathing space for smooth openings and endings that could cut and mix.

Meeting other producers, remixers and DJs, I wanted to write a book about these men working from home, so different from the women’s home-based labour documented in scholarship and in poems about Caribbean mothers working as seamstresses, cake-makers or weavers while children played about them.

Did men working from home have the same experiences? Did they do as much care work while also earning income? Was there a playpen in the studio for those times when they were on parental shift and on creative deadline? Where they always ‘at work’ or did they plan times specifically for family? What was it like for their partners and children for men to be breadwinners at odd hours of the night and in their pajamas? Did music always pay the bills? What could we learn about Caribbean masculinities and labour from these studio guys?

Stone’s own history in first editing tapes before transitioning to hardware such as cds, drives and computers, and then finally ending with software, tones and sample libraries, highlighted the technological shifts that enabled these home studios to impact Trinidad and Tobago’s musical sound. It made these a lens for tracing how globalization’s wider shifts in knowledge, products and capital impact local culture even in small, near-equatorial soca kingdoms.

When we think technological shift, we think ‘Big Truck’, but it probably started with drum machines and four track tapes in these fellas’ teenage bedrooms and, later, in their home-based music studios, even more common today when all you need is a laptop and headphones.

The baby came and the book idea, titled DJ in the House, took second place, but I remembered it as Ziya began to dream to 2018 tracks not yet publicly released. Between us, we had fallen asleep and woken up to various stages in official mixes for Kees, Destra, Rikki Jai, Machel, Sherwin, Dil e Nadan, Andre Tanker, Ultimate Rejects-MX Prime, Patrice, KMC, Trini Jacobs, Bunji, Faye-Ann, David Rudder, Treason, Alison Hinds, Mr. Vegas, Chinese Laundry and even, now deceased, Rocking Randy.

She has more of a subconscious sense of the ‘cutting floor’ or final cut, a reference to unimaginably obsolete days of splicing thin reels of tape, than most of the nation dancing to versions that appear effortless, rather than debated and negotiated.

From today, extended road mixes rule the road. Thinking about their production, and not just consumption, you’d be surprised who could tell us their backstory.

 

 

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 98.

Just as you think that fourteen years of relationship has led you to that point where the original excitement has settled into routine, your husband buys two turntables and you remember what was insanely cool about him in the first place. You remember that even though you were both surviving on virtual shoestrings, the guy could mix music into a cocktail that made you thirsty for more. You remember that although there was barely enough room, in fact, not enough room for a desk, a cupboard, a bed and a chair, there were still two turntables, and in even in cramped conditions, music flew free around the room and out of the windows. You remember, as you now dance with Ziya while her daddy throws tunes and you watch her make her first, totally two year old scratch, that CDs were once scratched, filtered, remixed and pitched in DJ sessions played just for you.

You thought it was the toasted cheese sandwiches brought to you at midnight during those tough years of working full-time while finishing a PhD or maybe the Monday morning mix tapes sitting by your keys and ready to turn up as you turned on the car or maybe just some one-on-one connection that felt calm and safe, but really it was the two turntables, because now that they are back, you realize you only married the guy to get the DJ, put him in house and have him for yourself.

With fourteen years of hindsight, you look at your life now and wonder if that was shallow or youthful or such a typically girl thing to do, and despite age, maturity and present lack of a social life you still understand why all good DJs  – even bad ones – have groupies. You had it bad for a boy with two Pioneer turntables, and you wonder if it was him or them, or both, that made you fall in love.

You sit looking at those two Pioneers with their blinking lights on either side of the mixer, while Ziya’s daddy puts her to sleep in the next room, and you think that all those books about keeping romance alive in marriages and all those TEDx talks about the psychology of long-term love really miss the main point. It’s not so much about planning dates or remembering to communicate or making sure not to take the other for granted, it’s really just about finding that one thing that you knew and then forgot did it for you. That thing that might have gotten lost amidst work and bills and mortgages and traffic and tiredness. That thing you wanted to take home, turn on, rock out to, feel young with and love.

I remember now. It was a DJ, two turntables and music sets so smooth that, like the songs, everything seemed to happen right on cue, one year seamlessly blending, in pitch, bpm and key, with the next. Funny how two turntables that took you back fourteen years could do what no conversation and mutual effort was now going to do. I guess there is that one thing in every relationship. Imagine when you see it spinning in front of you.