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.

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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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