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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 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 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 269.

Carnival has always been about negotiation of gendered and sexual power. Think of jamettes long confrontation with middle-class and religious expectations of respectability. Think of a cross-dressing mas tradition long enabling performance of transgressive identities.

The charge has historically been directed at women ‘wining like that’ with century after century of commentators repetitively raging about (women’s) vulgarity and the potential for bam bam to make all social order bend over.

Ignoring the hysteria of such emasculated morality, women increasingly came together in movements tens of thousands strong to declare a desire for sexual freedom and pleasure, and an expectation of state responsibility for protection of these, as ‘rights’.

Commentators who bemoaned Carnival’s loss of political punch completely misread decades of bikini mas because they were not the mouth-piece for Afro-Trinidadian working class men in the tradition of pan and calypso. They missed the significance of year after year of multi-class and multi-ethnic bands of bubblicious women in agreement about such rights as a modern Caribbean feminist politics predating ‘Slutwalks’, ‘Life in Leggings’ or ‘Me Too’ responses to sexual harassment.

‘Carnival is woman’ on the one hand was about commodifying and marketing women’s bodies as the nation’s economic stimulus package, but on the other it marked a decisive shift to a contemporary social order in which jamette resistance had become fully nationalized.

TTPS’ public position on consent in Carnival is the jamette’s desire and right to sexual autonomy and freedom from sexual violence, both denied by the very foundations of colonial authority, now articulated by law.

It’s a historically significant signal of change and power not to be by-passed, a legacy of Carnival becoming woman, now penetrating into state authority. It should stop anyone from declaring that Carnival is no longer political because the renegotiation of power in the democratic density of a ram fete or in the middle of rough wine on the road is politics itself, from rather than in ‘yuh pweffin’.

A debate with all expected hullabaloo followed the police press statement. Iwer declared, “If you look at all the history about Carnival, we never had an issue with anybody wining on anyone”. Not true. Thousands of women can tell you about fellas not taking a ‘no’ or a ‘move away’, others pulling your wrists or your waist when you on the road for Jouvay, needing to roll with a crew of fellas for protection, and playing mas within ropes and with security precisely to be free of being pursued and grabbed.

Fay-Ann’s concern was about the right to consent being abused by ‘a lot of women in the stations’ falsely claiming a man tried to wine on them, though reports of sexual violence have never worked that way. Machel was criticised for his instructions before his management instructed him to back back. The police were above the fray and dead clear. It’s assault to touch someone without her or his consent.

Police Service Asst. Supt. Michael Jackman went further than advising permission to wine: “Even when a person is already engaged in dancing or wining or gyrating with another person, with a partner, a friend, family member or stranger, at some point in time that person says, “Okay, I want to stop”, and they indicate that verbally or by action, that action may be by stepping away or saying, “no”, verbally, “I had enough”, then the person who they were engaged with at that point in time ought to respect that decision and stop”. In his statement were echoes of Explainer’s ‘Rasta Chick’, Singing Sandra’s ‘Die with My Dignity’, Destra’s ‘Wrong Bam Bam’ and even Sharlene Boodram’s, ‘Ask It’.

Wining is an old jamette language now brilliantly informing interpretation of law by police brass. The body talks, and the lesson is to become literate in woman-centred traditions of lyrical and waist skill, or Dan is the man in the van on his way to make a jail.

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