Horizon at Sandy Point

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Two million dollars poorer

Ravi B was a spoil sport, a bad loser. He showed his true colours. Never mind that his song was "sweeter" than Rikki Jai's White Oak and Water.

The question that we need to consider, however, is what are we promoting/ developing when the first prize for the Chutney Soca Monarch is two million dollars (as it will be for the Soca Monarch on fantastic Friday March 4)? Especially in the context of the second prize at one hundred thousand dollars.

Not making any excuse for bad behaviour (except we need to understand how we provoke bad behaviour), but just trying to figure out if the top song could actually be ten times better than the second. Understanding that the intention of big prizes is an incentive to attract the best - all of the best contenders - for the best compositions, arrangements, renditions and performances. But where's the balance? Surely we appreciate that music for the road, the fetes, the season, the nation, is never built on one song. Music for this season in which our culture blooms - extravagantly and to excess like the poui or  immortelle - comes from pan, kaiso, chutney, soca, and the proliferation of artists and extraordinary music-makers coming out to  express themselves.

What do we affirm by making our best artists compete for such disproportionately inequitable rewards? A mirror of a society in which a ten percent of top earnings might actually make life more comfortable for a considerable sector of persons living under the poverty line? Do we have to make the brothers and sisters in soca and soca chutney kill each other to get to the top? Where is the understanding that an artist, even a genius, stands on the shoulders of his peers, that peers support and push the best of their company up; that the winner - head and shoulders above, but firmly and confidently in the arms of those right next to him/ her - enjoys the view for all his fellows.

The tall tree grows in the forest buttressed by all the other trees in the canopy, in the understory, right down to the vines and leaf litter, the fungus and microbes and the soil.

I am partial to Ravi B's rhythms, and sorry that he had to make a fool of himself over mere money!
Likker/ Cyah come

Friday, February 25, 2011

What Trinidad is to cocoa!

On the few occasions when my mother made "creole cocoa" for us when we were kids, it was a supper treat- instead of dinner. The recipe was mysterious. The thick chocolate arrived to the table in our old-fashioned jade coloured Chinese bowls (I"ve searched for these since childhood and not found any shaped just so). There might be a slick of cocoa butter on top, and we had to stir constantly to keep the cocoa from settling in between sips of the heated brew. On the side, we had a hot hops bread. It was enough to fill our little tummies and send us to dreamland, straight.

Later on, I saw the cocoa balls and rolls being sold by the specialist spice vendors in the market, alongside sticks of fragrant cinnamon, nutmegs, cloves, mauby bark and  aniseed. And when we moved to Santa Cruz, a broad and fertile river valley originally developed for cocoa estates, it was to be surrounded by old cocoa estates, the trees kept low with their big leaves, and large pods hanging off the trunk and lower branches under the shade of towering immortelles.

That was a time when most Trinis grew up knowing that cocoa and coffee were important staple crops. But not any more.
Old cocoa trees still producing in Brasso Seco
Did you know, for instance, that the current world production of cocoa and chocolate today, is the result of propagation from cocoa reseach in Trinidad that began a hundred or so years ago? About 80 percent of the world production of cocoa comes from Africa (Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast) and South East Asia. But their plantations grew from trees developed in Trinidad, through the work of the College of Imperial Science (subsumed into the University of the West Indies at our independence) at St Augustine. The Cocoa Research Unit (CRU) still resides in this place contiuing the work of that College.

Did you know that Trinidad continues to be the centre for cocoa research to this dayi? In the early days, and by traditional methods of cross-fertilization and culling, Trinitario cocoa was developed. It is a cross of the flavourful Criollo and more disease resistant Forestero (from Amazonian and central South American rain forests). Trinitario is widespread in South East Asia.

