Horizon at Sandy Point

Friday, November 23, 2012

This jamette life

"Do you know who throw the bottle?" Dinah asks Jean pointedly on this particular Carnival Monday.

Jean has arrived with the sailor suits for the two friends - now clearly middle-aged - to jump in a band. Dinah is not interested, and the sounds of the steelbands approach and pass on. Talk turns instead to their past lives. Jean as a girl in San Juan: she ran away to "town" when she could no longer bear the advances and abuse of a "male relative." Dinah was a country girl, from Freeport, with a proper upbringing, who came to town to waitress.

The bottle that Dinah refers to is the empty rum bottle that was hurled into the band in a long gone carnival, the bottle that broke and took her eye.

Forty years later, this Jean and this Dinah are the main characters in Tony Hall's play "Jean and Dinah" based on Sparrow's famous 1956 calypso:

Jean and Dinah, Rosita and Clementina
Round de corner posing,
Bet your life is something they selling
When you catch them broken, you can get it all for nothing.
Don't make no row,
Yankee gone, and Sparrow take over now!

Hall's "Jean and Dinah" - the play - takes us into the lives of the women who have been abandoned by the Yankees, and other men too - Leroy, Warrior, Ramon - and even their own children. Through the years though, they have had each other - for companionship, for support, to fight with. And finally, this Carnival day when Dinah is searching for the truth behind the bottle throwing incident.

I met Jean Clarke when I was working at the Guardian. At whatever indeterminate age she was in 1996, she was beaten down and tired, as people who have hard lives become old before their time. Her left arm was wizened, finny. That was the one which she used to fend off the cutlass in the steelband clash, she told me; whatever was severed and didn't heal never prevented her from doing what she needed to do. At the time she was sharing a small house in Laventille, living with a mistah. He was kind enough to take Jean in, but callous too in the way that men can be when they know you are dependent. And her self and security were always on the edge. She had children yes, but the daughters turned away from her and the son had been in jail. Jean died while I was still at the Guardian, not yet 60, ending a harsh and hazardous existence as a jamette.

To call a person a jamette is to suggest low moral standards, from the other/under side of society. If is a woman, you might as well call her prostitute, "ho" as we like to say in Trinidad, but she's usually a hustler, survivor, a fighter, a "sufferer," close to the street, close to violence. Jamettes were the match for the hard men, bad johns and sweetmen, hard-drinking womanizers, the outcasts who came together in barrack yards and in steelbands. Jamettes would be mascots or flagwomen, with the stamina to lead a band waving a heavy flag. The Lise Winer Dictionary of English/Creole of Trinidad and Tobago suggests that the word may have its origin in the French diametre, meaning someone of the underworld, outside the bounds of society, i.e. respectability; or possibly jam-ette (female slave). (In the same dictionary, I was surprised to find a reference to Jean-in-town credited to Ganase 2000. She was called Jean-in-town to distinguish her from another Jean from the country.)

When Tony Hall's play first "came out" in the mid 1990s, the story had been created from the primary research conducted by Susan Sandiford and Rhoma Spencer with aging jamettes, and then delivered in improvisational workshops conducted and massaged by Hall. In the almost 15 years of performances, Jean and Dinah who stepped out of the calypso and onto the stage have survived almost another generation of change and loss.

It seems to me that Hall's script always wanted to be a film: in order to span the 40 years of hardship and friendship; in order to see the "girls an dem" through the eyes of young Yankees stationed at the base in Chaguaramas, the foreign fellas who spoiled the local women for their own men; and in order to create the "dream" sequences - Jean as Baby Doll ("you de chile fadder?") and Dinah as Midnight Robber (foretelling the vengeance of the abandoned sons); and finally to see the jamettes in this final eye-opening encounter.

And so, forty years on, it's this Carnival that Dinah wants to know who pelt the bottle. Jean, reaching for that good natured comfortableness between friends, protests that it happened too long ago. It's not so important, they should instead just join the band, enjoy the day. Because you know if you miss the Carnival, is a whole year you have to wait!

But Dinah insists and goes down insisting. Until Jean has no choice but to relive the memory whole - the two steelbands approaching each other on the narrow Port of Spain streets. She with San Juan All Stars, Dinah in Desperadoes, each waving the flag. It's said that cutlasses were hidden inside the bass drums; rum bottles stuffed in pockets. The bottle Jean was carrying flew out of her hand. Her other arm went up to fend off a flying cutlass. The climax of lives lived close to the edge, where violence is a daily possibility.

But "Jean and Dinah" is much much more than this unfortunate and fatalistic "steelband clash." As Jean insists, it was so-ooo long ago. There's still time to seize the day, the carnival day. For in the midst of lives lived unforgivingly and hard, they were always there for each other, weren't they? Yes, there was always friendship - from the time Jean came in town, and Dinah chose to shelter her - and comfort and love. It is life that is the jamette: good times and bad, fortune and loss, carnivals and curve balls (or bottles). But we - we still here together - Jean might yet insist.

"Jean and Dinah" shows the way to rise above this jamette life, with dignity, with compassion, with friendship and love. Seize the day. Be the jamette - to celebrate each daybreak like it's jourvert morning. Join de band and play yuh mas! When you're done, it's gone. So don't make no row...

(The film "Jean and Dinah" is in the making!)

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