In the early 1980s, with foresight rarely demonstrated before or since, the Cocoa Research Unit collected a living gene bank of cocoa. Today, 2400 cocoa varieties grow on about 50 hectares in La Reunion on the bank of the Caroni. This has been designated the International Cocoa Gene Bank - the only complete collection of its kind in the world and a priceless world resource. It includes cocoa from Ecuador, Surinam, Venezuela and countries of the Amazon. For the past 20 or so years, research on cocoa has proceeded ihere n the traditional way.  Recently, however, technology developed in human genome mapping has been applied to plants and our cocoa trees. The DNA of cocoa has been mapped. This breakthrough allows more scientific creation of new strains for higher yields and flavours.

While the results of research conducted at CRU benefit a dwindling local industry, it is of enormous significance to the rest of the world. Chocolate is an international commodity, but the development of high-end exquisite flavour chocolate continues to be based on production in a small area. Trinidad and Tobago, St Lucia, Dominica, Jamaica and Grenada are among a handful of producers of fine flavour cocoa. In 2010, Trinidad and Tobago beans from two estates - one the government station at La Reunion and another private estate in the Montserrat hils - received the first place certificates for Fruity and Floral flavours in the world-wide taste tests held in France.

If only, says Professor Pathmanathan Umaharan, director of the CRU, we knew what Trinidad is to cocoa!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Behind the mask

For a month, soca music drowns out everything. Played at full blast from fetes and DJ boxes, maxi taxis and community fields, the songs of rum, revelry and wining induce forgetfulness. And when it is not soca, there's the bacchanal and pappyshow that is pan in a new Savannah complex - a stage to upstage everything, pan musicians, calypsonians and all but the biggest mas bands. It means bigger costumes for people being made smaller than ever.

It's ten days to the big weekend - Dimanche Gras (fat Sunday) to Mardi Gras (fat Tuesday) - and big businesses are boarding up their buildings. Driving on the roads is increasingly hazardous, as the wotless cruise down the shoulders, change or hog lanes with a jabjab's grin.

In one competition, the "young king" reminds us why we are attractive "as a Trini" - the way we cook, the way we walk/ wuk (wink wink) and the way we talk - we full of show and talk. But the top two contenders for another crown and two million dollars sing about likker (rum) - a terrible daily addiction for so many Trinis - endorsing (?) or surely sucking up the advertising lobby to turn our oil-rich appetites from imports (whiskies) to locally produced rum!

In 2011 - as in every other Carnival, but this one seems even more threatening - there's another reality behind the over-exclusive all-inclusive fetes, the rhythms to make us forget who or where we are, the costumes that absorb us into the throngs but hide nothing. An elderly gentleman roughed up and robbed in his home - where he has lived for over half a century, and raised his family - in broad daylight. Concrete bricks thrown at a car windscreen on a major highway. Someone's family pet is poisoned. A child abducted and thrown away like garbage. Do we know that there are "villages" - in the heart of the city as in the heart of the country - where children do not go to school, where families have nothing to eat, where young people might be afraid to seek work because they have nothing decent to wear. Drugs and guns and gangs are rites of passage for others.

The government and its unions quibble over salary increases - more robber talk, more ol mas on the streets. The police might not "play theyself" on the Carnival streets! Who is taking care of the soul of Trinidad and Tobago? How can we change the future of young people - boys and girls - heartless as blue devils, looking for chains like monster beasts. It's not something that we can do single handedly or alone. But one by one, we must accept responsibility and do a part - to begin to reverse the tide of blood that threatens "sweet TnT." Otherwise, there will be no pretty mas after jour ouvert. We will be awake in the mud of our own making.

Monday, February 21, 2011

127 hours

Aron Ralston (James Franco) sets out alone for a weekend trek - bike, run, hike - into the desert wilderness somewhere in Utah. The beauty of the land, open skies and Aron's energy are overwhelming. Perfect nature. Perfect man. Even his encounter with two other day-trippers -  Kristi and Megan - apparently on a casual stroll - turns into a pleasant idyll. Slipping through a crevice, a smooth sided crack in the earth into an underground pool holds no terrors for Aron. The girls leave and he continues on his way.

Maybe in his mid to late 20s, Aron is fit, athletic, loves music - everything happens to the soundtrack on his mp3 player - and  is at home in the wild canyons. His hand caresses the honey-coloured sun-kissed rocks as if they were alive. Such grandeur. Even when you know that the boy is cruisin' for a bruisin' - because it's too perfect, too beautiful - you can't help being captivated by both the landscape and Aron's comforrtable trekking.

Danny Boyle - Slumdog Millionaire - treats the impersonal but impressive expanse of the desert canyons as if it were a character. The country around Moab Utah is voluptuously breathtakingly awe-inspiring, but so cold and unmoving, as Aron finds out. Trapped for more than five days (127 hours), he first chips away at the rock that has wedged his hand. He sees hawks and jet trails as daylight slips across the ten degree arc above his head. There is a shred of hope that the desert downpour might flood his crevice and lift the rock that has wedged his hand. He gets some to drink but the water doesn't rise high enough. Hunger, thirst, cold give way to hallucinations and dreams. Finally - 127 hours - he knows he has to do the unthinkable to get out of earth's grip alive.

The true story of Aron who had to cut off his hand to survive may seem to offer many lessons - don't go off alone without letting someone know where you've gone - but there's no moralising here. Like Slumdog, 127 Hours has no self-pity, it's a story about living fully on the earth. It is a triumph of spirit, and should be seen.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Wining and wotless

Carnivals come, carnivals go, years and seasons change. Once in a while, something about the music, the mood, the wind and rain, or dryness, the beats of soca or pan, something hits you  a belly blow, vibrating at a deeper level in yuh blood, yuh bones. As the soca lyricists say, "de road calling!" For 2011, de call ah de road is surely in the soca beats! Just get one stuck in yuh head and you go crazy til it reach yuh waist.

Let's say it started with Benjai. Whaz he saying? Then the simple hooks catch you: " de way Trini women cook, cook, cook, cook.... love the way Trini does talk, talk, talk, talk .... love to see Trini women walk, walk, walk, wuk, wuk, wuk, wuk, wuk....  And we make good company...." Of course, "I's a Trini, a Trini..." Benjai's other story is about de gyul who went to play she mas "buh she forget she armband, so dey push she out... " Being a true Trini, she forms her own line to "wine to de side, wine to de side."

Trini women, it would seem, live to wine,. "De wining machine" Denise Belfon speaks for all: "Ah wanna get outa han and carry on; A wanna get on like tomorrow never come; Ah wanna dance and dingolay ... Ah wanna wine to de bass an de drum ... wine down, wine down..."

Machel - a seasoned winer himself and not averse to making sure that the "wining would never stop" - has an oh gawd moment when he realises that what passes for wining should be Illegal: "Gyul you could get charge for wining like dat... you could make a jail..." In another song, he knows "what de gyal dem want... hard wuk, hard wuk." And everyone knows what kinda "wuk" that is.

Farmer Nappy says "wining is ah must." According to Super Jigga TC, "When dem gyal start wining up ... he ends up mashing up all de (speaker) box!" And Shall Marshall: "whole day, whole night, dis gyul want motobike..."

No speaker box for Cassi, who suggests instead, "When last you take a wine on a tong ting?" 

Kes and Kerwin du Bois: "Big ting, small ting, ah wining up on all ting!"

Indeed, if this is wining season for women, the men are all too willing to stand and serve. But they have a few other obsessions too. Blaxx craves (de freedom of) de road and "rum, puncheon, puncheon, anything... Iron and hard rum ah beating... Tanti woi, ah cyar wait for jourvert!"

Ravi B goes through a few versions - "ah was a drinker, rum is meh lover..."- to come up with his confession "yuh know ah cyar come, when ah drinking likker..." He warns his wife/ gyul as well, "I am a player - dholak, tabla, guitar, drum... " a person you might assume also consumed by music and Carnival.

Kerwin du Bois tells his girl, in Heaven in You, "Ah love you more when ah drinking.."

Kes skips rum and wine and comes out with "Ah feel like ah just win a million dollars ... wotless!" Million dollars, and wotless? Will wotlessness beat wining and drinking this year?

Or will the rhythm crown return to Iwer George who confesses to thinking of leaving soca to go to Grenada, but de Jabjab (diable - devil) in his head taunts him, "Come to me, come to me!"

If we sound like a nation of winers and drinkers, we are. But there's reality and redemption through soca even as the songs reduce the bacchanal to the barest and basest elements. More than the words and movements  is the music, driving the mood which can only end in madness. As another - David Rudder - once noted many years ago: "dis is not a fete in here, dis is madness..." Like their heritage bards, traditional calypsonians, these singers and their songs are not merely wotless, they are hard at work every year, calling and responding to us and each other, wining up and wuking up to "mash up de place." If only it would really splinter and shatter and stay "mash up" - so something new could begin again.

For the while - until jour ouvert? -  whether we are winers, drinkers, hard wuk-ers or just plain wotless, let us appreciate the output and energy of those who provide these visceral soundtracks to our days. Let de waistline roll!

It's a long season, Carnival in March, long enough for anything to happen, more madness than in many other years.

Small glossary:
Jabjab: diable, devil
Wine or wining: to wind your waist, roll your belly, gyrate your hips, spread your legs, let your bam bam roll!
Bambam: bottom, behind
Dingolay: form of dance featuring wining
Wotless: worthless, or maybe beyond worth
Jour ouvert: darkness just before the dawn not only on Carnival Monday
Ting: thing; girl, parts of the girl
Gyul, gyal: girl
Tong: town? or tongue?
Wuk: work; hard wuk could refer to actual work, effort or wining...

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Turning 60

The balance of the world has shifted. Not everyone is so old anymore. In fact there are now fewer "old" people - and I think I recognise most of them! That teacher from high school - she's bent and slow, I greet her, but I wonder if she's seeing me?

I read death notices - noting the passing of friends of my parents - and make a mental note to tell them except they are gone too; the parents of my friends - and I must remember to extend condolences. But friends whom I consider contemporaries are passing too, some lauded for terrific bodies of work - they will be missed. I console myself there are still enough of us - the energetic ones - for me to feel when I am around them like the world is still ours to own.

The world has grown smaller too, and people I knew in school are retiring or coming back home, popping up on facebook, networking an ideology that now seems old-fashioned a little too idealistic for modern living. If only we could have held it together - all that love and hope for peace and desire to make the world a better place - what wouldn't our societies be now?

We - who must have made our parents worry what with all that long hair, men wearing earrings, beads and no bras - have been manners-ed by our children. We may be glad they are not experimenting - free drugs, free love, free diseases - but the environment is more dangerous now; there are so many more people in the world; all anxiously striving for their own piece of the earth. The kids worry about us now, wandering with rose-tinted glasses or eyes closed in a brave new world. Will there ever be enough to go round?

The music I listen to - except the Beatles of course, they are so classic as to be forever young - is considered "back in times."  I know what "ol mas" is, and knew when Sparrow sang "I never eat a white meat yet" just how risque he was. Now, the Birdie has to sit down between sets. Even David Rudder has a little grey in his hair. Only Machel is in his prime - and I was big already when his diaper was falling off.

Yes, it's time to re-think our place when colleagues and peers (who could be our own children) look to us for advice which we are not sure about, for experience that seemed more like turns along the road than lessons to be learned. It's all gone so fast!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mountain high

Good thing we didn't head out to Brasso Seco in the evening with so much unseasonal rain over the Northern Range. We would have been on the road in the dark between crashing trees and falling rocks, sliding over water cascading like it was just another ledge. Next day, it was still drizzling between the sunshine. From Arima, the road was clear; the ascent cool and heady - all that oxygen in the rainforest. Damn the quarry-ers cutting down a whole mountain! Damn the christophene fields eating at the road edge - it will soon be a mule track if this continues. Pass Asa Wright she said, and take the next right turn. It was miles before there was an actual fork. Only the left was signposted. We assumed that right was the way.

 Primeval forest? Land of high woods and water! Looking towards Paria
Of course, we started to look for the church and the bar that were the heart of the village way too soon. Electricity crews were mending broken wires disconnected from a pole that still held up the fallen tree. We'd driven on tracks in the bush in Kenya - but Africa was dry at that time - so why not this mountain main road. Got to the church and a crazy intersection of roads and tracks - which way next? Fortunately our host arrived to lead us along the right one, a mile or two in the direction of Paria.

Our trek ended - almost three hours since we set out - on a hilltop at a tapia cocoa house, and a low shed thatched with terite - the kitchen. And so began 27 hours away from the world!
Where the road ends:cocoa house (centre); cooking shed (right); new cottage (left)
view through east window

west window view to dining hut
Star-gazing platform, back of the cocoa shed dormitory

Friday, February 11, 2011

free single and disengaged

My mother's sister never married. She was an elegant and refined woman with a bank job - in an age when fewer women were employed outside the home. As a manager in the bank, she had a head for numbers and invested wisely. Her tight skirts - the fashion of the day - though below her knees, were slit up the back. Even by today's standards, ultra high heels defined shapely calves. She was always well put together.  Her dressing table was fascinating to a girl - carefully arranged perfume, lipsticks, make up; jewellery and trinkets. She took care of herself, her hair and skin. By contrast, my own mother settled for lipstick and powder - and for my part, I never learned those arts.

Next to my mother and her older sister with whom she lived, she was a bit of a mystery. She had no children of her own, but kept a book full of the birthdays of godchildren. The book was also full of addresses of friends in faraway places.  And she kept in touch in an age before email and facebook. She was a prudent person and organised the wherewithal to travel. Auntie was always gallivanting to some distant place. To this day, her "children" and family are around the world  - hundreds of people, blood related or not, who call her Auntie.

To my juvenile mind, I believed that Auntie was like a second mother to my godmother's nine children. (I have since been told that was not so.) There is no such thing as a second mother when one's own mother is alive and motherly. But whatever her relationship, and without words, Auntie showed us a different way to live - free single and disengaged was the term that was slightly disparaging, even dismissive. She was independent, empowered, self-sufficient and generous.

I don't see Auntie much anymore, but see her spirit everywhere in today's women.

A little of Auntie in all of us!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

when I knew Keith Smith

He must have been in his late twenties, just a few years my senior. He was the editor to my junior reporter in a "newsroom" of three, the other an equally embryonic youth wanting to write (and who went on to television). Keith's "job" before that had been in the Bahamas. This team, however, was assigned one of Trinidad's fledgling publishing enterprises - a homemaking journal, an airline magazine, an annual documentary and a cookbook. 

Even then, Keith's writing was like a wave running back to the sea. Even then, his pensive thinking as he hunched over an old Underwood was marked by his forefinger straying into his nose hole or into his mouth - searching for the phrase? - before he attacked the keys with two fingers. Always two fingers. We must have worked - at least three Carnival magazines have his name on the masthead. But the conversations with Keith were the best.  His favourite author (at the time) was Scott Fitzgerald. That was his model for ease of language, the ironic story. A diamond as big as the Ritz. The Great Gatsby.

I could never fathom what it was about these American lives that fascinated Keith, but I read Fitzgerald because of him, trying to model not Fitzgerald's but Keith's facility with language.  We fed each other's love of calypso lyrics and delved into researching mas past and contemporary. In 1976, we had the opportunity to witness and record the newest talent in Carnival, Minshall. But by that time, Keith was already heading away - in the direction of his own people's magazine, and through that to the all-absorbing world of the newspaper.

What I carry of Keith is his loving heart. He never wanted to be in charge. Lucky for us that he let himself be this person through whom the rhythm and vibes of our time flowed to the page like water.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The hare in the moon!

It's officially the year of the rabbit - comfortable and content - or the hare as others prefer, swift, aloof but not the winner in the end!

As a rabbit, and judging from other rabbit years, we enter the year with high hopes and many expectations. We float on a surface of optimism. We land on our feet. We survive. We meet the changes that simmer with equanimity and calm.

Rabbits are always hoping to be left alone - to live the life of the mind, even without the excitements that energise everyone else. A home can be a world for the rabbit. On the other hand, rabbits can be happily at home in the world.

Happy hare!